Utah offers visitors incredible views from vistas which extend for miles; however, the geomorphology of the state also holds incredible visual wonders for those willing to hike into canyons. The views entail closer sightlines but exploring Utah’s Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument slot canyons offer hikers a visual wonder to those willing to commit to an all-day hike of the Coyote Gulch area. Slot canyons involve deep and sheer rock walls which possess a depth-to-width ratio of about 10:1.
To access the slot canyons, one must endure the Hole-in-the-Rock trail. For me, it was the harshest wash-board road that I’ve ever experienced. It was so tough, I’m surprised I did not lose a dental filling. The “road” runs southeast from Escalante, Utah and if your 4-wheel drive vehicle sustains the 26 miles of abuse, you’ll pass the Lower Dry Fork Trailhead.
Hiking from the trailhead into the canyon gives visitors access to three remote slot canyons: Dry Fork Slot Canyon, Peek-a-Boo Gulch, and Spooky Gulch. Research also indicated this order also captured their increased level of difficulty, which is how I experienced the geologic features.
To understand the geology of these slot canyons, one needs to envision back 200 million years ago when the region was characterized as a large area of red sand dunes. The occasional weather event sorted the iron-rich sand grains into layers of varying thickness and hardness. Eventually, more rocks formed over these features until 80 million years ago, the western portion of the US experienced a geologic uplift forming the Colorado Plateau. As the rock layers were pushed upwards, their surfaces formed cracks and fissures that became suspectable to erosion from flash floods exposing, exposing the former sands, now called the Navajo Sandstone.
Most of the carving occurs during torrential monsoons that pour water over the area. Following a thunderstorm, even those miles away, the landscape consolidates and compresses the rainwater as the growing surge descends down through a series of elevation changes. After all, the water is trying to be somewhere else. Under these strong forces, even rock layers can be worn down by boulders and silt gushing through the narrow confines of slot canyons. After these periodic erosion events, the subsequent concave cuts and serpentine sluices form complex channels. Under the mid-day sun, these geologic features reveal intricate textures as the sunlight rakes across the contrasting and complexly shaped canyon walls.
Regardless of which slot canyon serving as your destination, the two-mile path is the same where one walks along the canyon rim until eventually descending into the floor of the canyon. The Dry Fork Narrows was deemed the easier of the group, so I proceeded westward along the bottom and entered a wide vertical walled canyon which eventually narrowed into the sandstone layer. I enjoyed the Dry Fork Slot Canyon as the surface gap was wide, allowing the sunlight to pour across the sinuous erosional features and fanciful rock cuts. I explored the mile-long slot canyon to its logical end and then retraced my steps eastward.
Literature on the next two slot canyons highlights they need to be explored in specific directions with hikers starting at the mouth of Peek-a-Boo and walking northward thru the canyon, upon exiting the top of the slot, proceed overland to the top of the Spooky Slot Canyon and proceed down thru its narrow cuts.
I had read about two particular challenges pertaining to the Peek-a-Boo slot canyon. First was its 15-foot climb into the feature. The footholds and handholds were questionable, but enough that I could pull myself through. Peek-a-Boo offered explorers a series of arches which felt more like orifices as one moved northward. The now mid-day sun painted the canyon wall in amazing light where the raking sunlight revealed the intricacies of texture in the orange sandstone layers. I’m not a small guy, but I was able to successfully pass through the narrow 11-inch squeeze once I rolled my camera bag off my shoulders.
Although I enjoyed all three slot canyons for various reasons, Spooky Gulch was the most colorful. I sensed the canyon walls were deeper and the top of the slot was definitely narrower. All combined, the light did not reach the canyon's bottom, which I’m sure plays into its name, Spooky Gulch or the Eerie Slot Canyon.
The Spooky Slot Canyon already had my full attention as research highlighted that a large boulder midway down the gulch created a challenge where one is forced to slide under the rock wedge or scale the top of the obstacle and then in a controlled fall, slide downward by pressing again both sides of the canyon wall to slow one’s descent.
The second challenge entailed its even narrower slot at only 10 inches wide. In my first three attempts, I could not squeeze thru this obstacle. I remember assessing that reaching the distant daylight top by climbing vertically was a feat beyond my skillset, as was climbing back over the rock wedge that I had just passed. As the Navajo Sandstone pressed against my back and stomach, I needed to focus on my breathing as I began to realize the pickle I had worked myself into. I remain grateful to the college students I had followed into the squeeze. To fit through, I had passed my camera bag through the narrow gap and the gentlemen holding my bag suggested I squat in the slot. Although attempting a squat when sandwiched flat seemed like an impossible task…much to my relief, it worked!
This is one of several prints I’m releasing as part of my Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument gallery. If you’d like to purchase this print or see more Utah National Park scenes, check out this gallery!