If you’re looking for the perfect family-friendly blend of hiking, scrambling and climbing in one of God’s most incredible landscapes, may I introduce the sandstone slot canyons of the American Southwest?
Andy is a jack-of-all-adventures, master of none. Depending on the season, you might find him rock climbing, trail running, kayaking, skiing, mountain biking, surfing or good ol’ hiking.
Scrambling through a slot canyon is one of my favorite pastimes. It’s like crawling, hopping, and strolling through one of Mother Nature’s most clever obstacle courses AND most beautiful landscapes.
I’ve been in Peekaboo and Spooky Gulch in Escalante, Icebox Canyon and the Subway in Zion National Park, Antelope Canyon in Arizona, Yankee Doodle outside St. George, and a dozen others scattered throughout the desert Southwest.
I invite you to enjoy this wonderful experience with me! You can choose your level of adrenaline. Some slot canyons can be navigated with nothing but your regular hiking shoes. Others require basic rappelling and downclimbing, and still others require wetsuits, pothole escape equipment, climbing ropes, the whole nine yards.
If you’ve never hiked through a slot canyon before, here’s what you should know up front:
I’m writing this guide for people somewhat new to canyoneering. We won’t be talking about technical descents involving rappels, pothole escapes, or ghosting.
Instead, I’ll focus on fun, classic slot canyons that can be navigated with hiking shoes and a bit of skill. These are typically 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B canyons. As long as you’re moderately comfortable on your feet (and don’t mind climbing the occasional ladder or ducking beneath an arch), you’ll love these hikes!
The slot canyons of the Southwest are usually in a high-altitude desert environment. Moisture comes sporadically and may fall as thunderstorm rain, hail, or snow. Common plants include sagebrush and yucca.
The best seasons for hiking slot canyons is late spring and early fall. Mid-summer is often either too hot (100-120 degrees Fahrenheit) or subject to dangerous monsoon rainstorms.
Do not entire a slot canyon during the monsoon season! If you’re not familiar with the Southwest, you’d be astonished just how quickly a cloudless blue sky can turn ominous and gray during the monsoon. From mid-July through mid-September, isolated afternoon thunderstorms are common all over the southwest. And because canyons are natural drainages, just because it’s not raining where you are doesn’t mean it isn’t downpouring somewhere upstream!
Be careful entering slot canyons in early spring or late fall. While the risk of flooding is low, water and air temperatures can be frigid. Very little sun reaches the floor of a slot canyon. Even in mid-summer, canyon water is usually quite cold and requires a wetsuit! In the early spring or late fall, just one slip into a pothole can quickly induce hypothermia.
The dry, sandy, sandstone canyons of the American Southwest are scattered around the entire southwest, ranging from California to New Mexico!
However, most slot canyons are extremely difficult to access. They require long hike-ins, rappelling, bushwhacking, or rock climbing – not something you can easily to do in an afternoon with kids in tow.
The best, most accessible, most fun slot canyons are primarily in southern Utah and northern Arizona. While several slot canyons have been commercialized for photography and hiking tours, most are on public land. You’ll be responsible for the safety of your party.
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, administered by the BLM, is one of the world’s greatest concentrations of slot canyons. Most are not easily accessible, but if you have a 4WD vehicle and don’t mind 30 miles of washboard roads, you can drive down Hole-in-the-Rock road to the Dry Fork turnoff. That’s where you’ll find Peekabo and Spooky.
For a harder adventure, check out Buckskin Gulch down the Pariah River, the longest slot canyon in the world. Be prepared to get wet1
Many of the slot canyons in and around Zion National Park are technical slot canyons, requiring a climbing rope and gear. However, there are two slot canyons within the park – the Subway and the Zion Narrows – which offer unparalleled beauty! Descending the Subway requires a rope or excellent downclimbing skills; the Narrows is an out-and-back hike through the Virgin river.
Just north of Zion National Park is Kanarraville Falls, one of the most photographed slot canyons in the world. It’s a fairly easy hike for most families, as well.
Page, Arizona and the surrounding area, including Kanab, Utah, are brimming with great canyons! Two of the greatest slot canyons in the world are around here, including Rattlesnake and Antelope Canyon. Antelope Canyon is the Disneyland of slot canyons, so don’t go during the main season! Wait for the off-season to enjoy the peace and solitude. Antelope Canyon is on Navajo land, so be respectful of their rules and their sovereignty.
If you plan to hike a slot canyon without a guide, you need to be an experienced hiker. Most slot canyons are very remote. You will not have cell phone service. You are ON YOUR OWN.
If you’re guiding your family, you are responsible for all their safety!
Well, where to start?
Should we start with the dangers of cold water, high heat, or getting lost? Of dehydration in the desert, or the venom of rattlesnakes that frequent the canyon edges? Of downclimbing something you thought you could climb back up but you couldn’t? Of wearing the wrong shoes without adequate support and twisting an ankle 4.2 agonizing miles from the trailhead?
Let’s start with flash floods.
Forget what you think you know about flash floods. A flood in a slot canyon is an incredibly dangerous event. A stream just a few inches tall can rise to 3, 4, 5 feet or more inside the constraints of a slot canyon!
If you are caught in a flash flood inside a slot canyon, you will die.
We could talk about a slot canyon safety for a long time. Remember, you are visiting one of Mother Nature’s hidden treasures. You will not be allowed to stay for long. Get in and get out!
Not a lot of animals at the bottom of a slot canyon! A few lizards, bugs and camel spiders (yikes!) In the spring, you might see thousands upon thousands of canyon tree frogs in the shallow ponds of the larger slot canyons, like the Subway.
Above the canyon, you might find big horn sheep, coyotes, and western rattlesnakes. During migration season, you can see hundreds of species of birds flying overhead.
For most slot canyons, a reasonable level of aerobic fitness and physical agility is required. You should be able to walk on all fours, climb ladders, jump off small ledges, and walk 3-5 miles at a brisk pace.
For more advanced canyons, downclimbing may be required. In most sandstone canyons, there isn’t much face climbing. You’ll have to stem, bridge, chimney and otherwise wiggle your way down or up narrow channels.
Hike up and down hills! Hike in the sand, if you can. The entrance to many slot canyons is slow going: just a sand slog.
To prepare for a Class 2 (or even easy Class 3) canyons, you can practice bear crawls, burpees, or mountain climbers.
Great for strengthening your core and shoulders!
No calisthenic exercise can beat the classic burpee for aerobic conditioning.
If you can, hike in sand. If not, then hike up and down hills. If not, then try out urban staircases!
If you’re only hiking, you likely already own everything you need!
You can buy 7mm cord or climb-spec webbing by the foot. A simple 30-ft handline can cost you as little as $20!
Most slot canyons can be completed in a few hours. Just bring along your preferred snack: sandwich, energy gels, granola bars, etc.
Airfare to Las Vegas is very affordable. From there, it’s a long drive to your chosen destination! 4WD vehicles may be required to access the trailhead of some canyons.
You can find free BLM camping near most slot canyons.
A National Park Pass is required for canyons within National Parks. You may also be charged $5-$15 day-use fees for trailhead parking.
You don’t have to rent canyoneering shoes or drysuits! Even if you hike a wet canyon like the narrows, a wetsuit and regular hiking shoes (that you don’t mind getting wet) will work just fine.
Once you try out one, you can’t stop!
Yes, I encourage it! I’ve seen kids as young as 3-4 enjoying the trails. And I’ve even seen babies strapped onto backpacks.
Moderate physical fitness and agility is required.
Pack it out! You can urinate in a canyon, but never leave poop. It doesn’t decompose in the sandy bottoms.
See Notes on transportation in the Finances & Budget section.
See notes in the “Where and When to Go?” section.
Absolutely! Most of the guided tours are around the Page, Arizona area (such as Antelope Canyon) or the National Parks (especially Zion). Outside of these hotspots, you’re probably on your own.