Grand Staircase – Escalante NM, Utah – Perfect to get the creeps – the narrow slot canyons

One of the dramatic spectacles of nature that water created in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument are the slot canyons. These are very narrow cuts into the sandstone with high walls, carved several metres deep from permanently or occasionally flowing brooks. There are quite a few in the park, but the icy river separates us from them. The four slot canyons of the Dry Fork Coyote Gulch are regarded as dry, at least at the moment. From the trailhead at the parking lot we have to climb down an unsecured sloping rock and over big lumps of rock into a small side valley that ends in the main wash, the Dry Fork Coyote Gulch. At this point the cairns put by rangers, marking the descent, end. We have to find our way according to the descriptions that we received at the visitor centre, or from other hiking guides. There is a lot of walking over stones and in soft sand.

Arriving in the wash the first gulch, the Dry Fork Narrows, are situated straight away to the left. That’s not a particularly narrow canyon, but great to get the right frame of mind. The many metres high walls are nine feet apart in the beginning, but gradually close ranks. We follow this gulch on plain sandy bottom for few miles before coming back the same way. Even claustrophobic hikers shouldn’t face a problem here.

That’s completely different at Peek-A-Boo, the next canyon downstream. It starts with the oval entrance hole being 12 feet above the ground. Well-meaning rangers carved some tiny hollows into the vertical wall, but their meaning doesn’t completely reveal itself to me. They don’t offer enough support to climb up neither my hands nor my feet. This might be a matter of my leaking free climbing experience. Well, we could walk half a mile around over a sand dune and get into the canyon from the side. But I don’t feel like doing so at all. What we are two hikers for? With some elegant (giving a step-up), less elegant (pushing the bottom) and simply necessary (pulling the other one up at the arm) techniques we somehow crawl up. When we learn that there is no end of the climbing in sight it is too late to turn back. I don’t want to jump down 12 feet. We crawl and push ourselves up through holes, over cliffs, and through crevices. Since this isn’t easy and doesn’t always work at the first go the action is accompanied with a lot of laughter. Two very athletic American women whom we have met on our hikes several times during the last days allow us some lead. After a few minutes we hear them laughing as well. Later on they assure us that they found the climbing “totally crazy”. The most challenging slot canyon ends after a quarter of a mile and we climb out to return via the sideway and the sand dune.

Less than a mile further downstream Spooky Gulch starts in a side valley of Coyote Gulch. This claustrophobic nightmare narrows quickly. This time we’ve left our backpack outside. The walls stand so close together that we have to squeeze sideways through whereas chest and back brush both walls at the same time – a torture for jacket and pants. Not suitable for abdominal girth above 50 inches. Then we stand in front of a wall and think: That’s the end. It isn’t. If you climb up and continue it’s your own fault. From here on it becomes quite amusing. We climb in the most confined of spaces. Where shall we put the knees? It is important to think in advance of how to put the feet since for many metres there is no way to turn them, only shift them forward step by step. After half a mile the very end comes and we squeeze back to the entrance.

There is a fourth slot canyon in the area, called Brimstone. Most hikers, as we do, relinquish to visit it. The danger of this gulch is that one climbs or jumps down and can’t get up again. Few years ago a young man jumped down there and couldn’t make his way back. He was found eight days later. Fortunately he was still alive. This canyon should be left to people who are really experienced free climbers since it is too narrow to carry climbing equipment.

All in all we need four hours to discover all three slot canyons to their end; the sporty women as well. Dry Fork Narrows and Spooky Gulch are simple to discover and big fun for kids. Peek-A-Boo requests climbing and stemming at slippery walls, but is the most graceful and adventurous gulch with all its twists, holes, and bridges.

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