Southern Utah is a wonderland.
Five National Parks – Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches – line the lower part of the state, interspersed with a dizzying array of other public lands that includes state parks (like Goblin Valley), National Recreation Areas (like Glen Canyon), National Forests (like Dixie), and National Monuments (like Grand Staircase Escalante, Cedar Break, Bear’s Ears, and Natural Bridges). I’ve done a decent job of exploring the area, but there’s still so much I haven’t seen.
Of all the amazing geological features in southern Utah, my favorite is slot canyons – the spectacularly beautiful result of water eroding narrow gorges through otherwise solid rock. Slot canyons like The Narrows in Zion and Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona are relatively well-known, and correspondingly crowded. But Utah is full of lesser-known slot canyons, too, and I decided that now would be a good time to visit a few I’d missed on previous trips.
Early on a Tuesday morning I packed up my car and drove to Escalante, Utah. I arrived with plenty of light left and headed straight to Zebra Canyon for my first hike. The trailhead for Zebra is about eight miles down Hole in the Rock Road, an often-rough dirt road that becomes impassable when it rains. Luckily for me the spring weather was perfect – clear blue skies, cool in the shade and warm in the sun. My hand-me-down Honda Accord tackled the washboard road like a champ, and before I knew it I was setting out on the unmarked trail to Zebra, happy and excited to be exploring a new place.
The directions I’d found online were accurate and I reached the canyon’s nondescript entrance after about an hour. A couple of other hikers were just inside, taking photos in the shallow water that had accumulated at the narrow base of the canyon. “It’s freezing!” one of them yelled. They decided not to continue on, which – with no other hikers around – meant I would have Zebra all to myself.
I left my shoes at the entrance and waded cautiously through the icy water, unsure how deep it would get. Not even up to my waist, it turned out, and soon the watery stretch ended altogether. The canyon floor became dry and sandy, and the passageway grew so narrow – no more than 10 inches wide in spots – that often I had to turn sideways and shimmy forward with my backpack over my head.
The sandstone rubbed holes in my shorts and left scrapes on my arms and legs. But wow, what a small price to pay to see such an incredibly beautiful place. The canyon walls were lined with the pale stripes that inspired Zebra’s name, and the reflected light on the graceful, undulating curves towards the end was magical. How is a place like this not a bigger deal? What had I done to deserve this experience? It felt unreal.
I hiked back to my car and drove another few miles down Hole in the Rock Road to photograph Devil’s Garden in the early evening light.
I spent the night in Escalante and returned to Hole in the Rock Road the next morning, this time forcing my Accord to absorb 26 long miles of abuse before reaching the Dry Fork trailhead for Peek-a-boo and Spooky Canyons. This hike, which I did as a loop, is more popular than the one to Zebra, and I passed several families with kids on the trail. When I reached Peek-a-boo I waited as a husband and wife made the short climb required to enter the canyon.
A steady stream of hikers came up behind me, but every now and then a gap between groups gave me time to slow down and take photos. Peek-a-boo didn’t disappoint, with some fun scrambling around unique rock formations, including an arch you had to squeeze through.
Popping back out into direct sunlight at the end of Peek-a-boo, I clumsily let my camera slip off my tripod and crash directly onto solid rock. I thought I’d broken both the camera and the lens, but Canon makes them tough, thankfully, and the pit in my stomach subsided when I realized that everything still worked.
From the Peek-a-boo exit it only took a mile of hiking to reach the entrance to Spooky Canyon. Despite their proximity the two canyons felt distinctly different. Both were stunning, but where Peek-a-boo was smooth and flowing, Spooky was cracked and pocked. With long sections of extremely tight squeezes, Spooky would be a nightmare for someone with claustrophobia.
Early on in upper Spooky I reached an area choked with large boulders, where you had to drop down a significant distance to continue. A rope had been placed there to help, and I gratefully took advantage of it as I tried not to break my ankle on the descent.
Navigating through Spooky was exhilarating and I was disappointed to reach the end. From there I looped around to the Dry Fork trailhead, got in my aggrieved-but-resilient car, and rumbled back down Hole in the Rock Road towards Escalante, where I spent another night before returning home to Colorado.
It still feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of southern Utah. Every time I manage to check something off my list I end up adding something else. The hikes I’d most like to do next are a little more ambitious – the Cosmic Ashtray, Buckskin Gulch, and Reflection Canyon – so I’m probably going to hold off until I can reduce my risk of a 127 Hours situation by convincing someone to join me.