Utah and Arizona, USA

10 of the Most Beautiful Slot Canyons in the Desert Southwest


, by Greg Heil

Antelope Canyon, Arizona. Photo: finepic, Shutterstock

Slot canyons are otherworldly natural features that consist of "intricate and narrow gorges cut through beautifully layered sedimentary deposits over immense time in the Colorado Plateau," according to VisitUtah.com. Some slot canyons can be wide, with towering cliffs soaring hundreds of feet into the air. But the most classic slot canyons are very, very narrow, forcing you to turn sideways in places to squeeze through the tight cracks in the rock.

While slot canyons do occur in other places, the most iconic slot canyons form in the sandstone of the Desert Southwest. Since these formations are so incredibly rare, hiking and canyoneering through these slots is a unique experience that few people will ever get to enjoy. 

Technical canyoneering skills are required to navigate many slot canyons, including the use of ropes, harnesses, and other gear, but others are considered to be "nontechnical"—such as the slots highlighted in this article. Granted, you still might be forced to scramble up and over boulders, slide through tight squeezes, and drop into pools of muddy water—moves that some people may find uncomfortable or impossible to do.

Nevertheless, if you brave the challenges of the slots, you'll be rewarded with an incredible micro beauty that is entirely different from the wide-open macro beauty of the Desert Southwest's above-ground landscapes. Instead of hundred-mile views, you'll get to examine the changing colors of the rock layers up close, the intricate swoops and hollows formed by rushing water, and the ever-changing nature of the canyons as water continues to shift them over time.

But be warned: even though many of these slot canyon hikes are considered to be nontechnical, slot canyons are, by definition, high-consequence terrain. Many dangers exist, including fall danger on some scrambles, getting lost in a maze of canyons, or not having enough supplies with you for the length of your expedition.

But one of the most severe dangers is the very real possibility of flash floods, with no way to escape. VisitUtah.com recommends that you "always check the weather before visiting any slot canyon. Even light, distant rainfall can render slot canyons extremely dangerous" due to flash floods. Always treat this wilderness landscape with the utmost respect.

If you're willing to take the necessary precautions, read on to discover 10 of the most beautiful slot canyons in the Desert Southwest:

Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon Loop, San Rafael Swell, Utah

Little Wild Horse Canyon is one of the easiest slot canyon hikes in the San Rafael Swell, and it's also one of the most beautiful. Together with nearby Bell Canyon, you can hike a fantastic 8-mile loop, heading out one canyon, hiking along a remote 4x4 road in the Swell to reach Bell Canyon, and looping back down Bell to the trailhead. Thanks to this incredible loop setup and fantastic beauty, Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons are the most trafficked and most famous slot canyons in the San Rafael Swell.

Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona

Antelope Canyon might be the most famous slot canyon in the world, thanks to its fantastically-shaped walls, the stunning natural light that filters down, and the ease of walking into this canyon. Thanks to manmade walkways and stairs fixed to the stone walls, Antelope is one of the easiest canyons to hike on this list.

Note that you must book a guided tour to visit Antelope, as it is on Navajo land. Due to its popularity, it can sometimes be difficult to even pay for a spot on these tours, so book well in advance! If you can't get into Antelope Canyon, consider trying a lesser-trafficked canyon in the same area—such as Mountain Sheep Canyon.

Mountain Sheep Canyon, Page, Arizona

You can find a plethora of slot canyons in the same formation as Antelope Canyon, most of which are not detailed here. However, one other nearby canyon that's well worth a visit is Mountain Sheep Canyon. 

Mountain Sheep Canyon is much more rugged than Antelope Canyon, and the hike is longer. However, there are still plenty of metal ladders to remove the technical challenge from the canyon. This canyon hike is the perfect choice if you want to avoid the crowds at Antelope and have a bit more of an adventure. 

Like Antelope, you'll need to book a guided Navajo tour to access Mountain Sheep Canyon.

Red Reef Canyon, Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness, Utah

Red Reef Canyon begins as a wide, easy hike that heads deep into a beautiful red rock canyon outside St. George, Utah. But this is a canyoneering adventure with two different characters: before the waterfall, the hike is easy and mellow. But if you pass the waterfall and hike all the way to where the slot truly begins, you'll be faced with a very wet and deep slot canyon adventure!

Only attempt the upper section of the canyon in low water because, even when the water is low, you'll find holes that are up to your neck or that might require you to swim. But for those who are ready for a truly adventurous swim and scramble up Red Reef, this is an absolutely stunning adventure!

Halls Creek Narrows, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park's far southern tip is dramatically less visited than its northern counterparts. It's reached via long, dusty roads and has no well-trodden trails or campsites—just open desert crisscrossed by deep canyons and occasional footpaths.

Here, the Waterpocket Fold extends towards Lake Powell, creating a huge gash in the earth with warped rock layers on either side. This gash, known as Grand Gulch, is surrounded by bent rock layers. Grand Gulch and its side canyons offer hikers who venture this far a chance for exploration. Among these canyons is Halls Creek Narrows. The deep-cut gorge resembles the well-known Narrows in Zion National Park, but unlike Zion, this remote area of Capitol Reef offers solitude—you're likely to have it all to yourself.

Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyons, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Two of the most incredible slot canyons in the Desert Southwest—Peek-a-boo and Spooky—can be combined into an otherworldly 3.5-mile loop. In places, the canyons open up to provide wide sandy floors and glimpses of the sky above. But throughout most of the hike, little to no sunlight reaches the canyon floor. Consequently, "there is usually standing water," according to Mackenzie Russell on MatadorNetwork.com. "Commit to getting your shoes wet or take them off — the sandstone is forgiving on bare feet," she continues. "Since the water never sees the sunlight, it is chilly, and the weather in the canyons may be cooler as well, so dress accordingly."

Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Utah

Buckskin Gulch is renowned as "one of the longest continuous slot canyons in the world," according to the BLM. The main canyon runs for about 16 miles, winding its way through "iconic and dramatic Navajo sandstone striations and towering walls," according to VisitUtah.com.

There are several different ways that you can access the canyons, but you can create a massive multi-day point-to-point route of 21 miles by connecting two different canyons together!

The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

The experience is unlike any other: traversing a stream barely fifty feet across while being dwarfed by towering canyon walls that reach a thousand feet into the sky. This is the Narrows, one of the world's most famous slot canyons. Spanning over 10 miles, its most breathtaking and narrowest parts lie within the last four miles leading to Zion Canyon. Your only way through this compact gorge is the riverbed, which flows year-round. The combination of rushing water and slick rocks has been known to cause minor injuries, but with careful foot placement, this hike isn't too difficult.

Note that due to its popularity, you'll have to book a permit in order to access the Narrows.

Ding and Dang Slot Canyons, San Rafael Swell, Utah

If Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon sound too tame to you, head further down the road to reach the trailhead for Ding and Dang slot canyons. These canyons are renowned for their beauty, but they are dramatically more technical than the more easily accessible canyons. 

The narrowest section of slot canyon is found in Dang Canyon, and it "includes 4 or 5 boulders wedged above pools, creating drops of up to 3 meters," according to AmercanSouthwest.net. "The highest obstruction may need a rope to overcome, though it is not too difficult to chimney down," they continue. However, despite the scrambling required, these are still considered "nontechnical" slot canyons in the grand scheme of things.

Burro Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

While Halls Creek Narrows is difficult to access and incredibly remote, the trailhead for Burro Wash (in the northern section of Capitol Reef National Park) is easy to drive to. It's also renowned as one of the best slot canyon hikes in the park. The narrow, beautiful canyon runs deep into the Waterpocket Fold, a geological feature that defines the park.

While the primary route runs for 3 miles one-way before turning around, you can choose to keep scrambling deeper and deeper into the canyon. Just remember that you'll have to turn around and return the same way that you came: this is an out-and-back hike.

No matter which slot canyons you choose to explore, slot canyon hikes are guaranteed to leave a lasting imprint on your memory. Embarking on one slot canyon hike tends to prompt more and more canyoneering adventures—you just might find yourself traveling across the Desert Southwest to experience them all!

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