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Slot Canyons: A Guided Hike Through Nature's Masterworks

It's said that southwestern Utah offers the highest concentration of slot canyons in the world. Well-prepared visitors can hike right into some of them, but the best experience is with a guide.

Written by Visit Utah

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Ted Hesser

The Colorado Plateau sweeps across much of southeastern Utah, encompassing The Mighty 5® national parks, the vast Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, forested mountainscapes and deep canyons. Water, seasons and barely imaginably stretches of geologic time have collaborated to shape and carve this landscape, and their masterworks may well be the many slot canyons in Utah. 

"There are so many places still undiscovered or forgotten. I get excited every time I bring somebody into these canyons," says guide Nick Smith of Detours Adventures.

Slot canyons fascinate with their flowing curves of polished sandstone seemingly frozen in time. But the forces of nature are still at work, and slot canyons are as intrinsically dangerous as they are beautiful. 

(Read: 15 Non-Technical Slot Canyons to Explore Now.)

Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch is a non-technical slot canyon with one approximately 8-foot ledge requiring a careful climb or the bypass route.

Photo: Ted Hesser

An alcove and desert varnish in the opening of Wire Pass to Buckskin, where the ground is still muddy from a recent storm.

Photo: Ted Hesser

The reason is that slot canyons are narrow gorges in soft rocks like Utah’s layered sedimentary deposits. They are named for their extreme relative depth to width, often squeezing down to a sliver. In the event of a storm, even one miles away, narrow slot canyons can quickly fill with water. In other words, check conditions and travel with caution. Better yet, go with a guide.

"These environments are harsh, but they're also very fragile. We try to teach how best to come through these places and keep them pristine. We want to see our clients leave with a greater appreciation for this amazing environment that we love so much," Smith adds.

It is said that Utah has the largest concentration of slot canyons in the world. While many slot canyons are remote and highly technical, some of them are more readily accessible.

In the video above, Smith leads a hike through Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch, part of the Paria Canyon–Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. The trailhead itself is remote, requiring a high-clearance vehicle drive down an unpaved road. Wire Pass is an excellent out-and-back hike with only a couple of tricky sections, or well-prepared hikers can continue up or down Buckskin Gulch to extend the day's exploration. With even more preparation (and a permit), adventure travelers can tackle the full Buckskin hike with overnight options.

Slot Canyon Safety

Enter every slot canyon with care. Since the arid Colorado Plateau is the home of most canyons, expect predominantly remote, rugged adventure and travel prepared with plenty of water and other supplies.

The biggest danger comes from flash floods. Here's how Glen Canyon National Recreation Area puts it:

Flash floods are the artists who carve the intricate curves of slot canyons. They are also the assassins of anyone who may be in their paths. Do not enter a slot canyon if rain has been forecast. Even if the skies above you are clear, a storm hundreds of miles away may have triggered a flash flood in your area. Flash floods can also create damage in more open areas, as well.

Before heading out and when hiking, watch for these indications of a possible flash flood:

  • Any deterioration in weather conditions
  • Build up of clouds or sounds of thunder
  • Sudden changes in water clarity from clear to muddy
  • Floating debris
  • Rising water levels or stronger currents
  • Increasing roar of water up canyon
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