travelog 7

Slot Canyons

The entrance is narrow, just as wide that you can creep through, and around 16 feet deep - Round Valley Draw. First we think that we probably missed the right direction - because the wide, sandy, and at the end very rocky river bed doesn't look like it's becoming a slot canyon at all. But at a glance there it is - a slot, getting deeper and deeper, working out to be one of the most beautiful slot canyons of the American Southwest (most of them in southern Utah) we have seen to date.

The descent into that slot makes some headache at first sight - especially for people who have not a head for heights. But, from the moment you realize that it consists of handy sandstone, giving you the opportunity to grip, the fear disappears fast and so we descend into the narrow abyss.

Very fast you are fascinated by the interesting forms carved, no, washed out of the stone by nature. The walls are horizontally-striped sandstone, moulded in sweeping curves. At first the canyon walls are only a few feet high, but soon the canyon gets deeper and deeper and you have to climb down over big rocks. We have to turn at a steep decline, which is over 15 feet (5 meters) deep, because we see no chance for a normal return up. Julia tries it and has to be pulled up by Martin - and that would cause some problems vice-versa.

At first we wanted to visit Antelope Canyon near Page in northern Arizona. But since the big accident two years ago, during which eleven Frenchmen lost their lives in a flash flood, the only possibility to visit that famous slot canyon is to join a guided tour. That means nothing else than a canyon full of people, walking through the view you just want to take a picture of. So we decide to visit another, not so well-known slot in southern Utah, Buckskin Gulch.

The rangers of the Paria River ranger station warn us that the backcountry roads of the region would be in very, very bad condition, with deep sand etc. and that they wouldn't know if we could make it through with our truck. Afterwards, driving the mentioned tracks, we couldn't even find a sandy passage or the bad conditions. Everything worked out to be fine and even people with normal 2-wheel-driven street-cars joined us at the trailhead. Our opinion is, that these rangers are not so keen on having many people driving their backcountry roads.

The hike to Buckskin Gulch takes you through a sandy stream bed at first. We walk like "two steps forward, one backward". It's really hard to proceed. The sandy ground takes up our power and we are getting tired very fast. Suddenly the canyon walls become narrow and we walk through beautifully carved sandstone. Soon this side canyon leads to the meeting point with the long Buckskin Gulch, where we admire some Indian petroglyphs. At first we try walking the gulch to the north, but it opens up within a few hundred yards. So we turn around and try the fork to the south. After entering the narrow gulch, a brown, opaque pool stops us after about 100 yards. Two hikers passing us with wet jeans and totally muddy sandals, tell us that we should put on old shoes, that the pools would get deeper the further you enter the gulch. So we decide to turn around and to come back the next morning - better equipped for that task.

The plastic shoes of our scuba equipment are put to use for the first time. We put off our hiking boots before we enter the gulch and hide them behind a big rock and we force our feet into the tight plastic shoes. The water is freezing cold, and we are wearing shorts. We realize that the sun seldomly shines down to the canyon floor - the walls are too high and too narrow. It's getting very cold. The moment we enter the pools, we realize that they are getting deeper and deeper. We are groping with our walking sticks for hidden stones in the opaque, brown water to find places to put our feet on, because the mud is deep and slippery. Soon our feet are nearly freezing and our muddy legs look "very tanned". Unfortunately we have no possibility to show also the low temperature with our pictures, but "freezing" is a nice expression for that, especially when crossing big pools every 20 or 30 yards!

On the other hand the gulch is getting the more impressive the further we enter it. Behind every turn new beauty is hidden, far beyond our heads the canyon walls are illuminated by the sun. The light reflects to the other side of the canyon and produces terrific color tones from light yellow, all variants of orange and red to dark brown and all shades of grey. From time to time a little bit of blue sky comes in sight above us. A Canyon Wren sings his song (that sounds like a radio running out of battery power - that's why we call him "battery bird"); some lizards, stiff from the cold, colored like the canyon-walls, wait for a little bit of sunshine to warm them up, bringing them back to life and a small, slim water snake creeps along the canyon floor. Peace is reigning here. The only exception is the noise of airplanes coming up, which gives us some fright, because it sounds very similar to the noise of a flash flood arriving (somewhere far away it rains and because the water cannot be taken up by the hard desert soil, it accumulates and rushes down through the canyons) - in slot canyons absolutely no pleasure at all for hikers!

We heard of masses of water, mud, sand and rocks arriving with heights of up to 12 feet or even more, carrying away everything and anyone standing in their way. The steep, narrow walls give absolutely no possibility to escape being swept away by the flood.

We visit also some other slot canyons, including a place called "Little Death Hollow", about which other people were enthusiastically talking. Over there we hike in oppressive heat about 7 miles and we cannot find any real slot canyon at all. But there is a beautiful gulch, really green and the steep walls on either side of the canyon is full of "honeycombs" (little to big holes carved by the waters into the sandstone), nice rock formations and really lonely.

The two most outstanding slot canyons we discovered along the track to the "hole in the rock", southeast of Escalante, Utah, were Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch (see also Julia's picture in section "about us").

We enter and traverse these slots twice, because it is practically impossible to take big hiking gear or more than one camera with you. At first we have to climb down into the valley over slick rock and a big sand dune, where we have to search for the somewhat hidden entrance to the slots mentioned. Peek-a-boo is only about 200 yards long, but it is terrificly carved and has two rock arches inside. "Technically" it is not difficult to enter, if you do it from the back entrance. The front entrance needs some climbing and is especially tricky if the pools are still full of water. We are used to climbing and squeezing through narrow spots, so it's not a real challenge. Sometimes it's necessary to pass the hiking gear to the other at really narrow passages. Spooky Gulch indeed is another challenge!

At a glance we stand between 100-foot high, dark walls and after a few yards Martin is already stuck. It's not much use to draw in his belly! His chest is too wide. For normally-built women this spot is no problem - except for someone who is too fat; like the visitor we observed, fascinated, who tried to squeeze her body through the narrow slit and got stuck! It's no good trying - this spot can only be passed by Martin on all fours!

Certainly the backpacks must be passed over by hand and most of the way through the slot has to be walked sideways. For anxious people or claustrophobics this is absolutely no place to be. Of course, we had searched the sky for rain clouds before. And of course we keep searching the floor for rattlesnakes, because we read that these snakes have already been encountered there, especially in summertime. But it is a feast for the eyes! Absolutely gorgeous, these round carved walls in all different red color tones, stretching as far as the eye can see (although this slot canyon measures not more than a few hundred yards). Absolute silence surrounds us, occasionally cut by the call of the "battery bird". Hundreds of long-legged spiders creep over the canyon walls. Small nests of birds are built in flat crevices with some eggs or even young birds (big yellow bill, big dark eyes and a nearly naked head with a few tiny feathers) silently waiting for the arrival of a parent bird. Primarily it is a festival of light and structures - and the colors shift with the position of the sun continuously.

We are convinced that some day these slot canyons will meet us again. We feel some kind of addiction...

May 1998

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen