Due to an endless supply of bizarre and beautiful terrain, southern Utah has long been Hollywood’s creative playground, serving as the backdrop for space adventures, horror flicks, and a train of Westerns. Survival drama 127 Hours, however, pushed our desert wilds to the forefront: nature as the femme fatale, stunning but deadly.
Such a portrayal is all too realistic when the untrained and underprepared meet an unforgiving landscape. Even so, many of Utah’s most alluring attributes can still be explored by novice hikers and amateur canyoneers with the reasonable expectation of keeping their life and limbs intact. The dangers of exploring slot canyons—flash floods, dehydration, hypothermia and falls—can all be safely exchanged for unparalleled scenery with proper training, adequate supplies and common sense. Here’s a sample of the most exhilarating descents that any fit hiker with a sense of adventure, some wilderness experience and, occasionally, a guide, can tackle.
Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-boo Gulch
The two gulches that comprise this mild, 3.5- mile loop each present a unique approach to the slot canyon experience. Peek-a-boo offers rock scrambles and intertwining swirls and fins, culminating in a pair of fiery arches. Spooky, on the other hand, is a claustrophobic thrill that requires hikers to sidle and squeeze their way through the eerie darkness. The loop takes anywhere from two to four hours to complete, depending on the presence of mud or water on the otherwise sandy bed.
Neon Canyon is a beast of a day hike—nine hours in total. If you loosen the pack straps a little and set aside a couple days for it, you’ll get the chance to brave the deep dark of Ringtail Canyon and explore the narrow slickrock of Fence. Whatever your chronological preference, Neon Canyon is not to be trifled with. It guards its signature feature, the incredible Golden Cathedral, with pot- holes, rappels and long swims in chilly water. Due to the strenuous and technical nature of Neon, you should have prior training and canyoneering ex- perience—or a guide who can assist you through the adventure—before attempting the descent.
North Wash/Cedar Mesa
Fry Canyon and its cramped cousin, Frylette, are ideal for those starting their degree in technical canyoneering. With some rope, a veteran partner or guide and rappelling gear, novices can experience the full sandstone spectrum of slot features. You'll enjoy an So-foot rappel into a glowing cavern, long swims between sinuous walls and a stroll past ancient Anasazi ruins. The loop takes between three and five hours to complete.
Part of the Irish Canyons in North Wash, Blarney is a moderately technical canyon that requires rapelling skills and a solid knowledge of natural anchors. At least one member of any party attempting Blarney should be an intermediate-level canyoneer. If those requirements are met, the three-hour descent is simple and picturesque. Be prepared to smear down one slot as though you were going through a chimney, but otherwise the trail is comfortably wide.
Peppered with a few brief downclimbs, some wading, short rappels and the typical twists of a slot canyon, Keyhole terminates with a long swim down a narrow, shaded corridor. This introduction to technical canyoneering is highly-trafficked by newborn canyoneers, but that's largely because Keyhole's splendorto- effort ratio is so high. While wetsuits are recommended for most slot canyons that require extensive bouts of swimming, Keyhole has some of the coldest water in the area, and wetsuits are all but required.
The Subway boasts one of the most famous scenes in nature: a glistening open-air tunnel bending towards an unknown source of light. Despite its ubiquitous presence on computer screens and waiting room walls, the Subway's wafered cascades and urban mimicry never feel cliche when viewed in person. The rigorousg.s-mile day hike requires some rappelling skills, a detailed description of the exit route and enough luck to win a highly-sought permit. Once those stars align, you can splash along North Creek, scramble through stone bunkers and climb down waterfalls without getting busted by the park rangers that troll the thoroughfare daily.
Hiker makes his way through Peek-a-boo Gulch.