By Kevin Thomas
Right before descending a steep section of slickrock into the gulch, our manager Chris cheerfully reminded us to not fall into the trap of “Guides guiding guides”, where no one admits to being uncomfortable until someone gets hurt. After spending three hard days preparing for the coming season, a group of guides took a break to hike Peek-a-Boo and Spooky: Two incredibly narrow, but non-technical slot canyons in southern Utah. Non-technical means they don’t require ropes or harnesses. Narrow means contrary to Chris’s request, I definitely became a little uncomfortable.
Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument is a big name. Then again it’s a big place – almost 2 million acres of wilderness. This section of southwestern Utah holds the last river mapped in the lower 48 US states. The last explored mountains. The last areas surveyed by the USGS. By design, the monument keeps infrastructure and services to a minimum to preserve the wild, labyrinthine landscape. Escalante is where it still takes a little work to reach the good stuff.
But the stuff? It’s very good. Centuries of violent floods carved Peek-a-Boo and Spooky into long, pseudo-hallways where the sandstone mirrors the water that shaped it. Squeezing and clambering through the rocks of these slot canyons with just a dim slit of sky above is half childish glee, half existential awe. It took me back to clambering over statues and jungle gyms at the park, except this was built by nature alone – and more unforgiving.
Under no circumstances should you hike a slot canyon if there is the chance of rain.
Thanks to the national monument, there are no long lines or tourist traps near these slot canyons. The small towns of Tropic and Escalante provide necessary services, but when you head into the monument itself, bring everything you need. Don’t anticipate being near water, bathrooms, or cell signal on your hikes. A high-clearance vehicle is also best for navigating the unpaved roads, and necessary in some parts.
Once we cleared Peek-a-Boo, where we shimmied around warped corners and scrambled over ledges, we’d had a good workout. That’s when Chris happily chimed in again.
“So, if you found that claustrophobic, Spooky is where it’s going to actually be tight. Just a fair warning.”
A non-technical slot canyon does require one important piece of equipment: your body. While no ropes or tools were required, you will have to be fit, flexible, and comfortable supporting your own weight. Once you’re in a slot canyon, your only choice may be to keep going–there’s no early exit, and your entrypoint may become unreachable if you drop far enough in.
Spooky canyon didn’t mess around. At least twice, we had to navigate by bracing back against one wall, legs against the other, and walking down a steep drop. I was forced to take off my pack off and lead it in front of me–and often hand it up or toss it down to a partner so that I could use all four limbs to work past a particularly thorny section. Turning around slot canyons isn’t always an option, but turning around in Spooky was sometimes physically impossible.
At some point, the thought “I feel trapped” will occur to you in a slot canyon, and that’s part of the fun! But this should also occur to you before you hike, for one very important reason: monsoons. Under no circumstances should you hike a slot canyon if there is the chance of rain. For the monsoon period of July through early September, many canyoneers put away their equipment. It is impossible to see bad weather coming from inside a slot canyon, and desert monsoons approach very quickly. If a deluge comes down, there is no escape. Unfortunately, people die every year from these floods.
When we finally emerged, I enjoyed the novelty of stretching my arms under an open sky. Incredibly, Peek-a-boo and Spooky represent only a sample of the wonders that can be explored in Escalante. It’s also home to haunting 1,000-year-old pictographs, sandstone cliffs covered in massive brushstrokes of desert varnish, and a 50-mile-long ancient shoreline that’s still visible today. There are a hundred mysteries to be discovered inside the monument, if you’re ready to leave the national park infrastructure behind. Our excursion only cost us some sore muscles – definitely worth it.