Author: Dan Morgan
Southern Utah Canyon Country
Go someplace you’ve never been.
I know I said in the first post that ‘Exploring’ is not necessarily the act of going to a physical place, but sometimes it actually does. Exploring a new place can also mean venturing into an unknown realm of experiences on top of just being somewhere new. Besides that, this is my blog and I can change my rules however I feel like. So there.
So. . .we’re going to launch this portion of our program with one of my favorite explorations.
In deep Southern Utah, a scattering of intriguing landforms lurks in hidden crevasses throughout the Escalante Staircase backcountry. ‘Slot Canyons’ were once known only to a few intrepid adventurers who liked slithering down ropes into unknown dark twisted rock passages, just for fun. The Intrepids are still out there slithering, but these days more and more sane people are discovering the slot canyons and learning to appreciate the beauty and intrigue of that mysterious world.
Some of you might know a little about slot canyons from the ‘127 Hours’ movie a few years ago and the awful story of Aaron Ralston having to coyote his way out of a canyon near Hanksville, UT. As drastic as Ralston’s experiences were, slots are seldom going to extract such a high price as a limb. Skin off your knees and elbows is another matter.
There are plenty of great slot canyons that don’t command the challenges Ralston faced. New visitors to the slots can find great canyons either through exploration on their own (lot of books and websites are out there), or with the help of one of the legion of tour operators that have popped up in the last few years like cats at a tuna truck wreck.
Slot Canyons are not unique to Southern Utah; they can be found in several other parts of the world, but Southern Utah is a treasure trove for the number and variety of slots in a relatively concentrated area. Whoever coined the term ‘slot canyon’ chose the nomenclature well; slots are just that, slivers of passageways sometimes only inches wide carved by the rush of water down through the sandstone, leaving twisting, turning, colorful waves almost like elongated keyholes. Slot canyons are sometimes shallow, with blue sky just a few feet above your head. Others are more daunting, with vertical walls rising a hundred feet or more, a feature that makes escape (or rescue) a decidedly more challenging endeavor. Whatever the size and shape, they are a blast to explore.
It doesn’t rain a whole lot in canyon country, but when it does, it comes in big bursts that pour across the slick-rock where very little grass grows. As the runoff collects, it races down into the desert drainages in a torrent of powerful scouring action. Very large volumes of the stuff surge down through the soft sandstone with a carving action akin to a knife slicing across a piece of Styrofoam; it cuts deep and it cuts thin, pushing everything ahead of it and tumbling on down through the thin canyons. If you are in the canyon, you will become part of the carving action.
Not only does the water tear through the earth and whittle thin passages away, the intricate erosion patterns can swirl and curve and meander to create deep dark passageways sometimes only inches wide. Sometimes there are deep pools of water, sometimes the canyons are dry. Many are quite challenging just to crawl through and make your way to the bottom, and can often take several hours to descend.
The sandstones of Southern Utah canyon country are relatively soft and easily erodible, but what creates them is the same weather phenomenon that you want to avoid at the peril of having all your skin removed with 80-grit sandpaper:
Flash floods. If you don’t learn anything else from this post, learn this one: Do not go in a slot canyon if there is rain nearby! If you do. . .Buy-bye.
Try rubbing your chin real hard with a cheese grater sometime and see how it feels. Imagine that sensation all over your body.
Slot canyons are fun to explore, and as an Intrepid, lone slitherer myself, I encourage you to explore one. For your first expedition, you probably want to engage one of those tuna-truck-wreck-cat Outfitters, at least until you get the hang of dropping 200’ or more down a rope into a dark pit that may or may not have water over your head at the bottom. But don’t let me be the one to scare you off.
Slot canyons should definitely be on the explorer’s checklist. They are a great natural feature of our planet and the world’s best are found right here in America’s desert backyard. You don’t have to have any particular skills to visit many of the slots, but once you see one, you’ll understand why some people find that 200’ rope drop a fascinating experience.
If the foregoing sketch happened to pique your interest in slot canyons, you can take it a little further right now with this little slice of slot canyon fiction that I encourage you to read: Into the Canyons, a short story by yours truly.
Thanks for being here. See you next time.