Squeezing Through the Slot Canyons of Escalante

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“Where are we supposed to go? Under these rocks?” Alex asked. To both of our sides shot up towering sandstone walls that enclosed us into a space no more than a couple feet across. Ahead of us was a pile of fallen boulders that looked impenetrable; it seemed we had hit a dead end. I fished my phone out of my pocket and consulted my AllTrails route. A flashing blue dot that indicated our location was on top of the waypoint marked “tight squeeze.” 

“It says we’re at the tight squeeze,” I informed the group, now a bit skeptical of my map’s reliability. Hiking with us was another couple, another Alex (we'll call him A2 going forward) and Whitney. We had met them not more than fifteen minutes earlier and decided to link up for our hike down the Spooky slot canyon. A2 slipped ahead of the group and started looking around. The rocks that had tumbled down and blocked our path forward had a few narrow gaps between them where their oblong shapes didn’t allow them to fall flat. A2 looked down into one of these gaps that was about a foot and a half in diameter and to me appeared to be nothing more than a bottomless pit. He turned to us and announced “this it it”. The rest of us looked at him incredulously as he began to squeeze himself into the hole and then disappeared from our view. 

The "tight squeeze" we descended through.

The "tight squeeze" we descended through.

“This is definitely it. You can come down!” He called up to us, his voice echoing in the cavernous room below. Whitney followed him down first, then Alex and both of them had to resort to using A2’s leg as support as they descended. Then it was my turn. I passed my camera and water bottle below, turned around and firmly grasped two rocks at the mouth of the hole and willed them to hold my weight. Then I slowly eased my lower body into the dark emptiness below. My feet blindly searched for some sort of purchase on the marble-smooth rock walls but I had no such luck. I felt a hand grab my ankle and another grab my calf. “We got you, just let yourself go.” With only the slightest hesitation I released my death grip on the rocks and suddenly found myself below the rock pile, safely in Alex’s arms. He put me down, I dusted myself off and we carried on down the narrow passageway. 

We had thought that the spot designated “tight squeeze” would be the most perilous moment of the hike but it was not. What followed was a few precipitous drops and even more enclosed walls. In some places the walls were less than a foot apart and we were all forced to turn sideways and shuffle through the slot canyons which sometimes turned so sharply I would lose sight of my hiking partner a few feet in front of me. Even though the walls closing in on me induced a minor bout of claustrophobia I never knew I had I appreciated the the rich shades of orange and red and the way the light trickled down to paint the walls and cast them in an eerie glow. They were striated and smooth—the product of millions of years of floods pouring through and carving the most beautiful, sinuous corridors I’ve ever seen. 

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After what felt like hours but was actually only 30 minutes the walls grew further apart and just like that we were standing out in the open, blinking into the bright light. It was tough to believe just a few minutes earlier we were in the belly of the slot canyon voicing our concerns that we had somehow taken a wrong turn and would end up trapped in the slots, subjected to our own hellish version of 127 Hours.

While in the slot canyon I felt panic boiling up within me and struggled to not only maneuver through the slots but also to keep my fear under control, the second we were out in the open I had the desire to turn right back around and do it again. It was a roller coaster sort of adrenaline rush and I loved it. Spooky was the final slot canyon we ventured into during our trip to Escalante and I would say we unintentionally saved the best for last. 

Zebra Slot Canyon

Zebra Slot Canyon

Earlier in the day we started with a hike to the Zebra slot, which also grew quite narrow at the end but was much shorter and less fear-inducing than Spooky. Zebra is renowned as a highly photogenic slot canyon and it certainly lived up to its reputation; the walls are vibrant, striped, and the light filtering down creates a distinct ombre effect. 

It had rained a few days prior to our trip so the entrance to the slot canyon was flooded, forcing us to wade through dark, frigid water. The water was so cold my whole body ached and for a moment I had considered turning back. I knew I would regret that decision so I pushed through the pain and stomped warmth back into my feet and legs once we finally reached dry ground. 

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Peek-a-boo's sketchy entrance

Peek-a-boo's sketchy entrance

The second slot canyon we visited was Peek-a-boo, which actually forms a loop with Spooky. We chose to hike up Peek-a-boo first and then down Spooky, because those drops I mentioned earlier are even more of a struggle to climb out of. Peek-a-boo’s most difficult aspect was its entrance. To get into the slot we had to climb up a sandstone wall using smooth small hand- and foot-holds have been carved out over time by people continuously touching the same spots. This section was the only part that felt dangerous, as a fall from the wall could result in some broken bones, but once up and over this unnerving first section Peek-a-boo was a fun slot! There were arches to crawl under, circular rooms with space to turn around, and ledges to clamber over. 

There are other slot canyons in the area but unfortunately we only had time for these three. Despite our short amount of time to explore the slot canyons of Escalante we had an absolute blast doing so. They’re humbling and a constant reminder of the sheer power of Mother Nature.

Another important point I want to mention is the fact that these slots we explored were recently taken out of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by President Trump’s late 2017 movement to reduce the monument by a whopping 46%. These specific slots do remain on federally protected Wilderness Study Areas but the fate of the surrounding area is still unknown (Trump’s motion is currently being challenged in the courts) and it sets a worrisome precedent for the future of our public lands. These places took millions of years to form, they have cultural significance to local tribes, and it’s upsetting that the possibility that there may be some natural resource deposits here could end up destroying them or at least vastly altering them in a way that cannot be reversed in our or even our great-great-great-great grandchildren’s lifetimes. I thoroughly enjoyed hiking through the slot canyons and admiring their power and beauty and I feel that future generations should have the opportunity to explore them and feel that same joy.

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