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Our lunch stop in the slot canyons

Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons Experience

It’s dark outside as we climb into the car. I’m already wondering what I’ve got myself into. I could still be in bed enjoying my Bryce Canyon view. Listening to birds. Drinking coffee. Relaxing. Reading. But instead I have a pit in my stomach from the fear of what lies ahead. No matter. I have every intention of going through with my first canyoneering experience in the Grand Staircase Escalante slot canyons.

John and I watch the sunrise as we drive east to the small town of Escalante in southwest Utah. We’re there by 8:30 AM to meet our guide, sign waivers, medical forms and confidentiality agreements….all four pages of it. When we arrive we’re warmly greeted by Jim Clery, our guide and Amie, excursions director of Excursions of Escalante. Then after one more pee break from nerves we are good and truly ready for the Grand Staircase Escalante slot canyons adventure.

Start of Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons adventure
Early morning drive to Escalante

Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons adventure

My first impression of Jim is very good. He’s calm and quiet spoken – just the sort of person I can trust quite literally with my life.

By nine we’ve met the others in the group – a husband and wife from Denver (Gene and Betty) and their twenty something year old son Zach. Not only are we hydrated but we’ve been fitted and equipped with a waterproof knapsack, harness, helmet, gloves, water bottles and lunch.

All jewelry and watches have been removed and left behind. There’s no need to catch a ring in a crack, pull an Aron Ralston and leave a limb behind. We are ready to roll.

Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons and the head of the canyon we're about to descend
The head of the canyon we’re about to descend

Conquering fears, conquering slot canyons in Grand Staircase National Monument

We head off in four wheel drive vehicles – the only kind capable of getting to the trailhead. I can’t actually tell you where the trailhead is other than to say that it’s in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. You’ve got 1.7 million acres to search!

Upon arrival we all nervously peer over the edge. That pit of fear in my stomach has morphed into a ball of fear and is growing by the minute. I know I’m not the only one that’s feeling a tad scared. I can see it on the faces of Gene and Betty too.

We start our descent – hiking on slickrock type sandstone and in minutes we’re at the lip of the canyon. We’ve already had a bit of a safety spiel from Jim. But we go through everything you would ever want to know about rappelling before we clip in and head over the edge. Safety really is first and foremost in his mind – which makes me feel good considering what we’re about to embark on.

Our guide Jim is the last one to rappel 70 feet down into the canyon
Our guide Jim is the last one to rappel 80 feet down into the canyon
Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons with John rappelling in
John enjoying himself immensely

Once I started rappelling I remembered just how much fun it is – nerve wracking for about five seconds and then exhilarating. I used to rock climb and rappel but I hadn’t been near a set of ropes for at least 13 years. It’s amazing how quickly it all comes back.

How to talk like a real canyoneer

Once on the canyon floor we learned a number of canyoneering terms – the smear, foot bridge, body bridge, mantle and heel plant. The heel plant ended up being particularly useful. Instead of sticking your toe into a crack you plant your heel. It doesn’t get stuck the way your toes do so it makes a huge difference climbing down between some of the rocks.

Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons with me working my way down the canyon
Working my way down the canyon – trying the body bridge position
Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons with John in the mud"
John navigating the mud

Wear clothes that can get dirty 

There was evidence of recent rain. Parts of the canyon were quite wet. In fact at one point we had to negotiate a waist-deep pool and on several occasions ankle-deep water. And the mud was so thick at times you could barely break the suction holding your foot.

After about 30 minutes I gave up trying to stay clean and in fact reveled in the fact I got so dirty. I just wish I hadn’t brought my pink shirt. It’s a lovely shade of red-brown now. Wear clothes you are prepared to throw away at the end is my advice.

"Beautiful sculpted canyon walls"
Beautiful sculpted canyon walls
Coming out of the slot canyon walking on dried mud
Coming out of the slot canyon walking on dried mud

How long does it take to walk through the canyon?

We spent the better part of four hours negotiating the length of the canyon. Some of it was easy walking while some left you smeared and pasted against a canyon wall. There was one instance before lunch I felt the press of the canyon walls. It’s something you just have to put out of your mind.

When we did reach our lunch stop the canyon walls opened. From here Jim could climb out of the canyon and get a better idea about the weather. He checked on the possibility of thunderstorms because moving froward in the canyon from our lunch spot required commitment  It would be close to impossible to escape should there be a flash flood. Fortunately Jim pronounced it safe to proceed. (Jim carry’s a radio with him and Amie knows exactly what our location is too.)

Our lunch stop in a wide open area
Our lunch stop in a wide open area

Getting through a shoulder-wide slot canyon

The bulk of our afternoon was spent negotiating about a mile of slot canyon. It was so narrow in places that you had to flatten your body to get through.

In hindsight it’s just as well I didn’t know what lay ahead. But in the end it was okay. And the beauty of the sculpted rock took your mind off your position. But if you’re extremely claustrophobic this may not be the sport for you!

Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons with deep concentration in a tricky area
Deep concentration in a tricky area
Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons - a narrow canyon after lunch
It’s into a narrow slot canyon after lunch
Grand Staircase Escalante Slot Canyons offers sculpted beauty and a waist deep pool
The sculpted beauty of a slot canyon and a waist deep pool
We're a happy, proud group of canyoneers
We’re a happy, proud group of canyoneers
The slot canyon in the afternoon is just a tad more than shoulder width wide
The slot canyon in the afternoon is just a tad more than shoulder width wide

At the end of the hike I felt such a sense of deep satisfaction knowing I’d conquered my fears and made it out in one piece. It took us an hour to hike back to the car from where we popped out at the end of the canyon. 

My shoes at the end of our day canyoneering
My shoes at the end of our day canyoneering

Not only did we enjoy the sight of fantastic rock formations in a variety of earth tones but we had a chance to see a few arrowheads that have been found over the years and kept in a safe place only the guides know about. Seeing those arrowheads gives you a sense of history of the area.

Our group heading back to the vehicle
Our group heading back to the vehicle after the Grand Staircase Escalante slot canyons adventure
The cleft in the rock is the canyon we walked through
The cleft in the rock is the canyon we walked through

The Grand Staircase Escalante slot canyons canyoneering adventure

Overall I would say that this canyoneering experience is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s beautiful and exciting. It tests you physically and mentally. And while it’s a challenge, ultimately it’s incredibly rewarding. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Further reading on things to do in Utah

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A canyoneering adventure in Utah's Grand Staircase National Monument

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 61 Comments

  1. Okay, this one left me speechless. As I’ve said of many of your posts, they have inspired me to add them to my ‘must do’ list; this one however, I am going to enjoy through your post. I can’t quite imagine doing this but I am glad you did! Love the views and the perspective of your shots!!!

  2. I would LOVE to do this! Looks like a great time and, yes, just outside of the comfort zone. Great job Leigh!

  3. @Jackie Trust me at times I was quite fearful – especially smack dab in the middle of a skinny slot canyon but it was a rush conquering those fears and really it was a glorious day.

  4. I’ve done a lot of climbing so would probably have the techniques the thought of canyoning gives me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. So good for you and probably a good reason for me to give it a go! Love the boots shot and the arrowheads 🙂

  5. I have no desire to canyoneer, but I do have a desire to see Escalante National Monument. It looks like an incredible wilderness. The red of the sandstone is unbelievable. Great post and congrats on making it through.

  6. Have you not seen 127 hours? Granted at least you were smart enough to bring other people with you, but there’s still a whole precedent that’s been set as to why people shouldn’t try this. I leave it to the daredevils such as yourself to do these things, and if you bring back awesome pictures for me to enjoy (as you most often do), then so much the better.

  7. Wow on the fabulous scenic shots you were able to capture throughout this adventure and double WOW for facing your fears and getting through some very tight spots. This is something my husband would most likely do since he used to enjoy rock climbing. I tknow this is too much for me. Great job, Leigh. You continue to amaze me with every single adventure you take on!

  8. Wow – what an amazing adventure. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to climb down the canyon though.

    1. @Mette Rappelling down int the canyon – once you got over the lip was actually one of the easier parts to the day – and really once you got going sooooo fun. It’s all about trust.

  9. I would love to do this. Looks amazing and the pictures are amazing too. Would love to walk on that dried mud trail.

  10. OMG… what an amazing experience and a fabulous post. I’m exhausted…with your fabulous photos, I feel as though I have taken every step with you. I can’t believe you were able to climb through some of those narrow gorges. I’d be happy sitting on the rocks taking in the fabulous scenery!

    1. @Jenny I can’t believe we climbed through some of those narrow passages either.Those were the times I mentally had to tell myself it would all work out and I think that’s why I had such a sense of accomplishment at the end.

  11. Leigh, I am with Jackie on this one…speechless! I would not even consider doing this, so I have lived this awesome adventure through you. Love all of your shots. Did you throw your shoes away?

  12. @Nancie Canyoneering hadn’t ever occurred to me until I read a blog post by Downtown Traveler. I thought it sounded interesting but I can absolutely see that it’s not a sport for everyone.
    Jim thoroughly washed all the shoes and I wore them the next day – a bit wet mind you – for a hike in Bryce Canyon.

  13. @Mary This has been my year for adrenalin filled adventures. I’m passed my mid-life crisis so don’t ask me why. I think I just love the sense of deep satisfaction I get when I’ve done something difficult.

  14. @Steve I read the book 127 hours and marvel at Aron’w will to survive and ingenuity. I had the utmost confidence in Jim and really if there was ever a calm man that could get you through some tight spots this is the guy. Taking photos in the canyon with such contrast in light and shadow is definitely a challenge.

  15. @Ted I could easily spend a month hiking in the Escalante area – and that wouldn’t even include time for canyoneering. I would need a four wheel drive to get to so many of the trailheads though. There’s a book – WOW Guides – Utah Canyon Country by Kathy and Craig Copeland. Buy a copy and then start dreaming of hiking. Their descriptions and photos make me want to do all 90 hikes – and I think I’ve done four now.

  16. Put me in the category of no way would I do that! I think I would have stayed at my lodge and enjoyed the views 🙂 Love the color of the rock and dirt in Utah. Such a wonderful red color.

  17. WOWWWW, I am totally impressed, Leigh. What a beautiful experience this must have been.
    I can see why they wanted you to sign all those forms — there’s a lot to watch out for. Congrats!
    And yes, I’d definitely try it.

  18. You’re one tough bird, Leigh. I think… hope, at least, I’d dare give it a go. All about not looking down, right? Gorgeous landscape, looks surreal, like another planet. Very cool report!

  19. I hadn’t heard the term “canyoneering” before — I guess that just shows that I’ve never done it. Gorgeous shots of your incredible adventure. I know that apprehensive, pit in the stomach kind of feeling you mentioned. Good for you not to let it hold you back!

  20. This was fascinating!!! I really want to do this someday. Thanks for sharing it with us – please link it up on our Friday Daydreamin’ as well!

  21. The colors of your photos are so beautiful. Great job. I too have a fear of heights and understand the feelings associated with hanging off the side of a cliff.

  22. That is truly stunning. I’m so glad you showed us pictures because I am a scaredy cat, and there’s no way I’m seeing it for myself.

  23. That is some adventure!! Looks like some movie shooting! The pictures are amazing, the rock sculptures fabulous and the pits scary!! Tell you what, I would never dare to attempt something like this!!

  24. I don’t think I will be going canyoneering anytime soon, but it is nice to have the experience through you. I think I would get too claustrophobic but I love the colors of the rocks. It’s really striking.

  25. That’s an amazing experience. I think I’d do it given the opportunity. I’m always up for adventure sports. Although this one, not sure how I’d feel down there, stuck between the two canyon walls!

  26. I guess you must be born for even thinking about an adventure like this. Climbing, hiking and such are not for me, but I love reading about it and I enjoyed your pictures no end.

    1. Trust me Inka – I had plenty of fears associated with the day but I really felt great overcoming those fears. And I respect the fact that an adventure like this is not for everybody.

  27. The pictures are spectacular, such beautiful colors. I have never been to the canyons, so this experience looks unbelievable! Thank you for sharing!

  28. that looks like SO much fun. I love adventure travel 🙂 however, having that said… You would really need some sneakers you don’t mind messing up. It is MUDDY out there 😉

    – Maria Alexandra

  29. What a terrific experience! I’d love to do it, but I am nervous of heights. Maybe this is just what I need to get over the fear. lovely photos!

  30. Did I miss it in your post.. which canyon(s) is this? I was also in the Escalante earlier this year, we hiked Willis Creek, no tech climbing required. I would love to try out canyoneering but haven’t yet!

  31. Look so wonderful and little bit scary to me. but really wanted to go there and do some adventure like you did. Thanks for sharing your experience. feels really great while reading

  32. I would love to give it a go but would buy some special red shoes and socks so thanks for the heads up. Wonderful pics – I’m also a bike hike nut and found you through ZigaZag and A Taste of Travel – Will also hook up with you on FB and twitter. Look forward to reading more.

  33. I find it highly suspect that Excursion’s Of Escalante’s “Confidentiality Waiver” is actually legal. All guide services that operate on public lands–including the Grand Staircase Esclante Natkional Monumnet” are required to obtain special use permits to operate trips. All of this information which includes the routes and locations they are permitted to guide is public information. It’s definitely not a secret.

    1. @Travelinman I actually could care less if it’s legal or not. I do respect the fact that someone has invested years of their life developing routes – and that they are just trying to protect their livelihood and not have someone piggyback on their hard work.

  34. Wow, haven’t even thought about canyoning! I think it’d take me a while to start, because I”d be too afraid. A slip or fall would definitely hurt. But that red rock & mud looks like a gorgeous experience!

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