In the slots

Hiking the Southwest's canyons takes common sense and a sense of wonder
Lawrence W. Cheek

I am always wary when I hike into a slot canyon. I keep one eye cocked toward the slitlike squeeze of sky overhead, watching the weather, and calculate my scrambles over chokestones to make sure I can manage the return. These are worlds unto themselves, and they demand an explorer's respect.

But when my senses are on the alert for trouble, they're also more aware of the otherworldly beauty of these places ― where geology is art, where reality dissolves into magic, where each twist of the labyrinth unfolds a cosmos never seen before. There's nothing like them anywhere on earth, aboveground or below.

Slot canyons engrave the high-desert landscape along the Utah-Arizona border because of a confluence of natural events. The Colorado is a deep-cutting river, so its tributaries have to claw deeply to keep up. The dry climate urges canyon walls to fall away in big chunks, creating angular cliffs instead of gentle slopes. And the porous Navajo sandstone absorbs a lot of groundwater, which weakens the rock and helps flash floods scour the channels. Springs in the sandstone also promote canyon cutting.

Water, the architect of slot canyons, is fickle about when and how it does its sculpting ― working furiously in potentially deadly floods during winter rains and after summer thunderstorms. Which is why spring and fall are the safest months to explore them.

Art in stone

Hike into a slot and you'll quickly encounter the fruit of the liquid labor. Walls are sculpted into bizarre and beautiful swirls, a convex wave frequently mirroring a concavity on the opposite wall. It's the same phenomenon that makes rivers form S-shaped channels: Water accelerates, and gnaws harder, into the outer radius of a curve.

But no geological description adequately conveys the feel of slot canyons, which in the space of a few hundred feet can cycle through awe-inspiring, humbling, exhilarating, and scary. A small, colorful, dizzily sculpted slot such as Canyon X prompts the paradoxical sensation of seeing a frozen dance, a whirlwind tarantella of stone. A stretch of the Zion Narrows named Wall Street has the color and mood of a gothic cathedral on an overcast day: dark, brooding, and unsettling in its power but also comforting in its timelessness. My feelings in slot canyons always arise as contradictory pairs, as complex as the landscapes themselves.

One more paradox is that danger lurks in this beauty. One thing you don't want to experience in a slot is water at work. In Buckskin Gulch, I see a logjam of flotsam wedged about 40 feet overhead, a graphic measurement of a recent flash flood. A sign warns hikers: "know the latest weather forecast and canyon conditions ... emergency response is never rapid." Last September a Utah family of four was trapped for more than 24 hours on a ledge, watching a torrent below.

Buckskin's prime watershed lies on the Paunsaugunt Plateau 50 miles north; a storm there will sling a wall of water through the gulch ― over which the sun may be cheerily shining ― hours later. In 1997 a flood in Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, killed 11 hikers.

The Bureau of Land Management maintains an information station near Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch that offers daily forecasts and information about hiking conditions, which change after each flood, because the water creates new pools and obstacles. The bureau doesn't shut off access, however. The day of my foray into the Paria Narrows comes with a 30 percent chance of rain. I turn back when the overcast darkens and the wind rises; several other hikers don't. "You were smart," says a ranger later. "The others were just lucky."

Clusters of choices

Deciding which slots to explore depends on your time, taste for adventure, and, frankly, your personal convexity. Spooky, one of the slots in the Escalante, Utah, area, is so confining that I not only have to ditch my day pack but also the 1-inch monocular around my neck to slither through. Brimstone, on the same trail, is a more comfortable fit as well as deeper, darker, and lonelier. There's a variety of animal tracks featuring six, four, and no legs. We appear to be the day's only bipeds.

Zion Narrows is one of the national park's most spectacular hikes, even though the "trail" is the Virgin River ― you can wade for miles.

Near Page, Upper Antelope Canyon may be the most sculptural and decidedly the most popular slot canyon in existence. Too popular for some tastes; it's difficult to meditate on its profound beauty amid the shuffling throng. A nearby alternative is Canyon X, limited to four to six people a day, but its solitude is a luxury that costs $85 to $135 a head.

For the cost of a $5 permit and a bit more footwork, you can explore Buckskin, said to be the longest ― and by connoisseurs' consensus ― the world's best slot. Throughout its 16-mile length, colors, formations, and sensations change every hundred feet. A burgundy-dark alley explodes into a violet cathedral, its walls 300 feet tall. At the Wire Pass confluence, there's a rash of prehistoric petroglyphs, nearly all of them depicting various animals. This is their world, the rock art seems to say, and humans, then as now, are only visitors. Respectful, cautious ones.

Try canyoneering

For the adventurous, the next step in slot canyon exploration is canyoneering ― using ropes and anchoring systems to safely climb and rappel the more difficult sections.