Brilliant hues await in the slots, the focus for Gary Luhm's trip to the desert plateaus of Utah and Arizona
The slot canyons of the southwestern Colorado Plateau (mostly southern Utah and northern Arizona) are peculiar phenomena of Navajo sandstone. Eroded by water and the scouring power of silt, sand, and debris, they cut vertically through the landscape like a saw blade. The warm-hued surfaces emit quality light — enough to make the slot canyons the centerpiece for a trip to a region that screams with superlatives.
Plan your trip for spring or fall. Summers are hot, and during July through mid-September, distant thunderstorms produce flash floods even when blue sky prevails overhead. Go in May and augment the trip with the mid-elevation desert wildflower bloom. Go in June and capture glistening sun rays on the canyon floor at Antelope. Fall colors are best at higher elevations in late September or early October. In the canyon of Zion National Park and in the slots that have trees, early November brings the yellowing of the cottonwoods against the red canyon walls. Visiting the slots in winter can be cold and muddy but offers new sets of patterns, snow, and water reflections in the canyon recesses. In any season, get an up-to-date weather forecast before you enter a slot.
On Navajo land east of Page, Arizona. The Antelopes, where shifting light plays daily in cathedrals of sculpted rock, are the crown jewels of the slots. It was in Lower Antelope, in July 1997, where 11 seekers of the light perished in a flash flood. Visit in spring or fall. As with all slots, have a flexible schedule to avoid being skunked by a day when the flash-flood danger is high. Expect an entrance fee and large numbers of point-and-shoot-wielding tourists (at least in Upper Antelope). If it’s your first visit, consider hiring a tour guide in Page. Plan a full day each for the Upper and Lower Antelope. Go when it’s sunny, get there by 9 a.m, and scout until the best light arrives at midday.
Zion National Park, Utah. The world-famous Narrows of the Virgin River attracts hikers, canyoneers, climbers, and photographers. More canyon than slot, it’s 17 miles from top to bottom; a few hardy souls do it in a day. Better for photographers is to wade up-canyon from the parking lot at the temple of Sinawava. The first bend in the river puts you in a 2,000-foot-deep, multihued gorge. Compositions leap out at every turn. Hike 2 miles to the confluence with the Orderville River. Wear tennis shoes or thick-soled river shoes; you’ll be in the river as often as not the whole way. A walking stick helps with stream crossings. Visit the Narrows in June or in the fall. In April and May, the river may be flowing too swiftly to enter.
Paria-Vermillion Wilderness, between Kanab, Utah, and Page, Arizona. The biggest and baddest of the slot canyons, Buckskin Gulch, pictured on this page, is a 14-mile-long, 400-foot-deep slit through Navajo sandstone, the longest of its type in the world. With sections of muddy, stagnant water bearing names like the Cesspool, it puts demands on photographers. Avoid the summer, when flash-flood danger is high. Even in spring or fall, you need to know the forecast and conditions in the canyon. To manage Buckskin’s length, take it on in small bites from each end. Day-hike from Wire Pass, on the west, into vertical red-rock chasms of limitless potential. Keep your camera gear in dry bags for passage through clay-brown, thigh-deep water holes. For an approach from the east, plan an overnight. Hike down the Paria River from White House 7 miles to the confluence. Camp for a night at a box elder grove a quarter-mile up the Buckskin. Bring your flute: The acoustics here rival the Met.
Farther afield in the new Escalante/Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah. The aptly named Peek-a-boo contains some interesting, tiny archways. Spooky is dark and very narrow — in places so tight you’ll tear the pockets off your pants. Brimstone — the most impressive of the three — is bigger, tight like Spooky, and deep like Buckskin. It also requires a long slog up a sandy wash. If you start early, you can do all three in a day. Stop at the visitor center in Escalante for a trail map.
Not that interested in squeezing through dusty (or mucky) slots of Navajo sandstone? The southwestern Colorado Plateau has other delights to offer. The exposed desert rock is a geological paradise, the plant and animal life is diverse, and Anasazi ruins abound. Go for wildflowers in the spring, and aspens and cottonwood in the fall. Nearby Grand Canyon and Bryce National Parks are also in the southwestern part of the Plateau. But plan your trip around the slots, which boast the purest light on the Plateau.
Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, Michael Kelsey, 1995. The best guide for slot canyons, but be warned: If Kelsey says a hike is difficult, forget it unless you’re a climber.
Southwest’s Canyon Country, Sandra Hinchman, 1990. A more sane, general guide to canyon hiking
Hiking the Escalante, Rudi Lambrechtse, 1999. New edition of a guide to the Escalante drainage.
Plateau Light, David Muench, 1998. Inspiring coffee-table book of the Colorado Plateau by one of the great landscape photographers.