Sandstone and Slot Canyons

Having lived my whole life either on the West Coast or in Minnesota, I’m familiar with scenery painted in greens, blues and browns — pine-filled mountains, lakes, meadows rimmed with leafy trees. Utah was a contrast to all of that. Created with a completely different palette of deep red and terra-cotta, the steep-walled canyons, graceful arches and arid desert were impressively beautiful in a way I’d never experienced before. We spent two and a half weeks exploring all five of Utah’s National Parks and part of the Grand Staircase area, doing some of the best hikes of the trip and discovering a burgeoning new love for canyoneering.

A guidebook noted visitors often “gasp audibly” when travelling in Utah. We found this to be quite true. In Zion National Park, the Virgin River carved its way through red Navajo Sandstone, leaving sheer-walled cliffs thousands of feet high, accented with hanging gardens and dripping pools. In the late afternoon sun, the whole canyon glowed.

We waded right up the river into The Narrows, one of the most famous slot canyons in the state. There’s no trail, just the riverbed, and that means we got wet. The majority of the hike was through ankle- to knee-deep water, but we did have to cross a pool where the 58-degree water came all the way up to my chest. Though the trek seemed a bit insane at first, it proved to be my favorite yet. As we slogged our way upstream the canyon walls closed in until it felt like we were hiking in a tunnel, the cool rock just inches from the ends of our extended arms. It was thrilling, and we were hooked on hiking in canyons.

We later got a tip about Muley Twist Canyon from some true canyoneers. Located in the rugged southern end of Capitol Reef National Park, the canyon is quite remote. We first stopped at Hells Backbone Grill for a locally grown, seasonal breakfast of blue corn pancakes, elk sausage and corn tortillas with chile sauce to fuel our exploration. Then, we headed out on Burr Trail Road, hands-down the most scenic route of the trip, where the terrain feels alternately violent, with jagged rock piles and immense cracked cliffs, and artistically sculpted. Muley Twist Canyon winds through smooth sandstone, and we encountered a few fun obstacles.

At Arches National Park, we hiked to see the namesake features, but also plunged into The Fiery Furnace, a maze-like area of tall sandstone fins and narrow dead-end canyons.  In order to preserve the fragile microorganisms in the living soil visitors are only allowed to tread on bare rock or in washes (drainage areas). Like the childhood game of “hot lava” where you can’t touch the floor, this meant jumping from rock to rock, clambering around boulders and through small caves.

We also visited Bryce Canyon, a surreal landscape filled with crumbling hoodoos, and Canyonlands, where we scrambled over slick rock domes and gazed down into the deep Green River and Colorado River canyons.  Overall, we hiked nearly 65 miles through this gorgeous land, and have lists of many more canyons we’d like to investigate. We decided we have to return with a four-wheel drive vehicle so we can access some of the more isolated slots.  Our guidebook certainly had it right – we gasped many, many times.

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