A hiker’s sampler of the Southwest’s slot canyons
PAGE, Ariz. — We were sure we were alive. Still, there were a few moments in Upper Antelope Canyon in Arizona when a double light beam so ethereal illuminated this otherworldly slot canyon that we thought we might have died and gone to heaven.
The Southwest has so many slot canyons — the number is said to be more than 1,000 — that you could get a crick in your neck exploring this bounty. (You’ll spend a lot of time looking up at the sliver of light that plays off the narrow walls.)
The slots are as varied as their locations. Some, like Upper Antelope Canyon, are widely known, but others are known largely by word of mouth. Some are easy hikes, but others require ropes to explore them.
We decided to stick to the hiking variety. Our slot-canyon sampler doesn’t require more than moderate fitness, although Lower Antelope Canyon does require you to climb some ladders, as does Rattlesnake Canyon. But these are short climbs.
To envision a slot canyon, think first of what it is not: the gaping maw of, say, the Grand Canyon.
Instead, visualize something narrow, a crevice really, that results from rushing water capitalizing on a fissure in sandstone or another rock form. Over millions of years, the liquid carves a canyon, wider at the top than at the bottom.
They are found most often in places that are dry, which means you can find plenty scattered throughout Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California.
We had sought out slots on several trips in the last three years and had chosen some of our favorites. You can learn more about these at the website Slot Canyons of the American Southwest. .
A couple of notes of caution: The canyons aren’t going to be your favorite adventure if you’re claustrophobic. They’re often narrow, requiring you to squeeze through tiny openings. And you won’t emerge exactly daisy fresh. They’re dusty and rocky and require some work to access.
The biggest danger is rainstorms that create flash floods. In 1997 a wall of water roared into Antelope Canyon, sweeping 11 visitors to their deaths. It is crucial to check the weather, not just for the immediate area but well beyond it to be sure thunderstorms are not in the forecast.
Antelope Canyon, Ariz.
Antelope Canyon, east of Page, Ariz., and about 270 miles northeast of Las Vegas, is popular all year, but spring and summer are peak times for visitors because of the remarkable shafts of light that laser down to the canyon floor.
Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are on Navajo land, about a 90-minute drive from the Utah border. A Navajo guide is required to enter them. You can learn more about guides and tours through the Navajo Nation website.
Guide prices range from $40 to $120 a person, depending on the time of day and length of the tour. Reservations are important.
We were guided by Lionel Bigthumb through Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours, No matter who guides you, though, visitors usually are limited to two hours in these canyons. It’s never enough.
“Every turn of the head was another over-the-top moment,” said Theresa Malone Clode, whom my partner, Gloria Cortes, and I met while touring Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon.
Sometimes the guides enhance the light by tossing dust from the canyon floor into the beam.
If you’re really lucky, you’ll see a double beam as we did in April of last year. It was an almost religious experience.
Rattlesnake Canyon, Ariz.
This small but stunning slot canyon is also on Navajo land just southeast of Page. Again, native guides are a must; you wouldn’t want to do without them.
Here we used the same company as we did for Antelope Canyon. You need not be a photographer; the company will guide hikers and sightseers too.
Water and wind have shaped Rattlesnake’s walls into dizzying swirls of color — purple, orange, red and hues that don’t even have a name. In places, it looks as though a large can of mixed paint has been hurled into the canyon by some mystical hand.
By the way, we did not see any rattlesnakes there, but we had been assured they were around.
Little Wild Horse/Bell Canyon, Utah
We are fond of these two, which are about eight miles from Goblin Valley State Park, 20 miles north of the town of Hanksville on Highway 24 and about 630 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The smart thing to do is to stop in at the Goblin Valley Park headquarters and check on weather and road conditions. No guides or permits are required.
The most popular hike is in what is known as the San Rafael Swell, a giant dome of rock created millions of years ago. Its rugged rock formations, old cabins and history make it an increasingly popular draw.
Like the Antelope Canyons, the multicolored Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons can take about a half-day to complete if you do both.
Here, as with all slot canyons, be sure to carry water and check the weather.
If you’re staying at Goblin Valley State Park, the good news, besides excellent campsites that have some yurts, is that there are hot showers.
White Domes Trail, Nev.
Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, about 52 miles north of Las Vegas, offers a brief hike on the White Domes trail that will take you to a lovely, short slot canyon that seems to have avoided getting an official name. (It shows up on park maps as the White Dome Trail and slot canyon.)
Guides are not required. Frankly, if you’re coming from Vegas and ready to leave the crowds behind, this might be a relief. Permits aren’t required either.
The trail is a quarter-mile-long and sits not far from the abandoned film location of the 1966 movie “The Professionals,” which starred Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. You will need hiking shoes rather than athletic shoes for this one because the terrain is uneven and a bit sandy.
The canyon shows a variety of colors as the sun moves, which means its splashes of orange, red, blue and purple create a rockscape that is unique to the moment.
Going in summer is not advised; temperatures can soar to 120 degrees. Winter and spring are the best times.
Mosaic Canyon, Calif.
California’s best-known slot canyon is in Death Valley National Park.
It’s just beyond the town of Stovepipe Wells, so you’ll have to pay the park entrance fee of $20 (good for seven days).
There is a good-size parking area for the canyon, after which you walk about a quarter of a mile on an easy trail to the entrance.
Mosaic Canyon gets its name from the rocks known as mosaic breccia (Italian for “fragments”). You’ll find fragments scattered around the floor of the narrow section of the canyon. (And no, you may not take samples.)
But it’s what’s called the Noonday Dolomite — a limestone that became a kind of marble, formed when the area was beneath what now is the Pacific Ocean — that will grab and hold your attention.
If you visit during the late afternoon or early evening, the setting sun often turns the 750-million-year-old walls into shades of gold that left us entranced.
You’ll cross into some flatter terrain in the upper part of the canyon and, when you reach a centuries-old rock fall, it is time to turn around and stroll back.
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