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13 Southwestern Slot Canyons That Will Take Your Breath Away

These labyrinthine sandstone slot canyons are found nowhere else in the country.

Slot canyons, narrow passages between soaring sandstone walls, are rare natural beauties. Only a tiny handful of places in the world have the right combination of desert, geology and flash-flooding to carve the earth so precisely. In the U.S., these labyrinthine mazes of light and shadow are concentrated in the high-elevation desert along the border between Utah and Arizona. Each slot is a little different—some are tame and the distance between the walls never narrows more than a few feet, others are treacherous, filled with giant boulders to scramble, ice-cold pools to swim through and palisades so narrow that the average hiker can’t fit through without turning to the side and sucking in the gut. These 14 Southwestern canyons will, quite literally, take your breath away.

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PHOTO: kojihirano/Shutterstock
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Buckskin Gulch

WHERE: Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Utah

The sandstone walls of Buckskin Gulch stretch for roughly 13 miles, one of the longest slot canyons in the world. The canyon’s rocky palisades erupt from the earth around a three-and-a-half-mile hike from the trailhead. While the wash begins with a clear, open path, beyond the ancient petroglyphs carved in the rock a mile into the gulch, Buckskin becomes choked with giant boulders that require serious scrambling to conquer. After heavy rains, pools of water up to waist-deep can linger for months—the only way through is to swim. Be sure to check the weather before you go; this endless sandstone chute becomes a swift, raging river in flash floods.

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PHOTO: Johnny Adolphson/Shutterstock
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Peek-A-Boo Gulch

WHERE: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Peek-a-Boo Gulch, so named for the twists and turns that reveal now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t glimpses of the sky, is less than a mile from start to finish. But don’t mistake its length for ease of navigation; this slot is flush with chutes and rocky obstacles that require some moderate athletic scurrying. The entrance to the soft pinky-orange sandstone “through-canyon” begins close to the turn-off for Dry Fork Road.

INSIDER TIPTwo slot canyons named “Peek a Boo” are located in southern Utah. This gulch is found in Grand Staircase, the other (sometimes called Red Canyon) is located just outside of the town of Kanab.

 

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PHOTO: Bureau of Land Management
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The White Canyon

WHERE: Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

The White Canyon undulates over 30 miles from Bears Ears National Monument to within just a few miles of Lake Powell. Around half of the gorge is enclosed within narrow sandstone walls and has two major sections: Lower White Canyon in the Cedar Mesa section of the park, and the insidious Black Hole in an area above Lake Powell called Hite. Depending on your perspective on deep, dark crevices filled with freezing cold water, the Black Hole is either the most incredible portion of this gulch, or the most terrifying. A 90-degree turn during the slot’s longest swim is so narrow that a frame pack won’t fit through the opening. The lower section, though it also requires some wading (and occasional short swims depending on the season and conditions), is a somewhat less daring three-to-four hour round-trip out-and-back, turning around at a bridge on the crossing highway.

INSIDER TIPThe water in the White Canyon is cold. Like, hypothermia cold. Wetsuits are recommended for swimming through the Black Hole section of the slot.

 

 

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PHOTO: Alberto Loyo/Shutterstock
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Kanarra Creek

WHERE: Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park, Utah

Like Zion’s other famous slot canyon, The Narrows, much of the Kanarra Creek Canyon is flooded with water ankle-deep or higher. Don’t let that put you off this trail, though. The beauty of its crimson colors reflected in shimmering year-round pools are second only to its two rushing waterfalls. Both cascades must be crossed to hike the full trail—one via a tree ladder, the other with a rope with rungs for stability—but just half a mile beyond the second, you’ll be rewarded with a chance to take a dip in a lovely swimming hole with a moss-covered rock slide.

INSIDER TIPTo visit Kanarra Creek, you must purchase a permit (online or from a kiosk at the trailhead) for $8. Only 150 hikers are allowed in each day so if you plan to traverse the canyon on a weekend or holiday, reserve your space in advance.

 

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PHOTO: Ryan/Antelope Canyon Tours by Carolene Ekis
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Antelope Canyon

WHERE: Navajo Reservation, Page, Arizona

Antelope isn’t like the other slot canyons on this list for two major reasons. First off, it’s not exactly a hike to pass through its narrows; it’s barely a walk. Under the management of the Navajo Nation, the extremely short Antelope Canyon (split into the 90-meter-long Upper canyon and 550-meter-long Lower canyon) is a major attraction and can only be visited in a tour group. When you arrive at the canyon entrance by 4×4 lorry, it’ll just be you and 200 other people. But, once you’re inside, it’s impossible to miss the second reason this canyon is different: it’s one of the most spectacularly beautiful slots in the world. In some places Antelope is essentially a cave where the sun shining through tiny natural windows sets the rock alight in shades of red, orange, purple, and blue. Though it can be frustrating to shuffle through this gulch at a snail’s pace, it deserves a spot high on everyone’s bucket list.

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PHOTO: sumikophoto/Shutterstock
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Zebra Slot Canyon

WHERE: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Named for walls striped in pinks and reds, the Zebra Slot Canyon, though only about 100 meters long, is nonetheless impressive. The hike to the gulch is an easy couple of miles through a desert wash but once you’ve entered the canyon, the challenge increases tenfold. This slot is narrow in places, really narrow, as in “turn to your side, hold your breath and hope you fit,” narrow. The opening to the canyon is notoriously hard to find and to get in you’ll have to wade through a pool of water. Bring your shoes with you but leave your backpack at the entrance; in some places, the walls are only a claustrophobic 10 inches apart.

INSIDER TIPThe Tunnel Slot, an easy family-friendly slot canyon, is located about a 20-minute hike from Zebra and both can easily be seen in a single day.

 

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PHOTO: Matt Hage
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Zion Narrows

WHERE: Zion National Park, Utah

One of the most famous slot canyons in the U.S., The Narrows is the tightest section of Zion Canyon where sandstone walls rise up to a thousand feet above the Virgin River flowing through the gorge. The trail here literally is the river, meaning not only wet feet, but extreme danger during flash floods. This trail can get crowded, particularly the 10-mile-long bottom-up section from the Temple of Sinawava to Big Spring, where no permit is required. The 16-mile hike down the river starting at Chamberlain’s Ranch does require a permit, and the hike can be tackled over a two-day period with an overnight stay at one of 12 campsites in the gorge.

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PHOTO: Beth Schroeder/Shutterstock
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Arizona Hot Springs

WHERE: Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona

Water is a common sight in slot canyons. More often than not, it’s freezing cold—but not at the Arizona Hot Springs slot canyon. This water is hot—almost unbearably so—in the top-most pool where the spring emerges from the rock. There are gulches on this trail, one of which is a sandy wash wide enough to drive a truck through. The more impressive section leads to the three natural hot pools and includes a 20-foot drop (or climb, depending on the direction you started) via a rickety wooden ladder. Just beyond the hot springs, the canyon walls peter out, opening onto a gorgeous section of the Colorado River.

INSIDER TIPThis hike is rated “strenuous” in part because of the extreme temperatures of the Northern Arizona borderlands. If you attempt this hike between May and October, be prepared for brutal heat and limited shade.

Editor’s Note: Arizona Hot Springs is accessible year-round from the water, but the trail leading to the hot springs (White Rock Trail) is closed seasonally. 

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PHOTO: andrmoel/Shutterstock
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Little Wild Horse Canyon

WHERE: Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

Goblin Valley’s Little Wild Horse Canyon is a good starter slot: relatively flat and dry with no scrambling needed, with the exception of one six-foot rise at the end of the narrows (which only needs to be climbed if you want to continue hiking past Little Wild Horse). Here, the swelling and heaving sandstone is a dark grey color instead of the more common pinks and reds found elsewhere. In a long stretch of the gulch, the passage is so narrow that turning sideways is the only way to pass.

INSIDER TIPFor a longer, more strenuous hike continue through Little Wild Horse to a second slot, Bell Canyon. Descending through this section and back to the trailhead forms an eight-mile loop.

 

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PHOTO: Ken Church
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Red Canyon (Peek-A-Boo Canyon)

WHERE: Kane County, Utah

Though the trail is hike-able, most people reach Red Canyon, locally known Peek-a-boo Canyon, in a 4×4 powerful enough to plow through pillowy sand dunes. Three miles from the highway, the gulch rises out of the desert, tucked along the side of a rocky plateau. The slot, itself, is an easy half-mile walk—no scrambling or wading required. About two-thirds of the way through, a rock shelter 10 feet up the rock face once held caches of food for ancient peoples hunting here between 650-1,000 years ago. At eye-level, the vertical foot- and hand-holds of a “Moqui ladder” are still visible in the sandstone wall.

INSIDER TIPJust beyond the entrance to the slot, 100 feet down the canyon’s outer wall, a single, impressive hoodoo (spire-like rock formation) towers above the canyon.

 

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PHOTO: matt_train/Shutterstock
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Spooky Gulch

WHERE: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The entrance to Spooky Gulch is wide and shadowy, a deceptive start to a slot. Within 100 feet, though, the walls tighten to form undulating pillars that expand and recede over a rocky trail. For several hundred feet, the canyon forms an otherworldly cocoon of red sandstone—not the longest slot in town, but fascinating nonetheless.

INSIDER TIPCombine a hike to Spooky Gulch with that to Peek-a-Boo Gulch for a 3.5-mile loop.

 

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PHOTO: evenfh/Shutterstock
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Misery Canyon (Fat Man’s Misery)

WHERE: Zion National Park, Utah

They don’t call this gulch on the edge of Zion National Park Fat Man’s Misery for nothing; this slot is as narrow as they come, and a technical challenge to boot. It’s a serious canyon, riddled with near-impossibly narrow passages, arches, and frigid pools of water. Ropes are required to rappel some sections (the longest of which measures 40 feet in length) and swimming is unavoidable. The 10-hour plus trip is brutal and dangerous in certain conditions but if you seek adventure, Misery Canyon is you’ll find it.

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PHOTO: m-kojot/iStock
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Lick Wash

WHERE: Kane County, Utah

The Navajo sandstone of Lick Wash isn’t of the pink and red variety which makes up most of the slots in southern Utah and northern Arizona. The cliffs here are made of compressed layers of grey-brown stone as much as 250 feet deep in some places. In fact, technically, because the walls of this canyon never come closer to one another than 15 feet, Lick Wash is not a slot canyon. Still, though, this ultra-narrow canyon almost a mile in length is worth a visit and takes only about an hour to see from top to tail.

INSIDER TIPBeyond Lick Wash, the canyon widens and deepens for two miles to Park Wash, a section of the White Cliffs where the sandstone rises up to 800 feet in height.