Curious about canyoneering? The sport is gaining popularity as more pictures of people squeezing through orange narrows or wading through blue waters floods social media feeds. There are tons of canyons out there, but for those looking for stunning slots in the south-eastern parts of Utah, look no further. Here are the best beginner slot canyons in that area.
Best Introductory Slot Canyon: Peek-a-Boo and Spooky
Distance: 3.5 miles
Season: Anytime, though summers will be hot.
Located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Peek-a-Boo and Spooky slot canyons are a lot of people’s first experience with canyoneering. Best done together, these two are some of the best beginner slot canyons in the area. The canyons involve some excellent scrambling and downclimbing. Hikers have the option to stem across a section or two as well. Parts of the canyon can be a little narrow, so those who get extremely claustrophobic may not appreciate these canyons. The beautiful slots are enjoyable and are a must visit in the area.
The best way to do them is to start with Peek-a-Boo. The beginning of the canyon starts with a short 15ish foot easy upclimb, which can be a little nerve racking for some. If some are nervous about it, one person can go up first and drop a short handline for everyone else. Once in the canyon you follow it all the way down until you exit. There aren’t any major obstacles in Peek-a-Boo.
Once out of the canyon, you then go right in the wash, following the cairns down trail for a few minutes until you reach Spooky. Spooky is narrower and darker than Peek-a-Boo. And, in my opinion, more interesting and fun. There are a few more opportunities for downclimbs here, which can be a intimidating. The hardest part will be in the middle of Spooky, which requires a eight foot or so downclimb into a dark hole. It isn’t as hard as it looks. If some in the group are nervous, send one person down first. They can tell people where to place their feet or give them a spot from below.
Due to their popularity, you may encounter a line at the beginning of Peek-a-Boo and a line in the middle of Spooky, especially if you are behind a larger or slower group. Start earlier in the day to avoid the heat and the crowds. If you are wanting more, Brimstone canyon can be added on for a full day. This canyon does get pretty tight depending on the fork you pick, so be warned.
Best Beginner Slot Canyon for Backpackers: Buckskin Gulch
Distance: About 20 miles, one way
Season: Mid Spring/ Mid Fall. It gets hot in summer so be sure to do early starts if attempting in the summer. Winter gets very cold with lots of water.
Permit: Yes. Obtain one through the BLM.
Possibly one of the longest slot canyons in the world, Buckskin Gulch is perfect for those wanting to go on a backpacking trip of a lifetime. It has one tricky downclimb, but for the most part is a long trip through slots with incredible scenery. It has a few different forks with the most popular one being the one listed here. Experienced backpackers will be thrilled to spend a night in the slot canyon. You need a permit to spend a night in the canyon through the BLM.
You’ll see an abundance of desert wildlife, and possibly a rattlesnake or two, while getting to experience the beauty of slot canyons in the desert. There are no truly narrow slots like some others on this list and you’ll be able to pass through with your backpacking pack without issue. You have the chance to see Petrogylphs on your journey, so keep an eye out, but don’t touch when you find them.
While flash floods are a real danger in every canyon on this list, this one in particular is very dangerous as there is only route for escape in the whole canyon. So know the weather before coming here. Strong day hikers can do this in one push, but know that you are in for a long day. While not a great trip an unexperienced backpacker, this is a great beginner slot canyon for those wanting to combine the two.
Best Beginner Slot Canyon for the Family: Little Wild Horse and Bell Slot Canyon
Distance: 8 miles round trip
Season: Fall and spring. Summer and winter are both doable, but summers get extremely hot and winters can be very cold and wet.
Little Wild Horse is a great beginner slot canyon, especially for those looking for an outing with children. There is a little scrambling at the beginning of the canyon loop, but it can be bypassed with a trail a little before on the left. It is a great place for first timers and families looking to experience the beautiful slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau. With that being said, it is probably one of the most popular hikes in the area, so be prepared to be hiking it with other people, even on a week day.
Little Wild Horse is typically done first. This canyon will give you an idea of the slot canyons you may encounter in the area with narrow and deep sections, though all passable. After it exits it then loops back up to Bell canyon.
Bell canyon is wider than Little Wild Horse and stays pretty open for a lot of the canyon. You can also do just one of the canyons and go back the way you came, though most complete this as a loop.
Best Beginner Slot Canyon for National Park Lovers: Fiery Furnace
Distance: 2 miles
Season: Any, though summer can get pretty toasty. Go early in the summer months.
Permit: Yes. Must apply in person at the visitor’s center.
The Fiery Furnace is not technically a slot canyon, rather it’s a geological feature that created a sandstone labyrinth located in Arches National Park. You can still get experience scrambling over sandstone, much like in a slot canyon though. You’ll experience drop offs and unique features throughout the entire hike. If you want, you can get some experience stemming here as well.
The National Park Rangers guide multiple trips daily. If you want to go by yourself, you can also pick up a permit from the Visitor’s Center. These do sell out rather quickly, so go early and keep your plans open. Make sure you have ways of navigating through the furnace as it is easy to get turned around in the large sandstone maze. There are small arrows on the walls to help guide your way, but they can be somewhat hard to spot at times.
This labyrinth can be a few hour romp, or can take the better part of a day, depending how much exploration you are wanting to do. It goes through a green oasis of vegetation while scrambling over and under rocks and arches. You’ll get great views of the canyon walls and the surrounding park.
Best Beginner Slot Canyon for Rappel Lovers: Goblin's Lair
Distance: 3.5ish miles
Season: Any, though like all on this list, summer will be hot.
Permit: Yes. Must be obtained in person at the office when first entering the park.
You’ll have to grab your experienced partner for this one. This is a great beginner slot canyon for those looking for a cool rappel. There isn’t a ton of scrambling to get to the entrance, but it does require a bit of tricky route finding. We got extremely lost on this one and wandered around the area for a while before finding the correct drop in. I’ve heard the same from quite a few people.
The features in the Goblin Valley State Park are like nothing I’ve encountered before though and you’ll probably spend a lot of time looking at the neat features you are walking next to.
The rappel is definitely the highlight of the trip though. With competent leadership, it can easily be done by beginners. You will most likely have some onlookers at the bottom of the cavern, which can be fun for first timers. It does get crowded though, so go early to avoid the wait line at the top of the rappel.
Best Beginner Slot Canyon for Narrows: Leprechaun (From the Bottom)
Distance: 1-2 miles
Season: Anytime, though summers will be hot and winters can get cold.
The Leprechaun slot canyon is actually made up of three forks: the right, middle, and left. If descending down the canyons, they are technical and require someone who knows how set up rappels and anchors in the group, along with the proper gear. However, you can hike from the bottom up into the middle fork.
The bottom hike is a perfect beginner slot canyon for those wanting to experience some narrows. Leprechaun is known for being very narrow in some places and you can hike pretty far back into them before hitting the rappel. You’ll get to experience some amazing slots while scrambling under and over rocks and shimmying through narrows.
Go back as far as you want, or are able to, then turn back and go the way you came. There are points where it gets to be as wide as the distance between your pinky and thumb spread out, so the claustrophobic may decide to turn back before this spot. you’ll also experience features that turn up in some of the more technical slot canyons.
Best Slot Canyon for Hikers: Ding and Dang
Distance: 8 miles
Season: Any, summer will be hot. Winter can be cold.
Ding and Dang provide some fun obstacles in the canyon. This is a good canyon to experience some slots but may be a better one for those who are a little experienced. There are a couple downclimbs that may be trickier to anyone not used to slot canyons. When I was there last, someone had set handlines up at these places, but know that it can change and they may not be there the next time.
Bring a handline and read the description. There is one place that is bolted but does have an easier descent on the other side of the canyon if you look for it. The canyons are scenic and are usually done in a loop, hiking up Ding and hiking down Dang. Ding is easier than Dang so if you decided Dang packs a little too much punch, head back through Ding. It is definitely worth checking out though and is doable when taken slow. This is a great beginner slot canyon for experienced hikers.
Read about my trip through the Ding and Dang slot canyons to get more of an idea of what they are like.
Best Beginner Slot Canyon for Views: Zebra
Distance: 5 miles
Season: Any season, though summers can be hot.
Known for its stunning, striped walls, the Zebra slot canyon is a great hike for those wanting to start canyoneering. It is a canyon for those of all ages, though its mileage is slightly longer than others on this list. Located in Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument, this makes a great trip before hitting Peek-a-Boo and Spooky slot canyons.
This canyon gets narrow, so those who don’t like tight spaces may not make it through. Tunnel slot canyon can be accessed from Harris Wash and worth the hike to see if in the area.
Those who like photos will enjoy doing Zebra in the afternoon when the light is hitting the walls just right. If you go in the spring, Zebra can hold a bit more water than some of the others on this list, so know that you may be doing some wading.
Best Technical Beginner Slot Canyon: Blarney
Distance: 2ish miles
Season: Any. Summers will be toasty, and winters will be chilly.
Blarney is a great beginner slot canyon, but you’ll need to go with a leader who knows how to set up the rappels. The rappels and anchors are straight forward though, making it a great canyon to take along a group of first timers with an experienced leader.
It has some fun rappels with some really pretty slots, making it a great canyon for those who are wanting the full slot canyoneering experience. You’ll get to experience some elevators, stemming, and some narrow, deep slots with some breathtaking views. Blarney’s left fork is popular so you may run into other groups in the canyon. If going on a weekend, get an early start.
It is also a great canyon to get comfortable on before stepping up into the bigger, more technical canyons. The practice you’ll get will introduce you to skills that you’ll need later on if you want to continue canyoneering and start moving on to bigger canyons.
Know Before You Go
Adventuring in the desert is a little different than adventuring in the mountains, so here are some things to take note of before going into any slot canyons.
Flash Floods: This is no joke. Flash floods can come out of nowhere and will usually kill at least one or two people a year. All of these canyons have flash flooding danger to some degree. Check the weather before you go, if there is a chance of rain, know what escape routes a canyon provides as well as the time the rain is scheduled. And know that the forecast isn’t always accurate, rain may come sooner than expected. For long canyons with no escape routes, it is best to save that canyon for another time if there is a chance of rain.
Something a lot of people do not realize is that rain even 100 miles away can cause a flash flood in the canyon you are in, depending on the drainage system. Look at the maps of the drainage systems and topography maps of the canyon and surrounding area. If it has a large system that is further away, check the weather for day of your trip and a couple days before in that area.
Cryptobiotic Soil: “Don’t Bust the Crust!” Like the high alpine, the desert is a fragile landscape. Crypto is a living organism that actually helps to prevent erosion in the desert. It is a vital part of the desert ecosystem and can be destroyed by being walked on. Once damaged, it can decades, or longer, to recover. Crypto can usually be distinguished by its darker, crusty appearance on top of the soil. Follow well worn trails to help protect the environment. If you find yourself in a place without an obvious trail, try to walk on rocks and hard surfaces. If you find yourself surrounded, backtrack.
Pooping in the Slot Canyons: Where in many situations in the backcountry, you can dig a cathole, the desert is a different story. Since the environment is fragile, human waste can take years to break down. Bring a wagbag with you (a poop bag). These can be found at most outdoor stores and will keep your waste in a contained environment before you can dispose of it properly. They contain particles to break down smells and come with two puncture resistant bags to avoid any messes.
Upclimbing and Downclimbing: One of the biggest rules in scrambling and canyoneering, do not climb anything you cannot downclimb if you know you have to go back that way.
Water: A lot people see rescue in canyons due to heat exhaustion and lack of preparedness with water. Bring enough for your adventures. There can be very little water in the desert.
So which on these beginner slot canyons have you done? What have been some of your favorite canyoneering experiences? Let me know in the comments below!