Canyoneering (and Escaping) Neon Canyon

Canyoneering (and Escaping) Neon Canyon

I ended up in Neon Canyon by an enormous stroke of luck. One of my climbing partners, Olivia and I had been discussing doing a climbing trip in the upcoming weeks. When I mentioned that we should do a canyoneering trip, she happened to have been invited on one during her spring break already in Utah with a large group. Since only one of them had canyoneering experience, I was invited along for the adventure of a lifetime. It ended up being the ultimate adventure in more ways than one. 

I ended up being able to take more than enough time off for the trip so Olivia and I decided to add on some more adventures to the trip. After all, a ten-hour drive makes it so it can’t easily be done in a day or two. Before we went into Neon, we spent a couple days backpacking into Reflection Canyon and hiking the Peak-A-Boo and Spooky slot canyons. Read more about my Grand Staircase Escalante Adventure Itinerary for more ideas on what to plan for a week-long trip into the national monument. There was a lot to do here, but Neon Canyon ended up being the highlight, and the massive lowlight, of the trip.

 

Getting to the Neon Canyon Trail

Getting to Neon Canyon is no easy feat. We had to check with the park rangers at the visitor’s center before continuing on to get permits. Permits are free, but make sure to have one as it helps the rangers keep track of how many people are in the park. The road to get to Neon can get nasty when it rains. We arrived just after a big rainstorm and passed a few cars that were stuck in a few feet of mud. If rain is in the forecast, plan on doing something else. It can costs upwards of a$1,000 to get a tow truck out here. Not to mention the very high flash flood risk if you get caught in the canyon during a rainstorm. 

 

To get here, we turned onto the Hole in the Rock Road right outside of the town, Escalante. If you plan on going, make sure to fill up in town before heading out. You will need a high clearance vehicle, and 4WD is definitely preferred. Our group was large enough we needed to take two vehicles. We took my old 4WD Nissan Pathfinder and a Subaru Outback with AWD. My car handled the road a lot better than the other vehicle, but the Subaru did make it. There were nine of us total: Sienna, John, Nicole, Colin, Noelle, Caroline, Reilly, Olivia, and me. 

 

Once you turn onto Hole in Rock Road, you will need to drive about 16 miles until you reach the sign for the Egypt trailheads on the left. Turn onto here and follow the dirt roads down to the Fence Canyon Trailhead. You’ll see pull-offs for the Egypt slot canyons. You need to continue on until you eventually turn right, a little past 9 miles down the road. Arrive at a small turn around with room for maybe ten or so cars. 

 

We wanted an early start before backpacking down into the canyon, so we pulled off to camp a little up the road the night before. Neon can be done in a single day, but seeing as most of the group was new to canyoneering, it was made into a three-day backpacking trip. For full directions to the trailhead, All Trails provides decent GPS points here

The Approach

We packed everything up the night before, so we were ready to go right after sunrise. There is not much of a trail, so bring a couple copies of topography maps of the area, and get ready to do some route finding. We brought topo maps and a GPS rescue unit. After having done the canyon, it could be helpful to drop GPS points onto a phone with the GPX viewer app. 

There are quite a few cairns around here, but I would not rely on them. We started off following them, but quickly realized a lot of them led to nowhere. It was better to rely on the map and our skills as navigators. 

We followed the map for a while and crossed a lot of slickrock to get around. The trickiest part was getting down past this one section of the canyon. At first, it looked impassable, so we dropped packs and all scouted the canyon walls looking for a good place to drop in. Once we found it, we tossed our heavy backpacks down onto the rocks and carefully scrambled down. Our path back was completely different, so yours may not be the same as others. 

Backpackers crossing river in the desert

Our backpacks were heavier than normal with all the extra weight from our canyoneering gear, so the three miles to the basecamp took a while longer than the one to two hours it said it would take online. That mixed with route finding and some class three scrambling made for some slow going and it took us more like three hours to get to the river. 

There is camping along the river, but it did take us a bit to find a place that would fall into LNT guidelines. We crossed the river two or three times before finding a place that we thought would be good enough to camp in. Once we set up camp, we explored the area for a bit. We followed to topo maps to some other small slot canyons and explored a little.

The water was freezing, but it was colder this day and was supposed to be a little warmer the next. We made sure to set out the wetsuits for the next day along with the rest of our canyoneering gear. We had a quick meeting to go over how to properly use the gear for those who didn’t know how to use it and then went to sleep. 

The next morning, we got up with the sun and ate a quick breakfast before we headed out. We followed the maps up along the side of Neon before finding a good point that we wanted to rappel from. It took maybe an hour or so to get to this point. 

You can enter the canyon earlier to do the famous Golden Cathedral drop, but we decided to go for longer. 

Dropping into Neon Canyon

It wasn’t extremely warm, but we did get an early start that morning, and we expected it to warm up throughout the day once the sun hit. Everyone was okay with moving forward so Sienna, our group leader set up the rappel. Having been the only other person who had rappelled before, I went down first to provide a fireman’s belay at the bottom. Everyone else followed one by one until all nine of us were in the canyon. 

Then the rope was pulled. 

Canyoneering is one of the sports where a lot of the time, the only way out is through. Once you pull the rope, there is no going back the way you came. 

We packed up the rope and took off our harnesses, putting everything into our backpacks before continuing on. After we rounded the beautiful slots a couple times, the deep pools of water came.

We were prepared for the water, or so we thought. Our group entered the first part, the water coming up to waists and walked through the cold water for a while. It was a shock at first. The water was extremely cold, having just rained a few days prior and not seeing much sun at the bottom of a narrow canyon. The water got deeper as we went, coming up past our chests. We were still able to walk through, moving slowly through the water.

 Eventually, we came to a part where we could stand on the sand without being in the water. Spirits were still pretty high and we took a minute of jumping up and down to warm up before moving again. We decided Sienna would take up the front and I would take up the rear on any obstacles to help keep the group moving along at a decent speed. 

We continued on the short sandy bit to the first obstacle, a short drop off a rock into more water. Sienna decided to go first, John slowly lowering in her into the water with a handline. She touched the water, creating a splash. She couldn’t touch. None of us could. We all slowly followed one by one into the water, until I was last, downclimbing into the dark water. It was freezing. 

The water was so cold that it took your breath away at first when you hit it. The canyon walls were narrow, maybe four feet apart, and they twisted around so much, you couldn’t see anyone in front or behind you. Our only option was to swim, so we swam. We spent what felt like hours in the water, though it had to be only a couple minutes. The walls twisted and turned, none of us able to touch until we finally reach a small chockstone sticking out of the water, large enough to fit one person. Everyone took a turn standing on the rock until the person behind them reached it. Then back into the water to keep swimming. 

We reached another place where we could stand out of the water and walked on the sand, grateful for the break out of the freezing water. 

Two girls freezing in Neon Canyon

At this point, we had been in the canyon for an hour or so. It had not gotten warmer, rather the sky was starting to get cloudy. There had been no rain in the forecast anywhere in the surrounding areas, but that can always change. Sienna and I both knew that while it may not rain on top of us, the canyon was part of a large drainage system that could see large flash floods, even if it rained miles away. 

We kept encouraging everyone to move, and while everyone was cold, most stayed in high spirits. At least until we got to another drop into deep water. 

Sienna again went first, dropping off the hip belay that was provided with a large splash, and then she swam out of sight. Others slowly followed. 

One person in the group started to panic. A couple of us stayed behind encouraging her to go. The only way to escape this was to continue swimming. 

“We got this! We got this!” We chanted, dancing around wildly until she started to laugh. Her fiance went first and she followed him, both disappearing around the lip.  

Girl dropping hanging off rope into water.
Girl's splash after dropping into the water.

This swim was the longest in the narrowest slots we’d encountered so far. We were supposed to have come across a keeper pothole. (A large hole in the ground that usually requires some skill to escape.) We never found it though. The water was deep enough we swam over every obstacle. 

I was cold enough that my arms started to feel heavy, and breathing was getting hard. I could no longer feel my feet. The canyon was narrow enough I would grip onto the side of the canyon wall before propelling myself forward to the next wall. The way the walls were shaped, you couldn’t hear anyone in front of you. It felt like you were completely alone in the cold water. After I thought I couldn’t swim much further, I saw John standing in the water up to his knees. I was finally able to touch. 

Everyone else was gathered in the middle of the canyon a little further down, quiet, and grabbing dry jackets from the dry bags in their backpacks. 

We all stood there for a moment, everyone jumping up and down trying to warm up. I went to look further down the canyon. It had a rappel there, much shorter than it said it should be on the beta we read. The water gleamed up from the bottom. This section of Neon Canyon was narrower than it had been in the previous sections. And most likely deeper. 

Escaping Neon Canyon

Sienna came and joined me as we stared down into the dark abyss. We talked about it. People would be very likely to get hurt or worse if we continued down the canyon. We weren’t sure exactly how much we had left. Looking at the topo map, we were closer to finishing, but it would be all swimming as far as we could tell. 

Sienna had seen a section she thought we could maybe escape from a little bit back up the canyon. We walked around the corner. About fifteen feet up was some webbing on top of a ledge, below a large section of slick rock. Someone else used this point to escape from before too. Sienna asked me if I thought I could climb up there. 

There wasn’t much of a choice. I was the only one with shoes that had sticky rubber soles and climbing experience. We returned back to the group and told everyone we had a way out. The relief everyone felt was evident on their faces. We moved around the group gear around so I was carrying the longest handline and Sienna had the rope and webbing. Before we left, we took a picture to commemorate our type 2.5 fun in Neon Canyon. 

Group in Neon Canyon

The easiest line up started in knee-deep water, something we weren’t excited about entering. John, Reilly, and Colin were the tallest, and they stood below me, holding their hands up, spotting me in case I fell. My shoes were still soaked and not as sticky as they normally were. I reached out for a hold. And then another. I moved my left foot up. Then my right. Then another hand. And another. And then I moved my right foot up, the rubber slipping slightly against the slick rock. Pressing hard into that foot, I made a large move with my left hand. And caught the hold. 

 

I pulled myself up onto the shelf and dropped a handline for Sienna. She grabbed the rope and anchor building materials in her pack. She made it up, half walking up the rope, John half pushing her up. Once we were both on top of the ledge, we saw we could walk around to what looked like an easier place to climb out of on slick rock. While both of us felt completely fine scrambling out of it, we thought some of the others may not be comfortable. 

 

At the top, it looked like we could set an anchor up, so we made a plan to bring John up to the ledge where he could anchor in and then help everyone else up to that point from above. We set John up on a fast belay, pulling him up to the ledge. He anchored into the webbing. The others waited below as we walked around the ledge.

 

From there, we ascended the slick rock. The scrambling was easy enough if you knew how, but it was class 4 in sections with high consequences. It was over a hundred-foot fall if you took a misstep and neither of us was comfortable with sending everyone up unroped. We scouted for a place to set up an anchor, but there was nothing suitable to set an anchor. 

With nothing else left to do, we set a meat anchor. For those not sure what a meat anchor is, the anchor is set off of you. Sienna sat in front, and I wrapped my arms around her waist, both of us digging our feet into where we would be able to most likely catch a fall. The rope wrapped around my back so she could belay it. 

 

We heard John asking if we had found a good place to anchor. We replied that we had, but to send up people who would be the least likely to fall first. Sienna and I made the decision to have Olivia come up last, so she could make sure everyone was tied in correctly. We felt the rope weighted, and started to belay the person below. Soon Reilly came into view. He looked at us weird when he saw us on the rock, frowning as he asked how we anchored in. As realization crept onto his face, we told him to join us. He sat behind me, we looped the rope over and continued to send people up one by one. Eventually, everyone made it to the top. 

Meat Anchor coming out of Neon Canyon

Descent into Neon's Golden Cathedral

From here, we still had a good amount of class 3 scrambling left. We slowly made our way back to the mouth of the canyon, where it joined up with the rest of the river. We passed a drop-in point or two where people go to rappel into the canyon to just do the cathedral. The last rappel is what Neon Canyon is known for, and all of us felt put out that we didn’t get to make it. So we decided to do the hike up to the Golden Cathedral. 

This can be done as a separate day hike for those who are interested, and it is not technical, though requires some light scrambling. The cathedral is gorgeous, with three holes at the top over a large pool of water. I’ve heard that according to some Native American origin stories, this is the birthplace of humanity. The cathedral is where the first humans crawled out of the earth. I have not been able to verify it though, so if anyone knows the full story, let me know. 

The Golden Cathedral after Non Canyon

We went back to camp right after, done with exploring the canyons in the area for this trip. That night, we ate an early dinner and packed our backpacks, getting ready to leave early the next morning. We chose to go back a different way the next morning, though I am not sure if it was much easier than the first day. It took us a couple hours to get back to our cars. 

We snapped a celebratory “we didn’t die” picture and headed out that morning on the ten hour drive back to Denver. 

Know Before You Go

After reading a lot more about Neon Canyon, we went when the water levels were much higher than normal. Usually the canyon has a decent amount of water, but this was unusual. This was a great lesson in teamwork, and learning what gear we needed to upgrade in the canyon. 

Besides learning from our mistakes and bringing thicker and full wetsuits, here are some things you should know: 

Water: I would recommend backpacking in water as well. While it can be very heavy to bring this much water in, it may be easier in the long run. Sediment clogged every filter we brought. The UV filters took a long time and weren’t enough to filter water out for nine people. We ended up using extra fuel to boil water and then had to filter the sediments out with bandannas. This was fine as we had packed plenty fuel, but come prepared for this. 

Human Waste: Pack it out! As any trip into the desert, you are required to pack out your waste (your poop!). This goes especially when you are in a canyon. Bring a couple bags made specifically to carry out human waste. 

Biological Soil Crust: We also noticed quite a bit of Biological Soil throughout the descent into Fence Canyon, before the Neon split. Also known as Cryptobiotic soil, or just Crypto, this living organism helps to stabilize the soil and combats erosion in the desert. It takes thousands of years to form, so once damaged, it is gone. Learn more about Biological Soil Crusts before venturing into the desert. 

Even with the cold and near hypothermia, this canyon was a lot of fun. Keep an eye out for my post for when I get the chance finish this canyon! 

Leave a Reply