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Utah’s slot canyons offer countless wonders

You could spend years exploring the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, yet barely shorten the list of wonders still to see there. This remote park lies to the west of Bryce Canyon, north of the Arizona strip and south of Capital Reef National Park, extending eastward to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

The park is best known for its backpacking opportunities, in the canyons around the Escalante River, but there are also great trails for day hikers. A good place to start a first visit is Hole-in-the-Rock Road, just outside the town of Escalante.

There are numerous trail heads along the 55-mile-long gravel road, but two stand out as truly enchanting half-day adventures: the slot canyons known as Peek-a-boo and Spooky gulches. Besides the physical fun of rock scrambling, both provide good photo opportunities.

The trail to the slots involves a 1-mile-plus hike down a moderately steep slick-rock slope, all marked by cairns. The route then drops you down into the sandy Dry Fork Wash. Peek-a-boo Gulch, on the other side of the wash from where you entered, is the first one you come to and involves a lot of rock scrambling.

Peek-a-boo is a really fun hike as you wind your way upward through a tight, corkscrew canyon, some parts of it requiring you to duck through and even, at times, to wade in water. The canyon cuts its way through orange, red and pink sandstone, and the formations it created, including a rare double arch, are enchanting. Plan on three or four hours minimum to hike and enjoy your experience.

Spooky’s entrance lies about one-quarter mile farther down the wash. You can find it by looking for the worn hiking trail on your left before a rock outcropping. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes; I have seen them several times around this section. This slot gets so narrow after just a few minutes that even thin people need to walk sideways. This is definitely not a good place for claustrophobes. Given the possibility of meeting a venomous serpent in such tight quarters, I think you will figure out why they call it Spooky Gulch.

To visit these choice slot canyons or to find the park’s other great hiking trails, you will have to travel gravel roads in remote areas, so preparation is the key to your safety and success. High-clearance vehicles with real off-road tires, including a full-size spare and the tools to change it, are the best choice. A prudent traveler will have a few extra days’ worth of water and food. Tell some people where you are going and when you expect to return.

Remember that slot canyons were carved by water, and the carving is still going on. You do not want to be there during a cloudburst. So a good place to start any visit is at one of the park’s visitor centers, picking up a map and asking for up-to-date information on road and weather conditions. The most relevant visitor center for this trip is Escalante Interagency Visitor Information Center, 755 W. Main St., Escalante. It is open from 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily this time of year, with shorter winter hours.

From home and in advance, you can call 435-826-5499, or visit the websites for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, www.ut.blm.gov/monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, www.nps.gov/glca.

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