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Slot canyons, rock formations highlight visit to Grand Staircase Escalante

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, located in south central Utah, was established in 1996 and currently encompasses about 1 million acres. It boasts some of the Southwest’s most impressive scenery, accessible not only by traveling its scenic byways and backways but also by setting out on foot. Besides its waterways, arches and other fabulous rock formations it is also home to spectacular canyons, including hundreds of slot canyons.

Many of the park’s slot canyons are difficult to reach, some even taking a full day or longer, but a few of them are easier to get to and can be just as rewarding. One favorite hike is to two slot canyons, Spooky and Peek-A-Boo, along one excursion. Visiting both can easily be completed in half a day. This hike is an especially great one of you have adventurous children with you, as long as they can handle the 3.5 mile round-trip distance, 285 foot elevation gain and some rock scrambling.

Mid-September and October tend to be best for a visit, as autumn weather is usually quite stable in this region, with clear sunny days. In September expect daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s, and in October, the 60s and 70s. The trailhead is at 4,950 feet, which means you can probably expect temperatures about 10-15 degrees cooler than in Las Vegas.

From the trailhead the hike starts off on slickrock, where you will be using cairns as your guide. After about one mile down you’ll arrive in the sandy Dry Fork Wash. Cross over to the other side and you will see the opening to Peek-A-Boo Canyon. It’s about a 12-foot climb and scramble into the mouth of the canyon but there is often a upright log or fellow hiker to help you up, or you can use the man-made sandstone indentations, which some call Moki steps, to gain entrance.

This is a corkscrew canyon carved by water, which means fun, and colorful to boot, full of red, orange and pink sandstone. It’s a great one to explore; in some areas you will be on your knees and you will find lots of interesting arches and formations along the way. You can make your way up about two-thirds of a mile to where you will once again see open sky. The easiest way to return is the way you came.

Once you return to Dry Fork Wash, you will next walk downstream about one-half mile to reach Spooky Canyon. To find it keep an eye out on your left for the cairns that are directly before a large red sandstone outcropping. You will hike behind the formation for about five minutes to find Spooky.

I’ve seen snakes hanging around the opening of the slot so watch your step. A headlamp comes in handy to avoid any surprises.

Anyone who is claustrophobic will indeed think this one is spooky and should wait outside as this is a really narrow passage. Walk in and travel as far as you feel comfortable, maybe even going farther than you think you can by walking sideways, to see a bit more.

Except for the paved main roads, all roads in this area are gravel, clay and sand and, if it has been dry weather, a high clearance passenger vehicle with very good off-road tires should get you there. If rain threatens or there has been recent rain, stay out as even a four-wheel-drive vehicle can get stuck.

While fall is an ideal time to travel here, be aware flash flooding can still happen any day of the year. Too many people have lost their lives heading into slot canyons on a wish and a prayer. Always stop in at the visitor center before setting out and ask about weather.

Overnight permits for car camping and backpacking are easily obtained at some trailheads and campgrounds or at the visitor center.

Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante, Utah, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week through mid-November, then Monday through Friday through mid-March. For additional information, call 435-826-5499.

Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.

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