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The 10 Best Canyon Hikes

By Golden Webb

Its spring and the air is full of the saccharine watermelon scent of cactus rose in bloom. A cool early afternoon breeze buffets me as I follow cairns down a series of ledges until I am above the sheer walls of White Canyon. Cobalt oxide streaks delineate contours of almost perfect sheerness as the walls plunge down into the depths, down to sugar white sand, rippled mud, shimmering tanks and the liquid green of a lone cottonwood.

Due north is the cleft of Cheesebox Canyon, an artery of the mother canyon, its mouth shadowy and green. I seem to have lost the trail, see a pinyon pine snaking up the wall, use it to climb down, and drop onto softly yielding sand. The light in the canyon is indigo, the suns rays reflecting blue off varnished white walls, as if filtered through a polarizer. I take a few steps through sand and over mud, my body immersed in cool scented air, and the peace, stillness and mystery begin to work their drug-like magic.

Suddenly, from down-canyon, comes the howl of rushing wind. I whirl around . . .

A huge golden eagle explodes around a bend in the canyon, with two ravens close behind. The eagle’s wingspan is 7 or 8 feet, the canyon walls just wide enough to accommodate the great wings. The ravens circle the huge bird, one above, the other below. The one above dives for the eagle’s head and when the eagle wheels to clutch at it with its claws, the raven below attacks, forcing the eagle to whirl through the air in its direction, and they do this dipping, wheeling dance down the canyon, all in complete silence, like a dream or a hallucination, until they disappear around the next curve.

Whoa.

I wait for the electricity arcing down my spine to dissipate into the pooling sand at my feet and then I walk down over white sand and rippled mud toward the mouth of Cheesebox, the setting, and now the mood, perfect for another magical experience in the canyons.

Many people dream of bygone days when the earth was largely unexplored and the rounding horizon was still imbued with the mystery of the unknown. We read of Captain James Cook sailing into the sunset toward the undiscovered islands of the South Pacific or of Burton and Speke risking lion attacks and torture as they trudged through the wilds of Africa amongst hostile tribes, questing for the Mountains of the Moon and the source of the Nile, and we feel an intense nostalgia for a larger world in which such adventures were possible. And yet there are places, still, that remain untouched by the presence and the mind of man. Certain portions of the Sahara for example, the deepest jungles of the Congo and inaccessible, Lovecraftian Mountains-of-Madness type ranges in the arctic contain areas where no man has ever gone.

But it’s the canyons and gorges of the world that remain the last frontier. We know more about the surface of Mars and the floor of the 35,802 feet deep Mariana Trench than we do about the inner sanctums of some of the worlds canyons, even some of the canyons here on the Colorado Plateau.

In China the Yangtze River slices through the flank of Jade Dragon Peak and forms the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a stretch of white water and sinuous canyon that is as inaccessible as it is mysterious. The travertine blue pools and waterfalls of China’s mystical Huanlong Valley were only recently photographed by Westerners. The Barrancas of Mexico, including Copper Canyon and Barranca de Sinforosa, remain unexplored. The canyons, or wadis, of the Sinai Peninsula, sinuous slots that open onto the white sand beaches and coral lagoons of the Gulf of Aqaba, remain untouched, virtually unknown. And the water gorges that cut through the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in Australia have only recently begun to be explored.

Thus in some ways the depths of certain canyons are more mysterious than the dark side of the moon. Here, on the Colorado Plateau, are the worlds ultimate slots canyons — clefts in the earth so narrow, so dark, so deep, that in many we don’t know where they bottom out. Expert and pioneer canyoneers like Steve Allen of Colorado and Richard Fisher of Arizona have made first descents of many hitherto virgin, extreme canyons. But that often entailed stemming or chimneying over the darkest, coldest, narrowest, wettest, most gruesome cruxes of the route, simply because without scuba gear, spelunking equipment, and a rats ability to squeeze through a hole 1/8 the size of your body mass, it’s physically impossible to plumb the absolute depths of some of these canyons.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever dived deep into the depths of the Black Hole of White Canyon, to see what’s down there. Hundreds have swam through it, shivering, hypothermic, squeezing through the 90-degree corkscrew in the middle and then wading out laughing into the welcome sunshine where the canyon opens up. But what about the pools? What’s down there, deep below our kicking legs? How deep do those pools go? Do they even have a bottom?

What about the deepest, narrowest stretches of Echo Canyon in Zion, or Brimstone Gulch in the Escalante, or the darkest pit in Gravel Canyon of the White Canyon drainage, where in certain places the walls are so tight, the stone so smooth and slick, the water so crude-oil black and glacier-melt cold, that it would be suicide to try and find the Ultimate Bottom, the Maximum Depth, the true Inner Sanctum of the canyon.

Suicide, or exciting as hell! So here, for your exploring pleasure, in no particular order, is our extremely subjective list of 10 of the worlds best canyons. Some are relatively tame, thoroughly explored, well beloved. Others are killers, dangerous, impossible, just sitting out there waiting to entomb somebody alive between squeezing walls.

Enjoy!

Gravel Canyon

A side drainage of White Canyon, expert rock climbers only need apply. Chokestones, black pools, multiple rappels, stemming, chimneying, Anasazi ruins, near death experiences and sublime beauty await the adventurers who traverse this canyon.

Boulder Creek

My favorite place in the universe. Boulder Creek slips down off Boulder Mountain, carves a canyon of white walls and clear pools in its upper reaches, then dives deeper into the orange Kanyenta formation after its confluence with Deer Creek to form the funnest narrows wade-boulder hop-swim on earth. The water is so pure, so clear, the walls pumpkin orange, the green of cottonwoods and sage glowing in pure light— its like you’re swimming through a rainbow.

Salome Creek

Salome Creek is the showcase canyon for Arizona’s many spectacular slots and gorges, most notably the side canyons of the Salt River and the canyons that cut through the Mogollon Rim. Located amongst the mesquite and cactus slopes of the Tonto National Forest, Salome forms crystalline pools, waterfalls, chutes and runways, an oasis in the midst of a dry desert.

Buckskin Gulch

 Probably the longest deep slot canyon in the world. Quicksand, mud, standing pools that sometimes require swimming, and endless miles of scalloped, rippled walls awash in pink, lavendar, and orange light.

Dark Canyon

 Just over the ridge from Natural Bridges National Monument, this majestic, epic canyon deserves a monument status all its own. Starting high on the flanks of the Abajo Mountains along Elk Ridge, a stream trickles down through aspen and ponderosa pine forests toward the Colorado. Many miles later it is a yawning gorge, with waterfalls, runways, and the deepest, clearest, most beautiful and inviting pools on earth.

West Canyon

Draining Cummings Mesa, West Canyon is like Buckskin Gulch only with waterfalls, pools, and a clear running stream. Best accessed from Lake Powell, its upper reaches are accessible only to the adventurous and technically experienced. Expect much rapelling and swimming. Many people rate this as the very best slot in the entire Mountain West.

White Canyon

Just west of Natural Bridges, White Canyon and its many tributaries has yet to be completely explored. Cheesebox, Fry, the aforementioned Gravel, and Long canyons are Terra Incognita, just waiting for some intrepid explorer to uncover their mysteries. The Black Hole of White Canyon is one of the most thrilling hikes in the world, with its 200-meter stretch of dark cold water and its sinuous, gorgeous slot. The Black Hole is the perfect introduction to more extreme canyoneering, as it doesn’t require ropes or expert climbing skills, but it’s no place for kids, youth groups, the out of shape, or the elderly.

Great West Canyon

Zion National Park is famous for slots. Indeed, the narrows of the North Fork of the Virgin is the most famous slot canyon hike in the world. Hundreds flock to Parunuweap Canyon along the East Fork, to Orderville, Kolob, and Deep Creeks which empty into the North Fork, and to the Left Fork of North Creek and its Subway. But the jewel of Zion is Great West Canyon. A route drops into the Right Fork of North Creek and goes through the Black Pools, a series of pot holes of indeterminate depth and temperature, and then enters the Grand Alcove, a place of such majesty and beauty that it rivals the legends of the Cathedral in the Desert, the crown jewel of Glen Canyon before it was drowned by Lake Powell. A rappel over Barrier Falls, a swim through its crystalline plunge pool, a scramble down the flank of Double Falls, and you’ve just traversed some of the most enchanted country on earth.     

Chute of Muddy Creek

The San Rafael Swell is a region of spires and domes as spectacular as any Zion or Capitol Reef. It has hundreds of slots and narrows, most notably the Black Boxes of the San Rafael River and the slots of the Moroni Slopes. But the Swell’s signature canyon is the Chute of Muddy Creek. The headwaters of Muddy Creek are high on the Sevier and Wasatch Plateaus, trickling springs among the lupine under aspen and spruce and pine. Far below the creek has cut a deep and goosenecked chute through Coconino Sandstone. This is the easiest of the showcased canyons, if you call wading, slipping in mud, and boulder hopping easy.

Death Hollow

An ominous name for an epic canyon. It starts high on Hell’s Backbone as a wide gorge with towering ponderosas and sheer white walls. A third of the way down are gruesome pools that must be negotiated and poison ivy that must be avoided. Towards the end the canyon walls are so high and bulky they’re like skyscrapers, the work of some divinely inspired architect, and the pools under these walls are considered by many to be the most lovely in the Escalante, green and clear and deep and purifying.

 So put away your H. Rider Haggard, turn off Raiders of the Lost Ark, grasp your ropes, your boots, your river-type dry bag, your faded leather jacket and bullwhip, and head south for the greatest adventure in the history of mankind. Because the discovery of the Golden City of Eldorado, King Solomons Mines, or even the mythic spoils of Genghis Kan hidden somewhere deep in the Mongolian steppes is nothing compared to the precious stones, the vistas, the danger, the lurking creatures, and the magic awaiting you in the neverbeforeseen depths of the undiscovered canyons of the Back of Beyond.

Utah’s five best canyons for families

Canyoneering is not just for musclebound, spandex-clad, 20-something jocks and jockettes with mud for brains and a carabiner key-chain. Utah is full of canyons that are perfect for families, youth groups, and people old enough to have developed common sense. Heres a sample:

Little Wild Horse Canyon — A twisting, sinuous, Alice-in-Wonderland like place that is short and safe enough for kids, but thrilling enough that it is a favorite of even die-hard canyoneers with a deathwish. Located due west of Goblin Valley State Park, Little Wild Horse cuts through the south end of the San Rafael Reef. It’s like some divine being took a corkscrew and melted it into the reef, then pulled it back out, leaving a snaking, scalloped, multicolored slot that is a wonder to explore. There are no major obstacles in this canyon, but it should be avoided if thunderstorms threaten or after recent rains.

Calf Creek — A spring fed stream on the flank of Boulder Mountain, this emerald ribbon of pure mountain water forms two spectacular waterfalls and carves a canyon full of turquoise pools, hanging gardens, clumps of watercress, towering ponderosa pine, and varnish-streaked cliff walls featuring ancient Anasazi petroglyphs. A BLM maintained campground and trail ease the accessibility of the Lower Falls, while the Upper Falls, though less known, is just as beautiful and a little less crowded. This canyon is the perfect introduction to the whimsical magic of Escalante Country.

Lower Zion Narrows — The North Fork of the Virgin River, otherwise known as the Narrows, is perhaps the most famous hike in the world. Thousands make the trek from Chamberlain Ranch down into the depths of the staggeringly deep and scenic slot the Virgin River has carved over many thousands of years. But the spectacular scenery of the Narrows can be easily reached from the bottom, from a paved parking lot at the end of the Zion Canyon loop road. Walk up a paved path and within a few short minutes you’re in the Narrows, with flowing green water, slick boulders, and vast multicolored walls soaring into the sky on either side. A perfect day hike is the wade up to Orderville Canyon and back. Springs, seeps, hanging gardens, deep green channels, and magic light make this one of the true natural wonders of the world.

Negro Bill Canyon — Politically incorrect name, but the place is beautiful. The Moab area is famous for its arches, biking trails, and the vast gorges the Colorado has carved out in Canyonlands, but not for its perennial streams. Negro Bill Canyon has a spring-fed stream and an arch called Morning Glory up its second side canyon. The round-trip hike to the arch is a pleasant stroll on a well-used trail along a clear stream amidst red walls of Navajo sandstone.

Bullet Canyon — The Grand Gulch of southeastern Utah’s Cedar Mesa is the Southwests premier canyon to explore Anasazi ruins. Bullet Canyon is a side canyon of the Gulch that starts amongst the pinyon and juniper forest of the mesa top, drops down gradually through the sandstone to form a draw that narrows to an almost-slot in places, and then opens up into perfect Anasazi country. The canyon contains a number of granaries, look-outs, and ruins, most notably the Perfect Kiva and Jailhouse Ruins, nearly perfectly-preserved relics from the past. The surreal mystery of the Anasazi, or Ancient Ones, is thick in the juniper and sage scented air of this beautiful canyon.