Time for a themed post: Narrow. It’s this week’s WPC travel theme, so check out all the other entries.
I’ll start out close to home: Oregon’s Oneonta Gorge. Nowadays it is quite famous, but I recall a time when only locals knew about it. In the warmer months hordes of people hike up the short narrows, wading through the cool water to escape the heat. In just a half-mile or less your progress is halted by a tall waterfall, where you can climb up a short way and jump off into the pool below. So refreshing!
My pictures of Oneonta, however, were all captured in the worst weather I could manage, normally winter or early spring. The canyon is at its greenest and the mossy walls drip with tiny waterfalls. At these times it is dangerous to go further than the log jam. The water is deep and swift and believe me, you wouldn’t want to be swept under the logs. They would be pulling your body out later.
While most of the canyons in this amazing place are not the ultra-narrow slots common to the Colorado Plateau, the park does boast a plethora of narrow canyons to explore. One of the most famous is Titus Canyon. Most times you can drive this canyon. You leave the park on the east side and then re-enter it by descending Titus, passing a ghost town along the way. There are other canyons near Titus that represent great hiking destinations. Just hike north from the parking lot at the mouth of Titus Canyon.
For a canyon hike in Death Valley, the one I most often recommend is Marble Canyon. Access it by driving the dirt road from Stovepipe Wells, passable in a 2-wheel drive car (but check at the ranger station). Walking up-canyon, you soon reach the narrows, where canyon walls reach hundreds of feet into the sky. On a hot day try pressing your whole body against the grey limestone canyon walls. Definitely a cooling experience! By continuing up-canyon you eventually come to the beautiful marble that it’s named for. Most of the way you are passing through limestone, stacks and stacks of it piled into layers at the bottom of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago.
SLOTS of the COLORADO PLATEAU
Spreading across southern Utah, northern Arizona and part of Colorado is an enormous feature called the Colorado Plateau. It is an uplifted landscape characterised by naked sandstone bedrock. Known throughout the world for its iconic scenery, the plateau is dissected by countless canyons of all description.
The Grand Canyon is of course the biggest, but many are so narrow that you have to squeeze yourself through. These are the famous narrow gorges called slot canyons. They formed because, during the plateau’s uplift (at the same time as the Rocky Mountains rose), fractures developed much like a rising loaf of bread. It is along these fractures that the slots have been eroded by a combination of freeze-thaw action and flowing water.
One of the biggest concentrations of slot canyons lies in Zion National Park. Many of these are accessible to any adventurous hiker – for example the two most popular hikes: the Narrows and the Subway. But some others require specialized equipment. Being a popular national park, there are plenty of outfitters who will guide you safely through the technical slots. If you’ve never done any canyoneering before, let me tell you: it’s a blast!
If you want to hike the Subway, I recommend either getting a permit way ahead of time or doing it off-season. Permits are required April through October, so November is a perfect time to do it. It’s not a short hike but anybody in good shape and with some experience should have no problem.
Yet it’s easy to get a feel for slot canyons without investing a lot of time. Simply drive up to East Zion (beyond the tunnels), park at a likely spot and set off up one of the canyons, turning around at your whim (or when your way is blocked). This is a great way to explore the park.
To the east of Zion is another wonderland of slots: the Escalante country. A drive down Hole in the Rock Road near the town of Escalante brings you to numerous hikes into the typically narrow tributary canyons of the Escalante River. You don’t have to brave that long washboard road, however. Get a good map and explore the numerous canyons accessible from Highway 12.
Nearby Bryce Canyon, while not known for slot canyons, nevertheless has an amazing hike you should do if you visit. It drops below the rim and wanders among the hoodoos (rock pinnacles) that make the park famous. It’s like a maze of narrow passages, including one named Wall Street (image below).
Capitol Reef National Park also has some amazing narrow canyon hikes. One I can recommend hiking is the strangely-named Muley Twist Canyon. Drive the Burr Trail Road (an adventure in itself) and near its summit you can hike either up- or down-canyon, exploring Muley Twist to your heart’s content. A shorter canyon hike at Capitol Reef is Grand Wash, located at the end of the scenic drive (turn off at the Visitor Center).
Continuing east across the plateau you’ll find more fun canyons to explore in the Moab area, including Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. You could spend your whole life doing nothing but hiking canyons on the Colorado Plateau and never finish with them. There are just so many. It’s a true wonderland. But be smart when you go canyon hiking. Take the ten essentials plus a hiking partner (or at least let someone know where you’re going and when to expect your return).
Thanks for looking!