It’s time to get dusty. Utah is perhaps the singular best spot on the planet for canyoneering. In the sandstone canyons of Utah – an amazing wilderness of rock, sand, river and sky – adventures big and small await, but the region’s domes, hoodoos, fins, sandstone reefs, slot canyons, natural arches and broad-stroking amphitheaters make it a canyon fan’s dreamland.
While many simple trips only require good shoes, lots of water, a map and compass, canyoneering can go way beyond that. If you’re up for a real challenge, you’re in for a treat, but being prepared is of utmost importance on this terrain. The right gear can mean the difference between an incredible adventure or a trip to the emergency room.
Where to go
The physiographic region that defines sandstone canyoneering in the West is known as the Colorado Plateau. The high desert plateau is cut by rivers and streams, forming a labyrinth of remarkable canyons. The plateau stretches across Southern Utah, Northern Arizona, New Mexico and Western Colorado. It’s basically coyote-and-roadrunner country. To make things easy, start with a simple trip to one of Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks, then accordion out from there.
The city of Moab is a great staging place for adventures. From here you can easily access Arches National Park. Don’t miss a guided hike through the Fiery Furnace. This labyrinth of stone is so hard to navigate that park rangers don’t trust Joe Public to go it alone.
It’s in Canyonlands National Park, though, where canyoneering and hiking adventures really kick off. The Colorado and Green Rivers rip right through the heart of this 527-sq-mile park. There are three park entrances, and they offer diverse experiences. Island in the Sky takes you above the Colorado and Green Rivers, while the Needles District is more about exploring towering spires. The best canyoneering here is found in The Maze. This is the most remote of the park entrances, you will need a 4X4 to get to most of the action. There are super technical canyoneering routes, plus easy day hikes. Better yet, you can camp anywhere here. Like other places in the fragile desert, watch where you tread and leave not a trace. This is where outdoorsman Aron Ralston got pinned by a falling boulder and had to cut off his own arm (!). Tthat harrowing James Franco film 127 Hours was based on Ralson’s story. What Ralston didn’t do was tell someone where he was going and when he planned to be back. Don’t worry – they have an app for that now: Hiker Alert hikeralert.com).
Further west, you’ll find Capital Reef National Park, and the nearby Goblin Valley State Park. The unique geological feature here is a 100-mile-long monocline (what appears like a giant tear in the earth). This monocline is home to hundreds of canyons large and small. You don’t need to follow a trail for most – just head up a canyon and try your darnedest not to get lost or caught in a flash flood. Remember that rain 100 miles away can trigger a flash flood where you are, so watch the weather carefully. The stars are amazing here. Consider uploading a star app like Sky Map to your phone before heading out.
Zion National Park has enough canyoneering adventures to fill two lifetimes. If you are only taking on one adventure, it should be the 12-hour hike through The Narrows. Bryce Canyon is mostly known for its towering hoodoos (sandstone towers), though you can find some wild natural amphitheaters here, if you look careful.
Outside the main parks, there are plenty of adventures to be had in the public open space, smaller state parks and national monuments that protect a huge portion of Utah’s land. Be sure to check out the canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as well as the wild areas around Castle Valley outside of Moab.
Canyon clothes and footwear
Start from the ground up with a really kick-ass pair of shoes or hiking boots. If you have ankle problems, consider a high-top hiking boot. If that’s not a problem, a good low-top hiking shoe, tennis shoe or even high-quality sports sandal will do.
If you’re going to a place with a lot of rock scrambling, an approach shoe like the La Sportiva Boulder X (sportiva.com), makes quick ascents a breeze. Because they even have a full rand, you can even crack climb and probably make it up a basic 5.6 climbing route. Some hikes take you in and out of water (after all, those canyons had to form somehow). The Keen Clearwater (keenfootwear.com) is a nice option as it offers better toe protection than most.
It’s good to have a pair of quick wicking socks. Merino products are nice (or go with basic cotton sports socks). Bring an extra pair, especially if you are backpacking, so you can dry off at day’s end.
Now that you got your feet covered, it’s time for some lightweight, quick dry clothes. It’s hot in Utah, so you can generally get away with a light quick-dry t-shirt and shorts. Just make sure you protect yourself from the sun. That said, you’ll still want to bring warmer clothes if you plan to stay overnight – temps here drop precipitously when the sun sets.
Essential tools of the trade
Your number one goal here should probably be to keep the fluids flowing. Dehydration is a killer in the canyons of Utah. You’ll need to bring a gallon of water per person per day for summer hikes. In spring, fall and winter you can trim it back a little. You can combine a water bag with drinking tube and daypack for an all-in-one solution like the Platypus Duthie (platy.com), or keep it old school with a simple Nalgene (nalgene.com).
If you are getting really extreme (some canyons have massive drops that you need to rappel or climb up, or super deep water that you may need to swim across) you may want either a short climbing rope or a canyoneering specific line like the Blue Water Canyonline (bluewaterropes.com). At 9mm, it’s more narrow than a standard climbing rope, making it lighter. You’ll also need a harness, rappel device and some carabiners to complete your rappelling and climbing kit. Find some more climbing gearhead advice here. Consider a helmet for some areas, and even a personal flotation device (some people call these life jackets, those in the know, go with the simple PFD for short) if you are crossing lots of water. Top it off with a good dry bag that will keep your socks from getting wet, and you are set.
Depending on how you like to hike, a good collapsible hiking stick or two may be a nice addition to your kit. Try the lightweight Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles (blackdiamondequipment.com).
Staying safe and not getting lost
Most of Utah’s canyons are not marked by trails (though occasional cairns – piles of rocks left by other hikers), may guide the way.
A sporting GPS like a Garmin (garmin.com) can be a great way to keep on course. A number of mobile hiking apps have almost displaced the ‘old-fashioned’ GPS these days. A few to review and install include apps like Alltrails, First Aid by Red Cross, Maps 3D Pro, Trail Tracker GPS and Spyglass, which even has a star navigation feature. To avoid getting caught in a flash flood, consider a good localized weather app such as Weather Live.
But in the end, it’s always important to remember that batteries fail, connections break down and phones are dropped. The best way to navigate in a canyon system to this day remains the good-old-fashioned use of a map and compass. You’ll also need the skills to use them. Climbing schools like the Zion Mountaineering School (guidesinzion.com) can give you the training you need to properly use a map and compass, and even tie a figure-eight climbing knot.