The Escalante River and some of its tributaries wind through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, creating a maze of intricate canyons, perfect for exploring. While many of the Escalante River slot canyons are accessible from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the southern tip of Lake Powell, Hole-in-the-Rock Road offers vehicular access from Escalante to several popular slot canyons in the Dry Fork area.
The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is a haven for canyoneering. With beautiful, challenging slot canyons, backcountry trails, and more it’s important to be mindful of where you are going. Be aware of road conditions and don’t take your car if it’s not suitable for handling rugged, sometimes muddy conditions. Always check the weather prior to entering a slot canyon and before descending the Hole in the Rock road. It’s always a good idea to hire a local guide when learning about a new area. And don’t forget to bring plenty of water! No one wants to end a trip early because of dehydration.
Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch
Peek-a-boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch are within minutes of each other, about 26 miles south of Escalante on the Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Individually, the distance to Peek-a-boo Gulch is two miles roundtrip and Spooky Gulch is just over three miles roundtrip. Combining the two slot canyons creates a 3.5-mile loop. Both slot canyons are only moderately difficult but still require sure footing, some rock-scrambling agility, and, in some cases, the ability to squeeze through tight spaces.
Hiking Peek-a-boo Gulch
Peek-a-boo Gulch slot canyon is the recommended starting point. The hike to this particular slot canyon leads through the sandy Dry Fork Wash to the mouth of Peek-a-boo, a narrow, twisted slot canyon about a quarter-mile long. Hand and foot holes are carved into a 10-foot high vertical rock wall to help your ascent. At the top of the wall, a 3-foot-deep pothole is often filled with water but skilled scramblers will manage to navigate it without getting wet. The highlight of the hike is the last 100 meters of the slot, where interlocking swirls, fins, and arches are cut into the red Navajo sandstone. The route continues up and out of the canyon. From the end of the trail, hikers can choose to retrace their steps back through Peek-a-boo or follow the cairns south to the mouth of Spooky Gulch slot canyon. Peek-a-boo Gulch is a fun, rock-scrambling slot canyon experience in contrast to Spooky Gulch’s deep, dark twists and turns.
Hiking Spooky Gulch
Spooky Gulch isn’t for the claustrophobic, but it is a thrilling experience. The canyon walls are narrow enough in some places that an average-sized adult will have a hard time passing through. The walls begin closing in merely 300 feet in, requiring hikers to turn sideways and squeeze between the slot canyon walls. The bottom openings are typically a bit wider for those willing to crawl and scoot. Hikers have occasionally gotten stuck in Spooky Gulch so be aware of your girth before squeezing into tight spaces. A section of large boulders near the upper end of the canyon and an extra narrow squeeze through a 5-foot vertical crevice require advanced skill and more caution. The end of Spooky Gulch opens up to a wide, sandy bed. The floor of this slot canyon is typically dry and sandy although pools of mud and water may form after it rains.
Seasonality and directions
Peek-a-boo and Spooky are accessible year-round, but be cautious of mud, water and weather. Never hike the drainages during rain. The combined hiking time for both canyons is about 2-4 hours. To reach Peek-a-boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch from Escalante, take Scenic Byway 12 to Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Drive south for about 26 miles to Dry Fork Road and head northeast to the trailhead parking area. The Dry Fork turnoff is a rugged, sandy road best suited for four-wheel-drive vehicles. At the end of Dry Fork Road, an overlook sits 300 feet above the canyons. A short descent leads to Dry Fork’s sandy bed. The trailhead for Peek-a-boo Gulch slot canyon is straight ahead, toward the north, and the trailhead to Spooky Gulch slot canyon is a bit farther down to the east.
Slot canyon safety
Within Bryce Canyon Country, sandstone slot canyons are formed by the flow of water. Winter snow-melt or irregular rain storms will accumulate water that then passes through these narrow crevices. Combine that with erosion from the wind and over time slot canyons form, growing wider and deeper.
The Bryce Canyon region of Utah receives very little moisture on an annual basis causing the soil to not absorb much water. When rain falls or snow melts quickly the water can accumulate quickly, following the path of least resistance. This is what causes flash floods with water levels potentially reaching 40 feet or higher inside a slot canyon. It’s not just water that comes rushing through a slot canyon, but rocks, wood, and debris come with it. A flash flood is a rare occurrence but one should never enter a slot canyon on a bad weather day.
Besides flash floods, water can also accumulate in the dark recesses of a slot canyon. Depending on the depth of the canyon the sun may not reach these dark pockets of water and the temperatures of the water, even in summer, can be quite cold.
It is vital to prepare prior to exploring a slot canyon. Some slot canyons are short and quite shallow — the easiest and safest to navigate. The longer and deeper the slot canyon, the more the preparation and gear required for a safe and enjoyable experience. Rappelling gear, wetsuits or drysuits, proper footwear, sufficient food, water, and other supplies should be carefully considered for a technical slot canyon experience.