Finding Zion's Inner Heart

"There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind & a glowing response & Nothing can exceed the wondrous beauty of Zion & in the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison."

In 1880 when Clarence E. Dutton penned these poignant lines, southern Utah was relatively undiscovered by tourists. Soon there were too many photographs and scientific reports to ignore the fact that such a place really did exist.

Since 1909 when Zion National Park was created, millions of visitors have hiked its trails and traveled its roads, viewing the breathtaking scenery of its wild, rugged canyons. Most have seen Zion from the comfort of their car or a tour bus, and some venture even farther off the beaten path and stretch their legs on a good hike.

But very few actually see what Zion is all about. The backcountry slot canyons, washes and high mesa trails are visited on rare occasions by zealous outdoor enthusiasts, searching for a place that perhaps only they will have viewed.

Some find just such a place, but others are content to settle for rarely seen places that require some technical equipment, a little curiosity and the ability to leave your fear of heights at home.

After seeing such places I feel a bit closer to the inner workings of Zion: its hidden valleys, gorges and glens. The places where the only other faces you see are the reflections of yourself in clear underground springs that seep from the Navajo sandstone.

It was a September morning, with the sun still high in the sky and beating down upon us. Most of the group struggled into full-bodied wetsuits. I dressed in the equivalent of a short sleeve kayaking shirt and wetsuit shorts. We pulled our harnesses up around our legs and waists and shouldered our packs.

We descended off the edge of the crowded parking lot into what looked to be a deep river wash that was dry. The sun slowly began to fade and the darkness of the canyon cooled us. The vegetation disappeared as we walked deeper into the abyss.

We were going to spend the next five hours deep inside this crack, jumping into frigid pools of water, rappelling hundreds of feet of rope and boulder-hopping our way to the sunlight more than a mile from where we stood.

This slot canyon is virtually hidden to the naked eye. From high above in the canyon it appears as merely a crack in the orange stone that descends for a few feet and stops, leaving much to the imagination of onlookers.

In actuality it's a one-mile slot canyon that serves as the drainage for a large portion of the southeastern section of the park. When filled by flash-flood waters, it is impossible to survive, let alone navigate, with hundreds of pounds of debris and water surging through the narrow walls that form the canyon.

Boulders the size of small cars are tossed about like marbles and trees that loggers would drool over are crammed between the walls with such force that they remain permanent fixtures of the canyon for dozens of years.

Death is no stranger to these black, watery recesses. It can come as quickly as the swell of rain that strikes without warning in these desert climes. But when the sun is high in the summer sky and the thunderheads are saving themselves for a better day, that same mile transforms into a secret underworld of beauty.

Deep inside these hydro-carved chasms is another microcosm, foreign to most desert travelers, but overwhelmingly attractive to adventure seekers and intrepid explorers.

I ran the rope through my figure-8 and carabineer and stepped back, lowering my weight onto the line and bouncing my way toward the room below, typically filled with six feet of dark, stinging cold water. Over and over this process repeated itself, with slight variations in the landscape and depth of these biting pools.

One pool that normally stretches for nearly 100 yards was unseasonably small, requiring only 30 yards of wading and swimming. But for what this swim lacked in size, it made up for with a putrid stench of death and rotting organisms. I grimaced each time my mouth neared the liquid.

Ten times I made descents until the last free-rappel of nearly 150 feet, out of the confining quarters and into the light of day, brought my feet to rest in a clear spring that seeped from the walls and nurtured the green foliage that lined the lower 12 feet of sandstone surrounding us.

There are literally thousands of slots littered throughout the southern Utah landscape, digging dangerous and enthralling furrows through the sandstone. Each one contains its own unique fixtures and attractions as well as its inherent risks.

But with those risks, and the safe approach to them, comes one of the most extraordinary geological features in the world. No other landscape on our planet boasts the desert canyons and chasms that the Utah/Arizona border region offers.

I would betray those who brought me to this place if I were to divulge its exact location. It's not that I don't want anyone to find it. I just don't want everyone to find it. It's kind of like the law of supply and demand; the more people who want to traverse these treasures, the more accidents there will be and more restrictions will be placed on such venues by the park service and others.

I hope that readers will find these canyons, but only through their own hard work and investigation. Kind of like the hunt for an elusive creature that is endangered from human population growth.

So next time you are south and find the curiosity bug burrowing deep into your psyche, start asking questions. Talk to the locals and National Park Service, and find a slot canyon near you.


If you go

Canyoneering as it has come to be called, requires a good knowledge of climbing principles and gear. Make sure you know enough about the canyon and its technical requirements to bring the proper hardware. In national parks permits are often required for backcountry use, so be aware of each park's rules and regulations.

    • Ropes, harnesses and rappelling devices are common fare for a serious day in a slot, and make sure you know how to use the equipment as well. Being stranded isn't fun and being rescued isn't cheap.
  • Make sure to check the local weather. A brief cloudburst could spell disaster for even the smallest of traverses. It's not the size of the slot, but the size of the area that drains into the slot that counts. Flash floods can tear the flesh off your body and strike without any warning.
  • Don't be fooled by the cool temperature in many of the narrow fissures, desert heat can still affect you as well as dehydration. The water that remains after storms is usually contaminated and dirty, even if filtered. So bring a minimum of two quarts per person and don't forget a first aid kit.