Contorted canyons, deep and narrow, have been gnawed into the sandstone skull of the Colorado Plateau by countless years of erosion. Flash floods rip through these chasms on a regular basis, moving around boulders, depositing logs and other debris, and cutting — always cutting — deeper and deeper into the rock.
These canyons, ever-changing corridors leading to pure adventure, have given rise to the challenging sport called canyoneering. Explorers who brave the dark depths of these canyons often have to scramble over rocks, climb up or rappel down dry falls, and swim through pools of dark water.
The lure of canyoneering is difficult to describe. It blends together the beauty of red rock canyons and the enthralling experience of overcoming physical and mental challenges. It combines the beauty of a delicately carved and polished rock illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight in a dimly lit crack, the physical challenge of muscling your way over a huge chokestone, and the emotional workout you experience when you discover you can’t go back the way you came, that your only hope for survival is to slide off a rock into chocolate-milk colored water and swim forward into a dark pit.
Jud Eades founded a company called Adrenalin Sports to encourage participation in canyoneering and other adventure sports. He has been hiking the canyons of southern Utah and northern Arizona since he was a toddler. He now specializes in exploring technical slot canyons, the chasms so narrow you can often touch both walls and so challenging that you need rock climbing and rappelling skills to get through.
"Some of our best canyons are in areas so remote that you won’t ever see other people," he said. "Sometimes when I’m pushing into a side canyon I get a feeling that it has never been explored."
Jud and his cohorts are so serious about canyoneering that they had grommets sewn into their backpacks so water will drain out after they swim potholes. They also had special shoes made combining sticky rubber soles (similar to climbing shoes) with Neoprene-and-mesh uppers. Several companies are now introducing canyoneering-type shoes similar to those Jud developed.
Canyoneering can be as easy or as difficult as you make it, Jud says. Utah offers many moderate canyon hikes that are appropriate for beginners and families. Some canyons (particularly those requiring wading or swimming) can be hiked comfortably during the heat of summer. Others can be hiked during the dead of winter. He provided the following list of canyons to help people get started:
"Little Wildhorse Canyon in the San Rafael Swell is perhaps our best slot for families. It’s a great little adventure that is not very difficult. There are good facilities close by at Goblin Valley, " he said. "The Subway in Zion Park, the Black Hole in White Canyon and Crack Canyon in the Swell make good medium adventures that don’t require any technical skills or gear."
For extreme adventure he loves Mystery Canyon in Zion. "My friends will kill me for publicizing it. It’s a technical one that requires probably 15 rappels. Most average 40 feet. There are two that are over 100 feet. You start up on top of the East Rim trail, in the ponderosa pines, and descend into a steep, rocky gully. You think you see the bottom of the canyon but what you are seeing is the top of the slot — it’s so narrow.
"You work your way down several hundred feet to the bottom. Then you work your way past several minor obstacles that you can negotiate around without having to rappel, before hitting the really tight section. The slot ranges from 18 inches wide to 4 feet wide. Then you must do seven rappels one after another. The second-to-last rappel is over 100 feet high. You rappel down into an emerald pool with hanging gardens surrounding you and water seeping out of the walls.
"At the end of the hike you actually rappel right into the Zion Narrows. All of the tourists in the Narrows think it is one of the most marvelous things they have ever seen as you rappel down a waterfall. The hike is about seven miles long and takes most of one day. Permits are required; get them at the backcountry desk at the Visitor Center.