Topography & Regions
Most canyoneering in the United States is found on a topographic feature called the Colorado Plateau. This area is primarily located in southern Utah, west Colorado, north-west New Mexico, and the northern part of Arizona.
The Colorado Plateau encompasses the four-corner states and region of the Southwest part of the United States. From the NPS.gov website, it says, "Originally named by John Wesley Powell, the Colorado Plateau comprises a series of tablelands (plateaus or mesas) located within an immense basin surrounded by highlands. Stream valleys that are typically narrow and widely spaced dissect the region, as do larger valleys, including the most spectacular – the Grand Canyon. "
Utah is considered the "mecca" of canyoneering as it contains one of the largest concentrations of slot canyons. Over 650 documented canyons are found within Utah. The next biggest concentration is found in Arizona with 500+ canyons. California has over 700 (but they are essentially like 3 states in one) and most are not "slot" canyons, but that doesn't mean that they are not fun though! Just different!
But a canyon is not "just" a canyon. Most canyoneers are looking for *slot* canyons that can vary in widths from just under 12 inches to a few feet! You can't have claustrophobia if you want to dive deeply into the sport.
Canyoneering is all about the adventure - of any shape or size - of the canyon. There are some "canyons" that are not canyons at all. Those are what we consider "routes" which contain a few rappels in a large drainage, include perhaps a swim or two, handfuls of downclimbs and upclimbs, tricky navigation, but nonetheless, will still be an adventure.
Most of California canyons do not contain *slot* canyons, except for those in Death Valley. Those are primarily found in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. The other states canyons are more similar to gorges or large more-open canyons that contain only rappels and obstacles.
That's why you see a lot of visitors hungering to come to Utah and Arizona. They want to SEE and FEEL the narrowness for themselves.
But wherever you are located, make the best of it and be grateful for the opportunity to do something quite unique like canyoneering in your state (or geographical area).
Listed below are popular Canyoneering destinations on the Colorado Plateau which list some of the characteristics of the canyons and other notes that are specifically found there.
Image Credit: NPS / Kristen M. Caldon @ https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-colorado-plateau.htm
Image Credit: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org
Capitol Reef (Utah):
To start, the correct spelling is "capitol" and not "capital". Capitol Reef is located in south-central Utah. Capitol Reef is the National Park and canyoneers also use the name to refer to canyons outside of the park boundary as well.
Capitol Reef is unique as it is located in the famous "Waterpocket Fold", a monocline (a geological wrinkle) that extends for nearly a hundred miles. Most of the Colorado Plateau was uniformly uplifted thousands of feet due to large techtonic forces, creating the "layer cake" in the geology. An exception to where it wasn't lifted was here, due to the Waterpocket Fold. (See the NPS website here for an intriguing lesson on this geological wonder.)
Some of the rock types found here vary from shale, mudstone, siltstone, gypsum, and dolomitic limestone but these canyons are primarily formed at the wingate and navajo sandstone layers.
There are close to 30+ documented canyoneering routes along the Waterpocket Fold. Capitol Reef has an arid climate but is usually a little cooler than other canyoneering areas in Utah. The average highs in the the summer months hover around 90 degrees F, making this area a good option for the spring, summer, and fall months.
However, much of the rain that falls on Capitol Reef is during the "monsoon season" which is typically in July and August. Strict adherence to the weather is critical. All but the shortest canyons have fairly large drainages and flash floods are a real concern.
Camping is plentiful (as it is a less traveled National Park) with numerous trees for shade and small streams adorning them. Fruita has the best tent camping available, and while it is a pay area, it features showers, flushing toilets, large cottonwood trees providing lots of shade, and big areas of open grass.
The nearby town of Torrey offers a dozen or so great eateries and lodging options if camping isn't an option.
Popular canyons include: Pandora's Box, Cassidy Arch Canyon, the Wives, Cottonwood and Burro Wash. Still in the water-pocket fold but nearing Lake Powell features the famous Poe/Smiling Cricket canyon and it's giant keeper pothole.
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
Cedar Mesa (Utah):
this small area is located just south of the "North Wash" on the other side of the Hite Bridge which spans the Colorado River at Lake Powell.
A USGS report describes this area as, "Bare rocks, high mesas, sheer cliffs, and deep canyons. Comb Ridge, a prominent hogback of eastward-dipping rocks, trends north through the middle part of the area and is the most conspicuous topographic feature. The only permanent settlements are Bluff in the east and Mexican Hat in the west, both on the San Juan River... Cedar Mesa is dominantly a light-colored sandstone in the western part of the area but grades eastward into a unit of gypsum, shale, and limestone containing minor beds of sandstone."
There is a small concentration of technical slot canyons here. Nearly all of the canyons here contain some amount of water, so wetsuits are recommended in nearly all months.
The nearest towns for any service would be at the Hite Marina at Lake Powell, and Hanksville about an hour away. For most canyoneering trips here, you can count on bringing all of your food, water, and camping supplies with you to your basecamp.
Most of the area is surrounded by BLM land so camping is not too much of a concern, although finding one with a little shade is. There are not any nearby streams or creeks that you can use either.
Flashfloods are a concern here as one flashflood in particular took a young lady's life that occurred tens of miles away and swept her away.
Temperatures will be hot in the summer months, but luckily most canyons contain some amount of wading and swimming. This is the time I recommend to see these canyons. Most of the canyons are not overly long as they contain short technical sections, but long approach or exit hikes.
Popular canyons include: the Black Hole of White Canyon, Fry, Short, Cowboy, and Cheesebox canyons.
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
Death Valley (California):
Hot! Summers average above 105 degrees F!. Very rugged, dry, and remote! No reliable cell-service, except near the summits. No close convenience stores or watering holes. Emergency satellite beacons should be in every group.
Everyone needs to be self-sufficient and carry lots of water for the strenuous approach hikes.
Canyon days here are long; long approaches, long canyons, and long exits. As such this is not a suitable place for beginners. Most approaches will climb thousands of feet in elevation.
Rappels are many and usually number more than 12 in any given canyon. A majority of canyons have long rappels that easily go over 200 feet in length. Knowing how to use your rappel device correctly so that you can add friction while on rappel is a must. Multiple ropes (more than two) in your party are another must too.
Most canyons also lack man-made anchors or bolts; so natural anchors, with LOTS of webbing, is a must. A minimum of 50 feet of webbing is required by every person, while 100-feet of webbing is preferred.
Rock types found here are primarily: limestone, siltstone, and sandstone. A lot of the rocks found here are "crumbly" and helmets must be worn while in the canyons at all times.
Over 300 documented canyons are located in the mountain ranges within D.V. Most were explored and documented by Scott Swaney. He himself documented 260+ of them. Read more about Scott and his exploration at RopeWIKI.com
Popular canyons include: the Greek canyons (Styx, Hades, Deimos, Coffin, Hellfire, Cerebrus, Abysmal), Heart of Stone, Mosaic and the Devil canyons.
If you have any pictures that you would like me to highlight here of Death Valley, please email me at Brett@Canyoneering101.com
Escalante-Grand Staircase (Utah):
Focused primarily on a concentration of canyons just off the famous "hole in the rock road", near the town of Escalante, contains some of the hardest canyon adventures in Utah. These canyons also contain long approaches and/or exits. About half of them contain keeper potholes that need serious consideration before attempting! Some stretches in these canyons can contain a lot of swimming after a rain storm. This is not a place for beginners. But, for those in their advanced canyoneering stage will find much reward (for their punishment) when completing these canyons.
The drive to these locations will keep most of the weekend warriors away, so finding solitude is quite likely (except for Neon Canyon). Spring, Summer and Fall are the best times to visit this area.
Rock types found here are primarily: Navajo sandstone as a majority of the Grand Staircase is located on the Colorado Plateau. Other rock types found here are dolostone and gypsum, with even traces of limestone.
The nearest town is Escalante and Boulder, but that is about an hour drive from where the trailhead is for most of these canyons. Cell-service is non-existent here and you should prepare to self-rescue. Most of the land is BLM which allows for dispersped camping easily. However, camping at the entrance or exit of canyons is highly discouraged as pedestrian traffic will be passing by frequently disrupting the serenity of the place. More over, it's simply inconsiderate to block the canyon entrance and exit. Please find another suitable place to make camp.
There are a few springs and seeps in the area which allow for easy filtration, however, if those are unavailable then the Escalante river will be your last choice. Thankfully it is close to most of these canyons, however, it can be quite silty most of the time and will quickly clog up water filters. It is recommended to bring a pre-filter or a coffee-filter to help screen out the sediment or to bring a gravity filter for longer stays in Escalante.
Popular canyons include: Neon; Choprock; Zebra, Peekaboo, the Bown canyons, Sad Cow Disease, the Tunnel, Micro Death Hollow; and the Egypt, King Mesa, and Scorpion canyons.
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
Grand Canyon (Arizona):
A relatively "new" area for canyoneers. This is for advanced canyoneers only as these canyons demand a lot in terms of days (most canyon adventures are multiple days...not just hours), energy, and water. A gallon of water is an absolute minimum here per person. And water-purifiers must also be carried as you will want to refill whenever you can so will have plentiful of water for the exit hike.
Canyoneering here also requires a packraft for most canyons. Essentially, where you canyon will exit you will need to float the actual Colorado River to a location where you can climb back up to the Rim. Summer is brutal with the scorching heat and should be avoided completely by most folks. Heat exhaustion or heat stroke are very real possibilities in the summer. The winter months is the preferred time to go just due to the heat alone. Spring and late Fall would be the next decent times to go, but you would then be dealing with much shorter daylight hours and so hiking in the dark is almost required (especially to beat the heat for the exit hike).
Everyone needs to be self-sufficient and know how to rappel lengths longer than 300+ feet! For emphasis, this is NOT an area for beginners.
Carrying large amounts of rope and gear is required for most canyons. While the cost is high to see these canyons, the rewards can be highly rewarding as few people have done them.
Complete solitude will be found here. No cell-phone service is the norm and so rescue-satellite devices are a must.
The Grand Canyon IS a national park, and currently, there is no canyoneering system in place in regards to permits or fees. However, I would not be surprised within the next 5 years when the NPS unveils a permit system similarly found in other National Parks.
Over 105 documented canyons have been located, with another possible 200 more.
To summarize the attraction of canyoneering here, an NPS article cites, "At Grand Canyon National Park, back country patrols have documented increasing canyoneering activity over the past several years. The most popular routes are scenic, accessible, moderately difficult, and can be completed in a day with gear that most canyoneers already own. These routes are within a one-day drive of popular tourist hubs such as Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Las Vegas, and are located in popular back country use areas with large campgrounds. Thus canyoneering has become a priority for park management because of the need to balance recreational use opportunities with adequate resource and visitor experience protections."
Popular canyons include: Deer Creek (currently closed), Garden Creek, 150 Mile Canyon, Royal Arch, Whispering Falls, Panameta, and Scotty's Hollow.
If you have any pictures that you would like me to highlight here of the Grand canyon, please email me at Brett@Canyoneering101.com
The Moab area area contains over 28 documented canyons in the vicinity; so expect crowds, especially on the weekends! Moab is located in South-Eastern Utah. Nearby are the famous Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Although not known for actual slot canyons, a lot of canyoneering routes (canyons and routes are different) can be found here that also attract the beginner. There are very few technically hard canyons found in this area, so you can expect a lot of beginner traffic in these canyons.
Some of the advantages to Moab canyoneering is that the canyons are generally "easy", can contain some swimming, and have some unique and free-hanging rappelling. What stands out for most people here are the "routes". The routes will contain up-climbs, traverse narrow cliff bands, feature a lot of down-climbing, and finally rappelling off vertical cliffs and go through unique sandstone features.
These canyons are technically short in length and so it is common to do multiple canyons in one day.
The city of Moab is in close proximity for a majority of these canyons, so lodging and food options are plentiful (although it can be expensive during the summer which is peak season).
Most Utahns who want to tackle a lot of short canyons can drive the 3 1/2 hour stretch from Salt Lake and make a memorable weekend and descend many canyons or simply brush up on rappelling skills.
Beginners will love this area too because most contain short approaches and exits, although there a few exceptions. Most canyons are dry where even your feet won't get wet. But after it rains, all of that will change and soon you will need to wade or swim!
One other advantage that Moab offers is world-renowned hiking, rock-climbing, mountain-biking and four-wheeling if canyoneering isn't desired by the entire group. No matter what you do, you can't have a bad outdoor weekend in Moab!
Popular canyons include (within the Park and out): U-turn, Tierdrop, Dragonfly, Granary, Pleiades, Rock of Ages, MMI and Undercover canyon.
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
The North Wash area contains over 42 documented canyons in the vicinity - There are many to choose from! This place is just found North of the Hite Marina located by the famous Lake Powell and contains dozens of tight (also known as "skinny") slot-canyons in a small area. They pack a punch and just going through one or two can wear you out for the entire day! Some canyons can be completed in one to two hours and still be exhausting!
The rappels aren't high when it comes to heights, but the real challenge is that they are physically demanding. Larger people (probably bigger than 200 lbs) will really struggle in some of them. In fact, one in particular (Middle Lepreachaun canyon) is dangerous for bigger people. Typically, they can hold little to no water year round. In the winter, it will often snow and create unique snow canyon situations, in which you better be prepared for.
There is one main popular campground of the highway called "Sandthrax Campground." It is quite crowded in the spring and fall, and may not offer you solitude. As there is no on-site bathrooms or water at the campground, you will need to bring your water in 5-gallon containers and haul ALL of your trash out! There are other areas to camp but please be respectful when it says "no camping".
Please don't be like everyone else; bury your poop. You will be sleeping and pooping in the same area, especially when its crowded.
There is one place where there is a port-a-pottie but it requires a 5-10 minute drive and that is at scenic rest spot just off of the highway called "Hog Springs". The nearest "town" or gas-station with services will be Hanksville (about 35-45 mins away) or the Hite Marina (30-45 min away).
Popular canyons include: Hogwarts, Morocco, the Irish canyons (Shillelagh, Blarney, Leprechaun), Sandthrax, the Hogs (1-4), Shenanigans, and the Woody canyons.
Robbers Roost (Utah):
The Robbers Roost is another sizeable collection of slot canyons that is located just south-east of the San Rafael Swell, west of Canyonlands N.P, and just north of "North Wash".
The place got its name from when outlaws in the 1800s such as Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch Gang would make this place their hideout after they would raid nearby settlements, which came to be known as the "Outlaw Trail". A trail that ran from Montana down to Texas to keep these outlaws in hiding.
When people think of the "Wild West", this is precisely what they are thinking of. You will find your solitude here, with a exceptions such as in Alcatraz or Larry Canyon.
Some of these slot canyons are very tight, similar to ones found in the "North Wash". It has been the stage of a few rescues from bigger-size canyoneers or those lacking advanced canyoneering skills.
The Robbers Roost is great to visit anytime of the year, except for summer. It is hot, and there is little to no shade. Think open arid desert. As such, there is not much water (if any) found in most of these canyons. You may encounter a puddle or two, but most will not require any wetsuit. Protection for your forearms and knees may be a good idea to the narrowness of these canyons and their abrasion effects on gear and skin.
Nearly all of this area is BLM and finding suitable dispersed camping is easy. There is one popular camping spot called "Motel 6" but it's usually taken right away on the weekends.
There are very few springs in the area and so everyone needs to carry all of their water. Having multiple 5-gallon containers in your vehicle(s) is recommended.
Some areas have cell-coverage while others do not. Do not rely on it being there, and therefore I recommend having a sattellite-beacon of some sort for emergencies.
The nearest town is Hanksville but it will take 30 to 60 minutes to reach due to the roughness of the road and reaching these canyons. The Hans Flat Ranger Station just south-east of the Robbers Roost does not have food or gas, but is there at the entrance to "the Maze" of Canyonlands for emergencies. It will still be a 30-45 min drive from most canyons though, but it's a "good to know" bit of information for emergencies only.
Flash flooding is quite likely in the monsoon seasons (July and August) so stay out if weather is inclement. If the roads due take on water, the roads can become impassable until they dry out! It's best to avoid when rain is in the forecast.
Popular canyons include: BlueJohn Canyon and its forks, Alcatraz, Larry, Chambers, the Mindbender canyons, the Poison Spring canyons (Slideanide, Monoxide, Constrychine), the Angel Canyons (Fallen Angel, Lost Angel, Angle Cove), the Spur canyons (Red, High, Low), and White Roost canyon.
If you have any pictures that you would like me to highlight here of Robbers Roost, please email me at Brett@Canyoneering101.com
San Rafael Swell (Utah):
The San Rafael Swell is located in southern-central Utah and is part of the Colorado Plateau, but is a type of anticline (or fold) that was pushed up about 40 million years ago and has created this unique area. Along its outer edges is another geological feature called the "San Rafael Reef", and this is where most of the canyoneering is found. This reef has jagged cliffs and edges and features some deep canyons.
Most Swell canyons contain some amount of water which is contained in their potholes. These water levels change drastically with each passing rain storm too. What may have been calf deep is now a fully-emerged swim. There isn't much shade found in this area as it is a barren desert, but near the water sources are where you will find giant cottonwood trees that offer shade. Wetsuits are commonly used here, except for on the hottest of hottest days.
Rappels typically are not more than 10 in a canyon and are usually not higher than 200 feet. This place offers a step-up from beginner to intermediate skill-sets as they introduce potholes and keeper potholes. Most can be escaped using "partner assists" or a "bag toss".
Common rock types found here are Navajo and wingate sandstones, along with mudstone and limestone.
If you are canyoneering on the south-east of the Reef, *some* cell-phone coverage is to be found. But don't depend on it. The nearest towns from here are Green River and Hanksville (both about 45 mins away) which offer full-services, but eateries are very limited.
The land type is BLM and so camping will be dispersed where ever you can find a good location for your group. One or two 5-gallon containers in your vehicle are good ideas for water options.
Popular canyons include: Knotted Rope, Quandary, the Squeeze, Goblins Lair (which is in Goblin Valley State Park), Upper Black Box, Eardley, Zero Gravity, and the Baptist canyons. Non-technical canyons include the famous Little Wild Horse Canyon and Ding and Dang canyon loops.
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
Image Credit: Brett Johnson (C)
Virgin River Gorge (Arizona):
Zion National Park (Utah):
When people say they canyoneering in "zion" they are referecing the National Park and the canyons the side just outside of it. Some even include canyons that are more than an hour from Zion NP in the "Zion area", such as those found in St. George.
This is probably the most frequented place for canyoneering in Utah. And for good reason. There are over 55 documented Zion canyons that vary in every regard. I think most people like canyoneering here is because they can do a hardcore canyon and later eat in the town of Springdale from one of the fine eateries established there.
The canyons range from beginner friendly to experts only, with rappels from numbering from two to forty, and heights from 10 feet to 350 feet. Also, there are handfuls of commerical outfitting companies that will guide you through canyons OUTSIDE of the park. Commerically guiding in the park is banned/illegal.
Full-service towns and cities surround Zion N.P. and finding lodging, gas, food, and amenities is within anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes. Some even travel an hour from the biggest city in southern Utah, St. George, to canyoneer in or near Zion when hotels are in short supply or when hiking is also desired by your group.
Most canyons in Zion contain some amount of water. While not all are swimming, be prepared to get a little to completely wet.
ALL canyons, even ones that are not explicitly listed on the Zion Permits website, STILL needs a permit from the National Park service. You will need to get one in person if they are not available online. Zion is rigid (as they should be) with compliance with permits and frequently send park rangers at trailheads and IN the canyons themselves to check people. I myself have been checked for permits at the Subway, Mystery, Kolob, Keyhole, Pinecreek, and Spry canyons. It wasn't every trip, but they are there. And since they full jurisdiction over the entire park, they can search your campsite, cite you for speeding, arrest you for marijuana consumption since you are federal land where it is currently a federal offense, and issue permits for having a non-service animal in the park.
If your permit grants you up to certain number of people, its best not to go over that "quota" limit, otherwise again, you and everyone in your group can be cited and with a mandatory court-appearance in Springdale, Utah. Yes, even if you are from California and you get cited and are issued for a mandated court-appearance, you better show up or a summons for your arrest will be issued. If all of that sounds intimating, it's suppose to be. Obey the law of the land, keep your permits limited to your group, and keep a copy of the permit WITH you on your canyon trip, etc. and all will be fine.
Canyoneering is one of the most taxing services on the Zion National Park system due to the inexperienced getting injured, violations of permits, and congestion with the other hikers and campers that if you can make it easier for everyone involved, please do so. There is a reason why canyoneering is so popular here. If you don't like crowds, then Zion is probably not your place.
The best times to do these canyons are in the Spring, Summer, and Fall months. Except for the hottest days, i would bring a wetsuit to most of the canyons where they contain known swimming. (Check your beta!)
Beware of monsoon season or when rain is in the forecast. Numerous deaths have occurred within Zion due to flash floods (and others due to rappelling accidents).
Popular canyons include: the Subway, Keyhole, Heaps, Imlay, Kolob, Pine Creek, Spry, Mystery, Echo, Birch Hollow (which is on BLM land and does not require a permit), Behunin, Englestead, and Orderville Gulch.