We left Bryce Canyon last weekend not knowing if our intended destination of Escalante was going to be feasible. You see, this tiny, remote town on the edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has a reputation for being a dead zone for cell service. I know, I know…you’re sick of hearing about our never ending quest for a cell signal. Probably as much as I’m sick of writing about it. But the fact is that if we aren’t connected then we can’t work. And if we can’t work, we can’t travel. So until we win the lottery (fat chance since we don’t play) this is our reality.
Our first stop was at the national monument visitor center at the edge of town. We hoped to get some maps of the area along with information about the rumored permits needed to disperse camp on monument land. Well, it turns out that the visitor center is not open on the weekends this time of year. Real helpful. While there we checked both our AT&T phones and our Verizon MIFI device. The phones were pulling in full bars of E (unusable for data) and the MIFI a 1XRTT signal (also unusable for data). It was not looking good. We drove through town while monitoring our devices and after a few miles came to the Hole-in-the-Rock Road. A quick right at the start of the road brought us to a popular boondocking area with about 10 RVs spread around a meadow.
We found a quick spot to park, have some lunch and check the signal. Guess what? With our cell booster we got 3-4 bars of AT&T 4G and some Verizon LTE!!! We never expected that. After a look around we decided this could be a great place to spend the week, but first we had one more spot to check out.
Tim had been chatting on the Airforums with a guy named Jeff who was boondocking in the area. Jeff and his wife Coffee had found a nice spot off Spencer Flat Rd. and reported an intermittent Verizon signal that sounded promising.
This road is inside the national monument, but dispersed camping is allowed provided you use existing sites and don’t travel off-road. We passed a few sites marked with camping signs. Some were RV friendly and some were not. A mile or so in and we came to a large pull-off alongside a cliff overlooking the most magnificent view.
A cursory check of the Interwebs showed a similar signal strength as the first spot. So we maneuvered ourselves between a low tree and the cliff overlooking the view, and cranked up the booster antenna. A few months ago Tim removed the batwing part of our over-the-air TV antenna (that we rarely used) and mounted the cell booster antenna on top. When the TV antenna lies flat the cell booster antenna pokes up about 10-inches above the roof, but when the antenna is raised it gets an extra 3 feet of so of height. For the most part we don’t need to raise it, but in an area like this where the signal is coming from far, far away the extra height makes a noticeable difference. We also have a directional antenna (that flat paddle looking thing) but are not convinced that it is working correctly.
In any case, we’ve been here for five days and with the booster are getting 3-4 bars of AT&T 4G and 3-4 bars of Verizon LTE. The Verizon occasionally drops off to nothing, and then we simply switch over to AT&T until it returns. Without the booster both signals are weak and sometimes non-existent. So if you come here and need a strong signal to work, make sure you have a booster and good antenna (we like our weBoost and Surecall Omni-Directional Antenna).
I’ll be posting more photos or our site and the surrounding area later in the week, but right now I’m anxious to share the story of two incredible slot canyons that we explored on Sunday. We’ve been in slot canyons before — both near Lake Mead, NV and in Anza Borrega State Park, CA — but I can now confirm that those are downright boring compared to what’s going on here in southern Utah.
There are probably hundreds of slot canyons in this area, but only a few that are rated “non-technical” and suitable for us normal (wimpy) people who prefer not to use ropes or wade through several feet of water. The two most popular are Peek-a-boo and Spooky gulch. Both are considered easy hikes, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they are for everyone. As you’ll see by the photos, these canyons may be rated “family friendly” but that doesn’t mean you should drag along grandma in her wheelchair, or your newborn in a backpack.
Peek-a-boo & Spooky Slot Canyons
To get to the canyons we drove back to Hole-in-the-Rock Road and followed it south for 26 miles. There are a number of interesting attractions and trailheads along this 62 mile dirt road that runs from Escalante all the way to the shore of Lake Powell. At the end you will find a narrow crevice — or hole in the rock — that early Mormon explorers used as passageway to get through the canyon and to the other side of the Colorado River. It’s a pretty impressive story of fortitude and adventure. You can learn more by visiting the NPS site or Utah History To Go. While we would love to drive all the way down to see where this incredible feat occurred, the road is covered with a teeth rattling washboard surface, and driving 26 miles each way was about all we could handle.
Soon we reached Dry Fork Road and drove an additional mile to the trailhead. The trail starts with a short but steep hike down into the sandy bottom of Dry Fork below.
Once you reach the bottom the entrance to Peek-a-boo Gulch is immediately to the right. The two canyons can be hiked as loop, and there is some debate as to which direction is best. Personally, I can’t imagine doing it any other way then how we did it — up Peek-a-boo and down Spooky — but others say the same thing about the opposite direction so I suppose it’s all a matter of personal preference.
The entrance to Peek-a-boo starts with a climb up a 20 foot rock wall. There are steps carved into the rock that Tim scrambled up with no problem at all. I, on the other hand, struggled a bit with the last five or six feet. I couldn’t figure out where to put my feet so I could reach up and haul myself over the edge. In the end Tim reached down and pulled me up. Without him I would have never made it.
It may look intimidating, but if you’re a person of normal height (as opposed to 5’2″ like me) with a reasonable amount of upper body strength you should have no problem. After conquering that first obstacle we immediately encountered a few more 5-6 foot tall rocks that we had to climb up and over. I wasn’t sure I could do it at first, but after I watched a 10-year-old boy show his mom (who was about the same height as me) how to pull herself up and over the rocks, like you’re getting out the pool, is how he described it, I copied his technique and made it up all of them. It was not graceful though as I basically pulled myself up and flopped over the side like a dead fish, but I did it. Tim also helped me on numerous occasions by offering a helping hand. I can’t imagine attempting to hike this alone.
After making it through that section the rest of the slot canyon was a piece of cake. We marveled at the smooth rock walls, color striations, and impressive formations all around. Water sure can do amazing things.
At the top of the canyon the rocks widened and we climbed up and out onto a flat, sandy plain.
A well worn path and rock cairns led the way across the mesa and down into a wash where we found the top of Spooky Gulch. There are two main differences between the slot canyons. The first is that while the sides of Peek-a-boo are smooth, Spooky is covered with little rough bumps that give the walls a textured look.
The second difference is that Spooky is much narrower than Peek-a-boo. Narrow enough that most people need to walk through sideways, some of us have to squeeze through, and some would not make it at all. It starts off pretty tame with a pleasant walk through the canyon. We enjoyed the beams of mid-day light light streaming through the roof of the canyon and had fun ducking around and under a sandstone arch.
And then things got really interesting. We reached a massive rock fall obstacle that we had to somehow navigate down. The family that was in front of us in Peek-a-boo had almost finished making it down, and we watched as a trio of college kids went next. It was basically a giant jumble of rocks with a small opening that you had to navigate through and down. The drop down was around 10 feet. Tim went first and was able to shimmy down backwards while hugging the rock and then drop to the sandy floor below.
He then made a cradle with his hands and I wedged one foot onto the side of the canyon, used him as a step for the other foot and let myself kind of slide down the rock. Both my arms got scrapped pretty good on the way down, but I made it and lived to tell the story. There’s no way I could have climbed up that without some sort of ladder, which is why I can’t imagine hiking this canyon in the reverse direction.
After that we encountered a few more obstacles we had to navigate down, but the hard part was mostly over — unless you consider squeezing your way through a twisting, increasingly narrow canyon with sheer walls on either side hard. Good thing neither of us are claustrophobic.
Eventually the fun ended and we walked out a wide wash and back up to the parking area. There is another slot canyon nearby called Brimstone, but we read that it’s even narrower than Spooky and usually has a few feet of water that you need to wade through. We decided to pass. We also wanted to see the Zebra Slots (where the walls are striped like a zebra), but it sounds likely to have water this time of year. More to add to the list for next time.
My final thoughts on these slot canyons:
- Obviously, if you are claustrophobic, not confident in your ability to scramble over and down rocks, or don’t enjoy stretching your physical abilities, this is not the hike for you. However, if you are looking for some adventure combined with incredible beauty go for it. Despite the difficult spots I would not hesitate to hike these slots again.
- We never felt unsafe or in danger. This is a very popular hike and at no point were we far from other groups of hikers. I felt confident that if something did go wrong there were plenty of people around to assist. I also knew that thousands of people had walked through these slots before us which reassured me that there really was a way out :)
- These are considered kid friendly hikes. For the most part I would agree. Kids are small and would have no problem slipping through the narrow parts. And as long as you have two adults to help them up or down the rock falls they should be fine. Of course, if you have kids that need to be carried, or ride in a back pack, this hike is not at all suitable for them.
- This should be obvious to most, but the danger of flash floods in these canyons is real. Never, ever go in a slot canyon if there’s even the slightest chance of rain!
- If this looks boring or not technical enough for you, never fear, there are tons of more technical slot canyons around to explore. You know the kind where you need ropes and rock climbing skills? The one we heard a lot about is called Red Breaks. Not for us, but if that’s your thing look it up.
Up next: More hiking around Escalante!