Saturday, October 14
We had one final adventure planned for our last day in Escalante. An adventure that promised to be both challenging and spectacular. Red Breaks Slot Canyon is considered one of the longest, most stunning slots in the area. It’s also considered a non-technical slot which means anyone in good physical shape with basic climbing skills should be able to tackle this slot.
At one time, I believe this slot was only known to locals, but we were able to find a number of mentions and accounts of the trail online which tells me that it’s popularity has grown. That said, it’s still a lesser known hike in a very remote area of the Grand Staircase National Monument. It was a perfect fall Saturday when we hiked through the slots, and we didn’t see a single person.
The unmarked trail to reach Red Breaks Slot Canyon starts at the entrance to Harris Wash. We immediately crossed Harris Wash, walked down a dirt road for a few hundred feet and then turned onto Red Breaks Wash. The cottonwood trees in the washes put on quite a show for us on this sunny October morning.
We followed the wash for a few miles before the cliffs started to rise up on either side and soon we were inside a smooth-walled slot canyon.
It wasn’t long before we reached the first obstacle in the form of rock wedged about five feet above the canyon floor. These are called chockstones and over the course of this hike, we would be climbing over a LOT of them. The best way to tackle these rocks is to use a canyoneering skill called the chimney method. We’re experienced hikers, but know nothing about climbing so this would be our first real time using the chimney method.
After practicing a little this week in the other slots, we felt confident that we could make it up and over at least the smaller stones. The bigger stones would be much more of a challenge, but we would cross that bridge (rock?) when we came to it. While Tim made going up and over these rocks easy, I, on the other hand, struggled on every single one.
The biggest issue was that my short stature didn’t always allow me to chimney all the way up. Because the canyon walls widen as they go up, I often got to a point where my legs simply didn’t reach the other side. Fortunately, the chockstones almost never completely filled the space between the canyon walls. Usually, I was able to find a spot to wedge my legs or butt so I could scoot up high enough so Tim could then help haul me up and over. The first few obstacles were difficult, exhausting, and a bit scary.
The easiest obstacles were the ones where there was enough room to squeeze up and through the rock and the canyon wall. Not only did this make the climb shorter, but once you got your upper body through the opening it was easy enough to grab onto the top rock and pull yourself up. (Easy is a relative term here).
When we weren’t navigating the rocks, we marveled at the beauty of the narrow and colorful canyon.
Before long the canyon opened up and we once again found ourselves in a sandy wash.
Not only had we done a considerable amount of research on this hike, but we had also downloaded the GPS Coordinates for the unmarked trail on both our phones and our small GPS. It wasn’t really a hard trail to follow since most of the time we were in a wash or deep in the slots, but there were a few areas that required climbing out of the canyon to bypass large overspills. All that prior research helped keep us on track and I think for once we didn’t make a single wrong turn or have to backtrack.
I read that the main fork of Red Breaks is scenic, but pales in comparison to the Big West Fork. That is where we were headed. After following a path of footprints along the canyon rim we passed the dryfall below and walked back down into the wash. It wasn’t long before the canyon narrowed and we came upon our first major obstacle in the West Fork.
When we first discussed attempting this hike, an agreement was reached that if at any time either of us felt like we wanted to turn around the other person would go along without hesitation. On a hike like this in a remote area with no one else around, pushing ourselves beyond our limits is not a wise choice. Or so I thought at the beginning. I quickly realized that if I didn’t push myself beyond my normal comfort level we wouldn’t get far. The first, smaller canyon was a challenge for me. I kind of wanted to give up after the first few obstacles, but I knew how disappointed I would be with myself if we turned around that early in the hike so I pushed on.
As we reached the West Fork — which we knew was much harder than the first part — I was very nervous. I had seen a few photos of the first obstacle and figured this would be the test as to whether I could continue on.
Much to my surprise, getting past this rock was not only somewhat easy…but dare I say, fun? Even though I still needed Tim’s help to get up and over the top, I scrambled up this with relative ease. Suddenly I felt much more confident about making it through the rest of the slot. I allowed myself to relax and enjoy the next few obstacles. Up, over, and through..this is fun!
We cruised along through the next section, looking ahead for each new obstacle and carefully planning how best to tackle each one. We were so occupied by the beauty of the slots and challenge of the rocks that we almost missed this giant tarantula that suddenly appeared in a particularly narrow area. Yikes!
I think he (she?) was just as freaked out to see us as we were to see him. By walking slowly behind the multi-legged beast I was able to convince him to scurry down into a hole under a rock. Meanwhile, Tim was up ahead scrambling over the rocks as fast as he could.
It wasn’t long after the spider incident that we came upon the tallest, most difficult choke stone. I had also seen photos of this one online and I can now confirm that it’s much bigger in person.
At first glance, it looked simple with a nice “ladder’ of rocks that we could climb up the side. But as we stood there contemplating this giant rock it became apparent that this would be the hardest one yet. First, we had to get up the smooth section at the bottom that Tim is standing in front of. With no footholds or areas to grab onto it was a delicate balancing act to get up high enough so you could wedge your body in the narrow space between the large rock and canyon wall. Thankfully, the grippy rough sandstone helped us out.
The second part of the climb was even harder. What we didn’t realize from below was that the stacked up rocks jutted out farther at the top which meant you had to navigate both up and out to reach the top. I watched from below as Tim struggled to pull himself over the top. This was the first obstacle where he really struggled. That didn’t bode well for me. But my recent success over the previous rocks had me feeling confident and I easily scrambled up the first part.
And then things got really, really hard. The area was too narrow to chimney, and I couldn’t get my leg up high enough to put my foot on the first rock. The details are a little fuzzy in my mind, but I think I finally managed to get a knee on one of the rocks and shimmy up high enough to grab Tim’s hands. The rope also came out and I used that to help pull myself up inch by inch. As I neared the top, the rocks were too far apart for me to stand on and I basically braced myself back against the canyon and held on tight while Tim pulled me up and over the last four feet. It was equally terrifying and exhausting for both of us.
This was also the point where I realized there was no going back. Trying to get back down that crazy slope was not happening. As soon as I got to the top I sank to my knees and collapsed against the backside of the rock I had just climbed past.
We read a couple accounts of the West Fork Slot that mentioned nine or ten obstacles. We hadn’t been counting but were fairly certain this was the last big obstacle. At least we hoped it was. The slots narrowed quite a bit and we marveled at all the twists and turns and patterns from the narrow crack of light shining down from above. I was thrilled that we made it this far, but couldn’t shake the lingering fear that we would come across another 15-20′ rock.
Hiking through a slot canyon can be just as mentally taxing as it is physically challenging. Even if you’re not bothered by tight spaces, there is something a little freaky about walking through several miles of a canyon that at times is less than a foot wide. Especially when you look up and the sky is 100 feet above.
The narrow section lasted for a really long time. It was very scenic, but also difficult as we had to take our backpacks off and squeeze through sideways. To make it easier, we tied ropes to our bags and tossed them a few feet ahead so we could have both hands free. Hands and feet were essential at this point because the canyon was so narrow that we couldn’t walk on the bottom and instead had to place our feet up on the sides of the canyon while bracing with our hands.
Eventually, the canyon opened up just wide enough to capture a few more chockstones for us to climb over. Most were not much higher than 4-5 feet, and the one final 10-foot rock was the kind we could squeeze up and through. It was at this point that I realized how exhausted I was.
And then, just like that, the walls got shorter and welcome beams of sunlight poured in. We only had to make it through one last narrow section and we would be back out in the open. Much to my surprise, this part ended up being nearly as difficult as the large stone I had to climb over. The problem was that the canyon was too narrow to walk through, but also too narrow to chimney up and the only way through was to scoot up the vertical rock. I struggled for a really long time. I don’t know how long, but it was long enough that I had time to think about what would happen if I got stuck in there overnight.
Eventually, I was able to push down the rising panic, muster up all my strength and wiggle high enough up so Tim could pull me out. In the process, I got my foot stuck in a tight spot and had to yank it sideways into an unnatural position. At the time I was so relieved to be free that I didn’t feel much pain.
Soon, the canyon opened up to wash about 10 feet wide. I stumbled over to a large flat rock and I collapsed. It was 1:30 and had taken us four hours to hike less than 5 miles. I was done. My ankle was throbbing, my knees and elbows raw and scrapped my shoulders sore, and my mind still reeling from that last bit of tight canyon. The first words out of my mouth were, “I can’t go any farther”.
The whole time we had planned to make this a 15-mile round trip hike. We would hike up through the slots and then across the desert to a geological phenomenon called the Cosmic Ashtray (or sometimes the Cosmic Volcano). We’ve done hikes this long before and knew it would make for a long day, but figured we could handle it. Except we didn’t factor in the difficulty of navigating up and over all those rocks.
Tim could see that I had reached my breaking point and didn’t push me to go any farther. I’ve been known to give up on physically hard things in the past, and he’s been known to push back when I say I can’t do it, but this time he knew it was for real. We walked back around the corner to a point where we could scramble up and out of the canyon. From there, Tim navigated us back to the truck using the handheld GPS as a guide.
When I think back on this adventure, I am certain that I couldn’t have made it through with anyone but Tim. We might not always agree on the location of trailheads and have been known to argue about directions in the middle of a hike, but when it comes down to it, we work really well together. Not only did he haul me up and over a dozen or so rocks, but he calmed me during the scary parts and encouraged me during the hard parts.
Final thoughts on Hiking the Red Breaks Slot Canyon
I’ve tried my best to convey how difficult this hike was, but I feel it would irresponsible to put this post out into the world without stressing that this is not a hike to take lightly. For one, please don’t do this hike alone. Even Tim, who made it over all the obstacles without help, said he would have never attempted it alone.
Second, do your homework and be prepared for things to go wrong. Not only did we have multiple navigation devices, but we had stuffed our bags with extra water, a water filter, lots of high-calorie food, warm clothes, a first aid kit, an emergency blanket, an emergency fire starting kit, and a few coils of rope. We also told some friends exactly where we were going and instructed them to send for help if we didn’t check back in at a certain time.
Some people will likely find this an easy climb up a gorgeous slot canyon. For the rest of us regular humans, this might just be the craziest, most awesome, terrifying, challenging & rewarding hike you will ever tackle!
There are a number of online accounts of this hike. The two best that we found are Yourhikeguide.com and Summitpost.org. Also, I believe that at least one of the outfitters in the area offer guided hikes through the Red Breaks Slot Canyon.