Image: Lucas Löffler
Slot canyons are fantastically narrow gorges that are much deeper than they are wide. Formed by water rushing through sandstone and limestone (although some are also shaped in granite and basalt) they can be less than three feet across yet well over 100 feet deep! Hidden away, and with walls that remind one of abstract art, they are like sanctums provided by nature, but they can also be dangerous – even deadly. Notwithstanding, we’ve brought together some of the most interesting and beautiful ones we could find.
Image: G. Thomas
15. Spooky Gulch
Located off the aptly named Hole-in-the-Rock Road in Coyote Gulch, southern Utah, Spooky Gulch is so-called because so little sunlight is able to reach its sandy, streambed bottom. No wider than 15 inches in most places, it is 30 feet deep. Narrow isn’t the word!
Image: Florin Chelaru
Walking through Spooky Gulch would be enough to make most people feel pretty claustrophobic, and most hikers have to walk sideways through much of it.
Image: David Shield
This image has more purple colors than the others of Spooky Gulch, showing the variation that can be found in a single slot. Coyote Gulch is full of other slot canyons as well as other amazing geological features, such as arches and natural bridges, and is a popular place to visit.
Image: George Grossman
14. Pastel Canyon
This miniature sandstone slot canyon definitely reminds one of an abstract painting. Located in the ‘Valley of Fire’, it is said to be 20 feet tall and about 600 feet long. The Valley of Fire is Nevada’s oldest state park, dedicated in 1935. Some of the sandstone here is 150 million years old.
Image: Ben H.
13. Rattlesnake Canyon
This small slot is located on private Navajo land near Antelope Canyon in Arizona. Stunning colors abound, and the red sandstone walls feature beautiful, characteristic swirls.
Image: Gabe Farnsworth
12. Red Canyon
Although not very famous, this slot canyon sure is beautiful. It can be found near Orderville, Utah and is also known as the ‘Red Cave’. Part of Zion National Park – which is 229 square miles in size – some say it is even better to visit this spot when water is running between the canyon walls.
Image: Lana Gramlich
11. Secret Canyon
The brilliant purples, pinks and oranges in this Arizona slot – known as Secret Canyon – are testament to Mother Nature’s creative palette. Not far from the world-famous Antelope Canyon, it showcases over 1,500 feet of incredible sandstone formations.
Image: G. Thomas
10. Dry Fork Narrows
Also part of Coyote Gulch is Dry Fork Narrows, a slot canyon formed by flash floods carving their way through Navajo sandstone. You can see the height of one such flood where the branch is jammed between the canyon walls. A hugely popular visit for canyoneering types, it is about 20 feet deep and hundreds of feet long.
Image: Mark Willocks
9. Buckskin Gulch
Not only is Buckskin Gulch in Utah the longest and deepest slot canyon in the American southwest; it may be the longest on earth! A whopping great 13 miles in length, it is a tributary of the Paria River, which is itself an offshoot of the Colorado River. The temperatures here are much cooler than the surrounding desert because of the lack of sunlight.
Image: Ryan Grimm
Some parts of Buckskin Gulch require walking in ankle- or even chest-deep water and mud – there is even quicksand in some places! This slot should also never be accessed when there is a chance of rain. Flash floods pose a very real threat to hikers, with storms up to 50 miles away able to send 100 foot-high walls of water raging down between the narrow canyon walls.
Image: Joel Bensing
8. Echidna Chasm
Located in Western Australia’s wonderfully named Bungle Bungles sandstone area in Purnululu National Park (famed for its beehive-shaped hills), Echidna Chasm is an extremely deep and narrow gorge. Only 6 feet wide in places, its vertical walls rise as high as 650 feet, and it is well over a mile in length. There is a ladder in place to help visitors descend into the innermost part of the chasm.
You’d need to be dieting to get through this section of the gorge! As mentioned, some slots are so narrow that they are less than three feet across while others require abseiling or climbing equipment to access them.
Echidna Chasm was formed by a combination of tectonic forces, water entering the rock via fissures, and salt and ice that sped up the erosion.
Image: Mark Willocks
7. Water Holes Canyon
Not often visited, Water Holes Canyon is actually a series of wonderful slot canyons formed in red Navajo sandstone. It is found near Page, Arizona, and features narrow passageways and beautifully curved rock formations. The deep grays change to oranges as you hike further in, and the walls are shallow enough to allow sunlight to get in. Water Holes is 12.8 miles long when you include the upper section, lower section and two forks, and it requires a permit to hike in, as do other slots on Navajo land.
6. Zebra Canyon
It is easy to miss the fact that someone is standing down at the bottom of this stunning slot! Utah’s Zebra Canyon gets its name from the distinctive orange and white bands of its sandstone and is very narrow and twisty. If you want to go further along the canyon than 300 feet, you’ll need some climbing skills, as a 10-foot-high vertical dry waterfall blocks the way.
5. Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon is the most photographed slot canyon in the world, and for good reason. There are two sections, separated by a couple of miles. Upper Antelope Canyon is known as Tsé bighánílíní – “the place where water runs through rocks” – in the Navajo language; and the Lower Canyon Hazdistazí, or “spiral rock arches”. The canyon was formed by erosion of Navajo sandstone, mainly due to flash flooding and the slow wear of water and grains of sand rushing through its steadily deepening passageways.
Antelope Canyon is only accessible through guided tours, for despite the beauty of its smooth, flowing shapes, it is not a place for the foolhardy, as flash flooding here has led to tragedy.
Image: Christina Lambard
On August 12, 1997, eleven tourists were killed when a flash flood ran through Lower Antelope Canyon. The tour guide survived because he had swift-water training. Since that time, metal ladders have been bolted inside the canyon and other safety measures put in place. This canyon is beautiful – but potentially deadly.
Image: Jeffrey Sullivan
4. Subway Canyon
The aptly named Subway Canyon features wonderful curves that its creek has carved through the stone over millennia. It’s best described by the Zion National Park’s website: “Churning water chisels the rock floor, forming shallow potholes that fill to the brim with frosty water. Silhouettes dance freely on multi-colored walls where only a trickle of sunlight penetrates into the curved chamber of the Subway. Falling water echoes in the nature carved tunnel where dragonflies dart, frogs laze about and shimmering emerald pools tempt cold hikers to dawdle.”
Image: David Bjorgen
Al-Siq is a one-mile-long gorge that ends with the sight of the famous ruin at Petra known as Al Khazneh (“The Treasury”). In fact, the gorge – at points just 10 feet wide and with walls rising 300-600 feet high – is the main entrance to the ancient city and was formerly used by grand caravans.
Image: G. Thomas
2. Peek-a-boo Gulch
Another treasure in Utah’s Coyote Gulch, just off of Dry Fork Narrows, Peek-a-boo Gulch is a narrow slot canyon carved into sandstone that runs for about half a mile. It’s apparently a pretty fun slot to scramble through!
Image: Jason Hollinger
Erosion has formed a fantastic tube shape into Peek-a-boo Gulch that empties into the main wash.
Image: Orville Courtney
1. Happy Canyon
This stunningly colored image of Happy Canyon, south of Hanksville, Utah, gives the sense of the walls closing in above you. Photographer Orville Courtney says: “This is as close as I have ever gotten to having a picture look like what you see when you are in a slot canyon. You don’t feel the 15 degree+ temperature drop, or hear the cathedral like echo as you walk along, and in a really deep one there is almost a foreboding feeling. But if nothing else, it might give you an idea of why people really enjoy exploring them.” Nuff said.
Bonus: Love Passage
As a bonus, an interesting hole made by floodwaters, sculpted it into the shape of a heart. Magnifique!