Story & Photos by Chad Thatcher…
Descending the rope, the walls so close, the gap a mere two feet, you finally reach the bottom, only to find ice-cold water over your head. Swimming to stay afloat while getting your rope free from the belay device, you make your way to the edge of the pothole and climb up the edge. As you look over the side, your heart races: There is another 100-plus-foot rappel into a jungle of desert sandstone, water, and no floor in sight. Sunrays penetrate deep into the chasm, accentuating the red hues of the desert rock and reflecting off the water, displaying a magical light show on the canyon walls. This could only be canyoneering in the desert Southwest.
Grand Junction is only hours from the best canyoneering in the United States. The Colorado plateau has literally hundreds of slot canyons to explore, extending from the Colorado National Monument to the Grand Canyon and beyond. All you need is a sense of adventure and some basic knowledge — ropes and rappelling gear and how to make a bombproof anchor. Even if you have no experience at all, you can start exploring beginner level canyons and experience the fantastic feeling of getting immersed in the desert. Some of the best beginner canyons are located in the San Rafael Swell and around Moab. However, you’d better know how to identify a beginner canyon before you venture out. Luckily we have the internet.
To find these secret canyons, simply go online and get the beta you need to find the trailhead, the gear needed for the trip, and a properly rated canyon for your level. The best sites are Tom’s Utah Canyoneering Guide and Climb Utah. I use both and compare the information to get maximum details. I usually print out the spec sheets and put them into a ziplock bag for the hike though the canyon. To access Climb Utah’s entire website, you have to pay for a year-long subscription, but trust me, it’s cheap and worth every cent. The site is updated with new data constantly. The sites also provide a great introduction to canyoneering lingo.
Let’s talk about the rating method. The system, created by the American Canyoneering Association, gives the technical difficulty, the amount of water to expect, and the length of time necessary for the canyon. The difficulty is from 1 to 4, with 1 as canyon hiking, requiring no special skills, to 4, which is advanced canyoneering. For level 4, you need to be an expert who understands all the technical gear and knows how to do crazy things like escaping from keeper potholes. In other words, how to get out of a half-filled swimming pool in the deep end with no shallow ledge and no ladder. Not an easy task, especially in the middle of nowhere.
Next you need to know the volume and current of the water in the canyon; after all, these canyons are formed by fast-moving water eroding away the walls. Water levels can vary from no water (A), some water with swimming involved (B), to actual fast-moving water (C).
Finally you need to know the length and time required to complete the canyon; this is represented by the Roman numerals I to VI. I is a canyon usually completed in a couple of hours, II a half-day, III a full day, IV a really long day, V a two-day adventure, and VI two full days or more. At times you’ll see an R for risky or an X for extreme thrown into the rating. If you see these letters, the risk factor is substantially higher than the normal risks associated with canyoneering — and you’d better be prepared. Because rating systems are subjective, start out on the more mellow canyons and work your way up.
A magical place to start canyoneering is at Goblin Valley State Park, only a few hours west of Grand Junction. There are plenty of beginner canyons and a plethora of advanced canyons as well. Start out on Wild Horse canyon (1A II), then work your way through Ding and Dang (2A II-III), and don’t forget to explore the eerie goblin rock formations at sunset.
Moab is also a good place to start your adventures. Check out Onion Creek (2A III) or try something that requires a rappel, such as Cameltoe (3A II). Again, look online to find the right canyon for you. Soon you’ll want to try more technical canyoneering, requiring specialized gear and the knowledge to use it. Get specialized training or go with friends who know what they’re doing. Don’t just jump into any canyon, or you might find yourself head over heels — literally.
If you have three or four days, head down to Zion National Park, one of the premier canyoneering spots in the nation. You’ll have to wake up early in the morning and head over to park headquarters to secure a permit, but once that’s done, get ready for some fun. Almost all the canyons in Zion are technical in nature, so come with some gear and skills. And don’t forget your wetsuit: The Zion slot canyons are almost always filled with water and are cold even on 100-degree days in August. Some of the best canyons to start on are Keyhole (3B II) and Pine Creek (3B II). Both have great rappels and plenty of water; both provide a fine introduction to technical slot canyoneering. And do not miss the epic Zion narrows (1B II-IV), one of the easiest but most awesome canyons on the planet.
Consider the weather. During the summer monsoon season, a flash flood can fill a canyon in minutes, leaving you scrambling to find high ground. Never enter a canyon if the weather or forecast looks like rain. And remember, just because you see blue skies above, that doesn’t mean the weather up canyon is sunny as well. I’ve seen canyons fill up in less than an hour, as the sun blazed high above.
Think twice about entering a slot canyon alone. I am one who loves solo adventures, but canyoneering is not the place. If you must go alone, make sure someone knows your trip itinerary. Google Aron Ralston. His 2003 epic tale took place in the San Rafael Swell.
But don’t be frightened, either. Get outside and find your own canyon to explore. See if you can find the lemon squeezer in the Colorado National Monument. What are you waiting for? It’s just a few minutes away! ***
About the author: Chad Thatcher is an adventurer, writer, and photographer who looks for connections in life and in nature. He is the outdoor program director for Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado.
This and other select Grand Valley Magazine stories on this site are part of our GV Classics Collection. This story was featured in the September 2010 issue of Grand Valley Magazine (c) 2010.