This month we have a guest post from canyoneering guide and instructor Jared Hillhouse. Jared runs North Wash Outfitters, an adventure guide service based in Blanding, Utah. He also works with San Juan County Search and Rescue as lead instructor and ropes team commander. When it comes to exploring Utah slot canyons, Jared “knows the ropes”—literally. Below, he tells us about some of his favorite slot canyon trips in Utah canyon country.
by Jared Hillhouse
I grew up a Utah boy, living in the mountains of the Wasatch Front where I fell in love with hiking, camping, and fishing. In the late 1990s, I moved to southeast Utah and began exploring and hiking the area’s trails and canyons. I also started developing my rope skills and joined the local Search and Rescue team, where I met fellow canyoneers who shared my love of slot canyons. I soon realized that I was happiest when surrounded by red rock and deep canyons. So, in 2005 I decided to make my passion my work and started North Wash Outfitters, which became one of the first companies accredited as a training location for the American Canyoneering Association.
Over the past decade, the sport of canyoneering has exploded in popularity. In 2010, the movie 127 Hours was released and tells the story of outdoor enthusiast Aron Ralston, who was trapped for “127 Hours” in a remote slot canyon near Canyonlands National Park. Since then, adventurers have flocked to southern Utah to experience these narrow canyons created by erosion.
The slot canyons of southeast Utah are such amazing places to visit that they usually become the highlight of any vacation trip. Most visitors, however, prefer to put their safety in the hands of an experienced guide who knows the canyon and provides the proper equipment. All you need to do is show up, be fit enough to hike several miles in varying terrain, and adventurous enough to squeeze through narrow canyon walls. Oh, and not having a fear of tight spaces and high ledges helps, too.
Here are four slot canyon trips that will satisfy family groups and adventure junkies alike.
Fry Canyon is a great introduction to the sport of canyoneering. With two short slot canyon sections that run 200-300 yards long, a 45-foot rappel, and a bit of swimming, this canyon introduces you to the various obstacles you’re likely to encounter in a canyoneering excursion—minus the tight spaces (so if you’re claustrophobic, Fry Canyon is a good option). The water-filled chambers you’ll swim in are magnificent, and you’ll look up at a blue slit of sky through the top of the canyon. You’ll also see some native ruins in the canyon that show how ancient inhabitants lived and used the canyon as a water source.
Rating: Family-friendly trip; great for canyon newbies
Blarney Canyon splits into two separate canyons, and with a fast and fit group and constant movement, it’s possible to do both forks in one trip. Because of the break in the two canyons, you’ll get the opportunity to recharge your batteries with a hearty lunch back at the vehicle before tackling the second fork. Blarney offers tighter corridors and more scrambling, squeezing, and climbing. The trip includes four rappels up to about 45 feet and lots of gorgeous sandstone walls to marvel at. Unless it has rained recently, this canyon is usually a dry one with no swimming required.
Rating: Family-friendly trip, with a bit more physical work required than Fry Canyon
Although Leprechaun Canyon is split into three forks, we do an excursion that only goes into the eastern-most fork. This section of the canyon offers plenty of awesome scenery, which many people say rivals the famous Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. The east fork of Leprechaun includes three rappels up to about 40 feet and lots of tight spaces to squeeze through. In some sections, adults with more “generous” girths will need to climb a bit higher than the kids to get through the narrow spots. Leprechaun Canyon has several locations that can hold water, requiring short sections of wading or some fancy climbing moves to try and stay dry.
Rating: Intermediate-level trip; long day hike that requires some intense physical exertion
The Black Hole
At the extreme end of the slot canyon spectrum, the Black Hole of White Canyon offers a huge amount of scenery within its walls. But physically, it is one of the toughest slot canyon trips because you’ll spend most of the trip swimming. The canyon holds an enormous amount of water, and it will tax you quite quickly if you’re not prepared for it. Because the water is cold, wetsuits are worn even during the hottest months of the year. White Canyon is very prone to flash flooding, so it is best done during the spring and fall, outside of the monsoon season. Ironically for such a physically demanding canyon, there are generally no rappels required and only a few hand lines are needed to get through it.
Rating: More advanced excursion; long day trip that requires lots of swimming and hiking