When you think of Vegas slots, you instantly think of the flashing lights and constant bells and dinging inside of a smoky casino, pulling the arm of a machine hoping to hit the jackpot. What you don’t realize is that the best slots you could ever experience in the world are just outside of Las Vegas in the desert, not inside a casino.
What I’m talking about are slot canyons, nature’s best kept secret and something so rare and beautiful that it took mother nature millions of years to create. When you finally have the chance to discover one of these earthly crevasses, it’s better than winning the lottery, because you will be transported to a place so surreal and beautiful, that even when you are walking and climbing through one, it doesn’t seem natural or real.
For those of you that don’t know what a slot canyon is, it is a narrow canyon usually found in a desert formed by the wear of water rushing through rock. It is strange to think of rushing water in a desert, but when it does rain and flash floods form, they can be very powerful and quick and over years, they have formed these amazingly smooth canyons.
Slot canyons, sculptured by water over millions of years, offer an adventure experience that is amazing and vastly different from anything you've probably seen before and they look like an artist came through and sculpted the walls, not Mother Nature. A slot canyon is significantly deeper than it is wide. Some slot canyons can measure less than three feet across at the top but drop more than 100 feet to the floor of the canyon.
Many slot canyons are formed in sandstone and limestone rock, although slot canyons in other rock types such as granite and basalt are possible. If you have watched the Indiana Jones movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the scene where Sean Connery and Harrison Ford were looking for the Holy Grail was actually filmed in Petra, Jordan, in the Siq (one of the most famous slot canyons in the world).
That narrow canyon, not much wider than a crack, was the entrance to the city of Petra. It was entirely carved into the sheer cliff faces of a canyon during the crusades and one of the most magical canyons in the world.
You don’t have to travel all the way to the Middle East to see a natural wonder like Petra. In fact, Southern Utah has the densest population of slot canyons in the world with over one-thousand slot canyons in the desert lands south of Interstate 70.
Utah's slot canyons are found along Canyonlands National Park's Joint Trail, within the San Rafael Swell and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, especially along the Escalante River drainage including Coyote Gulch.
But the granddaddy of all slot canyons can be found in Zion National Park at The Narrows, with walls rising nearly 2,000 feet and are only 30 feet apart at the extremes. Other slot canyons have a different appeal and are unique in their own way like Buckskin Gulch—one of the longest slot canyons in the world—which begins in southern Utah and continues into northern Arizona within the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.
Northern Arizona also has a high concentration of slot canyons including Antelope Canyon and Secret Canyon, which are two of the most famous slot canyons located near Page on land owned by the Navajo Nation.
Slot canyons are also located in the valley between U.S. Route 89 and the Vermilion Cliffs in Arizona and can be seen as one descends into the valley on U.S. 89, but these are on the Navajo reservation and are closed to the public.
In contrast to the Grand Canyon which is a mile deep and ten miles across, a slot canyon can have walls that are only a few feet apart and be so enclosed that sunlight rarely reaches the bottom. Slot canyons offer an intimate experience on a small scale versus an overwhelming experience on a massive scale.
What is so magical about these canyons is the way the light and colors can completely change based on the time of day and time of year that you are exploring them. Sometimes the sunlight can cast bright orange and red hues in summer and purple and blue hues in the winter.
If you are climbing through a slot canyon during high noon in the summer, sometimes ethereal beams of light can shine down into the canyon illuminating it like God himself is shining a flashlight down in there.
As a professional photographer, I am obsessed with not only finding and exploring these hidden wonderlands but also with the fact that you can never take the same photograph down there twice depending on what time you happen to be visiting. It leaves me wanting to come back again and again at different times of the year, trying to chase and capture the changing light.
The slots are as varied as their locations. Some, like Upper Antelope Canyon in Arizona, are widely known because photographer Peter Lik made it famous by selling a photograph of the slots for over $7 million (the most expensive photograph ever sold).
Others are known only by word of mouth or are kept a secret on purpose because they exist on Navajo lands. Some are easy hikes, but others require ropes and experienced rock climbing to navigate and explore them.
What I realized is that there is no real resource for the average explorer to find these hidden gems in the desert other than word of mouth. So when I did a recent photography workshop outside of Page, Arizona to photograph Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, I was flooded with people asking where it was and how to get there.
So I decided to compile a list of slots within a 4-hour drive from Las Vegas that will awaken the Indiana Jones inside of you, take you on endless magical adventures through the desert, and leave you wanderlusting for more.
Upper & Lower Antelope Canyon, Owl, Rattlesnake, Navajo Nation- Page, Arizona
Most of you have seen photos of this place and not ever realized where it was. Located just a few miles outside of Page, Arizona, you have to book a tour to go see any of these canyons, since they are technically on Navajo lands and not accessible without a Navajo guide.
Upper Antelope Canyon- Page, Arizona
Antelope Canyon, east of Page, Arizona, and about 270 miles northeast of Las Vegas, is popular all year, but spring and summer are peak times for visitors because of the remarkable shafts of light that laser down to the canyon floor.
Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are on Navajo land, about a 90-minute drive from the Utah border. A Navajo guide is required to drive you over the desert wash in a Suburban out to their hidden entrances and to enter them.
You can learn more about guides, photography, and even nighttime tours through the canyons through Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours, No matter who guides you, visitors usually are limited to two hours in these canyons and it sounds like a long time, but it flies by and never seems like enough time.
The guides know all of the best spots to take photos and even can enhance the light by tossing dust from the canyon floor into the beam. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see a double beam as I did in April of last year.
It was almost like a religious experience. Beware though, this canyon can get very crowded during the high season with tourists, but it still will be one of the most incredible places you have ever walked through.
Lower Antelope Canyon- Page, Arizona
Upper Antelope Canyon receives the majority of visitors and is the better destination for photographers, but Lower Antelope Canyon is more intriguing, longer, deeper and more of an adventure. The Lower Antelope is accessed via ladders and a crack in the earth and is a bit more strenuous to visit.
Unfortunately, 11 people died here on August 12, 1997, as the result of a flash flood (a very rare occurrence). In order to explore this canyon, you have to descend into the ground, where Upper Antelope is at ground level with cliffs rising above you.
As you wander deeper into the canyon, its smooth walls seemed to part before you and float up to the sky. It was so quiet in there as if we were the only people there. For some reason, I felt the need to whisper inside of this place. The vibe was solemn.
Gradually, the canyon envelops you as you walk through the sandstone walls. As light traveled gently over the smooth swirls of canyon walls, they seemed both frozen in time and breathing, their colors constantly changing, glowing.
Because it is so much deeper, Upper and Lower Antelope is darker than Owl and Rattlesnake, its colors more muted to the naked eye, but are unlocked and vibrant when you use a tripod, which is a necessity here. Look up, though, and it will take your breath away.
Owl Canyon- Page, Arizona
Named appropriately, because it’s the residence of two majestic great horned owls, exploring this canyon in the morning is a magical experience. The owls were home, dozing off in one of the crevices, their feathers grey and blue in the cool morning light.
Our guide, Josh, said that these owls lived in this canyon for as long as he could remember, always a pair, but nobody has ever seen their owlets or could find the owls’ nest. This canyon is not as majestic and awe-inspiring as Antelope, but it’s as unique as its inhabitants.
This canyon was very intimate and still, its sandstone pock-marked and covered with lichens, some black, some colorless yet they can turn emerald-green with rain. It’s amazing how many colors you can find in a dry, seemingly lifeless desert.
Rattlesnake Canyon- Page, Arizona
This small but stunning slot canyon is also on Navajo land just southeast of Page. Again, native guides are a must. You wouldn’t want to go without them because you would never find the entrance to this place otherwise.
Here we used the same company as we did for Antelope Canyon, but what makes this canyon different and even better than Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon is that no one knows about it. Both times I have explored this place, we were the only souls in there for almost two hours.
This was a more challenging entrance, with several ladders to climb and some squeezing through cracks involved in exploring this place, but the canyon is less narrow and the light is brighter and easier to photograph in there for amateur photographers.
Water and the wind have shaped Rattlesnake’s walls into dizzying swirls of color — purple, orange, red and hues that don’t even have a name. In places, it looks as though a large can of mixed paint has been hurled into the canyon by some mystical hand.
By the way, we did not see any rattlesnakes there, but its namesake comes from the twisting and winding shape of the canyon, not it’s inhabitants.
**Upper Antelope, Lower Antelope, Owl Canyon, and Rattlesnake Canyon can all be explored in one day through multi-canyon tours with Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours
The Narrows & Orderville Canyon- Zion National Park, Utah
A nice way to break up the three-hour drive from Las Vegas and get out of the heat of the desert is by stopping in Zion National Park. I googled the best hike to go on and discovered a hidden gem in the park called "The Narrows."
The Narrows is deep within the canyon of Zion National Park and you have to take the shuttle from the visitor's center to get there. The hike itself gets its name because of the narrow canyon walls. The hike is along a river and then the two canyon walls get so narrow on either side of you (about 20 feet wide) that for most of the hike you are walking through the river itself.
The canyon walls also tower over you at over 100 feet tall, so you'll find yourself in the shade and nestled in between slick rock walls the entire hike. We wore just bathing suits and had our camera gear in a waterproof backpack and we splashed through the canyon sometimes waist-deep during our hours long like, stopping to swim and take hilarious videos and photos. It was the perfect kind of hike to do during the hot afternoon sun and it’s definitely one of the more unique and fun hikes I have ever done.
This slot canyon is so different from the others, because not only it is one of the largest slot canyons in the world, but you have the element of the river running through it, making the hot desert way more fun and bearable.
It felt more like a water park than a hike and the scenery was stunning. After the refreshing hike, we made it back to our campground in the late afternoon and settled in to grill our dinner and camp. The campground is located near the entrance to the park.
Little Wild Horse/Bell Canyon, Utah
I am very fond of these two, which are about eight miles from Goblin Valley State Park; 20 miles north of the town of Hanksville on Highway 24 and about 630 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The smart thing to do is to stop in at the Goblin Valley Park headquarters and check on weather and road conditions. No guides or permits are required.
The most popular hike is known as the San Rafael Swell, a giant dome of rock created millions of years ago. Its rugged rock formations, old cabins, and history make it an increasingly popular draw.
Like the Antelope Canyons, the multicolored Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons can take about a half-day to complete if you do both.
Here, as with all slot canyons, be sure to carry water and check the weather. You don’t ever want to be stuck in one during rainfall or without water for hours while traversing crevasses underground.
White Domes Trail, Nevada
Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, about 52 miles north of Las Vegas, offers a brief hike on the White Domes trail that will take you to a lovely, short slot canyon that seems to have avoided getting an official name.
Guides are not required. Permits aren't required either. Frankly, if you're coming from Vegas and ready to leave the crowds behind, this might be a relief.
The trail is a quarter-mile-long and sits not far from the abandoned film location of the 1966 movie “The Professionals,” which starred Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. You will need hiking shoes rather than athletic shoes for this one because the terrain is uneven and a bit sandy.
The canyon shows a variety of colors as the sun moves, which means its splashes of orange, red, blue and purple create a rockscape that is unique to the moment.
Going in summer is not advised; temperatures can soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter and spring are the best times to visit.
Mosaic Canyon, California
California’s best-known slot canyon is in Death Valley National Park.
It's just beyond the town of Stovepipe Wells, so you'll have to pay the park entrance fee of $20 (good for seven days).
There is a good-sized parking area for the canyon, after which you walk about a quarter of a mile on an easy trail to the entrance.
Mosaic Canyon gets its name from the rocks known as mosaic breccia (Italian meaning "fragments"). You'll find fragments scattered around the floor of the narrow section of the canyon.
But it’s what's called the Noonday Dolomite — limestone that became marble-like, formed when the area was beneath what now is the Pacific Ocean — that will grab and hold your attention.
If you visit during the late afternoon or early evening, the setting sun often turns the 750-million-year-old walls into shades of gold that will leave you entranced.
You'll cross into some flatter terrain in the upper part of the canyon and, when you reach a centuries-old rock fall, that means it's time to turn around and stroll back.
The Wave Petrified Sand Dune- Coyote Butte, Paria Canyon Wilderness- Arizona/Utah Wilderness
Until a few decades ago, only a handful of people knew about “the Wave.” Today there is a lottery to determine who gets in. I had seen a photo a year ago of a place in the Utah/Arizona wilderness called “The Wave” it is located in Coyote Butte and you have to apply 9 months in advance just to get a permit to hike into this place.
It’s a Petrified sand dune formed 160 million years ago during the Jurassic period when this area of the United States was all the bottom of the ocean floor and now it is a hardened wind-swept bowl of sandstone and minerals, with bright orange swooping forms, shapes, and patterns in a canyon of smooth rock. Its shapes, colors, and sloping lines are surreal and out of place in this vast desert.
After you are granted a permit, they will mail you a wilderness map with photos on it where you have to line up the photos to the landscape in front of you and follow the instructions in order to hike and find your way to this secret location. There are no rangers, no bathrooms, no services, NOTHING here, so make sure you are very prepared, have a compass, GPS, and plenty of food and water in order to make this hike.
From Vegas, it’s about a 4-hour drive into the Arizona wilderness, and then the hike will take about three hours (each way) if you don’t get lost. Definitely check the weather, because we hiked through snow and 30-degree weather, because YES, blizzards can happen in the desert apparently! Since you have to apply for a hiking permit on a specific day 9 months out, you can never prepare for the weather ahead of time. It was intense and so beautiful. The entire adventure and journey just to get to “The Wave” were almost more spectacular than the destination!
Consider hiring Dreamland Safari Tours to take you on a guided Wave Tour, instead of braving the elements and hoping to not get lost like we did!
Peak-A-Boo, Spooky and Brimstone Gulches-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Peak-A-Boo, Spooky and Brimstone Gulches are 3 distinct slot canyons accessible in a single day hike. Peak-A-Boo is fairly short and shallow slot that gets plenty of sunlight. It has a smooth texture and light color Peak-A-Boo is the first of the three slots. Continue far enough into Peak-A-Boo and you'll eventually climb out the top at the end. Spooky is completely different. It's a narrow affair with a rough texture and dark color. It gets so narrow in places that you have to suck in your stomach and contort your body to get through some of the water contours.
Spooky is completely different. It's a narrow affair with a rough texture and dark color. It gets so narrow in places that you have to suck in your stomach and contort your body to get through some of the water contours.
It eventually becomes so narrow it's impassable. Further down the trail, you eventually arrive at Brimstone Gulch. Most people don't go as far as Brimstone Gulch. It's a fairly long walk to include a round trip to Brimstone (add approx. 2.5 miles). There's also a boulder obstacle not too far from Spooky.
If you have the time and energy, it's worth the extra effort to climb. Brimstone is narrow, deep and dark. So dark in places that you can't see and have to feel your way along. Bring a flashlight if you plan to hike Brimstone.
Access is via the Hole in the Rock Road along highway 12 between Escalante and Boulder, Utah.
The Hole in the Rock Road is a graded dirt road for most of its length. Take a lot of water if you plan to take this trip. Use caution when taking the side roads to the trailheads, they can be rough or even impassable.
A high clearance vehicle would have made the trip more pleasant; but isn't required to access the Peak-A-Boo trailhead when the road is dry. Check locally to determine road conditions to your destination. There are a couple of ranger stations in the area (Boulder and Escalante) that can provide more information.
To reach the trailhead: drive south on Hole in the Rock Road from highway 12. You'll pass Cat Well and Early Weed Bench around mile 24. Continue approximately 2.5 miles. You should see a lone juniper tree on the right with 2 trunks.
A short distance from the tree, turn left and continue about 1.5 miles to the trailhead. A four wheel drive vehicle opens up more options to explore Escalante. If you plan to spend more than a couple of days in the area, you probably wish you had one.
Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon - Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness (south border of Escalante National Monument near Page, Arizona)
Buckskin Gulch is perhaps the longest slot canyon in the world. It's 100 to 200 feet deep and 30 to 50 feet wide for more than 12 miles. It is a bit of a trek to get out there, but definitely worth it.
From Page, Arizona, travel west on Highway 89 until you reach the Paria ranger station. You can stop here to obtain more information about the area including a map. To reach the Wire Pass trailhead, continue west on 89 to an unmarked, gravel road on the left (south) at 0.8 miles past mile marker 25.
You'll see the road just after Highway 89 crests the top of a hill. The unmarked road is known as House Rock Valley Road. It's about 34 miles from Page to the turnoff. Don't be fooled by the weedy, overgrown vehicle tracks nearer the top of the hill, go a little further. As you crest the hill, you'll see Highway 89 curve off to the right ahead of you. House Rock Valley Road heads south of 89 just as you would begin rounding the turn.
House Rock Valley Road can be a bumpy ride in a passenger vehicle and may require a 4-wheel drive when wet or after storm runoff has washed out sections of the road. It's advisable to check road conditions at the Paria ranger station and confirm your understanding of the directions.
After turning south from 89, stay left at mile 2.5 where the right fork goes to Five Mile Mountain. At mile 4.4 you'll pass through a wash. Follow the road passed the turnoff to the Buckskin Gulch trailhead about a quarter mile after the wash.
You'll eventually reach the Wire Pass trailhead 8.4 miles south of 89. The Wire Pass trailhead is the shortest and most popular route to reach Buckskin Gulch. Wire Pass is also an interesting portion of the hike that you'd miss taking other trailheads.
It's about a 3.4 mile round trip from the trailhead through Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch. It's up to you how much distance you'd like to add hiking Buckskin Gulch from here. Buckskin Gulch is 12.5 miles long eventually reaching the Paria river.
The hike through Wire Pass requires navigation of two obstacles. In October of 2001, a ladder was put in place to assist hikers over these challenges. If you need the ladder to get down the 2nd obstacle, you should keep in mind that anyone going the opposite direction can move it to help them up the first one. But, it might not be there when you get back. As a result, you should be confident that you can climb the 2nd obstacle without the ladder.
Definitely check the weather before you go and don't hike this area if there is rain in the forecast. The water can get very deep and fast flowing.
Escalante National Monument, Utah
There a bunch of slot canyons in Escalante National Monument to choose from. A few are mentioned above, but keep in mind that there are a number of others many of which are just a short distance from each other along Hole in the Rock road.
Ranger stations can provide more information and are located in or just outside of Escalante, Boulder and Kanab. The Paria ranger station can also provide.
Most of the slot canyons in Escalante are accessed from the north via Highway 12. These include many of the Escalante slot canyons as well as Lower Calf Creek Falls.
You can also reach different areas of Escalante from the south via Highway 89 closer to Page, Arizona. If you're planning to make the drive around, consider stopping in Zion, Bryce, Capital Reef, Cedar Breaks and the Grand Canyon as they're all in the vicinity.
Lamatium Canyon and Arches National Park, Utah
Lamatium Canyon is an unmapped, unmarked area within the Fiery Furnace of Arches National Park. The only way to reach this area is to find it on your own or have a guide take you. Special permits are also required from the National Park Service to enter the Fiery Furnace. You'll also have to pay the National Park entry fee if you haven't already.
Be especially careful not to disturb the area, walk only on rocks and don't leave footprints in the cryptobiotic soil (the guides will explain this to you). This hike is technical and involves two rappels.
Having a guide is a must since they will provide the equipment for you. The hike takes most of the day and is very enjoyable and lunch is provided. Contact Desert Highlights to make arrangements for this trip.
This article was first featured on Venuelust.
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