Canyoneering in Grand Staircase


There is a crack in the Earth. I am a bug in that crack, looking up at a slit of blue sky. I stand chest deep in icy water at the bottom of a slot canyon in an empty corner of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Can desert water be this cold? Five minutes ago, I was standing on sand, underneath a sun-baked red rock buttress, wearing sunglasses and a wide-brimmed Lawrence-of-Arabia-style Sahara hat. Now, I’m in the depths of this black hollow, nearly naked, listening to the echoing shouts and commands of our guide, ahead in the darkness. “Swimming! Oh, oh, oh! It’s cold! It’s cold, it’s deep,” he yells, beckoning us further up and in.

I imagine my skin to be turning blue, cold, lifeless. I feel something wriggle under the water, on the canyon bottom, and I envision water snakes — a whole den of water snakes that I’ve been unlucky to trip over. But it’s only a stick in the muddy river bottom, tickling my ankle. So I plunge forward, second in line behind our guide, searching for the light at the other end of this tunnel.

This was the fourth day of a six-day guided hiking and canyoneering trip I took in October to explore Grand Staircase-Escalante. Our group of seven hiked for hours and miles each day in the 1.9 million-acre park, rarely encountering evidence of other humans. Skittering lizards and birds turned a strange eye to us, trespassers walking through their homeland.

When we did encounter human artifacts, they were ancient. We saw untouched Anasazi ruins with millennia-old maize cobs preserved perfectly through the dry, antiseptic decades and centuries.

In some ways, however, the park is very young: It became a national monument in 1996. A loose network of rustic campsites, logbook sign-ins, unmarked trails and washboard gravel roads form a vague infrastructure at Grand Staircase-Escalante that’s a simulacrum to a Yellowstone or a Grand Canyon National Park of the 1940s. There are no paved trails, no fancy, air-conditioned visitor centers, no shuttle buses. There are also no crowds, no endless drone of sightseer traffic, no slow RV caravans.

By and large, this is wilderness unfettered, loosely governed, only slightly monitored by a small park staff. Its ruggedness and remoteness keep it that way. It’s the kind of inhospitable, alien countryside early white settlers associated with doom and damnation, and the place names reflect that: Hell’s Backbone, Devils Garden, Spooky Gulch, Death Hollow, Sulphur Creek.

For our journey in the park, we have U.S. Geological Survey maps, 1:24,000 detail. Topographical lines lay tight and winding on the paper, canyons dropping off sheer from 6,000-foot mesas, roads just faint black lines in an immense tangle of intricate, carved natural detail. For our journey, we also have Steve Kasper, a 48-year-old Californian who’s led more than a dozen trips through Grand Staircase-Escalante. For the next few days, Kasper would be our cook, our human pack mule, our archaeology professor and, most critically, our guide.

The first day was typical. Kasper grabbed a stick from the ground next to our van and began sketching our day’s route in the sand. Looking up from a squatting position, stick in hand, Kasper told us how the route would take us downhill through a wash that narrows into a river canyon and eventually pinches off into a slot just 2 feet wide and more than 100 feet deep. This initial canyon would then spit us out onto a wide river bottom; from there we’d slink, squirm, swim and climb the day away exploring tributary streambeds and ancillary slot canyons with walls of rock that can close down to 8 inches in places.

In other words, as we traverse the desert landscape, we will be partaking wholeheartedly in the slightly absurd, strangely alluring sport of canyoneering.

Each day in the park left its own impressions. Within its vast boundaries we encountered ancient petroglyph graffiti, sprawling plateaus, natural arch bridges, riverbed oases, mountains and innumerable labyrinthine canyons.

But Zebra Canyon is the place that defines Grand Staircase-Escalante for me. Standing at its mouth on the fourth day of the trip, Kasper describes it as insurmountable. Because I’m a veteran rock climber, the description sounds like an invitation, a challenge. I want to be the first into the maw, the first to worm up through the narrows and scale the cliff at the end of the canyon to reach the desert plain above.

We head up into the canyon under towering sandstone walls, half the group surrendering at a particularly comfy sandbar just five minutes from the mouth, content to let me, the guide and one other compatriot — all three of us named Steve — continue into the unknown.

Steve No. 1, our guide, leads us into the first of Zebra’s many frigid pools. Steve No. 2, a writer from Orange County, Calif., goes second, howling just a little as particular body parts submerge slowly into the dark waters. I wait a couple of minutes, standing already a bit cold in a shadow in just a swimsuit, looking up at the sun baking the swirling red and orange rock walls above.

Black, spiderlike water bugs scatter on the surface as I paddle fast through the pool, gazing ahead 50 feet toward the next spot of dry land. I continue like this, swimming through pools, climbing up and over trapped boulders and basking in rare sunny alcoves to warm my skin like a lizard.

The canyon narrows to just a foot wide, my shoulders dragging on each wall. Then, I’m swimming in this narrow slot, no way around it, trying hard to keep my head above water.

Above, suddenly: blood on the wall, a big, bright-red smear on the sandstone above a boulder. I yell out — “Steve!” — hoping one of the two will answer from up ahead.

Nothing. An eerie desert silence. Subtle water sounds, quiet trickling and sloshing below the bloodied wall, water bugs bobbing on the ripples.

Around the corner, 100 feet ahead, in a sun patch, Steve No. 2 is leaning against the rock wall, wincing. He’s pulling on his ankle, looking down at the bottom of his foot, as if stretching out a hamstring. Blood drips from a puncture. “A snake bite?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “a stick under the murky water. Should’ve worn shoes.”

Steve No. 1 is ahead still further. His ambitions are the same as mine, and when I catch up with him, he’s staring at the first in a series of three cliffs that guard the canyon top. We’re in the shade, both of us shivering, and I’m feeling out the handholds, wet and slimy, on this first small cliff face.

I step off the ground, reach high to a hold and lunge at a shelf 10 feet up.

Easy scrambling for another 10 feet and I’m on top of the first slippery little cliff, looking down at Steve No. 1.

“Go on,” he says, “I’m staying here.”

I can smell the desert above, 50 vertical feet away. Again, I reach up and feel the initial handholds on a wet, slimy cliff face. A pool of water — motionless, rancid and green — is below my feet as I traverse over to the main wall and look up. It’s another leap to the top of this section. A slip would mean a soaking in the nasty pool below, and I’m picturing hidden sticks and Steve No. 2’s souvenir puncture wound.

Three times I lunge up toward the top and miss, catching myself on the recoil with a quick grasp of a large handhold. Steve No. 1 is yelling for me to come back; he’s cold and the group is waiting. My eyes are fixed on the cliff above. “Hold on,” I yell. “I’m really close, really.”

But I know I am not. This move is beyond my ability, and then there is another cliff further above that appears even more sheer. One more lunge, one more miss, and I turn to climb down, to slink back into the earth like a bug toward the Steves and their echoing calls.

Back in the canyon depths, I am with the water bugs again. Skimming my hands on the surface, raking fast through the ice water, lungs tight with cold, hoping to avoid the puncture stick.

The Steves are ahead; I can hear them talking and laughing with the rest of our crew. I can hear them explaining the blood, describing the beauty of the narrows, of the multicolor striped sandstone and orange light playing off tight twists of the canyon. I step out of the water, trudge over the sandbar and move out of the shade to finish the rest of the journey in the bright desert sun.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a 1.9-million-acre desert preserve in south-central Utah. Established in 1996, it is one of the nation’s newest National Monuments. Attractions include Anasazi ruins, grandiose desert topography, myriad slot canyons and some of the most remote country in the lower 48 states.

A Yosemite or a Yellowstone it is not, as the park is for the most part undeveloped. Amenities are limited. Park staff is stretched thin over the huge preserve. Trails are few and generally unmarked. Backcountry travel — via slickrock domes, sandy desert expanses and tight river canyons — is the norm.

I visited in early October on a guided trip with REI Adventures. Temps ranged roughly from 50 degrees at night to 90 during the day — quite comfortable with the right clothing and equipment. Springtime will likely be similarly pleasant; summer can be unbearably hot.

Our trip included an overnight backpacking journey into a major canyon of the Escalante River as well as several day hikes in four parts of the park. In addition to some serious canyoneering, our group — led by veteran guide Steve Kasper — hiked to an immense natural rock arch bridge, hunted for Anasazi petroglyphs and ruins (and found many), trekked over mountainous slickrock domes, and trudged knee-deep upstream in immense, precipitous river canyons.

Getting there —
International airports in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas are both about 275 miles from Grand Staircase-Escalante. While I flew into Salt Lake for my trip, Las Vegas often has cheaper airfare (and cheaper rental cars). It’s freeway driving about halfway from either city, with the remaining miles on gorgeous desert two-lane highways.

Hire a guide —
Because of my inexperience with desert wilderness and the sport of canyoneering, I decided to explore the park on a guided REI Adventures tour (1-800-622-2236, REI Adventures runs trips in the park each spring and fall. Prices start at $1,099, which includes all meals, some equipment, any park fees and one or two guides per group (depending on group size).

Explore the park —
For park maps, brochures, hike suggestions and up-to-date weather information, be sure to stop at the ranger station in the town of Escalante (755 W. Main St., 1-435-826-5499, It’s open mid-March to October, 7:30a.m. – 5:30p.m., seven days a week.

Wilderness-savvy individuals should have no problem exploring the park without a guide, but because of the lack of trails and because of the park’s remoteness, I’d recommend doing a lot of research, acquiring guidebooks and maps, and talking with park rangers before trekking off into the desert on an adventure. Snake bites, dehydration, rock fall, hypothermia and sunstroke are all real dangers in this region. The deep slot canyons are particularly dangerous when it rains, as flash floods rise abruptly.

A popular guidebook for the area is Falcon Guide’s “Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region” by Ron Adkison (1998). National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated “Canyons of the Escalante Map” is an interpretive map of the area with 1:70,000 detail.

Some good Web sites on the park: – –

Talk to locals or a park ranger about finding a free rustic campsite off one of the dirt-track roads. The towns of Boulder and Escalante both have hotels and private campgrounds.

Dining —
Do not miss the Kiva Koffeehouse (1-435-826-4550, on Hwy. 12 a few miles outside the town of Escalante. Southwestern cuisine, soups and breads, sweets, cold drinks and coffee are served in an amazing kiva-structure building overlooking a deep park canyon. Hell’s Backbone Grill is another must-do (1-435-335-7464, This gourmet oasis off Hwy. 12 in the town of Boulder serves seasonally-available Southwestern food off an ever-changing menu. I can honestly say one of the best meals I ate anywhere last year was at this beautiful, remote desert restaurant.