When one thinks of canyons worth traveling to see, iconic choices come to mind. In the U.S., there are the Grand Canyon, Snake River Canyon and many more. Across the border in Mexico is the Copper Canyon. Tibet and Peru boast canyons that rival (by some measures exceed) the Grand Canyon: the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon and Cotahuasi Canyon, respectively. What’s your favorite canyon? Leave a comment.
Some canyons, though, merit attention despite their relatively shallow depth and modest length: slot canyons.
Slot canyons are narrower than they are deep, often to an extreme degree. Formed by flowing water eroding rock in a tight seam, some canyons feature dramatic sculpturing of the nearly vertical cliffs.
Conditions for forming slot canyons don’t exist everywhere. In the U.S., they’re most common in southern Utah, with lesser numbers in Arizona, a few in New Mexico and California. There are slot canyons in the Pyrenees and Australia, among other places.
I had my first-ever opportunity to hike into a slot canyon on our recent trip to the Anza-Borrego Desert.
Access to The Slot (yes, that’s its name) is 13 miles southeast from the center of Borrego Springs on paved roads. From that point, there are 2 miles of gravel “jeep road,” which most ordinary vehicles can negotiate. Don’t take the Ferrari.
From the parking area on high ground above the canyon, you get a good view of the rugged Anza-Borrego Desert. That’s the head of the canyon at the bottom of the photo below.
The descent into the canyon (and the climb back out) is the only moderately strenuous part of the hike. Most hikers of even modest ability will manage it easily. Here, looking down a little less than 50 feet, you see a person in the upper portion of The Slot, which is relatively wide and open.
The floor of the canyon is relatively even, and you walk southwesterly down a gentle declivity. Over the .8 mile hike you’ll descend only 100 feet. The best part begins at about .3 miles in, when the walls close in to within a meter or two.
Here’s The Counselor about to enter the dark, narrowest section.
And me, emerging.
With only two or three feet of clearance and nearly 50 feet of rock wall rising straight above you, it’s a memorable experience. If you’re direly stricken with claustrophobia you might have a problem, but there is always sunlight above you, and it’s not an enormously long passage through the narrowest parts.
Always remember to look up, because there’s a lot of canyon above you.
And keep looking up.
The walls are mostly bare rock, but sediment has clung to some portions, carved into intricate patterns.
The canyon finally widens into a broad wash, giving you another view of the San Ysidro Mountains to the west.
You can follow the wash farther downstream, then left in a long 180-degree curve on a wide track usable by some vehicles and back up to to the parking area if you want more hiking, less canyon. We preferred to turn around and have the experience of going back the way we came. It isn’t a steep climb, as you’ll already know from walking downstream.
It’s hot in the desert. It was about 100 degrees on the mid-April day we were there. Take water. Extracting heatstroke victims from a narrow canyon 20 miles from a town takes a lot of time and effort. Wear shoes, not flip-flops. You’ll be walking over rocks and gravel and occasionally going up or down a few feet in narrow places, not to mention the more demanding walk into and out of the canyon at the start and finish.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is about 75 miles east of Interstate highway 15, northeast of San Diego. If you travel east on Route 78, The Slot is accessed by a left turn onto Buttes Pass Road (gravel jeep road) 1.4 miles after you pass Borrego Springs Road. Keep to the left at the fork on the jeep road. If you arrive in Borrego Springs from some other direction, take Borrego Springs Road southeast from the traffic circle, turn left on 78 and go 1.4 miles to Buttes Pass.
The access trail to the canyon isn’t immediately obvious. Fortunately, avid travelers Tim and Joanne of anotefromabroad.com have excellent detailed instructions (and photos) in their recent post about The Slot, which I relied on for my trip. Find their article by clicking here. Give ’em a like. Thank you, Tim and Joanne.
A BIG, Serious Caveat in Any Slot Canyon
Slot canyons can be treacherous. Rain in the desert tends to come in sudden, torrential storms. Some watercourses originate many miles away. Rainfall on the high ground can collect and concentrate into the extremely narrow slot canyon, bearing down on you as a literal wall of water with enormous speed and power. As you can see from this one example, there is no way to climb up, and you can’t outrun flowing water. Hikers, even experienced ones, do drown in slot canyons when caught in those circumstances. Check the weather report, or call a ranger office if there is one (Anza-Borrego’s is +1.760.767.4205).
Do you have a slot canyon destination to suggest? Please leave a comment.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.