Utah by Dirt: Canyoneering in Escalante National Monument
“Alright, everybody feel good? Are we ready to commit to this?” Sam shouted down the canyon, juggling the tail of our rope as he waited for an answer.
Enthusiastically we shouted back, “Let’s do it!”
“Alrighty!” he said, then quickly yanked the rope. It came cascading down, landing on the sandstone deck, the slap echoing off the walls. That was it. That was our way out. I looked on through the dark canyon ahead of us, walls closing in, water becoming deeper. The course was obvious but its characteristics, ever changing. That’s the beauty of canyoneering, once you commit, you only have one option, and that option is down.
After a week of running around Moab, biking the White Rim Trail, and floating Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River, we were capping off our trip with some good old canyoneering down in Escalante National Monument. With big-name national parks like Zion and Bryce hovering around its borders, Escalante remains fairly untouched and unknown outside of Utah. It’s a truly magical place. Red and white sandstone canyons weave in and out of the landscape as far as the eye can see. Neon green cottonwood trees flourish in the perennial springs that harbor rainbow and brown trout. Crossing paths with another human is fairly uncommon; it’s a desert all to yourself and one of the few remaining wild places in southern Utah.
We had made our way from Moab via the Burr Trail Road. Originally formed in the late 1800s for livestock travel, this now scenic route cuts through the landscape, traversing up the waterpocket fold of Capitol Reef National Park and spitting you out into Escalante National Monument. Eventually the road ends in Boulder, Utah, a small farm town filled with passionate locals who thrive in this little desert oasis. We meandered our way up Highway 12, which myself and many others agree to be one of the most scenic highways in the country. The ground gives way on both sides, and you drive a ridgeline that overlooks the entire monument, meandering your way on the hilltops until it plunges you down to the river bottom, working its way toward the town of Escalante.
We were meeting our friends Sam and Michael at the Escalante Outfitters, a an outfitter with a tasty stop that’s not to be missed. Gorging on pizza and beer, we discussed our plan of attack, locked in the logistics, and then made our way to the Egypt Trailhead, where we were to begin our two-day adventure. The goal was Ringtail and Neon Canyon with a quick stop at Fence Canyon. Base camp would be along the Escalante River, a gorgeous body of water that cuts through the stunning red rock, allowing all who venture here opportunity to cool down, nestle up against the shade, and drink fresh water to the heart’s content.
An early start was key to beat the desert heat. After packing up our bags and sorting food, we began our descent on the steep sandstone walls, our eyes on Fence Canyon as we followed cairns from previous travelers. Sam wanted to warm up with some mellow canyoneering and see how our group functioned together. Fence Canyon is non-technical, but some sweaty palms were had when we were stemming 20 feet off the ground, limbs stretched from end to end.
Canyoneering has a lot of amusing moments. Wedging your body in whatever position possible, there’s a lot of grace involved, but you definitely have moments of idiocy. One hand stretched out here, one foot over here, another above your head, the other arm tucked between your legs … whatever keeps you wedged between the walls and off the ground. We monkeyed around the canyon for a few hours and then continued our way toward Neon Canyon. A slog across deep sand at midday made the corners of our mouths foam as we thought about the fresh water from the Escalante just an hour away. We dropped into the canyon and soon the river could be heard. We hastened our pace as we bushwhacked through endless Tamarisk, an invasive plant species that is the one downfall of Escalante, but decently manageable. Sam parted the last bit of shrub to reveal the river and our hearts quickly dropped. Before us lay a torrent of chocolate milk, the muddiest I had ever seen it, and not only that but it was flowing twice to three times as high. Not only was drinking it out of the question, but getting across would prove to be quite a challenge. Slightly disheartened, we set up camp and quickly began brainstorming on how to get fresh water. The silt would instantly clog any water filter so we had to locate a clear stream or pool to pump from. Sam and Carston volunteered to hunt as we continued our setup.
Hours went by without any sign of our water gatherers. My Nalgene water bottle had long been depleted, and the afternoon heat, even in the shade, was starting to take its toll. Max and I casually talked about some alternative options if fresh water wasn’t available; not an ideal thing to do at the start of a trip but wouldn’t be the first time things go wrong. Eventually Sam and Carston returned triumphant, liters of clear water filling up their backpacks, but the source not accessed with ease. It was enough to get us through though and with some sifting of the river water combined with pumping from the potholes in the slot canyons, we stuck with the plan and continue on with the trip.
The next stop was Ringtail Canyon. A quick walk from our camp, we gathered our things and faced our first obstacle—the river. Sam and Carston went first, the water getting to about waist high as they made their way across. I saw Carston stumble which definitely made my nerves jump a bit. If someone as fit as Carston is getting worked by this torrent, lord knows how gracefully I’ll fare. I made it across … barely, and a few more crossings would serve an even greater challenge, but with the help of the group, we were fine and heading toward Ringtail.
“The last time I did this canyon it was bone dry, and my buddy was here a few weeks ago and said the same thing,” Sam proclaimed as we strapped our helmets on. We were going to do the canyon from the bottom-up, working on our stemming techniques and turning around if the climbs became too challenging. We got to the mouth and Sam abruptly stopped. Right there, at the entrance, was water as far as you could see and not just any water, but bone chilling teeth chattering cold as f*** water. With the notion that there wouldn’t be any, we left our wetsuits behind and there was no way we were doing this canyon without them. Sam had said earlier in the trip there are two things that kill people in the desert: dehydration and hypothermia. Not wanting to test this theory, we turned around and made our way back to camp. All I could think about was Neon Canyon, and how it’s notorious for a lot of swimming, something that would cultivate a lot of misery if the water was even half as cold as Ringtail. I put it in the back of mind; no reason to dwell on it, just have to deal with it.
A little defeated and quite hungry, we lifted our spirits with a massive pot of fancy ramen, one of my favorite backcountry meals. All you need is:
-One package of ramen (I prefer the Sapporo brand over classic ramen)
-Dried shiitake mushrooms (found at most grocery stores)
If you want to get extra fancy, I recommend bringing some dried cilantro or basil, peanut butter, and dried onion/garlic flakes. Bring your water to a boil then turn off the stove, toss in the noodles and accoutrements, and then let it sit for about five to ten minutes. Maybe give it a little flash of heat before serving, but not always necessary. Just like that you have a huge bowl of fancy ramen!
With a full belly, I waddled back to my tent, dreaming of slot canyons and water until the melody of harmonious farting from the neighboring tent accompanied by laughter indicated it was go time. We packed up our gear, devoured some coffee, and made our way. A 6 a.m. river crossing was brutal, but our crew had gotten the hang of the fast water and made it through without issue. We walked along the canyon rim, taking in the sunrise and perfect weather, wondering what Neon would be like. This is a classic slot canyon of southern Utah and probably one of the most highly photographed due to the last rappel going through the Golden Cathedral; a stunning red rock cavern with a massive hole in its ceiling. People, including myself, hike to see the Cathedral alone due to its sheer beauty, but to be able to go through the entire canyon and actually drop into this desert treasure was incredibly exciting.
We rappelled down to our entrance and basked in the warmth of the sun while putting on our wetsuits—5/4mm was the suit of choice for this day and lord was I hoping it would be enough. The last time I went canyoneering I felt the beginning effects of hypothermia after being miserably cold for hours, and it’s a feeling I definitely wanted to avoid. The first rappel was immediately into water, indicating hours of swimming ahead.
“At least we’ll be hydrated,” I thought as I plunged into the murky pool, holding my breath for that blow of icy death.
But it never came. I immediately began giggling, the semi-cold water doing nothing with my rubbery second skin protecting me. If anything, it was quite pleasant! I swam through the narrows, staring around at the serene sandstone walls, enjoying the peace with moments of laughter cutting through the silence. It was nothing but pure bliss and our crew was instantly stoked. We made it through with ease. The one hazard, a pothole, was filled to the brim, not even showing signs of its existence. Eventually we got to the last rappel, the Cathedral, and I thought I was going to burst from excitement. Squeezing through the beginning, it’s almost tough to tell what you’re dropping in to, but about 15 feet down, you soon realize where you are and it’s hard not to just stop and hang for hours on end. Below a pool of water was waiting, the light reflecting off its glassy body, drawing shapes on the blood red ceiling. I stared around taking in the short time I had on the rope. Finally, I thought, finally I get to check this off the list, and I can’t wait to do it again!
As quickly as we started, it was over. Even Sam was astounded by how fast we went. All that was left was the slog back to the car and our fun little adventure would come to a close. Regardless of the time of day, the trek across the sandy desert would be a hot one. We dunked ourselves in the river before embarking on the journey, joking how it would be a miracle from whatever higher power if the beers in the car were still cold. I chatted with Sam the entire way back about everything from dirtbagging to future goals and existential existence. Sam is the epitome of the soul explorer. Having a roof over his head for the first time in seven years, he’s traveled all over the world, living off of almost nothing and venturing to places I’ve only dreamed of going. Now calling Zion his home base and having a steady job with a guiding company, his existence was a bit more predictable, but not in the least bit boring. He was already scheming up ridiculous missions and future adventures.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
One last push over steep sandstone and there were the cars basking in the hot sun, heat waves pulsating off the paint. I opened up my Jeep to a blasting wave of nuclear temperatures, half expecting the cooler to be melted against the seats. I slowly opened up the lid, nervous to see what weird science project had hatched in there while we were gone.
“No…way! Holy s*** you guys, THE BEERS ARE COLD!!” I loudly proclaimed, jumping for joy as I grabbed Pale Ales and IPAs to bring triumphantly back to the boys. We cracked our frosty brews and saluted to our fun little epic. The beer went down beautifully and I grinned as the mutual feeling of content weaved through the crew. We were stoked. Everyone was in one piece, we weren’t completely dehydrated, and had just experienced one of the most beautiful places in Escalante. Life was pretty damn good.
“So….what’s next?” asked Sam.
Up Next: More Canyoneering in Escalante
Previous: Video: Rafting the Colorado River
Previous: Video: Mountain Biking the White Rim
The Adventurists blog series “Utah by Dirt” is sponsored by Toyota 4Runner, which provided vehicle for this adventure.
Follow us on Instagram at @NatGeoAdventure!