Text And Photography By Roger And Caryn Hill
Slot canyons are on every nature photographer’s “must-photograph” list. While getting into some of the canyons is relatively easy, safety is a key concern, and you always need to take care that you have the proper permissions since many slot canyons aren’t on public land. Above: Upper Antelope Canyon on Navajo land, near Page, Arizona.
Antelope, Little Wild Horse, Peekaboo, Secret. The Colorado Plateau region of the southwestern United States is home to one of the most interesting and photogenic features in the natural world, the slot canyon. The plateau has captured the imagination of thousands of photographers and geologists alike, with its weathered and exposed rock formations, which were sculpted, twisted and cut into rock layers millions of years old to only hundreds of years old. But, for us, it’s the narrow and often deep canyons that cut into the various layers of sandstone that provide an adventure and photographic opportunities that are second to none. We’ve been hiking and photographing slot canyons for many years, spending weeks each year in the Colorado Plateau region.
Secret Canyon, Navajo land, near Page, Arizona.Each slot canyon is quite different and beautiful from any other, and the various areas of the Colorado Plateau have slot canyons that are unique to that region and as different as every snowflake that falls. Formed from the violent rains and winds that pummel these areas year after year, slot canyons can be only a few feet deep to hundreds of feet deep, and from 30 yards long to as much as 21 miles long. (Buckskin Gulch in northern Arizona is touted as the longest slot canyon in the world.) Some are so narrow that you have to slide sideways and sometimes crawl through their floors, while others can be 50 feet wide. Slot canyons also sport various colors, from gray, orange, red, yellow, green and white, based on the sandstone and rock formations that they were cut from, with their beauty being unmatched in nature.
The most photogenic slot canyons are located in central and southern Utah, and northern Arizona. Various regions in Utah such as the San Rafael Swell, the Robbers Roost area, the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Lake Powell, as well as northern Arizona, contain the most beautiful slot canyons, but also the most challenging to reach. Slot canyon exploration in Utah usually requires no special permits, while most of northern Arizona is Navajo land and requires either a permit or a guide to enter.
Types Of Slot Canyons
There are two categories of slot canyons: technical and nontechnical. Technical slot canyons require full canyoneering gear such as harnesses, carabiners, rope, helmets and other items needed for rappelling and climbing. (It’s important to take a class first!) Nontechnical slot canyons are those you can explore without the need for most gear, and are considered much easier and simpler to access. There are many slots that do require technical gear to explore, but there are also many that don’t and are quite beautiful. All, however, require extensive hiking and sometimes scrambling, chimneying and bridging over narrow floors, debris from floods and water obstacles. Some technical slot canyons may require rappelling 100 feet down or more, and may have high dry falls to rappel down.
Taking your gear, including camera equipment and tripods, may be challenging in technical canyons. However, once on the canyon floor, things typically get easier. For nontechnical slots, you can often follow a wider canyon upstream until it narrows into a slot. These are usually simple to explore and don’t require the technical gear for complex canyons, leaving you more options to carry camera equipment and tripods. Michael Kelsey has written several books on the various slot canyons in the Colorado Plateau, including how to explore them and their locations. His books are fantastic!