Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: The day I thought I lost one of my best friends in a slot canyon in the middle of the Utah desert (AKA, the day we met the ‘thirsty spirit) – PART I

This is BY FAR one of my most favorite-ist stories from our 2013 National Parks road trip.

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Oh, just another day squeezing through a slot canyon in Utah

After spending a night camping at Escalante State Park (and petrified forest), we packed up our stuff and drove over to the Escalante Visitor Center to figure out how to find the gorgeous slot canyons that were featured in my Utah travel magazine. We showed the pictures to one of the staff. “This looks like ‘Spooky’….or maybe ‘Peek-a-boo'”, she told us. She then gave us a somewhat hand-drawn and photocopied map that laid out the driving directions to get there. We basically had to go down the highway, turn right at “Hole-in-the-rock” road (really?), drive down a road for an hour, and find the sign on the left that points to the parking lot for the  trailhead. I’m a bit timid when it comes to adventures, but we were game.

She also cautioned that we needed to bring plenty of water on our hike. A woman had died hiking out in the slot canyons just yesterday due to heat exhaustion and dehydration! She also warned us that the walls of the slot canyon tend to heat up and become like an oven in the middle of the desert. For unprepared or naive hikers, all of those elements are of course disastrous. The whole news was a bit freaky to hear (especially because it had JUST happened), but we were pretty confident with our two and three liter water bladders, plus our decent hiking skills.

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The view from Highway 12

The drive there was a bit of an adventure itself. Apparently, the way to the slot canyons (which, we found out, were in the middle of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument) takes you down a very bumpy all-dirt road. Every time we hit a huge dip or a bump I got extremely worried about my car. What if we blew a tire? We hadn’t seen ANYONE else on that road during our drive, and there wasn’t any water around us for miles. I imagined myself being forced to don my backpacking gear in an attempt to hike to the nearest farm or person to get help…if anyone was even nearby.

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Where…are we going…

After about 40 minutes driving through the middle of the Utah desert, we finally found the turnoff for the road (below) and made our way down the uneven road. That’s when, in the middle of nowhere it seemed, we finally started to see other cars on the roads driving towards us. It was a relief to know that other people were also in this area; however those roads weren’t really meant to be shared.

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The way to get there is a bit tricky, so if you do attempt this hike, make sure talk to the visitor center first. Despite the unevenness of the roads (some of them were so steep I was afraid that the car was going to roll over sideways), we made it to the parking lot, which – to our surprise – was filled with cars. How does everyone know about this place…?

It was about 11 am and about 100 degrees outside when we started our hike. We lathered up on sunscreen, filled up our water bladders, and wandered over to the only trailhead on the right. However, we soon found that, while there is a sign for the trailhead, there’s no real trail – it’s just rock cairns guiding the whole way down. We soon found this to be a bit of a problem since some of these unofficial rock cairns will actually lead you to the wrong area (looking back, I’m not sure if these cairns were created to guide hikers or were just decorative). We got lost and wandered around for a little while, mostly due to the mistaken cairns.

One of the rock cairns guiding the way...or misleading us?

One of the rock cairns guiding the way…or misleading us?

We finally heard a commotion that drew us to the edge of a cliff. As we made our way over towards the sounds, I could see a family with some teenagers climbing into a slot canyon. Great, we found it! But how could we get down there? The drop from where we were standing to the floor where the canyons started was about a 300 ft drop.

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I took a few photos as reference near the start of our hike (in case we got lost). I called it “The 3 Iguanas”

Luckily, Joy saw/heard another group go in another direction before we left, so we decided to head back and see if they had found the way. Our hike back led us to a clearer path led by more prominent cairns, and finally led us down to the desert floor. Thank gawd, we were almost there! While the sun was beating down on us like crazy, we were able to take refuge in the shadows of the tall rock cliffs we had just hiked down.

The map told us to follow the “wash” (which, I guess, is a dry riverbed that only gets used when flash floods occur), until we saw the first canyon called “Peek-a-boo” on the left. We found it pretty quickly, and hoisted ourselves up the slippery sandstone rocks.

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Small footholds for climb up into Peek-a-boo

OH MAN. The canyons ARE SOOOOOOOOOOO AMAZINGLY GORGEOUS!!

I thought to myself (but didn’t dare say it out-loud for fear of jinxing the experience): “MAN. Despite all of our troubles to get out here, these slot canyons are TOTALLY WORTH IT.”

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At the front entrance of Peek-a-boo

After climbing up into the first part of Peek-a-boo, we found a shady corner in the sandstone canyon walls and ate our lunch. And napped. The canyon walls were dusty smooth and so cool in the shade. It felt (and looked) amazing.

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Looking up at Peek-a-boo’s canyon ceiling

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Joy, striking a pose near the end of Peek-a-boo

After a while, Peek-a-boo stops being a thin, high-walled slot canyon and becomes a bit more ordinary in appearance, so we turned around and headed out to find “Spooky”. We actually got a bit lost and had to ask a random day-hiker trekking through the ‘wash’ to get directions for the turnoff to the second slot canyon in the area.

As you can imagine, “Spooky” is so-named because its walls are really, really, REALLY close together. To get through the slot, you must take off your pack and scoot sideways through the canyon. Not for the claustrophobic (or “big boned”).

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“Spooky”

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I see you.

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Ducking under

At first, we moved through Spooky at a “glacial pace”. We took a lot of photos, did some handstands and headstands between the walls, and kept wandering. There’s a part of the canyon where you have to start climbing up the walls if you want to continue going further in.

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Joy, doing a headstand in a wider part of the slot canyon

As we started climbing deeper into the slot, we met a couple coming down the opposite way that had actually hiked through Peek-a-boo and around to Spooky. They mentioned that we were actually not too far from the end of Spooky, and that we could see some interesting land formations and an arch if we got up to the top. Joy was interested in checking out the top, so we continued on (she’s a bit more adventurous than I am).

Me, peering up

Me, peering out

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Joy, peering up

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After a while however, we neared what almost looked like a dead end. The rocks in front of us were too hard for the both of us to scale up by ourselves, so I asked Joy if she wanted to keep going towards the end of the canyon, since we were (supposedly) almost there. She was down, so I hoisted her up so that she could keep on climbing through the slot. I stayed below so that I could wait for her and help her climb back down.

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I took this photo just before I hoisted Joy up into the upper part of the slot canyon. Later when I was freaking out, I looked back at this photo and wondered if this would be the last time I ever saw her…

As Joy left to climb deeper into Spooky by herself, I sat on a rock and waited for her to return. And waited. And waited. And…waited. Minutes passed by. The wait seemed like forever.”She should be near the end of the canyon, what could be taking her so long?” I thought to myself. I stayed and waited for some more. But as the day progressed on, it started to get hotter. The canyon walls, which once provided us shade and refuge, had finally started to heat up and radiate heat around me. I finally understood what the guide at the Escalante visitor center meant by the oven-like dynamic of the canyon walls. As my fears of a potential disaster began to escalate, I started to panic. I had no water (we had left our packs by the entrance of the canyon), it was probably about 2 pm in the middle of a Utah desert, and no one was around for miles. What if I had to go for help, would anyone even be around?! I didn’t know what to do.

I stood up and started calling her name. The canyon walls didn’t look higher than 20 or 30 feet. She should be able to hear me, right?

“JOY.”  I called out, loudly.

(Silence)

“JOY!!!”

“JOOOOOYYYY!!!”

“JOOOOOOOOOYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!

“JOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOYYYYYYYYYY!?!?!?!?!! WHEEEERE AAAAAAARE YOOOoooUUUUUU!??!!!!”

The fear rising inside of me started to reach a feverish pitch. I had begun to suspect the worst. With the heat and my fears rising, I couldn’t bear it any longer. I knew that I needed to stay put to help Joy down if she came back. But what if she was hurt? What if she was lost? What if she couldn’t come back and I was sitting there waiting forever when I should have been out trying to get help?

After a bit of deliberation, I made the tough decision to head back to the front of the canyon to see if anyone was around. I could get our water and could perhaps even see if I could locate her along the way. As I made my way back (navigating the narrow canyon at a pace much quicker than the hike in), I continued to scream out her name. I heard my calls echo up and down the canyon walls, but no one’s voice responded to me in return.

A million paranoid thoughts ran through my mind as I hurried back towards the front of the canyon:

“What if she fell and hurt herself, and can’t walk back?”

“What if she tripped and fell off the rock and is lying hurt or dead somewhere?!”

“What if she got lost? The guide at the visitor’s center mentioned that one of the biggest dangers is that people get lost out there all the time, especially between Peek-a-boo and Spooky!”

“How long should one should wait to see if someone returns, before going out and try to find help?”

“What if there’s no one around for miles?! Would I have to hike all the way back out and drive another hour or so out to find help?!”

“Should I go up there and find her? What if I get hurt and can’t find her OR my way back? What if I get lost AND she’s lost?!”

And even…“What if she finds me gone from the place she last saw me and tries to climb down the rocks…and hurts herself then?! Should I go back and try to find her again?!”

And then, I began to think about what would happen if the worst were to occur:

“What if Joy dies?! OH MY GAAAWD HOW SAD WOULD THAT BE !!!?!!”

“Oh my gawd, what would I tell her parents?”
“What would I tell ROBERT (her boyfriend)?” Oh my god, how would he feel?!”

I did have a small sliver of hope, however. Right before we left on our month-long road trip, Joy did a quick tarot card reading about our upcoming adventure. She pulled the three of Cups, which means “celebration”, “community”, “exuberance” and “friendship”. If she didn’t see anything bad in our reading, that means everything will turn out okay. Right? Maybe?

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Hurrying back to the entrance of the canyon

When I got back I found our packs, but no one seemed to be around for miles. I walked outside of the canyon and started to call for Joy again. My shouts echoed and bounced around in the air, but nothing – no one – replied back in return. Fearing what might happen if I wasted any more time waiting for a potentially hurt Joy, I made another desperate decision to hike out in an attempt to find help. However, as I began to walk out, I suddenly realized that I should go back and scribble a message on the canyon wall by her pack, just in case she returned and found me gone.

I entered the canyon once again and continued to call her name:

“JOY!!! JOOOYYYYYYYY!!! JOOOOOOOOOOYYYYYYY!!!”

And…just before I reached her pack near the entrance of the slot, SHE POPPED OUT.

“WHAAAAAAAAT?!!!” she yelled at me.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUGGHGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!”

I’ve never been so relieved in my life. I told her about how I waited for her and feared the worst. I also told her about ALL the fears and thoughts that had been running through my mind when she didn’t return (she found that pretty comical). Then she told me her side of the story:

So what had happened was… the end of the canyon was actually a lot farther than we had both thought – Joy had to climb up even further (doing a bit of rock climbing, even) to get to the end. When she finally did end up making it up to the top, she had to walk even further to find anything of interest to see. After taking some pictures of an arch and the rest of the landscape, she found her way back down – only to find that I was gone from the place she last saw me (she was somewhat upset, which is understandable). But she eventually found her way back down (I think she slid down the walls) and made her way back to the start of the canyon, where we finally reunited.

She didn’t hear ANY of the times that I had called out for her until the very end, some feet from the front of the canyon.

DAMN. At least that was over! For now.

Even though she was safe, we knew that we had to get out of there fast. It was about 2:30 pm, and it was becoming unbearably hot out there. We got all our stuff together and made the hike back out, which took a while. There was nowhere we could hide from the heat. Even the shadows of the tall cliffs were no longer cool. EVERYTHING WAS HOT all around us. It felt like an oven out there!

After some time hiking back along the wash, we turned left and finally found a sign pointing to the trail. It was one of the only trail signs that we saw in the area that day.

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The way back to the car…

Luckily, we weren’t the only ones out there. While most of the area was deserted, another family was also making their way back up – a grandfather, parents, and some older kids. However, the trail back up was still hard to find. We found a few rock cairns, but it was a STEEP climb back up. In the middle of the afternoon in the hot Utah desert, we had to stop many times to rest, drink water, and catch our breath. The heat, our sweat, and the incredibly steep hike up was ridiculous. We couldn’t wait to get back to the car!

At one point, Joy said, “I think we’re almost there. We just need to get up to those rocks, and we’ll be back to the parking lot soon”. But as we got to that point, we found even more steep hills to hike. JEEZUS. When would we reach the end?! It was almost unbearable.

As we kept climbing higher and higher, I found that the connection around my water bladder hose had somehow loosened up and was leaking water down my back and legs. Shit! This was NOT the time to be losing water! I was slightly afraid of running out of water before reaching the car. I know that people can go for a fairly long time without water, but still. Most people aren’t hiking through the desert.

Finally, we found our car. I looked at my watch: it was about 3 pm. We were one of two cars left in the parking lot.

As we drove off, storm clouds started to rise over Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The rain was a nice break from the heat, but I began to worry again. What would happen if we got caught in a lightening storm? Would the car shield us if lighting struck our vehicle? (I looked it up later – I actually think it would. But at the time, we were in the middle of the desert and didn’t have any place to hide if we needed to!)

After all said and done, we made a few agreements:

1) Don’t split up! If one person needs help, the other person knows what happened.

2) If you must split up for whatever reason, wear a watch and agree on a time to meet back together.

3) Don’t start hiking through a hot desert after 10 am. If you do, make sure to return before 1 pm or so. The heat is crazy dangerous!

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Exhausted, dirty, and still very sweaty in our hiking clothes, we drove down the highway (through the muggy rain) towards our next destination: Capitol Reef National Park. Little did we know that this story – and our adventures – would continue out there…!
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(to be continued…)

Okay, just because they’re so cool, here’s some more photos of the slot canyons:

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P1100883-146I know the story sounds a bit scary, but people make the hike out there all the time. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT. Just bring a lot of water and supplies, and take a map!

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9 thoughts on “Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: The day I thought I lost one of my best friends in a slot canyon in the middle of the Utah desert (AKA, the day we met the ‘thirsty spirit) – PART I

  1. Janet says:

    Very cool photos and great story. Looking forward to the continuation.

  2. Yes! When my final examinations are over, the stories shall come more frequently! 🙂

  3. I love the way you tell the story of these two ridiculous, beautiful slot canyons. I was out there a few years ago, when a woman in a group behind us essentially could not squeeze thru the narrowest part of Spooky. What a scene! Amazing place.

  4. David Wasserman says:

    We actually had to push a very overweight woman, who was in front of us by herself, through Spooky in mid afternoon heat. We were concerned she might get heat stroke. Incredible place!

  5. t tran says:

    thanks for posting! was looking for some information on the area and this definitely helps!

  6. […] Reef. Joy’s foot blisters still hadn’t healed, and we remained a bit drained from our hike through Escalante’s slot canyons just the day before. I wanted to check out the park’s famous Waterpocket Fold (it looks […]

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