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The crisp grit of the sandstone brushes against my chest as I shimmy sideways. With my backpack in my left hand leading the way, I turn my face so that my nose doesn’t scrape the canyon wall as I shuffle laterally through the razor-thin passageway. Behind me, my husband, Will, tucks his six-foot frame between the immoveable slabs. Ahead, the pitter-patter of our daughter’s footsteps and delighted giggles echo throughout the red-rock corridors.
“It’s like these slots are built for kids,” I grumble as the sandpaper-like wall snags the fine weave of my merino shirt.
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It’s early October, and my family has traveled to south-central Utah to explore the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument region outside the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Escalante. Will and I have been here dozens of times over the years, navigating the elaborate labyrinth of slot canyons and striped sandstone that make the area so stunning. It’s a special place to us, and we’ve long awaited the time when we could bring our daughter. We made our first attempt when she was seven months old but were thwarted: a kid carrier is far too bulky to fit through the slender gulches. So, we returned when our adventurous three-year-old could tackle the terrain on her own two feet.
We settled on a classic double header: Peek-a-Boo and Spooky slot canyons. Situated in the Dry Fork area, each slot can be done on its own, but it logistically makes sense to pair them together. Hike up Peek-a-Boo, traverse overland, and then hike back down Spooky for a three-mile loop. Unlike other slot canyons in the area, these aren’t technical. You won’t need ropes or climbing skills, but scrambling prowess is a must. If you struggle with claustrophobia, I wouldn’t recommend this adventure; these canyons get tight.
As for our kid? No problem. While I sucked in my gut to fit through the skinniest sections (a mere 10 inches in Spooky Gulch), she scampered through with unparalleled enthusiasm for her newfound playground. She waited patiently for us when she needed a boost over a large boulder and delighted in the dark corners where she stealthily hid to scare her unsuspecting parents.
How to Plan a Trip to Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyons
When I first ventured to Peek-a-Boo and Spooky 15 years ago, they were a lot quieter. Today, this loop is arguably one of the most popular hikes near Escalante, but that’s relative. Escalante itself is pretty remote: an hour from Bryce Canyon National Park and 90 minutes from Capitol Reef National Park. As a result, you’ll see people on the trail, but don’t expect crowds like you find on the Front Range.
When to Go: Spring, summer, and fall are all options. In the spring, you’re more likely to encounter deep pools of water in the slot canyons. You can wade through them if you have the stomach for icy temperatures, or you can learn to stem or chimney over those sections. In the summer, your biggest concerns will be excessive heat and flash floods, which can be deadly in a slot canyon.
Trailhead: From Escalante, take UT-12 east until you come to Hole-in-the-Rock Road on the right. (If you can’t find it, ask someone in town. It’s a popular road with lots of dispersed camping). Hole-in-the-Rock Road can get quite bumpy with long and arduous washboarding. You shouldn’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but if it’s been a while since its last grading, the road can rattle the headlights right out of your Prius. Follow Hole-in-the-Rock Road for 26 miles and you’ll eventually see the trailhead on the left. It’s well-developed with a restroom and parking signs. (Note: There is a another Peek-a-Boo canyon farther west outside of Kanab, Utah. Don’t confuse them!)
Hiking: It’s a three-mile lollipop loop—one-mile approach, a one-mile loop in the canyons, and a one-mile return. Most of the approach is easily walkable along a clear sand path, but you will steeply descend a few sandstone slabs. The entrance to Peek-a-Boo will be obvious; there is a 12-foot climb to get into the canyon. For most people, the well-worn hand and foot holds make this doable, but smaller children will need a boost.
Once you leave Peek-a-Boo, you’ll have to do some route finding. Head right and follow the cairns as you travel overland through deep sand. It’s easy to lose the trail here so always look ahead for the next cairn. After about 10 minutes, you’ll reach the entrance of Spooky. As the name suggests, Spooky is darker and narrower than Peek-a-Boo. There is also one fixed-rope section with a 10-foot drop, which is why you’ll want to finish this loop with Spooky, rather than start with it. We easily lifted our daughter down, but know your limits.
Note to Parents: If you’re worried about little legs covering the entire journey, consider using a kid carrier until you get to the entrance of Peek-a-Boo. You can stash your carrier in some nearby shrubs and retrieve it on the return trip. (We’ve done this three times and never had any issues).
Tips for Your First Slot Canyon
If you’re ready to venture into Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, or any other beginner slot canyon, here are some recommendations.
- Always check the weather, no matter the season. Slot canyons are formed by water rushing through the rock, so it should come as no surprise that flash floods are a real danger. Flash flooding can happen in minutes and be caused by rain miles away. If rain is likely anywhere in the region, reschedule the hike for a different day.
- Carry small packs. While you certainly want to bring snacks, water, and layers, don’t grab the biggest backpack you can find. Most of the skinny sections are too narrow to wear your backpack, so you’ll have to remove it and carry it in your hand, which can be difficult if it’s large and unwieldy.
- Wear hiking shoes. Running shoes and other street shoes won’t have enough traction for the slick sandstone.
- Don’t forget your layers. While it may be a sweltering 95 degrees on your hike in, the temperature will abruptly drop once you’re inside the slot canyons.
- Pack plenty of water. If you’re an experienced hiker, a three-mile hike may appear easy, but slot canyons take way more time than the average hike. As a general rule, bring at least two liters of water per person.
- Skip the GPS. Study the route before you set out—especially the tricky section connecting the two canyons. If you rely on a GPS device for navigation, be aware that they will not work once you’re inside the slot canyons because the satellite signals don’t reach down there.