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Narrow Escapes in The Southwest
With Narrow Slot Canyons and Raging Rivers, This Southwest Hike Is No Walk in the Park

By Gary H. Anthes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 19, 2006

My tale of canyoneering in southern Utah begins in Northern Virginia. In my bathtub, to be exact.

My daughter still laughs when she remembers finding me there one day in July, standing in 10 inches of water and 40 pounds of ice. I wanted to know what it was like to wade in 50-degree water, because that's what I planned to do a few months later in several Southwest canyons. And I wanted to see what combination of socks, shoes and pants would keep me driest and warmest.

So, when I set out for Utah in October, I carried with me the best my local outfitter had to offer -- waterproof neoprene socks, water shoes with special slip-resistant treads and double-taped waterproof pants -- confident that I was prepared for anything the rivers could throw at me. Provided it wasn't more than waist-deep.

Spring and fall are the best times to go canyoneering in the Southwest. People do it year-round, but in winter you'll wade in truly frigid water and in summer you'll bake in triple-digit air temperatures. Also in summer, you'll compete for road space and lodgings, and the danger of flash floods is greatest.

Dividing eight days among Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and an area along the Utah-Arizona border that includes the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, I aimed to try my hand -- and feet -- at "canyoneering," hiking along streambeds in narrow canyons. I planned to make my debut in a stunning section of the Virgin River called the Zion Narrows, one of the premier canyoneering locales in the United States.

The idea held great appeal because while millions of people go to the places I would visit, only the tiniest fraction are willing to get their feet wet. I knew I'd have plenty of solitude.

And I'd always wanted to photograph the innards of those special canyons, with their soaring red cliffs throwing down warm reflected sunlight onto pools and riffles below, little seasonal waterfalls, mysterious unnamed side canyons, ferns and flowering plants clinging to dripping rock walls, and ancient Anasazi drawings.

Against those attractions stood some difficulties and dangers, I knew -- hypothermia, injuries from falls, deadly flash floods that periodically and unpredictably flush the narrow canyons.

Into the Narrows

The Zion Narrows begins at the end of the one-mile Riverside Walk in Zion National Park. From there to a point some 16 miles upstream, the river is forced into a spectacular gorge, as narrow as 20 feet and as deep as 2,000 feet. There are dry, rocky patches along the shore here and there where the river channel widens, but hiking the Narrows essentially means wading the river.

Unfortunately it had rained hard the night before I visited, and when I got there the river was running high and was opaque from silt run-off. Hiking among the submerged, algae-covered rocks has been compared to walking on greased bowling balls, and I figured if I was going to do that, I should at least be able to see them. What to do?

The answer soon came in the form of two small mule deer, making their way slowly down the river and out of the mouth of the Narrows. I noted their spindly little legs, and I saw they weren't wearing neoprene socks. They seemed utterly untroubled by bowling balls, hypothermia, flash floods or anything else. I plunged in.

All went well for about a half-mile. I worked my way slowly up the Narrows, probing the murky water in front of me with a walking stick and stopping frequently to photograph the canyon.

I was sobered by the sight of logs and other debris wedged in crevices high above my head, silent reminders of the flash floods that periodically thunder through these canyons.

But the views up and down the canyon were magnificent, especially the colors -- orange, red and purple reflected off rock walls, the milky-turquoise water and the electric yellow-green of cottonwood trees. I saw no one else and heard nothing but the ripple of the river and the occasional whistles of canyon wren.

Then, knee-deep, I took a step and was instantly in water over my waist in a hole I had somehow missed with my stick. Breathtakingly cold water poured over the waistband of my "waterproof" pants, down my legs and into my "waterproof" socks. I retreated a few steps.

No deer this time, but a party of four hikers, two in wet suits, soon emerged from upriver. "Oh, yes," they said, "it gets deeper. You'll be up to your neck soon." I had a backpack full of unprotected camera gear and wasn't prepared for that. My bathtub's not that deep.

Reluctantly, I turned back.

Plan B

That only whetted my appetite for more canyoneering, of course, so the next day I set out for the Clear Creek Narrows, high in "slick rock" country in the eastern part of Zion National Park. Often dry, it was touted by a local outfitter as just the place to go when there's too much water in the Virgin River. Indeed, when I got there the creek was about as deep as my bathtub in Arlington. Trouble was, it was raining at the time and more rain was predicted. Only a fool would hike in such a place under those conditions.

Standing in the rain on the edge of Clear Creek, I thought of the similar Antelope Canyon, not far away in Arizona, where 11 hikers died on Aug. 12, 1997, after ignoring warnings that thunderstorms were likely. Late that afternoon, a thunderstorm miles away poured millions of gallons of water in a few minutes into Antelope Creek, sending a wall of water 50 feet high through the canyon. Two of the victims were never found.

So I made my way -- with a two-day stopover at Bryce Canyon National Park -- to that vast and unpopulated region of Utah known as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Despite the recent rains and warnings from a ranger at the northern entry point in Cannonville, I intended to coax my rental car along a primitive 46-mile dirt road south to a trail head giving me access to the Cottonwood Wash Narrows.

Big mistake. The canyons weren't the only things flooded. Attempting to drive across a stream, I cracked my radiator and had to be towed out, never making it to the Cottonwood Wash. The driver of a car who stopped to offer help added insult to injury by saying he'd just hiked there and it was one of the most interesting places he'd ever been.

But not to worry; I knew of other canyons. I headed south and east along Route 89 toward Buckskin Gulch, a remote slot canyon that follows the Utah-Arizona border for 12 miles before joining the Paria River. I'd wanted to go there ever since reading a description of the gulch by the writer and naturalist Edward Abbey. It is, he wrote, "so deep and narrow you can see the stars in the daytime."

I stopped on the way at the visitor center in Kanab and was told by a ranger that I should be prepared to swim if I went into Buckskin Gulch. "But couldn't I hike in just a little way and get some pictures?" I asked. No, the road to the trail head was impassable, even with a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

X Marks the Spot

I was pretty sure my last stop, at a stunning and little-visited slot canyon called Canyon X, would be a success, and it was.

Canyon X is on Navajo Nation land about 15 miles south of Page, Ariz. It channels the Antelope Creek, the same seasonal creek that runs though Antelope Canyon, the beautiful but in my view over-visited slot canyon five miles downstream. The Navajo woman who holds the grazing rights to the land around Canyon X has given a guide named Jackson Bridges exclusive rights to visit the canyon. Saying he wants to preserve the serenity of the place, he won't take more than five people there at a time.

Bridges drove me cross-country over two miles of rough range land, through two locked gates, on a track so steep and deeply rutted I feared his tanklike truck might turn over. Neither the "road" nor the gates nor the canyon entrance were marked in any way.

It turned out I was Bridges's only customer for the day. He showed me the way into the canyon and then left me there for two hours. I happily explored and photographed, but much of the time I just stood gaping at the sinuous and sensual sandstone walls, glowing in fantastic colors from sunlight reflected off the rimrock far above.

I could see where water had recently pushed through the canyon wall-to-wall, but now hiking the slot was largely a matter of dodging puddles.

I didn't see any stars, but I can't remember ever feeling so privileged, so deliciously alone, so at peace with nature. I heard nothing except, briefly, the hoarse cry and whoosh-whoosh wing beats of a raven flying low.

This is the essence of canyoneering, I thought, what I had come to the desert Southwest for.

For additional canyon images, go to the photo gallery at www.washingtonpost.com/travel

Gary H. Anthes last wrote for Travel about Bodie, Calif.

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