(Note: This is the first post in a series of three, highlighting four neighboring slot canyons—all within walking distance of the Dry Fork Trailhead in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The other two posts feature nearby Brimstone Gulch and the Dry Fork Narrows.)
In the American Southwest, slot canyons are, simply put, an addiction. So exceptional are these deeply-incised sluices in the sandstone of the multihued Colorado Plateau that once you have tried a taste, it’s nearly inevitable that you’ll come back for more. The addiction knows no bounds; the state of Utah alone boasts perhaps a lifetime’s worth of narrow slots, each with a unique flavor. (Note: See my sparse, but growing, list of Utah slots here.) To the adventurous, challenging obstacles—chockstones, chilly pools, potholes, and tricky pouroffs—add to the allure. Many require the use of ropes and harnesses to descend; others can be mastered without.
In the category of non-technical (e.g., no ropes) slots, the debate over which one is best is fierce. Northern Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, a photographer’s paradise, is perhaps the most famous slot in the world—but requires a guide and a hefty fee that is a turnoff to many. Canyoneers loyal to Utah’s Zion National Park swear by the Virgin Narrows, Orderville Canyon, the “Subway,” or Parunuweap Canyon. To others, there are narrows (like those at Zion) and there are true slots. To qualify as the latter, the walls must squeeze so tight that it is possible to touch both sides with your hands. In this category, among the most frequently cited are Utah’s Little Wild Horse Canyon (in the San Rafael Swell) and Buckskin Gulch (Vermilion Cliffs National Monument). (Of course, there is also Blue John Canyon, a very challenging slot made famous by Aron Ralston and the blockbuster “127 Hours.”)
Peekaboo and Spooky slot canyons, situated deep in the heart of the 1.8-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, also belong on the list. Short but spectacular, Peekaboo Gulch features vibrant-colored walls and two golden arches. Spooky Gulch lives up to its name: shadowy, sinuous, and intensely narrow. These are the most popular of a quartet of slots (the others being Brimstone Gulch and the Dry Fork Narrows) within striking distance of Escalante’s iconic Hole-in-the-Rock Road.
All four can be completed in most of a day. Most visitors, however, choose to ascend Peekaboo, descend Spooky, then return to the start. The following description covers such an itinerary, a stem-and-loop from Dry Fork Trailhead, situated 28 miles from the start of the Hole-in-the-Rock Road just southeast of the town of Escalante. (Note: Brimstone Gulch and the Dry Fork Narrows will be mentioned but are covered in greater detail in subsequent posts.)
Despite being a popular destination for hikers of a wide range of abilities, the circuit described—up Peekaboo Gulch, down Spooky Gulch—is a challenging trip. While only around 3/10 miles in length, both slots include minor dryfalls, boulder jams, and other obstructions that require strength and careful footing to negotiate. Entering Peekaboo from the bottom involves a potentially harrowing, 15-foot Class 3+ climb that can be downright dangerous when wet, while a boulder choke in the upper half of Spooky requires a 7-foot drop down a dark and narrow chute between chockstones.
Caveats aside, all kinds of groups—from elderly couples to small children—can be found navigating the two slots. Though popular, the hour-long drive down the remote, bumpy Hole-in-the-Rock Road leaves Peekaboo and Spooky less congested than, say, the Zion Narrows or Little Wild Horse Canyon.
Accessing the Dry Fork Trailhead can be a protracted endeavor. Leaving Highway 12 five miles southeast of the town of Escalante, follow the graveled (and often washboarded) Hole-in-the-Rock Road for 26 miles. (Note: check updated road conditions here.) Turn left onto a signed, dirt track bound for Dry Fork. This road is significantly rougher, defined by deep ruts and sideways slopes.
It is around 1.6 miles from the original left turn to the trailhead, but ordinary passenger cars should not venture beyond halfway, where the drive gets significantly rougher and rockier, demanding at least high clearance and perhaps four wheel-drive. In this case, visitors may park in a wide parking area 7/10 mile in and walk (or hitch) the remaining 0.9 miles.
The Dry Fork Trailhead sits on the precipice of the south rim of the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, here a relatively shallow—but immensely colorful—canyon. Sign in at the trail register before descending the 200 feet to the valley floor, where the slots begin.
The first half of the approach requires switchbacking down a series of slickrock benches, following rock cairns. At first cutting east, the route doubles back to the west, edging down to a minor draw where a dusty footpath can be found. Follow this trail, rather easy to discern, down to the sandy gulch, bounded on the right side by a sheer wall of Navajo sandstone. Within minutes, this ravine merges with the main drainage—the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch.
Peekaboo Gulch (bottom to top)
From here, without a good map or sense of orientation, confusion reigns. Hikers will likely be tempted to first bear left, where the Dry Fork visibly cuts into the Navajo sandstone, forming a deep cleavage. This, however, is neither Peekaboo nor Spooky; rather, it is the start of an interesting, ½-mile constricted section of the main drainage known as the Dry Fork Narrows. (Note: it has also been called the “Eerie Slot.”) The narrows do offer a nice preview, however, and are worth the detour, time permitting.
The entrance to Peekaboo Gulch is reached within a couple minutes’ walk in the other direction—down the wide and sandy wash bottom. Look for the crevice, fronted by a 15-foot pouroff, on the left (or, on a crowded day, simply follow the crowds!).
The entrance to Peekaboo slot can be daunting to many. More than a mere scramble, the 15-foot dryfall requires the use of hands, careful balance, and a good deal of strength to surmount. Inexperienced climbers may benefit from the use of a rope and “spotters” to break a potential fall. Fortunately, a series of Moki steps have been chiseled into the rock to assist climbers, but a few of them are faded or consist of little more than a divot. Be especially careful in the top half of the ascent, which is exposed and lacks reliable handholds and footholds.
Upon conquering the tough entrance approach, the good news is that the rest of the loop hike will not require anything quite as difficult. The bad news, especially in winter or after recent floods, is that the next section often holds chilly water. With Peekaboo’s iconic double arches within sight, hikers must first clamber around—or through—three 3- to 4-foot potholes. The first two can be avoided with relatively ease by skirting the wall on the left. The third, however, almost certainly requires a plunge. (Note: On my visit in March 2015, the water was about knee-deep.) The climb out of the cavity can be difficult, even when bone dry.
Once clear of the three potholes, it is relatively smooth sailing to the double arches, a spectacular and photogenic sight.
Beyond, Peekaboo Gulch bends and twists through sinuous curves. While the slot is not particularly deep (the walls are no more than 30 feet high), it is immensely colorful, and diagonal bands known as cross-beds contribute to an aesthetic beauty that is nearly unparalleled (rivaled only by perhaps a handful of other slot canyons in Utah).
While Peekaboo rarely narrows to shoulder width, it is thin enough to require a delicate dance when encountering other hikers. (Note: Hiking etiquette generally suggests yielding to uphill hikers.) At one point, the path of least resistance runs through a minor, 2- by 3-foot arch, and sharp gooseneck bends must be tackled one hiker at a time.
As Peekaboo angles northeast, the going gets easier, and the slot gradually opens up. The threadlike, slickrock tread—at a couple points no broader than the width of a hiking boot—gives way to a sandy, flat bottom.
Around halfway to the top of the slot, the canyon briefly widens to around 15-20 feet. But Peekaboo is not finished—the wash soon enters a second set of narrows. A spiraling pouroff through a narrow squeeze poses the biggest obstacle in this section.
After a fine stretch of narrows, the canyon again opens up. Look for a large cairn on the right, the cue to leave the Peekaboo drainage. (Note: It is possible to continue north up Peekaboo to additional slot sections, but they are not as mesmerizing as Lower Peekaboo.)
From Peekaboo to Spooky
To continue the loop—up and out of Peekaboo, then over to Spooky Gulch—exit the wash at the cairn. A worn footpath, sporadically cairned, bears east across the open Cat Pasture toward a chalky butte. Enjoy stupendous views from a low saddle to the right of the butte: a multihued landscape of orange Entrada sandstone and ruddy Carmel to the north; the towering Straight Cliffs, composed of newer rock layers, to the south.
Beyond the outcrop, hiker footpaths are interlaced with cattle trails (in December 2014, a stray cow got itself stuck in the slot at Peekaboo Gulch), making route-finding rather more difficult. Nonetheless, hikers with a decent sense of direction will have little problem meandering over to the next drainage—Spooky Gulch. At this point, Spooky is wide and very sandy; work your way downstream (south) to the start of the lower (and most impressive) slot section. The distance between the Peekaboo and Spooky slots comes out to around 4/10 mile.
Spooky Gulch (top to bottom)
Spooky Gulch begins as a tame walk through ever-deepening narrows. Less than five minutes from the start, descend the face of a large, tilting chockstone. A couple minutes later, Spooky’s undulating walls begin to take on vibrant colors—deep orange, pink, peach, and violet. A minor archway, barely three feet high, is encountered just beyond. (Note: In the right light, photos of the arch are fantastic!)
3-5 minutes down-canyon, what begins as a relatively easy scramble over fallen boulders leads to an “uh-oh” moment: a 15-20 foot drop-off from the end of the rock jam. Fortunately, working back from the edge, a dark but penetrable notch offers a more gentle passage—under a collection of hanging boulders and down a 7-foot drop. (Note: While doable, this would be a beast to climb uphill, especially without help—hence the preference to go up Peekaboo, down Spooky.)
Beyond the boulder jam, you are committed to navigating one of the thinnest, darkest, and—obviously—spookiest slot canyons in Utah. 5-10 minutes down-canyon, the slot appears to drop a level—into a dark wedge so confined that the sandy bottom virtually disappears in places. Several spots require walking sideways, and backpacks must be removed and carried by hand.
While not the best hike for the claustrophobic, Spooky Gulch is a magnificent spot for photographers—each bend and twist reveals a new, spectacular wall or passage, illuminated intermittently by tiny rays of light.
Roughly midway through Spooky, a spiraling, 5-foot pouroff is perhaps best descended with a controlled jump. The slot continues for another 1/10 mile, gradually opening up to splendid narrows. Around 1/3 mile from the start, the narrows abruptly end—finally revealing the full sun again at long last.
The return to Peekaboo and the Dry Fork Trailhead can be a bit perplexing. In essence, there are two routes from the end of the Spooky slot. The first, the longer of the two—but easiest to track—involves following the Spooky drainage southeast to an obvious confluence with the Dry Fork. From here, bear right (southwest) up the Dry Fork—through a set of relatively wide and shallow narrows—and follow the wash for approximately ½ mile back to Peekaboo (on the right) and the original entry ravine leading back to the trailhead (on the left). (Note: Those continuing on to Brimstone Gulch, the fourth slot in the area, should bear left (east) on Dry Fork.)
The alternative, shortcut route is to catch a hiker-made trail, shortly after exiting the Spooky slot, bearing southwest through a minor ravine. The route ascends gradually to a low pass, then descends a brushy gulch leading back to the Dry Fork. From here, it is only about 1/3 mile back to Peekaboo and the turnoff to the Dry Fork Trailhead.
The ½-mile return journey to Dry Fork Trailhead is steep and fully exposed to the sun. Take it slow, especially in the summer heat. Allot at least 3-4 hours to complete the Peekaboo-Spooky loop…
…Or double your time spent in the area by exploring the breathtaking slot in nearby Brimstone Gulch (about 1.1 miles from the bottom of Spooky), as well as the easily-accessible Dry Fork Narrows (at the bottom of the entry route, on the left). It is also possible to continue north up Peekaboo or Spooky Gulch to additional slots, though they are not as impressive as the terrain covered in this post—some of the finest slot canyons in the American Southwest.