3 Days of Technical Dry Canyoneering in the Colorado Plateau

Serendipity Scattergood
Inspired Adventurer
11 min readJul 17, 2023

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As a rock climber who loves to get out into the Sierra backcountry for some alpine adventures, I didn’t find myself nervous when my friend invited me to go technical canyoneering in Utah for 3 days.

I also didn’t know I would find myself stemming from hands to feet across a 6-foot-wide sandstone slot canyon 10 feet above a pool of murky water without a rope and practically in tears.

Two weeks before my friend invited me to go technical canyoneering, I was out at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

I had been hiking around looking for a non-technical slot canyon that someone had told me about. I thought I found the canyon but once I reached the edge to descend there was a 50-foot drop straight down. Not something I could just hike into as I was looking for. It looked so beautiful in there and I stared into the canyon and drooled a little bit. Knowing this was not my entry into this canyon I turned around to head back to look for a different entrance. Upon turning around I noticed some webbing around a tunnel thread with a rappel ring. A tunnel thread is a rock feature where the water carves a small arch or cave with a pillar in front of it.

Tunnel threads are a common feature in sandstone, and I would come to find out they are also commonly used to build anchors for canyoneering. I looked at the webbing and thought to myself, “I need to come back with my climbing gear so I can get into this canyon.” Little did I know what a terrible idea that was.

At the time, I had very little canyoneering experience.

I had done The Subway, Pine Creek and The Narrows in Zion National Park. All wet canyons. The Subway had some small rappels that I recall being relatively simple. The Narrows I did twice as a backpack top-down. No rappelling, nothing technical. Pine Creek on the other hand is very technical. I was lucky enough to go with a friend who took care of all the anchors and technical aspects that I didn’t know how to do. I just had to rappel, swim and hike.

There is some cross-over between rock climbing and canyoneering, but they are very different sports.

You aren’t going to use your rock climbing gear to canyoneer, as I thought I would when I saw that webbing out at Anza-Borrego. The ropes are different, the rappel device is different, the anchors are different. I’m not going to get into the all the details about the differences here. You can find a lot of great information and resources from the American Canyoneering Association (ACA).

Us adventurous people have plenty of stories about the dumb things we did when our psyche was too high and our knowledge / skills were too low.

We shudder when reflecting upon those times or telling the tale and are grateful to still be here. Had I gone back to Anza-Borrego with my rock climbing gear and descended into that canyon without knowing what I know now, I would have another one of those tales to tell. If I made it out. Moral of the story, if you don’t have all the technical canyoneering skills, hire a qualified guide! One more quick PSA, if you do not have the skills to thoroughly inspect and deem safe any webbing that has been left by a previous climber or canyoneer, DON’T USE IT. There were two reported accidents and three deaths last year when experienced climbers used old webbing that failed.

To get access to accident reports check out the American Alpine Club publications. You can also hear terrifying accident stories and lessons learned on The Sharp End Podcast.

The Colorado Plateau is a large physiographic region that is brimming with geological mysteries.

The Colorado Plateau is a region that roughly covers the southeastern half of Utah, a good chunk of western Colorado, northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. It contains some of the most magnificent landscapes I’ve ever seen. It’s full of wild formations, incredibly varied rock and color, mesmerizing slot canyons, hoodoos, spires, domes, mesas, petrified wood and hidden geological treasures of all kinds.

If you’re a Gaia user, you might be interested to know about their geologic map feature. I learned about it on this trip and I’m super psyched to dig into this feature.

I drove from Southern California north on the 15 through Vegas, St George and Cedar City to highway 20 East.

This is the fastest route according to Google. It’s about a 10-hour drive for me. I crossed a time zone and I stopped to make a sandwich, so it ended up being a total of 12 hours of travel. I was on the road at 5am and had camp set up and dinner eaten by 8pm.

I didn’t realize that this drive would take me right through Capitol Reef National Park.

The landscape went from pretty to jaw dropping. I was rubbernecking all over that road and driving like an annoying tourist. I was also being chased by a thunderstorm that I had gotten through earlier but was traveling my direction so I was hesitant to pull over and get out like I normally would. So I just gawked out the windows and planned to stop along my way back a few days later.

We camped at Sandthrax dispersed camping 29 miles south of Hanksville UT.

This was conveniently located to Leprechaun Canyon which we did the first day. The campground only has about 8 spots so it’s good to get there early if you plan to be there on a weekend. It’s free dispersed camping with no amenities. There’s no water and no toilets. No digging catholes either. This is a wag bag required zone. You can find wag bags on Amazon now so it’s easy to get before your trip. Wag bags are just for solid waste, it’s okay to pee on a rock when you have to go. It’s also technically okay to pee in your wagbag but I think you would be happier if you didn’t.

If Sandthrax campsite is full you can try Cottonwood Wash. There are other dispersed sites in the area if you do some additional research before you go and pin the locations on your offline map. I did not have cell service with AT&T. North Wash runs just on the other side of the 95 from Sandthrax camp. It’s a nice spot to get wet or soak your feet. I thought it might be an option for filtering water if I got low on water but I was advised against that. Not only does the water in the wash carry lots of sediment due to the nature of the terrain, which will clog a water filter, its also located in a mining district. Which means there are various chemicals and heavy metals such as arsenic in the water. I don’t know of any backpacking water filter that removes arsenic or heavy metals.

This is early June, the summer solstice is at the end of June, so the days are long and warm.

Sunset was at 8:42pm, the sky was light well into my bedtime at 9pm. My alarm went off at 6am. Sunrise was at 5:58am, once the sun peaked over the dome that protected us in the morning it got warm really quick! The highs were in the 80s which is great when you’re inside the canyon, but up on top with the sun pounding down midday, it got hot.

Patrick at Front Range Climbing Company was our guide for the 3 days.

The first night we went over gear.

I brought my harness, belay device and helmet. I used my helmet and opted to use Patrick’s extra harness and belay device. Canyoneering harnesses come with what is called a scuttlebutt. You will need this unless you want to lose the ass on your pants and the skin on your ass. I did not. The belay device canyoneers use is called a critter, appropriately named once you take a look at it. You’ll want arm protection with extra padding at the elbows but not too bulky so you can fit through these tight little crevices more easily.

Approach shoes is all you’ll need for footwear, no rock shoes necessary. You’ll need a pair of nitrile coated gloves to protect your hands. You’ll also need a heavy duty backpack. I brought an old daypack that I’d had for years and years. It was made of a heavy duty fabric. By the end of day two there was a large hole in the pack that allowed things to fall out. I was able to duct tape the pack really well to hold it together for one more day. Do not underestimate the amount of thrashing your clothing and body will get in these sandstone slots.

Day 1 — Left fork of Leprechaun Canyon

From camp we could easily walk to the trailhead for Leprechaun Canyon. We hiked a wash then up some domes till we found the entrance to the slot.

The trails are noted on Gaia and the canyons are also named along with some other notations. For example: “Sandthrax Canyon — Do not enter unless you know what you are doing!” Yep, people have gotten into some situations in some of these canyons. That canyon in particular is rated 4A X. Which means there is a high likelihood of severe injury or death if you mess up. Protection is sparse or non-existent. Gaia decided this was important enough to put in the name of the canyon so folks wouldn’t think, “Oh cool, a canyon, let’s go check it out.”

After Leprechaun we hit another canyon that had some big rappels, a super rad arch and a glorious finale.

Day 2 — Slideanide Canyon

Slideanide Canyon was my favorite. All the canyons were epic in their own way but this one took the lead simply because it was so much fun to slide through it! Each descent was a new slide which ended with a freaky slide underneath a big chockstone. When I was above that last slide I looked down and said, “I hope we’re not sliding under that thing.” Sure enough, that was the route, no backing out. When I got to the other side I had a big shit-eating grin on my face, it was so fun!

Day 3 — Hog Canyons — North Wash — Hog 2

There are 4 canyons in the Hog Canyons North Wash area. They are named Hog 1, Hog 2, Hog 3 and Hog 4. Easy to remember right? We did Hog 2 which is known for “the birth canal.” Once I slithered my way through the slot it opened up to a cavern large enough for a party of 3 to reconvene before entering the canal.

The birth canal is a cylindrical shoot straight down about 24 inches wide and 20 feet down. It’s just tight enough that I didn’t feel like I would fall but more likely that I might get stuck. Headlamps required here as it’s totally dark. The bottom of the canal opened up and spit me out onto the sandy earth. I couldn’t see how far the ground was below me, I didn’t have anywhere to put my feet so I was just dangling from the friction of my upper body till I fell out. I only fell about three feet and the earth was soft and cool. After getting born again I crawled through a dark recess till I ended up in a small chamber just big enough to stand in. From here I could see the traverse out, which was covered with hundreds of huge spiders running all around.

We had encountered these spiders on a few occasions and thought they were really cute. Whenever we came across one it always seemed to dance by bobbing up and down. So we called them dancing spiders. They look like oversized Daddy Long Legs. We usually only saw two or three together. Here in the dark recesses just past the birth canal, they were in the hundreds, and they were right where we needed to go. Luckily for me, I wasn’t in the lead on this one, so my friend got to chase all the spiders away before I entered the squeeze traverse. At the end of the traverse there was a drop to an ephemeral pool full of fairy shrimp. I barely managed to leap off the end of the traverse to miss going into the pool.

If you decide to try out this whole canyoneering thing, I highly recommend Patrick at Front Range Climbing Company. He is a certified guide, very patient, very skilled, a wealth of knowledge and so fun to be around! I have no association with him or his company. I just hired him for an epic 3 day adventure and it was pure magic. My friend and I paid $667.50 each for 3 full days with top-notch training. When I say 3 full days, I mean up at 6am and back to camp at 7:30pm. By day 3 we were toast! There are many great certified guides out there so if you can’t get Patrick don’t fret. Find one and get out there!

Back to Cali via Scenic Byway 12

Patrick recommended that I take the Scenic Byway 12 on my way back to California. This would add another hour or so onto my drive but would make my drive that much more amazing. It took me through Capitol Reef National Park, which I really looked forward to. Then through beautiful Dixie National Forest with so many aspens and views galore. Then through a portion of Grand Staircase — Escalante National Monument where the road crosses a feature called The Hogback where the canyon opens up on both sides of the road with several hundred feet of exposure. So cool! Finally through Bryce Canyon National Park. I was on a high after that drive it was so incredible.

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Serendipity Scattergood
Inspired Adventurer

Climber, mountain biker, yogi, adventurer, designer, business owner, blogger - based in Southern California