Escalante / Grand Staircase National Monument in southeastern Utah is a large but lightly traveled area. We drove there from Capitol Reef NP and never saw a sign indicating we had entered the park. (As we left towards Bryce Canyon NP in the south, we did finally pass a visitors’ center.)
Some of Escalante’s better known attractions are the slot canyons. These are deep, narrow crevices so tight that the bottom receives little to no light, and humans can move through them by a combination of squeezing, climbing and sometimes swimming. A slot canyon is no place to be if there’s even a small chance of rain.
Our destination was two parallel slots: Peekaboo Gulch and Spooky Gulch. They are in an area off “Hole-in-the-Rock Road”, a long, narrow, bumpy, unpaved stretch that probably voided our rental car agreement. We drove 26 miles down this road, which took about an hour, to reach the “Dry Fork” area. There is a parking area slightly off Hole-in-the-Rock, and an even worse road that leads to a second parking area a mile closer to Dry Fork. We didn’t want to push our luck with the rental car, so we walked that mile in both directions. This was in May, and it was very hot with no shade. Interestingly, local ranchers are allowed to use the federal land for grazing and several large, well horned cattle watched us with suspicion as we passed them, with no fence for their safety or ours. Either they decided we weren’t a threat, or it was too hot for them to bother.
There were a few signs in the second parking area, but not many. Fortunately there were other travelers who seemed to know where they were going and we followed them. We went down a steep slope of slickrock (smooth sandstone) paying attention to the cairns that marked the trail. There were others going to Peekaboo Gulch and we found it relatively easily.
Entering the gulch was harder. We were at the bottom of the gulch, which would have had water flowing towards us if there had been recent rain. The outflow area was a slickrock wall about 15′ high, and we had to figure out how to climb it. Someone (the Park Service? Native Americans? Other tourists?) had carved a few footholds in the rock, but it was still difficult going. We pushed and pulled each other up, and we were in. My son, a natural climber, was the first one up and did all the pulling. I was the last one up. A man in the party behind us, in a combination of solidarity and impatience, provided unasked-for help by pushing my feet into the footholds. I still haven’t decided if I’m grateful.
Inside Peekaboo Gulch we wound our way through several hundred yards of tight, oddly shaped rock. We inched forwards sideways, handed backpacks to each other, remarked on how strange a place this was. Finally as we approached the end of the gulch, it got less deep and we could see people above us looking down with amusement, eating their lunch.
Finding Spooky Gulch was hard. All the other people suddenly disappeared and we followed a trail of cairns that eventually vanished into a wide sandy canyon. We knew that we could do a loop (up Peekaboo, down Spooky), so we followed the canyon in the downstream (without the stream) direction and sure enough, there it was.
Peekaboo Gulch is narrow. It is about 20′ deep and a not-too-fat person can move through it mostly by walking. Spooky Gulch is extremely narrow. It gets to 30′ deep while rarely reaching a width of 15″. Traversing the gulch requires climbing, ducking, and trusting that going into a tight hole will actually be an escapable strategy.
Some people use an outfitting company to take them to these canyons and guide them through it, and that’s probably a good idea. My naive approach was to watch a number of YouTube videos in advance. I thought we could handle it.
Travelling Spooky Gulch in the downhill direction, there is one spot where the obvious route is a difficult climb down to a drop of about 10′. That’s probably a valid strategy, and if you can get down part of the way you can just jump the rest. There is also a small hidden opening on the other side which you can enter feet first, not see where you’re going, and then work your way through with better footing and handholds.
At least that’s what YouTube said. Because it’s so narrow, dark and curvy, it’s virtually impossible to film. I saw footage of people entering this way, but it was pure blind faith that it would actually work and not kill me. In retrospect, I think going this way was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but it worked out fine. I called up to my family and they followed, cursing me all the way.
Shortly after this difficult portion we had to do a little dance with a family coming the other way. That was amusing. By a very odd coincidence, we met the same family the next day in Bryce Canyon. There are probably about 20 people at a time in Peekaboo and Spooky, but there are tens of thousands in Bryce.
I didn’t take any pictures of the two gulches, but there are plenty on YouTube and other image sites. Highly recommended adventure, off the beaten path.
EDIT, 1/12/19: I really wanted to leave a link to the YouTube that showed the difficult portion of Spooky, but I can’t seem to find it. Here is a TV quality production showing some of what I mentioned, sandwiched between a discussion of why this area is endangered by current anti-environmental policies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3NhcBB_gyE
The day we visited was much drier, and had at most a few other people visible at once.