The Gulch Club

Four friends play the slots in Utah's canyon country and win big

Jan 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

GREAT BASIN >IN BRIEF This 200,000-square-mile basin-and-range country is known for its cold winters, beautiful sandstone arches, and slot canyons. Extending all the way into Canada, the Great Basin is dominated by plains full of sagebrush.

Hole in the Rock Road turned my dog's teeth into castanets. A godforsaken strip of red dirt running southeast from the desert-rat town of Escalante, Utah, Hole in the Rock could be the most hideously washboarded road in the Lower 48. Driving to the slot canyons of Coyote Wash in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument meant 27 miles of rattled skulls for my wife M'Lissa, our friends Dave and Michele, and me. When we turned off to camp on the rim of the wash, we tagged the road "Gaping Chasm in One's Soul Road"—though I'm sure it's been called worse.

We awoke to sunrise over ruddy mesas, which glowed as if lit from within, laced up our trail-running shoes, and dropped into Coyote Wash, following a path of cairns through juniper bushes. All the slots in Coyote Wash are under a mile, so we hiked several that day.

First came Dry Fork, with 50-foot-tall slabs so close together that we could plant our hands on one wall and our feet on the other. Then came Spooky Gulch, one of the narrowest—even Calista Flockhart would need to turn sideways in order to squeeze through. The upper section of the half-mile-long gulch is technical, demanding an occasional bouldering move.

We ended with Coyote Wash's signature slot: Peek-a-Boo Gulch, erosion at its weirdest. Peek-a-Boo winds for a quarter-mile among sandstone bridges, Swiss-cheese holes, spiral staircases, and V-shaped pinches. As Habitrail is to gerbils, Peek-a-Boo is to hikers—or at least it should be. To those Utahans worried that this part of the Great Basin will attract too many tourists, I say anyone who survives Hole in the Rock road deserves to explore there. Not that my dog is in any hurry to go back. —Rob Story

Details: The Escalante Interagency Visitor Center [435-826-5499] in Escalante issues backpacking and overnight-camping permits (backcountry camping is free). Its Dixie Interpretive Association sells maps and guidebooks. For more information, visit the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Web site,

More Great Basin Adventures

Llama Trekking the San Rafael Swell
Once a million-acre sandstone bump, central Utah's San Rafael Swell has eroded into a labyrinth of buttes, towers, and natural arches, with canyon floors exposing 250-million-year-old rock. The soft footpads of llamas make no sound and leave no trace as they schlepp your gear along the San Rafael River, leaving you free to swim and hunt for petroglyphs and pictographs in side canyons. Season: Spring and fall. Distance: 6 to 12 miles round-trip. Do-It-Yourself: BYO llama. Guided Trips: Rosebud Llamas (three-day trips, $360 per person; 435-548-2630) leads fully catered treks along the river.

Mountain Biking Capitol Reef National Park
Sure, iron oxide dyed the sedimentary rocks, but all you need to know is that the Navajo called Capitol Reef "land of the sleeping rainbow." The 60-mile Cathedral Valley Loop road tours the best of it, with plenty of switchbacks and a river ford. Expect deep mud after rains. Season: Spring and fall. Distance: 60 miles. Do-It-Yourself: From the visitor center on Utah 24 (435-425-3792), head east 12 miles to Hartnet Road, where the loop begins. Guided Trips: Timberline Adventures (800-417-2453; includes Capitol Reef on its ten-day Canyon Country Classic tour ($2,195).

Canyoneering Paria Canyon
It's the quintessential slot-canyon primer. Northern Arizona's Paria combines claustrophobic splendor and a strict 20-person-per-day permit system. The best route takes five to six days and begins with a shortcut through the shoulder-width Wire Pass to Paria and into Lee's Ferry. Wading icy pools is mandatory. Season: Spring or late fall. Distance: 43 miles. Do-It-Yourself: Reservations are available from the BLM ( Guided Trips: Wild Horizons (888-734-4453; offers a three-day, 17-mile sampler of the Paria wilderness ($625). —Jonathan Hanson