Slot Canyons in the Desert Southwest
The deserts of the U.S. Southwest are known for being more than just flat plains of dust and creosote. Despite appearances, the entire region is actually a massive drainage basin for a number of large rivers, most notably, the Colorado. Over millions of years, the meltwater of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide has carved away at the vast sandstone shelves of the area, leaving behind fantastic landscapes and sculptures in the striped redrock.
The deep canyons, towering mesas, mammoth arches, and other fantastic features of the Four Corners area have awed artists and observers for centuries. They were the setting for John Wesley Powell’s famous trip down the Colorado, the muses of Edward Abbey and his surly environmentalist praxis, backdrops for hundreds of westerns, and subjects in some of Ansel Adams’ most memorable images.
What Is A Slot Canyon?
Among the wide variety of geologic curiosities to be found in the region, none are so visually striking, so mysterious and foreboding as the slot canyon. Slot canyons are narrow winding corridors of sandstone hollowed out by water over the course of millennia. Sandstone is extremely soft and easily eroded, so the walls of slot canyons are often smooth and sculpted, resembling waves or dunes or even carved wood. The sandstone is composed of hundreds of layers of ancient sediment, so bands of red, yellow, and white stream across its exposed surfaces, mirroring and accentuating the flowing curves of the canyon walls and almost blurring the boundary between the rock and the water which sculpted it.
The Beauty of Slot Canyons | Amazing Photography
Slot canyons are beautiful not only for their physical forms, but also because of the way they interact with the light. Slot canyons can be quite deep and wind in tangled paths for miles into the desert. As the sun passes across the sky, its rays interact complexly with the wavelike surfaces of the walls and the various hidden chambers and halls. The interplay of direct sun, reflected light, and deep shadows creates a vibrant and mercurial show of color. Dark and silent sanctums are suddenly awash in an alien glow; collages of red, orange, and black melt and change as you gaze down the long carved halls; the rocks themselves seem to luminesce and give off their own light as the sun hides behind an overhang above. They are astonishing, otherworldly places, mazes in the rocks concealing some of the most fantastic geology and scenery the world has to offer.
The Dangers of Slot Canyons
The beauty of these canyons, however, comes at a price. Slot canyons are among the most dangerous places in the desert and are responsible for a number of deaths each year. Summer in the desert southwest is also the monsoon season. From June to September, torrential rains batter the landscape and unleash massive quantities of water. All this has to go somewhere, and the network of canyons and washes is very efficient at dispersing it. Slot canyons work kind of like fire hoses, funneling the rainwater into a tighter and tighter space, increasing its pressure, speed, and power at the same time. Flash floods are common in the desert and can come without warning. If someone happens to get caught in the path of all this sudden water, climbing up out of a slot canyon is no easy task, and there may not be enough time even to make an attempt.
Regardless of the potential for danger, slot canyons can still be enjoyed safely at the proper times of year and with diligent attention paid to the weather forecast. Another thing to keep in mind when visiting these places is the sun. The narrow openings these canyons have to the sky means that direct light may only enter them for an hour or so each day. To witness the true visual splendor of these places, study maps carefully and consult local guides to determine the best seasons and times of day to visit.
Antelope Canyon Page, Arizona
Finally, slot canyons exist throughout the Four Corners region, and choosing where to go can be difficult. If you aren’t too worried about other tourists and want to have the true slot canyon experience, Antelope Canyon is the place to go. Located near Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation, Antelope Canyon is remarkable for its luminous halls and wavelike formations. The canyon is divided into two parts, the upper section being more easily accessible and popular, while the lower section is more secluded and requires a steep climb down metal ladders and stairs. Access to Antelope Canyon is permitted only through registered tours, and a variety of programs are offered for amateur and professional photographers to capture the formations.
The Narrows | Zion National Park
Another must-see destination for photographers and lovers of natural architecture is the Narrows in Zion National Park. Though not technically a slot canyon, in geological terms, the Narrows offer much of the same incredible scenery and on a much grander scale than the more diminutive slots. Visitors hike through the shallow waters of the Virgin River beneath cascades of ancient rock, mottled and darkened by patterned mineral deposits. The walls of the Narrows shear up to the plateaus and cliffs for which Zion is known, allowing for the same kinds of light- and shadowplay which slot canyons are known for. As with Antelope Canyon, access is limited, and you must purchase a special permit online or at the visitor center.
Slot canyons are just one of the astounding features to be found in the Southwest, but more than the others, their graceful forms attest to the strength and endurance of the natural forces at work in the region. As well, they provide the best opportunity to appreciate the full vivid palette of the redrock desert, seamlessly uniting wondrous form with astounding color and light.