Nature produces many wondrous sights, and understandably, some of these sights provide one-of-a-kind opportunities for photographers. For as long as photography has existed, natural structures have inspired countless amazing images, with mountains and pathways being among the top subjects for nature photographers.
If you’re looking to gain valuable new experiences and capture images that you won’t be able to imitate anywhere else, you might benefit from exploring one of the many slot canyon trails across the globe.
What Are Slot Canyons?
A slot canyon is a narrow, deep canyon with steep walls that has been formed by water erosion, often in sandstone or limestone rock formations. Slot canyons are characterized by their tight, winding passages that are typically much deeper than they are wide, and can be as narrow as just a few feet across. They can be found in many parts of the world, but are particularly common in the desert regions of the southwestern United States, such as Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.
How Are Slot Canyons Formed?
Like many of Earth’s wonders, slot canyons are slowly formed over time through erosion. This type of erosion occurs when a small crack forms in a mountain or rock, and that crack is washed over by flood waters. Flood water then seeps into the crack formation and slowly carves a wider path to the ground.
When the next flood occurs, the process continues and more rock is eroded to widen the forming canyon. While sandstone is usually affected most, slot canyons can also form in granite, limestone, and many other rock types.
Famous Slot Canyons
As mentioned above, the southwest section of the US has a high concentration of slot canyons to check out, so if you’re interested, many of these places are right in your backyard. Nevada, Utah, and Arizona have several locations to check out, and we’ve covered the most famous slot canyons in the area below.
Antelope Canyon | Page, Arizona
Where: Page, Arizona
Length: under 1 mile
If you’re interested in exploring slot canyons, Antelope Canyon is a must. It’s one of the most vibrantly-colored, unearthly-looking canyons in the world. Photos of the canyon look like they were taken on another planet, and part of what makes this destination so popular is the accessibility options provided. Antelope Canyon is actually two slot canyons in one, and the Upper Antelope Canyon hike has ladders built in to make the hike easier and safer.
The canyon is believed to have been formed over millions of years by the erosive power of flash floods. The walls of the canyon are made of sandstone, which has been sculpted into beautiful curves, ridges, and shapes by the flowing water.
Antelope Canyon is considered a sacred site by the Navajo Nation, who manage the canyon and offer guided tours to visitors. The canyon can only be accessed through a Navajo-led tour, which helps preserve the natural beauty and integrity of the site.
Zion Narrows | Zion National Park, Utah
Where: Zion National Park
Length: 16 miles
The Zion Narrows is a section of Zion Canyon that is famous for its narrow slot canyons that are carved by the Virgin River. The width of the Zion Narrows varies depending on the location and the time of year, as the water level and flow can significantly impact the canyon's dimensions.
In some places, the Zion Narrows can be as narrow as 20 to 30 feet wide, while in others, it can be as wide as 100 feet or more. The walls of the canyon can reach heights of up to 1,000 feet, creating a dramatic and awe-inspiring landscape.
This slot canyon in Zion National Park has two different starting points, depending on how you want to tackle the trek. You can start at the bottom of the canyon and work your way up, or start at the top and work your way down (you’ll need a permit for this option). Both options are quite strenuous, though, so make sure you’re up for it.
If you’re hiking up the canyon from the bottom, you have the option to turn around and head back if the trip becomes too strenuous halfway through.
Pastel Canyon | Valley of Fire, Nevada
Where: Valley of Fire, Nevada
Length: 0.5 miles
Hiking through Pastel Canyon is ideal for less experienced hikers, because it’s not so narrow that hikers need to squeeze through cracks or do a lot of climbing. The appeal of this canyon is the colors, as Pastel Canyon’s mountains are made up of soft pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows. Plus, the scenery makes for some interesting photos.
Because it’s on the wider, easier side, Pastel Canyon is a worthy destination for hikers with small children or family members who can’t climb very well.
Spooky Gulch | Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Where: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Length: 3.5 miles
Spooky Gulch is a fun exploration option for adventurers who aren’t claustrophobic because this slot canyon is incredibly narrow. Some points are only 10 inches wide, so be prepared to push through every now and then. While the trail itself is only moderately challenging to walk, Spooky Gulch is not a hike to take lightly. Getting stuck is possible, so avoid forcing your way into canyon cracks if the squeeze is too tight.
How To Navigate Slot Canyons Safely
If you want to explore the various slot canyons across the US, the dry season is the best time to do so. Slot canyons should be visited between March and October in most cases. When planning your trip, follow these safety tips.
Check the Weather Forecast
Before you head out for your hike, take a few minutes to check the weather forecast in the area. Slot canyons can be quite dangerous when rain comes into the equation, so make sure you’re embarking on your hike when warm, dry weather is expected.
Know the Route
Some slot canyons have clearly marked trails, but if you’re exploring an area that’s a little more obscure, take a map with you. Don’t rely on your phone to find your way through the canyon, as you might lose cell service when you’re between high rock walls.
Be aware of the difficulty level of the trail you plan to hike and bring gear that’s appropriate for your needs. Don’t forget emergency materials and first aid.
Take your time when you’re exploring a slot canyon, especially if you’re hiking through a particularly difficult trail. Don’t overwork yourself, and watch your step. It’s also a good idea to let someone you trust know where you’re going to be and when you expect to return.
The Appeal of Slot Canyon Photography
As a photographer, I want to capture images that show people things that are divorced from the mundane. Slot canyons present opportunities that few other places can, which you may have taken notice of if you’ve seen photographs captured within these crevices in the Earth.
Some slot canyons look like they come right out of a dream, and for artists, that aesthetic presents an array of interesting approaches to take when displaying a piece of art or trying to convey a specific message. In every direction and turn of the canyon walls you will find opportunity to capture textures, shapes and varying shades of light and color that come together to create beautiful and natural works of art. Be ready the witness these amazing wonders of nature with both your eyes and the lens of your camera.