PHOTOS: Canyoneering for beginners at the Escalante National Monument

I never thought I’d jump of a cliff until I went canyoneering.

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I admit it: the film 127 Hours  inspired me to visit Southern Utah, with its sweeping views of red canyons and vast desert, but it did not make me want to try rock climbing or any other adventure activity that might leave me pinned under a giant rock. I nearly gagged at the scene where James Franco, playing real-life adventurer Aron Ralston, uses an imitation Swiss Army Knife to sever his arm after a canyoneering mishap.

Still, when a summer road trip took me down Scenic Byway 12, which cuts through the climbing mecca known as Escalante National Monument, I couldn’t resist booking a canyoneering trip.

After spending a day rappelling down a sheer cliff and squeezing through narrow passes (above a rattlesnake!), I became a convert. I discovered that a guided canyoneering tour is a great way to experience nature and get an adrenaline rush– all under the watchful eye of an expert.

Getting started

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Jake and I rolled into the sleepy town of Escalante the night before our canyoneering adventure. After a comfy night’s sleep, we headed to Excursions of Escalante, a locally-owned outfitter that emphasizes safety. My nerves improved when I met Jim, our certified canyoneering instructor who had been with the company for four years and seemed very confident in our abilities, despite having just met us. We were thankful to have a small group, which consisted of me, Jake and a father-daughter duo from Texas.

After receiving our helmets and backpacks (which included heavy gloves, water bottles and a packaged lunch), we set out for Escalante National Monument in our own cars.
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Our guide, Jim, led us to a remote part of the Escalante National Monument (we actually had to sign an NDA stating we would not reveal the exact location), pointed to a sheer cliff and matter-of-factly mentioned that we’d be rappelling down that very canyon.

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My heart began to palpitate as I crawled down the mountain on my butt, gripping the rock below me, and spotted a boulder with a rope tied around it. This was the spot where we were to make our initial descent down an 80-foot section of a sheer cliff. I carefully put on my gloves and checked my gear as I watched the Texans disappear one by one into the canyon, supported only by a thin rope.

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Before I could run back to the car, Jim attached me to the line and encouraged me to walk backwards down the cliff. I made sure not to look down and kept my gaze firmly on my boots. I could hear the supportive cheers of the Texans down below, which was incredibly motivating.

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For someone with a mild fear of heights, rappelling was incredibly scary; I went down at a glacial pace, feeling my muscles tensing up with every step. When I touched firm ground, my anxiety turned to euphoria. I had pushed my boundaries and was proud of the accomplishment, even if it was just a baby step for an experienced canyoneer.

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Standing at the bottom, I had the chance to cheer Jake on during his descent. Needless to say, he was much quicker than I had been!

Exploring the Canyons

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After completing the initial descent, I became desensitized to the heights and gladly scampered down, over and through the slot canyons.

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We only wore harnesses for a few steep passes; canyoneering mainly involves contorting your body to squeeze through tight crevasses without any safety net.

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This is not a graceful sport, at least for beginners. As Jim, the guide, effortlessly leaped from one rock face to another, we found ourselves in some awkward positions.

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Our bodies twisted to fit in tight spaces, resulting in rug burn and a few scrapes. We never would have been able to navigate this trail on our own and Jim provided much-needed advice on getting through without injury. He clearly detected my “city girl” status, as he even carried me over a brief patch of water. (He offered the same assistance to my travel companions, but they declined).

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My relatively small frame gave me an advantage in the narrow passes, but it isn’t a requirement for canyoneering. The Texan dad, a former college football player with an imposing physique, managed to squeeze through tight crevasses. (Although he did tear his clothes a bit in the process). Make sure to wear clothes you don’t care much about when going canyoneering!

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There was a 20% chance of rain on the day we visited the Monument, and our guide scampered to the canyon rim during lunch so he could monitor the skies. Fortunately, we avoided rain (and a flash flood) and enjoyed a nice lunch break with tasty, homemade sandwiches, which we ate in a shady cave just off the trail. In addition to being an amateur weather man, Jim was also an excellent photographer, suggesting we stop and pose in places with great lighting.

The Trek Out

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The hike out of the canyon was not technically difficult, but it was steep. My quads were burning as I walked up seemingly vertical surfaces to reach the canyon rim. Even then, we still had to hike back to the car. You don’t have to be a track star to complete this beginner canyoneering day tour, but you do need to be at least somewhat physically fit!

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Our ascent took us through a Martian landscape with bizarre rock formations. We passed footholds carved into the rock by Native Americans, and our guide stopped to show us two arrowheads that he found on the trail (and carefully hid afterwards in the brush so souvenir-seekers could not steal them).

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Before I knew it, we were back on the bumpy corrugated road back to Escalante. We marveled at our dust-covered legs and arms as we spotted cows and cowboys at the side of the road.

The Bottom Line

This canyoneering trip was one of the highlights of my action-packed journey through Scenic Byway 12. If you are visiting any of the amazing national parks in Southern Utah– Zion, Bryce or Capital Reef– make sure to spend a night in Escalante so you can experience a canyoneering adventure!

The Details

Our guided tour with Excursions of Escalante began in the morning and returned in early evening, and included over 5 hours of hiking time.

The basic canyoneering tour costs $150 per person per day, plus tax and tip for your guide (we received a discounted media rate). Excursions of Escalante provides the canyoneering gear and lunch, but travelers are advised to bring sunscreen, lightweight hiking boots and cotton socks.

Excursions of Escalante
125 East Main Street
P.O. Box 605
Escalante, UT, 84726
Tel. 1-800-839-7567

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About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.