Slot Canyons of Capitol Reef
Slot canyons are one of the most unique and remarkable natural features you can explore in Utah. Burro Wash, Cottonwood Wash, and Sheets Gulch are Capitol Reef’s best slot canyon hikes, and are filled with challenges like scrambling over chockstones, or stones wedged into the slots, navigating around water, and squeezing through tight spaces. The trailheads for all three hikes are located within a few miles from each other on BLM land south of State Route 24, down Notom-Bullfrog Road (each hike crosses into the park boundary after about two miles).
Burro Wash, the most popular of the bunch, starts 7.8 miles down Notom-Bullfrog Road. It begins with a two-mile hike on an open wash, after which the canyon begins to narrow. Continue down the sandy wash on the right, where you will find your first obstacle — a boulder wedged in the canyon that you will have to climb up and over. Sometimes there is also a pool of water in front of this chockstone. If that’s the case you can still get around it via a bypass route on the south side of the canyon. The fun continues as you reach the first slot, a shoulder-width passageway between the canyon walls with another chockstone at the end.
Standing eight feet tall, this chockstone may be more difficult to navigate than the first, but should still be passable, especially if you can get a boost (never travel in these slot canyons alone). As you continue up the canyon, you will have to scramble around several more chockstones and through numerous slots. Three miles from the trailhead, two large chockstones, and often a pool of water, block the last narrow section. If you can get around these obstacles, the hike ends at an impassable pour-off 3.4 miles from the trailhead, which is the typical conclusion to this out-and-back. Routes beyond this exist, but become technical. Visitors with the correct gear, experience and a permit can learn more at the visitor center.
Similar in difficulty to Burro Wash but much less traveled, Cottonwood Wash begins 9.1 miles down Notom-Bullfrog Road. It also starts in an open canyon wash, which narrows about a mile from the trailhead. After scrambling over a short boulderfield, you will reach the first narrows — the walls here are about eight feet apart and 40 feet high. When the canyon divides, stay right, where it turns into a full-on slot. You’ll continue on through several slots until you come to a deep pool of water in front of a chockstone. While the pool is not always there, it can be tough to get around this section when it is. This is the turnaround point for most hikers. If you can get around it, you can keep going for about another mile past more chockstones (and possibly pools of water) to an impassable pour-over where you will need to turn around.
Sheets Gulch is the longest and most rarely hiked of the three. The trailhead is 12.7 miles down Notom-Bullfrog Road (the last 2.7 miles of road are unpaved, but usually fine for passenger cars). This hike, like the other two, begins with a walk down a wide wash, leading to a canyon that constricts into narrows and slots. The biggest hurdle on this hike is an eight-foot high chockstone found about five miles from the trailhead. Once you get around it, the canyon widens, the rock changes, and Douglas firs appear on the north side. You can keep going, but most people turn back somewhere within this stretch of canyon.
One of the coolest things about slot canyons is that they are ever changing — a storm that rages through one of them could mean a new chockstone to climb, or a new pool of water to skirt (or swim). On that note, never go into a slot canyon if storms could be on the horizon because they are at very high risk for flash flooding. Given a good weather forecast, your best bet for a fun day out is to come prepared and bring your adventurous spirit. And, remember, it’s okay to turn around if your route is blocked, too difficult or rain is a possibility in the forecast.
GPS Coordinates: 38.166333, -111.090612