I love canyons. For me there is great pleasure in being surrounded by towering walls of stone. I revel in attempting to read the ciphers written into naked rock that I'm sure are just beyond my comprehension. Desert varnish streaks and scalloped fracture lines hint at ponderous secrets hidden from human eyes, and I yearn to understand how layers revealed by the passage of millions of years relates to my own short time on the planet.
I have yet to unlock any of these mysteries, but I keep trying. As part of a recent trip to Utah I devoted a fair amount of time to exploring new canyons, and this post is about one such experience.
My planned route just happened to coincide with a short but very scenic gorge called the Cottonwood Narrows. Located about midway along Cottonwood Canyon road, this normally dry declivity offers an easy 3.5 mile walk (roundtrip) through a very scenic "slot canyon". Loosely defined, slot canyons are narrow and significantly deeper than wide, in some cases no more than an arm's width across.
There are two well signed places to enter the Narrows, at the south and north ends. The picture below is the north entrance, located along a particularly colorful section of the road. Hiking in either direction is fine, with most folks making the return trip along the road. This presumes you don't backtrack through the canyon, which is certainly an acceptable alternative.
Just a note of caution: Slot canyons or narrows are created by the power of water. Even though a canyon may not have surface water, that does not mean it is always dry. Violent and dangerous flash floods have claimed the lives of many unfortunate visitors who were unaware of the danger. Remember, it does not have to be raining on you to die in a flood - Creeks, streams, and rivers gather water from large areas, and if heavy precipitation is falling in any part of the watershed that water is heading your way if you are downstream. ALWAYS know what kind of weather is expected in the area before hiking in narrow canyons!
I chose to enter the Narrows from the south, primarily because I found a suitable place to camp nearby. Entering through a break in the red and white Cockscomb, the soaring canyon walls quickly envelop the sandy wash bed.
This area is complex from a geological standpoint, with the Cockscomb being a physiographic manifestation of the East Kaibab Monocline, essentially a long, tilted fold or upthrust of generally horizontal layers typically found in the Colorado Plateau region. For the most part however the canyon walls are carved from Entrada sandstone, remnants of tidal mudflats, beaches and dunes. This is evident from many sections of cross-bedded stone, indicating a stratification or depositional environment.
The bottom of the canyon twists and turns, and without a view of the sun or surrounding landmarks it's easy to lose sense of direction. However the sheer walls allow only two choices - upstream or downstream.
It's easy to see why this would not be a good place to be if a flash flood were to occur. Steep, water smoothed stone offers little in the way of escape, and sudden raging torrents of muddy water and debris would quickly sweep away unwary hikers, resulting in death from drowning or more likely traumatic bodily injury. I have to confess that the only time I feel absolutely secure in a slot canyon is on a sunny day with no rain possible for hundreds of miles around.
The entire Narrows section is not in fact confined; at random intervals the walls recede revealing more of the landscape. Smaller side canyons also intrude where fault lines occur, offering additional nooks and crannies to explore.
Looking around as I trudge down the sandy wash, I see many intriguing rock outcroppings, including one which to my eye resembles the Statue of Liberty.
About midway through the main canyon, the walls close in tighter. Fluted and sculpted rock near the base testifies to the power of abrasive and sediment laden water. As dry as the wash bed is today, the evidence is clear that this is not always the case.
All too quickly I approach the northern exit from the canyon, and open sky once again constitutes a majority of the overhead view. Before leaving however there is one more even narrower section to explore, branching off to the northeast.
This is the uppermost end, and it extends a further 1/4 mile. Once again the light of the sun dims, and cool shadows envelop me. This is truly a stone desert, where even the hardiest of plants fail to thrive in a sporadically waterswept and dim environment.
At the farthest reach the canyon walls close in completely, forming a dead end. I turn around and head for the break where the northern trailhead enters the stream bed. From here it is an easy mile back to the camper.
All told the walk up canyon took about an hour, but visitors could easily spend twice that much or more time exploring and enjoying the surroundings. The best part of this particular slot canyon is that it is relatively easy to get to, and even people who are not in the greatest of shape can experience it without too much effort.
Just remember to be safe. Despite ease of access, both the road and the Narrows should be avoided when wet weather is threatening. Otherwise, take time to get up close and personal with this beautiful example of nature's handiwork.