While many visitors to Utah are checking off the state’s five national parks and joining the crowds for an Instagram shot of the most iconic views, those who venture into Utah’s secluded backcountry canyons can discover an entirely different world. These hidden slots, carved by water and erosion, can be as narrow as just a few feet, but plunge hundreds of feet into the earth. Fall and spring are ideal times to discover these natural wonders.

“Canyoneering picks up where hiking leaves off,” says Carl Dec, owner of Moab’s Red River Adventures. “You use ropes, scramble or swim. There are beginner routes that you can just hike into, but for many slots, you also need to know how to rig rappels and put in anchors. It’s an incredible way to slow down and really immerse yourself in what the attraction of this area is in the first place.”

For starters

Within 15 minutes of Moab, you’ll find a handful of intermediate routes where you can get your feet wet. Morning Glory and Chamisa Canyon both are 2.5- to 3- miles long and feature two short rappels, some scrambling, water and beautiful natural features.

Drive an hour away just outside Capitol Reef National Park for a number of less technical, but equally spectacular canyons. We recommend Cottonwood Wash, a route that starts in a seemingly mundane dry riverbed and narrows into a canyon awash with streaks of color. Over the next three miles, you’ll encounter boulder jams and short pools of water. Those who make it past one particularly frigid pool will reach an impassable dryfall—this spot marks the end of the canyon.

Get deeper

If you have more experience, venture to Zion National Park, an area that boasts a dense population of slot canyons. Among the most famous canyons in the park are the 16-mile-long Narrows, and the Subway, an 11-mile route that includes rappels, down-climbing and some swimming. Outside the park, exploration opportunities are endless. Nick Smith of guiding company Seldom Seen Adventures has made a hobby of discovering new slot canyons in the Zion area. 

“Every year we find canyons that haven’t been descended before,” says Smith. “For me, canyoneering is about the ability to get deeper into the backcountry. Ropes and equipment are a way to get to places we couldn’t go otherwise.”

Don’t have the technical skills? A guide can help you explore safely, accommodate families and know the beta on less-traveled routes.

—Melanie Wong