Hiking a Slot Canyon


I have a childhood memory of watching the Dateline NBC episode where Tom Brokaw interviews Aron Ralston at the scene where he had his harrowing experience in Utah’s Blue John Canyon. It’s the story of a man, a trapped arm, a pocketknife… you know, that one.

It was my first time becoming aware of slot canyons. These places where the earth splits open in deep, narrow chasms from the flowing of water over eons of time.

In 2020, I finally got the chance to hike one.

Shannon and I looked at many trip reports of many slot canyons in the area of Arizona we were passing through. Trying to find the right mix of adventure and common sensibility. Eventually, we settled on Cathedral Wash near the “town” of Marble Canyon.

Slot Canyon #3 - Evan Nickel

The Cathedral Wash trail is a two-part challenge. On one hand, it requires physical fitness to move throughout the canyon. On the other hand, it’s a mental puzzle that requires constant evaluation of the terrain and the best path forward.

The first 1/2 mile or so is deceiving in nature. There are a few places where scrambling is required, but it’s easily manageable. 

Just past the 1/2 mile point, you reach a 30-foot drop-off and this hike transforms into a climb. We took it slow and chose what appeared to be the logical route. 

Slot Canyon #1 - Evan Nickel

The rest of the way to the Colorado River was significantly more tricky to navigate. At numerous points, you have to decide which ledge to traverse, what down climb you should attempt, and where and should and should not trust the footing. 

Difficulty aside, this was a stunningly beautiful canyon to explore. 

The further you hike, the higher and more narrow the surrounding walls become. It felt intimate, yet intimidating to be so deep in such a remote place. 

Car to car, it was about 3.5 miles of hiking. We took pictures, stopped at the river for a bit, and took plenty of caution at the sketchy parts. It took us just under three hours.

Make no mistake – this is a dangerous trail for those who downplay the seriousness of the terrain. Shannon found it both thrilling and scary at certain points, but as always, she persevered admirably. 

That being said, she and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Resources Used

Hike Directions:  AllTrails Map

Offline mapping: GaiaGPS

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