It is no secret that we live in an ever-shrinking world. Between the advancement of technology and the expansion of inhabitable areas, it’s hard to find places that are truly remote. I consider the American Southwest to be one of those regions that still holds distant locations full of adventure and mystery. Ever heard of Grand Staircase-Escalante? By now people have explored every corner of the national monument, yet thankfully those that share information with the general public seem to provide just enough detail to entice you while reserving the right amount of details to keep it adventurous. Such was our experience with Neon Canyon, a technical slot canyon with one of the grandest finales I could imagine.
Driving through the small town of Escalante, one can already get the sense that this place is a little bit out there. Populated with a few motels, restaurants, and adventure guide services, Main Street has that ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ feel. Be sure to stock up on any last minute items because this is the last sign of civilization you’ll come across for the rest of the journey.
East of town we arrive at the border to the monument proper. It’s a low-key entrance; not much more than a standard national monument sign on the side of the road. We turned onto Hole in the Rock road, a fifty-mile dirt road that leads all the way south to Lake Powell, and began our approach to the trailhead. If there was ever a good reason to get to camp before dark, this road was it. Conditions were wildly variable; one minute cruising along, then without warning the road turns to washboards, sending the car into a violent rattle that threatened to shake the whole vehicle apart.
With great relief, we made it to camp near the trailhead in one piece and got the lay of the land. Poised on the edge of the plateau we were greeted by an expanse of canyons, cliffs, and cacti stretching as far as the eye could see. Somewhere down there lies the Escalante River, and just beyond it, our objective, Neon Canyon.
Sleep that night was about as restful as the night before Christmas when I was a kid; my eyes were closed, but the mind was too excited to fall asleep for any amount of time. I probably spent half the night just laying there waiting for the sound of my alarm, imagining all the possibilities that tomorrow could hold.
Morning preparations were casual. Packing gear, drinking coffee, reading the route description one more time. Making it to the trailhead by mid-morning we chatted up the guys parked next to us and surprise: they were heading out for the same route! William and I befriend John and Jay, adding to our collective confidence with a larger group.
Slot canyons are characterized by steep, unclimbable walls on both sides, making a downstream exit the only viable escape route once you have committed to the canyon and rappel in. While route finding in the canyon shouldn’t be too difficult, the challenge was in the variable water levels we could encounter. Beyond the typical rappels required to descend parts of the canyon, there were two notable obstacles in Neon Canyon called keeper potholes; deep holes bored into the floor of the slot canyon by flowing water that have a very high lip on the downstream side. In the right conditions, they could potentially require two or more people to escape when the water level doesn’t reach the top!
With the team assembled and gear packed, we began our descent to the Escalante River. Unlike most places, there was no definitive trail to follow, only the vague description of a landmark dome to aim for. A few miles later and we were standing on the edge of the lower plateau, overlooking the lush ribbon of life that the watercourse paints through the arid landscape.
Crossing the silty Escalante we entered the bottom of Neon Canyon, an equally lush area full of cottonwoods and desert grasses. Working our way up and across the slickrock bench that skirts around the canyon we found our entry point; a giant rock slung with webbing and rappel rings. Will looked at me dubiously as I assessed the solid looking anchor and rigged the rope. Once over the lip of the overhung rappel, we were officially committed to whatever the canyon had in store for us and I couldn’t have been more excited.
We regrouped at the bottom of the rappel and started making our way down the canyon. Almost immediately we are walking through puddles and ankle deep water. Within a few minutes, we encountered our next obstacle; a short rappel into a shallow pool below. Almost short enough to just jump down, it’s not always easy to see what’s below the surface of the water, and rolling an ankle this far from the trailhead really isn’t an option.
Below the rappel, we hit our first waist-deep pool. Down in the slot canyon, the frigid waters rarely see sunlight. That first rush of cold water filling our wet-suits incited a verbal response from each of us as we dropped in. We moved quickly to get back on dry land and shake off the cold for a minute, grateful to have lugged these wet-suits across 3+ miles of dry desert. Making a few more rappels and swims, we arrived at what would have been a keeper pothole, had it not been filled to the brim with water. With plenty of sunshine falling on us, we smiled and butt slid or cannonballed into the pool and swim our way across.
At this point the canyon opened up for a minute and gave us a nice sunny spot to dry off and have a snack. So far the canyon had been nothing but a fun obstacle course. We recounted the highlights of it all from our warm slickrock recliners. Lizards darted by, blending in so well that unless they’re moving, you can hardly see them.
“Alright, who’s ready to check out the Golden Cathedral?” With a resounding “yes,” we packed things up and prepared for the grand finale to this canyon. The Golden Cathedral is an aptly named pool under a giant overhung roof partway up Neon Canyon. The ceiling of the cathedral is featured with two giant, perfectly round holes that must have been created by water over who knows how many years. The canyon lines up perfectly so that you can rappel through the first hole in the ceiling and drop down into the pool 80+ feet below.
Looking down from the top of the rappel you are surrounded by golden light radiating off of the walls on every side. Unable to see the bottom of the rappel is exciting and keeps the view a total surprise until you are partway down. I stopped after 40 feet or so and took in the view, suspended above the pool. It leads to a beach and sandy canyon full of trees, bushes, and the like.
Under the midday sun, the roof of the cathedral shimmered with the reflection off the water below, making the most interesting patterns of light. The four of us stood there for a minute, staring at the feature we just passed through. It was certainly a new experience for us all, and one we wouldn’t forget anytime soon. We hung our wet-suits in a tree to dry and then hung out on the beach for a few minutes before starting our return trip.
On the drive out to Escalante, William had made an extra stop along the way, and it may have been one of the more important decisions of the excursion; he picked up a pair of big sun hats. If you have yet to experience the intensity of the afternoon sun in the desert, try it without a hat, and then come back with one after getting roasted. It made things so much better to have this straw canopy shielding my face, and I’m pretty sure I still got tanner from all the light reflected off the sand.
It was nice to take a few more breaks on the way out and chase shade under big rocks or junipers.
Johnny Roadtrip aka John Lloyd is a road tripping, desert-loving, outdoor photographer based in Boulder, Colorado. With a camera and a cup of coffee, John loves to explore the magic and wonder of the desert southwest, bringing back images and stories to inspire others to get out and create their own adventures.
Follow along on the journey on Instagram @johnnyroadtrip.