Here’s the rub on slot canyons: they aren’t for everyone.
Just like vacationing in the Arctic North in winter or vacationing on the beach, some love one and can’t stand the other. It’s the same with a slot canyon.
A slot canyon is, by definition, a slot. Sometimes the canyon is so narrow you can touch both sides with your hands; sometimes you turn sideways to shimmy through a tight spot. Occasionally you may not be walking on flat ground, but rather stepping on a tight crevice where the two walls meet at your feet.
Slot canyons are typically carved by water erosion. Most slot canyons hold water, so you may find yourself sloshing or swimming in sections of frigid water. Why frigid? At times you can’t see the sky. The slot above you may twist and turn, so the canyon floor may never see direct sunlight.
But there is light, amazing light, broadcasting from above. Light bounces off the narrow walls, creating a beautiful glow unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Don’t forget the curvature of the rock. It’s simply amazing.
Keyhole Canyon in Zion National Park is a great example of a slot canyon and my latest slot canyon adventure. Keyhole is short and sweet; it’s less than a mile long, with the start and finish basically in the same place.
Since it’s a short slot canyon, many may be tempted to try it as their first ‘slot’ experience. This could be a terrible mistake. While Keyhole is short, it has a deadly reputation and took the lives of 7 hikers in September of 2015 due to flash flooding.
Keyhole is technical, requiring full climbing gear and technical skills for most of the lower canyon. There is no daylight or visible sky, and you’ll encounter a few water obstacles. Expect to get wet or even go for a swim, depending on the time of year and depth of water. Consider these factors before embarking on your journey, and always exercise great caution.
Before you start, it’s best to check in at the visitor’s center to get the latest weather forecast and flash flood warnings.
Field Note 1: Understanding a weather forecast in Zion National Park is critical and worth clarifying. “There’s a 25% chance of rain in Zion NP…” doesn’t mean there’s a 25% possibility it might rain; it means 25% of the park (or forecasted area) WILL receive rain. Slot canyons are drainage outlets to a wide area of terrain. The smallest change of rain should be taken serious.
The approach to Keyhole Canyon is a short, steep, slick rock trail up to the saddle where it traverses down into a valley bowl. Once at the bottom, we realized the magnitude of Keyhole’s danger. The terrain is like a large bathtub, and Keyhole canyon is the drain. Keyhole contributes to the main drainage through Zion; Keyhold feeds into Clear Creek which feeds into Pine Creek canyon.
Field Note 2: Hiking the steep rock approach is strenuous. If you’re wearing your wetsuit, you’ll be miserably hot. Wait and change into your wetsuit just before you descend into Keyhole canyon.
Keyhole Canyon is a tight slot canyon with narrow angled walls snaking upwards. Of all the canyoneering I’ve done in Zion NP, by far Keyhole has the most unique light. It’s a warm orange and fiery glow. Many areas of Keyhole have no direct light, and indirect light reflects off the canyon walls to produce an illuminating wonder.
Gear Check: Keyhole is technical, so bring your climbing gear. Unless you’re a member of an Arctic swim club, bring your wetsuit too! The time of year doesn’t matter: the water will be cold.
The canyon is divided into two parts, upper and lower, with a open sandy wash between them. The upper canyon is non-technical but full of twists and turns that require a few down climbs but nothing too demanding.
The sandy wash is a perfect spot to allow other groups to play through and also a great spot to escape lower Keyhole if necessary. Once you drop into lower Keyhole, you’re committed.
Field Note 3: If you come upon a slower group, simply ask if your group can play through. If you’re the slow group, allow smaller or faster groups to pass.
Lower keyhole is the first rappel, and it opens into a large room filled with Caribbean turquoise-colored water.
As the first one off the rope, I hugged the side of sandstone wall and recalled a childhood memory. I asked my dad the color of his 1966 Ford pickup truck, and he relied, ‘Caribbean Turquoise.’ It’s a conversation I’ve never forgotten. In the quiet of Keyhole Canyon, I’m struck by how certain activities trigger vivid childhood memories.
The final section of the canyon was narrow and slightly angled, presenting us with a tough choice. We could stem our way through, above the water, or we could swim. We opted for a frigid 100-foot swim.
Our swim ended as the canyon widened. We hiked out of the last section of Keyhole, and the trail led us down a wash to the Mt. Carmel Highway and our car.
Keyhole Canyon was in the books: short, sweet and boasting the most remarkable light I’ve experienced in Zion’s numerous canyons. The water was the perfect combination of Caribbean color and Arctic temperatures, all in one adventure! Who says you can’t have it all?