WaterHoles slot canyon is a very accessible slot canyon that is little visited. While the lack of visitation is likely due to lack of awareness, it does improve the experience for those travelers who know about it. Located close to Page, Arizona, it should be part of your plans when in the area.
Narrow and Winding
Sandstone and erosive water has created a wonderland of natural beauty in the four corner country of the western USA. Nothing better illustrates this dynamic than a slot canyon like Waterholes slot canyon. The canyon is a pleasure to walk through – the canyon alternates between an attractive, wider canyon and the blissful narrowness that is expected of a great slot canyon.
Walking along the sandy bottom, accented occasionally by a hearty desert shrub or blossoming plant, your eyes tend to follow look upward, gazing at the cliff walls hanging about 100 feet above you. This depth is not extreme by any means in the area – the Colorado river canyon less than a mile to the west is many times that. But the narrowness of the canyon is what makes it memorable. As you walk along, the walls close in at intervals and you find yourself meandering in a wavy pattern as you wend your way along the bottom of the canyon. Often, the walls are only a few feet apart from one another.
Sculptures in Stone
The sculpted sandstone that comprise the walls betray the carved patterns made by rare but powerful rushing waters. Streaked as if carved by machines, the walls have been cut over eons by these waters, pushing sand and stones along to leave jagged corners and rounded bowls in the walls of the canyon. The switchbacks are so common, that in places you cannot see 20 feet in front of you as the canyon doubles back a dozen times in a hundred feet. Often, the sandstone seems more like frozen waves than canyon walls. It is reminiscent of the crashing surf on a stormy beach.
In the 90 or so minutes we spent in Waterholes slot canyon, we only encountered four other people. Seeing so few, it was natural to stop and share our experiences here with each other. The feeling is consistent – it is one of the best things imaginable and seeing so few actually participating in it only adds to the fun for those of us who do. We are in pretty rare company, all the more surprising considering how easy it was to do. Just two miles away, there is a hundred people crowded around the edge of Horseshoe Bend to look at that (deservedly) good view, but few of them even know that Waterholes slot canyon is here.
It’s a place to take your time, absorbing the experience as a life enhancing memory. There are so few places in the world with such a landscape. Knowing that there are hundreds of slots like this within a few hundred miles of this spot only heightens the wonder. The percentage of people you will meet back home who has ever been in any slot, let alone this one, will be very low. You may not find anyone you know who has done it, or even knows what a slot canyon is. I often try to explain it to people, and I usually get a blank stare. I might as well be speaking about walking on the moon. Most cannot conceive a place like this, let alone make any endeavor to imagine that they themselves could see it.
I write Carefuladventures.com for this very purpose. I know that we are the minority – those of us who are drawn to travel, to see a new landscape, to touch and be touched by something we’ve never felt before. I hope that a few of you will catch the vision from reading my blog. Waterholes slot canyon will make you long for more slot canyon experiences, and more adventures in general. Pictures never do a place like this justice, anymore than a picture of a piece of homemade pie can do justice to what it tastes like. Give Waterholes slot canyon a taste, roll it around in your mouth, and I think you will find it to be a wonderful thing.
Navajo Permit Required
Waterholes slot canyon is on Navajo land. They require you to purchase a hiking pass (about $6) to hike through Waterholes. You can get this pass at the Tribal Parks office next to the Leche-e Chapter House or also at the entrance to the Antelope Canyon area. This pass allows you to explore about 3 miles of Waterholes slot canyon, but there are restrictions (see below).
Waterholes is one of the most easily reached slot canyons in the whole country. It is located less than 7 miles south of Page, Arizona and only 2 miles south of the suddenly popular Horseshoe Bend. To get there, head south of Page on Hwy 89. You’ll pass the parking area for Horseshoe Bend on your right and about 2 miles on you’ll find a small parking area on your left. If you cross the bridge over Waterholes canyon, you’ve gone too far.
Scramble to the Bottom
After parking, work around the fence (there is a narrow, switchback area to go around the fence that discourages cows) and walk along the canyon (on your right) for a bit. The way down is not obvious nor really easy (you may find a few piles of cairns or a trace of a trail, but we missed it the first time), but it does not require any particular canyoneering skills. You will have to navigate over or under one large boulder fall and scramble down a rough trail to the bottom of the canyon. Once in the bottom, the walk in the canyon is not nearly as difficult as getting there. Look at the gallery to see larger pictures of the trail for an idea of what you’ll have to navigate.
While the hike down is the hardest part, which won’t be a problem for most who are in decent health, take the usual precautions. Slot canyons are normally dry and safe to hike but when there is rain in the area or upstream, the canyon can become very dangerous if flash flood hits it. This happens very rarely, but please be aware of the risk if the weather turns. Also remember to take plenty of water as this part of Arizona (like most) can get very hot most times of the year. The elevation is gradual and there are a few places where you have to scramble up a small incline or ledge. If you managed to get to the bottom, these should prove no problem to you.
On our hike, we went as far as a ladder that allows for scaling a 15 foot high cliff but went no further. You can go more if you want to, as far as the power lines as previously mentioned, but be aware of the ladder and having to ascend/descend it. There is a bit of a last step on it that might be disconcerting for some. Even if you stop here, as we did, you will have seen a nice portion of the slot.
Once you are in the canyon, you’ll see the bridge to your right (west). Going past the bridge, the canyon gets deeper but there are some deep drop offs that are not navigable. You are allowed to explore to the east where it has easy hiking. After about 3 miles, you’ll come to some power lines. This marks the extent of how far you can explore even with a permit – going beyond is a violation of federal and Navajo laws. The canyon above here splits into three branches that have short, colorful narrows. The middle fork has a short, deep slot that rivals Antelope Canyon and is called Secret Canyon. Visiting this part of Waterholes requires traveling via Hummer with a licensed operator that will take you there for about $100. The benefit of going to Secret Canyon is that you will have very few other visitors, unlike Antelope Canyon.
To see a gallery of pictures from our trip, go here.
A list of all the slot canyons I’ve visited with helpful descriptions is here.