Some of southern Utah’s most unique and sought-after geological wonders are its colorful slot canyons. Slot canyons are deep, narrow gorges carved into (typically) sedimentary rock such as sandstone or limestone. Formed as a result of millions of years of erosion, the canyons have characteristically sheer walls, and are substantially deeper than they are wide. Slot canyons cut across the landscape of the southwestern U.S. – in particular across the Colorado Plateau – and Utah is thought to have the largest concentration in the world.
Wanting to check out at least one slot while we were in the area, we settled on Bull Valley Gorge. It’s a bit off the beaten path, is typically dry, and is also dog friendly. Located in a remote corner of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Bull Valley Gorge sees significantly fewer visitors than many of the slot canyons in the region. It’s also sandwiched on either side by two other lesser-known slots of Utah’s high desert – Willis Creek and Lick Wash.
Traveling to Bull Valley can be a bit of an adventure, depending on weather and current road conditions. The trailhead is about eleven miles south of Cannonville, eight of which are along rugged Skutumpah Road. Some sections of road are pretty rough, and best suited to higher-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles. Moreover, during stretches of heavy rain or snow, it’s likely that some portions of the road will be impassable.
The trail to Bull Valley Gorge begins on the right side of Skutumpah Road, just before a rickety, one-way bridge crosses over the canyon. There are a couple of spots to pull a car off here without blocking the road, but no true parking area. For us, this wasn’t an issue, as we were the only ones exploring the gorge. While we didn’t have to share the trail with other hikers, we were, however, greeted immediately by an enormous drive of cattle being herded by a handful of cowboys on horseback. We thought Sanchez would be a bit more intrigued by the calves and overall commotion, but she had zero interest in the whole ordeal. She was nothing more than mildly annoyed that her adventure was delayed briefly while the procession passed by.
After entering the barbed wire gate, a trail skirts the rim along the right (northeast) side of the canyon for just over half a mile. At this point, the gorge becomes shallow enough to scramble down into. After hopping down a few boulders to the sandy floor of the canyon, we headed left (southeast) – back in the direction of Skutumpah Road. The canyon walls grow exceedingly quickly, and within just a few hundred feet, you are in a completely different world than the one you entered moments before.
Formed by a tributary of the Paria River, Bull Valley Gorge is a masterpiece of striated Navajo sandstone. About 200 feet deep at its deepest point, the canyon’s lofty walls are regularly narrower at the top than along the base, in some spots tapering to less than five feet wide. As you wander through the dimly-lit slot, the undulating stone is mesmerizing – with the colors and patterns changing around every twist and turn.
After following the floor of the canyon for about a mile as it snaked southeast, we made it back to the section of the gorge that runs beneath Skutumpah Road. From here, we were able to look up and see that same precarious, narrow bridge that crosses the gorge. Just below the bridge, we also spotted the skeleton frame of an old pickup that had plunged into the gorge more than half a century ago. On the night of October 14, 1954, three men were killed when the truck they were driving up Skutumpah Road stalled near the ramshackle bridge. The pickup rolled backward and plummeted twenty-five feet down into the gorge, being crushed instantly between the canyon’s constricted walls. The tragedy devastated the tiny, close-knit communities in the area. While a challenging recovery mission was successful in extracting the victims’ remains, the vehicle was never removed from the gorge. Today, the rusted pickup remains suspended high in the canyon walls – a morbid reminder to those hiking below of that tragic night nearly seventy years ago.
With its bit of heartrending history and striking scenery, we really enjoyed our excursion into our first slot canyon. While the overall hike through Bull Valley Gorge was quite easy, a bit of moderate scrambling and bouldering over some slickrock made an already satisfying outing that much more fun. If you decide to traverse the canyon, be aware that there are a number of dryfalls to negotiate that require some down-climbing (and, consequently, climbing back up if hiked as an out-and-back). The highest of these are about ten to twelve feet. As athletic as Sanchez is, she did struggle on a few of the dryfalls, and we ended up having to hoist her both down and back up.
Given the need for an occasional human assist, we weren’t sure how Sanchez would ultimately enjoy the hike. However, she absolutely loved it! Her inquisitive nose led her into every nook and cranny, and we could only imagine the surplus of smells that must sweep through the canyon every time it rains and floods.
After eventually climbing back out of the canyon, we retraced our footsteps along the rim to return to Skutumpah Road. For the entire half mile, Sanchez was pulling toward the edge, her nose pointed skyward. Even from above, the wealth of scents was drawing her back to the canyon.
While Sanchez hadn’t really favored a lot of the dusty, desert hikes we’d taken her on during our stay in Utah, this one was a huge exception. We were so glad she finally found one she liked, and were so proud of our bold little explorer’s efforts. We have to agree with our furry adventurer – Bull Valley Gorge was a pretty magical place.
Total distance: 2.6 miles
Elevation gain: 279 feet
Know before you go:
- There are a number of dryfalls in the canyon that will require some bouldering over slickrock. Make sure you’re physically comfortable with moderate scrambling before taking on Bull Valley Gorge. Importantly, make sure you don’t climb down anything you are not confident you can climb back up.
- Summer temperatures and sun exposure can be extreme. Be especially careful to carry sufficient water and necessary gear during these hotter months.
- Never enter a slot canyon when rains are predicted, and beware of the potential for afternoon storms in the summer. Pooling and flash flooding can be really dangerous.
- Bull Valley Gorge is in a remote area, and reliable cell service is highly unlikely. Make sure you are well prepared before venturing out.
- While Bull Valley Gorge is normally a dry canyon, water and mud can pool after it rains. Some people have reported pools here up to four feet deep. If the canyon is wet in the winter, the water will be extremely cold, likely requiring a wetsuit.
- We brought our dog with us into the canyon, but only because she’s very athletic. A couple of the dryfalls were even a bit too tall for her to safely negotiate, so she needed a human assist at times. Keep this in mind if you’re hiking with your furry friend. I imagine this would be a challenging outing for many pups.
- While we hiked just a few miles, it is possible to turn this into a much longer day hike. Bull Valley Gorge can be hiked via a 17-mile loop that runs the length of the canyon to Sheep Creek and Willis Creek, including a two-mile return via Skutumpah Road. For more information, check out the detailed report here.