Exploring Utah's Zebra Canyon

A free chapter from The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes, the newest CMC Press guidebook.

Intro by CMC Intern Sarah Pultorak

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in south-central Utah is one of the most secluded areas in the nation. The region’s bare-bones desert landscape is marked with towering geologic formations that leave everyone, from day trippers to seasoned desert rats, astonished.

The sedimentary rock that makes up the foundation of the Colorado Plateau, upon which the monument sits, is a massive outdoor museum. It showcases eons of desert life and detailed tectonic history dating back as far as 98 million years. This rugged past has resulted in impressive cliffs, daunting towers and arches, deep canyons, and powerful rivers, all of which make the area a mecca for outdoor adventure.

Despite President Trump’s 2017 proclamation that reduced the overall size of the monument by 47 percent, the protected sections still cover over a million acres of public lands – an area so remote that it was the last portion of the contiguous United States to be mapped.

The newest guidebook from Colorado Mountain Club Press, The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes, highlights 25 of the region’s can’t-miss trails. Just in time for desert season, this upcoming release from authors Morgan Sjogren (The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes, Outlandish) and Michael VerSteeg includes hikes within the monument’s current and former boundaries – and it’s the only guide with information up to date as of late 2019.

Here’s a complimentary chapter featuring one of the most popular hikes in the new pack guide: Zebra Canyon.

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Zebra Canyon and Tunnel Slot

From The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes 
by Morgan Sjogren and Michael VerSteeg

COMMENT: One of the most photographed and name-dropped slot canyons in the area, Zebra canyon has the crowds to prove it. If solitude is your thing, this is not the place for you, but its relative ease and short distance still make this a hike very much worth taking.

Zebra Canyon itself is short, narrow, and lined in colorful pink and white striped walls. It is not uncommon for this canyon to be filled with water (sometimes waist deep or higher). It is possible to scramble up and out of the canyon to its true end, but it’s not necessary to get the full experience of this underground treasure.

The far less visited Tunnel Slot is a unique slot that appears to close up at the top, offering its namesake. Like Zebra, Tunnel is short but still worth the extra walk down the wash.

Note the unique round black rocks scattered among these canyons and the surrounding area. Moqui Marbles are formed when iron oxide encapsulates balls of Navajo Sandstone. Similar Rocks have been found on Mars, giving them the name “Martian Blueberries.” It is illegal to remove them.

GETTING THERE: From Escalante, head east on Highway 12 for 5.0 miles. Turn right on Hole-In-The-Rock Road. Continue for 8.0 miles and park at the signed trailhead for Zebra Slot Canyon trailhead.

THE ROUTE: The approach to Zebra is on well-defined single track along a sandy wash and sandstone formations. Keep an eye out for cairns, although if you follow the general direction of the wash you will stay on target. At 2.0 miles from the trailhead, the side canyon you have been in will converge with a much larger sandy wash. This is Harris Wash. Trend left, turning up Harris Wash for a 100 yards or so, then cross, leaving Harris Wash and trend right, following the many footpaths toward the side canyon that is Zebra. It will be easy to find. The canyon itself is short, ending for most at the first large pothole a few hundred feet from where the slot starts. The hardy may scramble up a few more turns into the canyon, but the payoff isn’t really worth the effort to get a few feet farther. Caution should be exercised when these large potholes are full of water-the inexperienced many not be able to claw their way back out.

Once satisfied with your stripey photos, return to Harris Wash. Or if you desire to continue, turn left and head down-canyon via Harris Wash. In about 1.0 mile you will notice cairns and a footpath leaving the main canyon on your left, and up a side canyon. Turn here and make your way up this drainage, which soon narrows dramatically and forms the aptly named Tunnel Slot. This slot usually has a bit of water in it, but it is wadeable. Once through, you can return the way you came, back to Harris Wash and back to your car, or continue up the drainage that forms the Tunnel, which will eventually top out on a slickrock bench looking over Harris Wash and the surrounding areas. Explore the sweeping seas of slickrock benches and Moqui Marbles while slowly trending westward and back toward the entry wash of Zebra.

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If you want to learn more about Zebra Canyon, Tunnel Slot, and the rest of the outings included in The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes, the guidebook is now available.