Driving to Peekaboo Slot Canyon: a tour guide gains off-road skills in desert sand
It would make sense for a tour company to accentuate the risk of off-road driving in order to sell tours. And it’s often difficult to get an objective opinion on road conditions because people’s assessments and off-road driving skills vary greatly. Instead of issuing a list of warnings about desert driving and writing a lecture about what not to do in Utah, we are providing this first-hand account written by Tour Guide Andrea Jasper, describing her relationship with the sandy road to Peekaboo Slot Canyon, which is the destination of our Mystical Slot Canyon Tour.
My first attempted trip to Peekaboo slot canyon was in one of those rental SUV crossover something-or-others. You know the ones: The mid-size, all-wheel drive vehicles that are lined up by the hundreds at the Las Vegas airport. With low ground clearance and street tires, every make and model looks the same. I’ve made a few rental agents nervous by crawling under all of their cars, searching for the one with the most ground clearance. It turns out, none of them are cut out for the road to Peekaboo.
Before I became a Kanab resident, Southern Utah was my favorite vacation spot. We were full-time Hawaii residents. Folks always ask, “Where do people from Hawaii vacation?” My husband and I always chose Kanab. On our 2009 trip, we heard about an amazing, red rock slot canyon just north of Kanab near Best Friend’s Animal Sanctuary and said, “Let’s try it!”
Luckily, we both had enough four-wheel drive experience and common sense to back out before it was to late. Literally, we backed out. We made it 200 yards in the deep, desert sand and threw it into reverse, backing down the narrow, two-track road. There was no way we could have turned around without getting stuck.
I bet you were expecting a more interesting story, weren’t you? We did get a flat tire in that rental car later in the trip. It happened about 40 miles from pavement near Marble Canyon. Lessons learned by that experience: Be prepared or hire a professional. My husband and I now carry an air compressor and a tire patch kit anytime we go off road, just like Dreamland does.
Fast forward a few years. My husband and I decided two weeks a year just wasn’t enough time to spend in Utah. So we moved permanently to Kanab. We purchased a brand new Ford F-150 with an advanced, four-wheel drive system and all the ground clearance you could ask for. Assuming we were ready to conquer that sandy road to the slot canyon, we headed to the Peekaboo staging area before we even unpacked our moving boxes. I suppose the second trip was more successful than the first. We made it in at least 300 yards before it became apparent that we still weren’t prepared to handle that much sand. We hadn’t lowered the tire pressure and the street tread wasn’t cutting through the sand. We lacked experience. It was hard to tell if we were just about to get stuck. The truck was bogging down in the deep sand heading downhill. One of the first rules in off-road driving: Never drive down a hill if you’re not sure you can make it back up. A truck coming from the other direction insisted the road only gets worse.We bagged the trip.
So the score was Peekaboo Slot Canyon: 2. Jaspers: 0.
Finally, our third trip to the the slot canyon was a success. We took our highly-capable dirt bikes the day after a snowstorm when the sand was wet, packed and frozen. The conditions of the road vary a lot depending on moisture. The brilliant, red sandstone in the canyon contrasted against the cobalt blue sky and a dusting of bright, white snow. The slot canyon is truly a photographer’s dream. It’s rare to find such an accessible slot canyon so close to town. The walk is flat and easy, technical gear is not needed, and the skilled few can drive right up to the entrance of the slot. The difficult road thins the crowd. Sometimes, you can have the slot canyon all to yourself.
Despite our one successful trip, the sandy road still scared me. And I had spent many hours off-road driving through the rivers, steep valleys and mountains, lava rock roads and sandy coastline of Hawaii’s Big Island. My husband is even better suited for exploring out-of-the-way places. He is an ASE certified mechanic, and he drove a four-wheel drive rig all over tarnation for 18 years making maps for the federal government. He can fix anything. And it’s practically impossible for him to get lost. We aren’t afraid to venture off the beaten path. But the deep sand of the Utah/Arizona desert can be a real deterrent.
That’s why I was just a little bit nervous when I applied to be a tour guide for Dreamland Safari Tours. It was kind of a dream job. I had been an unofficial guide in Hawaii, meeting newcomers and taking them to out-of-the way spots, secluded beaches and secret lava tubes. And for years, I had talked about quitting my career job at the local newspaper and taking up guiding. I was just too chicken to do it. Yes, I REALLY wanted to work for Dreamland. But that would mean I’d have to drive that darn slot canyon road. I just didn’t know if I could hack it.
But it’s amazing what you can accomplish with the right tools and good training. I learned all about adjusting tire pressure for sand driving, and our Chevy Suburbans and Tahoes have plenty of power for plowing through the soft sand. They have beefy, off-road tires with the right tread and abundant ground clearance so you’re not dragging your belly through sections where there are deep ruts. We carry shovels, tow straps, GPS communication devices, which we mostly use when assisting other drivers. Several training trips with experienced guides helped me get a good feel for when to gas it and when to back off, how not to spin the tires, and how to make the truck go again if it does get hung up briefly in the sand. I was set up for success.
I was still nervous on my first solo trip, even though I knew I could do it. I gripped the steering wheel tight and 99% of my brain’s capacity was engaged in choosing the right turns, studying the depth of the ruts and watching for oncoming traffic on the narrow road. The guests on that tour asked so many questions on the way to Peekaboo. I probably told them giraffes thrive in the Utah desert. Or the name Grand Staircase came from a Led Zeppelin song. Another guide later described to me the exact same experience. He was concentrating so diligently on the road, why were those guests talking? What were they even saying?
Of course, we love answering questions. There is so much joy in sharing these incredible landscapes with others. In many ways, being a tour guide really is a dream job. I now have 34 Mystical Slot Canyon tours under my belt and I can’t wait to hit that road again. (I keep a tally of how many trips I’ve made to these incredible destinations because I think it’s funny.) I rattle off lists of common wildlife, I describe the geologic processes that formed the Grand Staircase and tell visitors about John Wesley Powell, the early explorer to the Grand Canyon region who first described the concept of the Grand Staircase. I drive with one hand on the wheel, the other pointing out the difference between pinion pines and juniper.
On the road, I’ve come across exhausted, thirsty hikers. I’ve seen stuck SUVs, a tipped over side by side, stuck trucks, stressed drivers, elated drivers. A Jeep blew its motor trying to power through the deep sand. Then an ATV came along to pull out the Jeep and it blew its motor. At least that’s what the drivers told me. It still seemed unbelievable. We even smelled a skunk along the road one minute after I told my guests we don’t see skunks in the desert so far away from the creek. I never know exactly what we’ll come across on our way to Peekaboo Slot Canyon, which makes every trip down there a bit more intriguing.
Dreamland Safari Tours specializes in getting people to out-of-the-way places they can’t get to on their own. All of our tours include some off-pavement driving. The roads to White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes are also unmaintained tracks across deep, desert sand. I’ve completed more than 50 trips on the Paria Plateau in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and feel qualified to offer sound advice on tackling these areas on your own. I don’t recommend it. I now know how much practice it takes. What kind of vehicle it takes. And it’s so much fun for me because, with my company’s help, I am equipped to take you there. I have full confidence.
Once I mastered our most popular tours: White Pocket, Mystical Slot Canyon, South Coyote Buttes and Toroweap, one of our most experienced guides started training me on our Ultimate Kanab Tour. In addition to Peekaboo Slot Canyon, that trip includes, among other stops, a world-class dinosaur track site and Rosy Canyon. Rosy is also a brilliant, red walled canyon that appears to glow in indirect sunlight. Ancient petroglyphs carved into it the brightly colored rock make this locale a real standout in canyon country. The color accentuates the petroglyphs in photographs like no other spot in the Southwest that I’ve seen. But, I was told, the road to get there is even worse than Peekaboo.
Undeterred, I pointed the front of the Suburban into the ridiculously sandy wash and gassed it.