An athletic romp through Zebra slot canyon is the highlight of this 6.6-mile hiking loop through the desert of southern Utah.
Zebra & Tunnel Slots – Quick Facts
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the area but does not label Zebra Canyon (see map below)
DESIGNATION: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
BEST SEASONS: year-round, but summer is hot and beware of flash floods in July and August!
DISTANCE: 6.6 mile lollipop loop includes Tunnel Slot – a round trip only to Zebra is 5 miles.
ELEVATION: trailhead 5,350ft – low point 5,150ft
ACCESS: dirt roads to the trailhead – high clearance is recommended, but passenger cars are often okay in dry conditions.
DRIVING DIRECTIONS: Hike begins at the Zebra Tunnel Trailhead, 13 miles from the town of Escalante, UT. From Escalante, drive east on Route 12 for 5 miles. Turn right on the Hole In The Rock Road (BLM 200). Follow the bumpy dirt road for 7.8 miles. Trailhead parking is on the right (west) side of the road, immediately beyond the 3rd cattle guard.
ROUTE: Open desert terrain culminating in a narrow, wet, claustrophobic canyon. Expect to see several other hikers, especially in spring and fall. See full route description under item #1 below.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE: Allow at least 3 or 4 hours for this hike. This may seem like a lot of time for fast hikers, but it allows for handling one-way traffic and photos in the extremely narrow Zebra slot canyon. We took about 4.5 hours at a fun, casual pace.
Zebra slot canyon is one of many hikes to be found along southern Utah’s Hole-in-the-Rock Road, where many sandstone canyons feed the west side of the Escalante River.
As always when exploring slot canyons, it’s important to be mindful of local rainfall. Grand Staircase-Escalante’s summer heat is no joke, either.
There are 2 common ways to do this hike. The first is by simply doing an out-and-back trip to Zebra Canyon, which is 5 miles round trip. The second is to add the short Tunnel Slot via a lollipop loop, which brings the round trip up to 6.6 miles.
7 Tips to Review Before Your Hike
Here’s the checklist of things to know before you go.
1) Access is via a dirt road.
You’ll only have to drive on the dirt for about 8 miles, so this is one of the better hikes along Hole-in-the-rock for those in a passenger car. Regardless, it’s important to note that the road becomes impassable when wet, even with 4-wheel drive.
Otherwise, passenger cars can do okay in good, dry conditions, as long as you take it easy. High-clearance or 4×4 is obviously preferred.
After you turn off the pavement from Route 12, the trailhead is 7.8 miles down the road, immediately beyond the 3rd cattle guard. Park on the right (west) side of the road, and the trail begins across the road to the east.
2) Summer calls for extra caution.
The majority of this hike is sandy and dry with no shade. You’re going to want some form of sun protection, like sunscreen and/or big hats and long sleeves.
It gets very hot out here in the summer, so be sure that everyone in your party brings plenty of water and stays hydrated. One gallon per person is a good rule of thumb. Salty snacks taste great in these conditions, and they keep your body chemically balanced, too.
Finally, it’s extremely dangerous to venture into slot canyons when there’s heavy rain, for fear of flash floods. Heavy rain in this part of Utah most often occurs in July and August!
3) You’re going to get wet.
There’s always pools of standing, gross water at the beginning of the Zebra Canyon, and often some at Tunnel Slot too. Sometimes the water is so deep that it requires some swimming!
On other days you may only have to wade up to your knees, though depths will vary depending on recent rainfall. Weather patterns are growing more unpredictable nowadays, but I think you’re most likely to find dry conditions in mid to late June, and in early October. Sometimes you can luck out on a quiet day in winter, but be prepared for the cold!
It’s worth emphasizing that the pools are at the very beginning of the Zebra slot canyon, so the hike is not going to be worth it if the pools are too deep. A place to check on current conditions is at the Grand Staircase-Escalante visitor center in Cannonville. You can also find recent insight on platforms with frequent reviews, like TripAdvisor and AllTrails.
You might see other hikers removing their socks and shoes before entering the water – this is a terrible idea. Going barefoot severely increases your risk of injury. It’s also going to make the next section of the canyon very difficult, which leads me to the next point.
4) Getting to the end requires athleticism.
After wading through the gross stagnant water, the fun has only just begun! The rest of the way up Zebra Canyon gets extremely narrow. It’s so narrow, in fact, that it’s often impossible to place even a single foot squarely on the bottom.
This is solved by using friction to stabilize your body within the canyon walls. As you can see in the photo above, some people are more comfortable climbing high, while others will do better staying low. It all depends on the dynamics of your body height and how you like to adjust. Regardless, it definitely requires a level of athleticism!
Some sources on the internet mention boulders and other obstacles, but in September of 2020 we found that it was simply a matter of chimney-ing your way along the walls, without any vertical climbing.
A good pro tip is to hide your backpacks somewhere along the trail before entering the narrows. The slot canyon is only about 100 yard long, and leaving your pack behind, no matter how small it is, is going to make things much easier for you.
Hopefully you’re there at time when the canyon isn’t too crowded. If it is, there will be traffic going both ways in an environment where it’s not easy to “step off the trail” to let others pass.
Waiting around in the confines of the canyon can trigger a level of claustrophobia, and catching your breath after exerting yourself through the initial narrows can have the same effect. Just pause and calm yourself if necessary before continuing, or turn back and wait for your group at the mouth of the canyon.
5) Be sure to study the route before you go.
You will not get a phone data signal out here.
There’s a good, cairned trail leading to the mouth of Zebra Canyon, but the terrain out here can get confusing. You won’t find any signs marking the way, and it’s possible to lose the trail when crossing the washes.
From the trailhead, follow the well-defined path that runs along the north side of Halfway Hollow, the large wash to your right. Soon the trail drops into the floor of the wash, but it’s best to stay on the left side of the canyon as the use trails stay high and cut a few corners.
After about 2 miles you’ll come to the place where Halfway Hollow empties into the wide, expansive mouth of Harris Wash. This is where some folks may get confused, but what you want to do is continue following the trail that bears slightly to the left as it crosses the sandy flat. The path will lead directly to the narrow, slickrock mouth of Zebra Canyon, which is only a small tributary of Harris Wash.
You’ll go up Zebra Canyon (as described above) until you come to a 10-foot pourover that looks climb-able, but is more difficult than anything you’ve encountered thus far. This is the turnaround point, and the most scenic and photographed narrows of Zebra Canyon lie directly below you.
It’s possible to climb up the pourover at the end, but the canyon soon becomes impassable.
After you turn around and exit the slot, there’s 3 good options for continuing the hike:
- Retrace your steps to your vehicle (a 5 mile round trip)
- Find the low access to the mouth of Tunnel Slot (adds ~1.5 miles)
- Follow a loop approaching tunnel slot from the top (recommended, adds ~1.5 miles)
Finding Tunnel Slot
To approach Tunnel Slot from the bottom, you’ll stay at the same general elevation as the floor of the canyons. With your back to the mouth of Zebra slot, go straight toward the wide open area where the canyons converge, but bear left and head up the next main canyon on your left. Go up this wash about a half mile, and Tunnel Slot will be on your left (see map above).
To approach Tunnel Slot from the top, re-orient yourself at the beginning of Zebra Canyon, with your back to its entrance. Immediately to your left you’ll see the mouth of a small draw – a break in the landscape that barely qualifies as a canyon. Follow the use path on the right side of this draw up to the open slickrock landscape above.
Continue up the slope, aiming straight ahead in an east/southeast direction. A couple of barbed wire fences are crossed with some care, and it’s little more than a half-mile before a deep canyon opens before you. Access the head of a draw that leads parallel to your direction to begin a descent.
Descend the rocky ravine to its junction with a larger canyon. Turn right down this canyon, and in a few minutes you’ll come to the Tunnel Slot, which is only about 50 yards long. You’ll often find a pool of standing water in Tunnel Slot, which should be no problem after your fun in Zebra Canyon.
After you exit Tunnel Slot, turn right into Harris Wash and then bear left to begin retracing your original steps up Halfway Hollow to your vehicle.
The loop to visit Tunnel Slot from above was not well marked in 2020. At the very least, I advise taking a couple screenshots of this description and downloading the map above. Additionally, we found the GPS track posted on the AllTrails App to be useful.
6) It’s wise to camp near Zebra Canyon.
You can generally find good camping along the entirety of the Hole-in-the-Rock Road. There’s good, open camping on the west side of the dirt road immediately after turning off the pavement from Route 12. There’s an expansive area here that can accommodate numerous groups, including RVs.
It’s a good idea to camp nearby, so you can be the “early bird” in these canyons. This especially applies to the Zebra Slot, where you can get 2-way traffic in such a confined area. Hit the canyons early in the morning, before other travelers arrive from the lodges near Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks.
This advice also applies to Peekaboo Canyon and Spooky Gulch, but I’d be more concerned with running into traffic in Zebra.
Most land along the Hole-in-the-Rock Road is managed by the BLM, where permits are not required. Other parts of Utah’s backcountry here are managed as part of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, where camping permits are required. The permits are available from the visitor center in Cannonville.
For several years (since 1996) the entirety of this land was managed as part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It wasn’t until recently (December 2017) when the borders of the National Monument were redefined, and the Hole-in-the-Rock road reverted to BLM management.
The future boundaries of the Monument seem to be in flux, dependent upon the political climate. It’s no secret that the state of Utah wishes to reclaim the corridor as its own, in which case the road would likely be paved as part of a Utah State Park.
Anyway, the map below shows where you can camp without a permit. A permit is required for the green areas (the National Monument), and you don’t need a permit for the tan areas (BLM). Note that the gray/purple area to the right is part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which also requires a permit for camping.
I cropped the map just to show the Hole-in-the-Rock Road. You can see the original full size map of Grand Staircase-Escalante at its source on Wikipedia.
7) Dogs are allowed, but this is not a dog-friendly slot canyon.
Yes, dogs are allowed on the entirety of this hike (just please pick up the poop).
However, I strongly recommend against taking your dog within the confines of Zebra Canyon itself. In the text (and photos) above, you’ll see that it’s best not even to bring a backpack in there.
In that case, how do you think a dog will fare?
Zebra Slot Video
Here’s a quick video I shot in Zebra Canyon. Haley’s behavior is genuine, as she thought I was just taking pictures. 🙂
My Trip Note & Photos
I hiked the loop with Tunnel Slot as described on September 14, 2020. Companions were Haley, Taryn, and Kim.
We camped the previous night a short distance off of Route 12 as described in the camping section, above. We didn’t pull in until late at night, and had no trouble finding a place to camp here.
The pools in Zebra Canyon were up to my knees (I’m 6’0ft tall), and the weather was perfect. Road conditions were good and dry – doable in a passenger car.
We took about 4.5 hours at a fun, casual pace.