Hiking a Slot Canyon in Navajo Lands

April 20, 2017

When I first started exploring Utah and the Colorado Plateau, I purchased one of Kelsey’s hiking guides and have used it to find most of my hiking destinations in Red Rock Country over the past ten years or so. I often sit in my bed at night and leaf through the pages and mark them on my topographical (paper) atlas for future reference. One of the hikes I had highlighted in yellow, was Waterholes Canyon which is near Page, AZ on Navajo Lands, and I finally decided to do it.

This hike is very easy to access because it starts right by a major highway. It’s located on Navajo Lands and therefore requires a permit to hike which I obtained out of respect for the Navajo Nation. The best place to acquire the permit is at the Tribal Parks Office next to the Leche-e Chapter House, 3 miles south of Page along the Copper Mine Road; it can be purchased at the office on the day of the visit, or in advance by postal applications (www.navajonationparks.org/permits.htm). (However, when I parked a the trail head I noticed that most of the other vehicles didn’t have any kind of permit on their vehicle). With the permit, I received a map and was disappointed to learn that I was only permitted to hike in the lower section of Water Holes Canyon. Upon further investigation, I learned that the most beautiful section of Water Holes Canyon, the upper section, is now only accessible through a guide service (apparently this came into effect in 2010). I was very disappointed to learn that I wouldn’t be able to hike to the upper section, but I don’t blame the Navajo one bit for turning this beautiful canyon into a money-making project, along with Antelope Canyon (which is very close by).

I’m actually surprised that more Navajo families are not taking advantage of the huge influx of tourists in and around Navajo lands by building more campgrounds. I asked one Navajo lady why she thought this was, and she simply stated that “Maybe they just don’t want people trampling all over their land,” and well….I can’t blame them because people tend to be highly disrespectful of the earth and the wildlife that roams it. If other Americans don’t take care of their own land, why should the Navajo, Hopi, and other tribes expect them to respect theirs?

Above is my Kelsey guide, now outdated because it gives directions on how to hike to Upper Waterholes Canyon which is no longer permitted. By the way, I feel I should mention here that although I think this is a very informative guide (though hard to follow) some BLM Rangers do not really approve of Kelsey the man. They admit that he knows his stuff, but they feel he is arrogant and disrespectful of private lands, so this is just a little heads up if you choose to purchase one of his guides.


Despite being close to Page and the main highway, Water Holes is not too well-known and is visited much less often than Antelope Canyon (which is only accessible through private tours and is (in my opinion) expensive. The drainage runs east-west about 7 miles south of Page, meeting the Colorado River a short distance above Lees Ferry, passing under US 89 and extending about 5 miles southeast, where it branches into three main forks, then a dozen or so smaller ones.

When you get your permit for hiking in Water Holes Canyon it will give you the exact location to park and instruction on the hike. I scrambled down into the canyon right by the road, on a hard to follow, rough trail, with lots of loose rock. If you go this way please ensure you step on solid rocks only and don’t dislodge any rocks onto people below you. There is another route down a little further along the canyon, but I didn’t find this until I was coming out again.

(Below) A beautiful, narrow, and curvaceous section which ends at a big pour off. Some people only go this far, then turn back (about 20-minutes into the hike).

As with all slot canyons, conditions can change dramatically after each flash flood. This large pool (dry during my visit) is about 20-minutes into the hike and is often full of water, and in some guides it states that there is no way up this section and hikers have to return back the way they came for a short distance and climb around this pour off, then rejoin the canyon again further up. I met some other hikers who turned around here, but I chose to go up the ladder and squeeze and stem through a very short, but narrow and fun section above the pour-off until I came out vertical again (images can be found further down this post).

As you can see, this canyon is breathtakingly beautiful. I don’t know who put in the ladders but they sure made it easy for me to get all the way to the top of this canyon (I stopped at the top of the narrow slot, where it opened up into a wide, open wash). However, don’t expect to see these ladders if you visit, because and it’s very likely that during the next flash flood they will be washed away again.

I spent some time in the upper section of Lower Water Holes Canyon and didn’t meet any other people.

On my return: The images below show the narrow section above the big pool, where the ‘iffy’ looking ladder was resting. I chose not to go down the same way because there we no hand holds to use while I lowered myself down onto the ladder, and there was a bit of a drop to the top rung. Instead, I walked the rim until I could find a way down again.

(Below) – I decided against going back down that ladder. Reaching that top rung just looked way too dangerous.

(Below) Looking down into a narrow section of the canyon from the rim. By the time I found a way back down, I was almost back at the trail head, but I wasn’t ready to just return to my vehicle yet, this canyon was simply too beautiful to pay a ‘quick’ visit to.

I actually recorded quite a bit of this hike and will be making a YouTube Video of it soon. Please sign up for my YouTube Channel so you won’t miss this short but beautiful hike once it’s published.

I hope you have enjoyed this installment of my travels during the winter of 2016/2017, and hope you’ll continue the journey with me. Please visit the HOME page to find more articles, and feel free to share, sign up and leave a comment. Also please visit my YouTube Channel. Until next time…remember to step outside of your comfort zone as often as possible and watch it grow.

Roxy ~ A Nomad for Nature

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