Zebra Slot Canyon and Tunnel Canyon are two classic and easily accessed canyons of the vast canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante. In spite of their notoriety, the canyons are still difficult to hike and require careful planning.
After visiting the "top of Grand Staircase", I briefly visited Bryce Canyon, then made my way to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I've peaked into this place before but this trip was an all out bash. Staying in Escalante area for 2 days, I made the arduous trek down Hole-in-the-Rock Road and started canyoning.
Zebra and Tunnel Slot Canyon Overviews
Zebra Slot Canyon is likely the most famous in this area. Its striated walls create marvelous photography opportunities. Plus, its only an 8.0 mile drive South on a relatively good section of Hole-in-the-Rock Road from where it leaves UT-12 near Escalante. From there, its about a 2.5 mile (one way) hike across the desert along a herd path to the canyon. Adding Tunnel Slot Canyon from Zebra makes it a 7.1 mile (total distance) hike which most do in about three quarters of a day.
Here's an area map:
Hike to Zebra Slot Canyon
From Utah Route 12 near Escalante, drive to the well marked turnoff for Hole-in-the-Rock Road and set your odometer to Zero. For 8.0 miles, the road is in relatively good quality as of June 2019. There's definitely some tedious washboard sections but nothing that would prevent a normal-clearance car from making it to the trailhead. Whenever it gets wet or muddy, avoid the road in any vehicle. The trailhead is just after a cattle guard and on the right. It is unmarked but most days you'll find at least a few cars at the trailhead. Park on the right if coming from Escalante.
Cross the road to the Northeast side of Hole in the Rock Road and look for a fairly well-trod path. I didn't see any specific signs for the canyon but the trail was easily followed.
I brought a GPS for extra comfort which came in handy. The trail remains unmarked and there's several side trails that are a bit confusing. I redirected a few lost tourists! Nevertheless, I followed the path of least resistance over the desert for 2.0 miles to the large and dry Harris Wash (its obvious). As of June 2019, there was a cairn which marked the junction to Zebra Slot and Tunnel Slot. I took a left at this cairn, followed the herd path into Harris Wash and up the wash for about 1/4th of a mile until I saw the obvious entrance to Zebra Canyon. If you find yourself walking more than 20 minutes up the wash and haven't found the entrance to Zebra Canyon, you've probably gone to far
During this very dry day, I found innumerable footprints leading to the canyon's entrance. Once it slotted up, I dropped my pack as the canyon gets very, very narrow from here.
Zebra Canyon is the quintessential slot canyon. Its gets so narrow that even a skinny guy like me was just barely getting by. A wide day certainly wouldn't fit. Like many slot canyons, it was waist deep in water even though no major storms had passed the area in several days. The ranger station at Escalante kept me updated on water levels in the canyon.
The canyon lived up to its name with incredibly artistic furrows throughout my slither. Some sections required some scrambling; not difficult by rock-climbing standards but they were enough to make a less inclined person nervous.
Deep in the back of the canyon I encountered a few dead birds which is also normal for slot canyons. Nevertheless, the steep and deep walls continued to amaze.
It took about an hour to get to the entrance and I took another hour exploring Zebra before coming to an impassable section and I turned around. Zebra was a bit busy even on a weekday which made passing other groups tedious. I wished I went earlier.
Entrance of Zebra canyon to entrance of Tunnel Canyon
Tunnel Slot Canyon isn't nearly as photogenic as Zebra Canyon but since its only 1.3 miles away, I made the side trip. Back out on Harris Wash, I followed it down roughly 0.8 miles to a herd path with cairns to Tunnel Slot. This was a hot and exposed section and I'm glad I brought abundant water.
After finding the side trail, Tunnel canyon quickly came into view and I was at the entrance in less than 1 hour after departing from Zebra Canyon.
Tunnel Canyon is shorter, not as narrow but much darker than Zebra. Even in the midday sun, I felt a flashlight was necessary. I walked through the thigh deep water and meandered through this alluring slot. There's some really neat opportunities for low light photography.
Unlike Zebra Canyon's abrupt terminous, Tunnel Canyon is 2-way so I hiked all the way to the exit. I expected there was more when I departed from the exit. There's a four way intersection of other narrow canyons but nothing like a slot so I returned the same way I came.
Return to Trailhead
There's not a lot to say about the return trip other than it was very hot and very hard to follow. Zebra and Tunnel Canyons are easy by hiking and canyoneering standards but make no mistake, its easy to get lost out here even with experience. I found my GPS absolutely essential on the return trip.