Zebra Canyon and Tunnel Canyon
Exploring two gems in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
May 3-4, 2022
In 2021, Yosemite National Park saw 3.29 million visitors–an average of 9,014 visitors per day. Grand Canyon National Park saw an average of 12,411 visitors per day. Yellowstone, 13,315. By contrast, on the evening of May 3, 2022, the only visitors to Zebra Canyon and Tunnel Canyon, in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, were six friends on a backpacking trip and a few cows grazing in the brush.
I’d wanted to visit Zebra Canyon since I first ran across photos of it in 2013 while planning a Southwest road trip. I’d driven right past the canyon several times en route to Escalante River packrafting trips, each time wishing there’d been time for a side mission. But then, in early May of 2022, the stars, schedules, and frequent flier mileage tickets aligned and I boarded a plane to Salt Lake City with Cale Green, Ryan Stassel, Lindsey Wilson, Bryce Coryell, and Danner Pruhs for a week-ish long road and boat trip in the Southwest.
First major destination: Zebra Canyon.
After touching down in SLC we hopped in our rental cars and drove south for a night at Meadow Hot Springs, an unimproved cluster of hot springs in the middle of a cow pasture. We tiptoed through the cold mud in the dark, past a collection of Jeeps, RVs, converted busses, and other “van-life”-type vehicles, till we reached a steaming pool ringed with tiers of natural benches. The water was perfect.
The next morning, we drove several hours toward Escalante. Nearly all of Utah is scenic, but the northeastern end of Highway 12 puts the state’s natural beauty on full display. As we entered Grand Staircase-Escalante the road wriggled along the crest of a towering ridge, with mile after mile of pale orange and pink sandstone canyons stretching out below us to the horizon.
Before reaching the town of Escalante, we turned onto Hole-in-the-Rock Road and soon reached the large, empty Zebra and Tunnel Canyon parking lot. We hoisted our heavy water-loaded backpacks and went searching for a sandy trail on the other side of the road.
The trail was easy to find and clearly well-used, though the desert being the desert it was hard to know if the footprints were two hours old or two weeks. The trail generally followed the bottom of the wash, occasionally cutting the corners through low, sparse brush.
As we headed down-canyon, the walls got taller, more colorful, and more intricately and deeply sculpted.
Just past a rickety cattle gate, the trail spilled into the wider floodplain of Harris Wash. We crossed the dry wash and found a few marginal campsites in the prickly foliage on the far side. Several disinterested cows ambled around us as we set up our tents.
Once we’d made camp, we ambled up the wash toward Zebra Canyon. The entrance, just off the wash, would have been easy to overlook if not for our GPS-powered phone maps and the faint trail of footprints insisting there’s something worth seeing this way.
Beyond the sand-filled entrance, the canyon became a true slot. At times we had to turn sideways, and pushing higher into the canyon required us to wedge ourselves between the walls and inch up the sandstone. I was glad that we had left our backpacks behind–and also glad that we were the only ones here.
The name of this canyon is both obvious and perfect. The walls were criss-crossed by alternating stripes of lighter and darker sandstone in hues of gray, tan, orange, rose, and purple, all of which changed with the light filtering in overhead and bouncing between the canyon walls.
As is often the case with desert landmarks, many of the photos of Zebra Canyon found online are garishly oversaturated. In person, the subtle colors were just as striking and much prettier than these photos would lead one to believe.
I’d read that pools sometimes form on the floor of Zebra Canyon, but it was completely dry today. We climbed up as high as we could, till the walls opened up slightly and we decided to turn around and head back out.
From the maps, it looked like we might be able to cut across a plateau between Zebra Canyon and Tunnel Canyon. A faint trail wound up a ravine adjacent to the mouth of Zebra Canyon, slipped under a cattle fence, and then faded onto the open sandstone. After a bit of walking, we found the top of Tunnel Canyon and carefully side-stepped down into it.
The upper part of the canyon was shallow and filled with scraggly brush, but soon the walls rose up and the brush gave way to sand interspersed with an occasional stagnant pool.
Soon we came to Tunnel Canyon’s namesake feature, a dark, cool sandy-floored passageway with a very thin slit leading up to the sky.
Tunnel Canyon was an interesting landmark, but after the much more dynamic experience in Zebra Canyon we didn’t feel the need to linger long. After walking up and down it a few times and taking photos we headed back out into the evening light and walked up the dry wash to camp.
The next morning I woke up early and headed out for a solo walk. Early morning is a fantastic time to roam in the high desert. There’s plenty of light and the nighttime cool often hangs in the air for an hour or so.
I ambled over the hills south of our camp, then crossed Harris Wash and climbed back onto the sandstone plateau between Zebra Canyon and Tunnel Canyon. It’s easy to be goal-focused in the Southwest; most visitors have to take time off work to visit this area, and end up with the kind of intentional objectives that have names and guidebook entries. But one of the best things about the landscape here is that it’s a paradise for aimless wandering. On my walk I discovered crisscrossing animal tracks, shallow bowls of moqui marbles (small balls of iron oxide that weather out of the surrounding sandstone), and a bluff behind our campsite where erosion had created the appearance of giant gingerbread-house shingles.
Back at camp I found everyone still waking up or eating, so I struck out solo again for the colorful headwall west of camp. Portions of the wall were made of the same highly striped sandstone as Zebra canyon, in some places folded and twisted like it had been kneaded into itself. Between some sandstone layers, differing rates of erosion had created almost-level pathways across the steep face.
After a bit of searching I was able to find an easy route up to the top of the headwall. Looking out over Harris Wash and the canyons beyond, it was impossible not to be impressed by colors, layers, and complexity of this landscape. Zebra Canyon is often described as a “hidden gem,” but it doesn’t seem especially well-hidden. There must be dozens or hundreds of truly hidden gems in this immense wilderness, known only to locals, or a few adventurers, or maybe nobody at all.
Back at camp everyone else had nearly finished packing, so I scurried to catch up. We hiked back the way we came, meandering across Harris wash and up toward the cars. On the way back, we passed a solo hiker with a dog, and a couple. By Grand Staircase-Escalante standards, it almost felt like a crowd.