The silver state is known for many things—wide open desert spaces, Area 51, gambling, and half of Hoover Dam. One thing it is not known for is slot canyons. They do exist, but tend not to be the red sandstone wonders found in Utah. However, located about mid-way between Las Vegas and Mesquite is found Arrow Canyon—a long, deep, rugged slot canyon. While not a sculpted red sandstone slot, Arrow Canyon has its own appeal. My wife Deb and I love to explore slot canyons and Arrow Canyon is our destination.
Arrow Canyon is located in, where else, the Arrow Canyon Wilderness. The 27,530 acre region received wilderness designation in 2002 and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Being BLM land, there is no fee or permits necessary for this hike. The Wilderness is a Mojave Desert scrub environment with Joshua Trees at the higher elevations. This area of intriguing landscapes is also the home to bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, kangaroo rats and many species of lizards and birds. The lucky visitor may also catch sight of golden eagles and great-horned owls. We saw several hawks and an eagle.
We left St. George on a late April morning and headed south on Interstate 15. About 30 miles past Mesquite we left the interstate via the Glendale exit (exit 91) and headed northwest on Highway. 168. After 11 miles we turned left (west) onto a well maintained dirt road marked by a tall entrance made of telephone poles. Just inside the entrance are signs identifying this road as the designated route to Arrow Canyon. Approximately .5 miles past the entrance is a parking area just past the fenced water facility for those without high clearance vehicles. Those with a high clearance vehicle—us—can maneuver another 1.5 miles on an extremely rough dirt road to a vehicle barricade and parking at the trailhead. (There is one private residence atop a hill along the first half mile after the Highway 168 turnoff, please respect their privacy and do not enter their property.)
The trailhead elevation is 1,825 feet with a 200 feet elevation changed spread over 2.5 miles—no lengthy steep sections. The temperature was in the high 70s as we began our trek. Somehow the typical deep blue Utah sky followed us to Nevada—a beautiful day.
Arrow Canyon Trail to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) dam about 2.5 miles from the trailhead can be roughly divided into three sections. The first is open canyon with contorted and layered rock hills. Next is the slot portion with coarse 200+ feet tall walls—in places only about 20 feet wide. The final part is a weed chocked, muddy, fairly wide slot leading to the dam.
Pahranagat Wash runs along the northern edge of the wilderness and flows through Arrow Canyon. A wash of gravel is fine for easy walking; a wash with many large boulders is fun with rock scrambling; a wash composed of basketball size stones everywhere becomes a chore—don’t watch your step and you fall as I did a couple of times. There is not a well-defined trail. Almost all the trail is in the wash with a few user trail sections to the left (west)—a welcome break from the stones.
After traversing the open canyon section, we entered twilight in the slot canyon. This gorge is so narrow and the walls so high that direct sunlight rarely reaches the bottom. The little vegetation here is a testament to the lack of sunlight plus the scouring effect of flash flooding.
About two-thirds of the way into the canyon, we met three young women rock climbers, the only humans we saw the entire hike. They were climbing vertical rock walls. Not having sticky pads on our hands and feet, we decide to forgo joining them.
Along the way we did find some petroglyph panels low on the rock walls. Unfortunately, we also found several panels of recent graffiti. In the wilderness it is best to leave no trace of your passage.
After fighting our way through sometimes dense thorny mesquite and cat claw bushes we stopped at the 30 feet tall 1930s vintage CCC dam blocking further progress. With considerable effort we could have gone around, but decided this was the end of the trail for us. Most hikers use this as the turnaround point.
The hike was five miles round trip and took about 3 ½ hours with many photo stops. This is a moderately strenuous hike due to most of it being in a cobblestone wash. Anyone wanting an adventure should give it a try. For a few hours you will most likely be alone in a true wilderness area.
Tom Garrison is now retired and enjoying libertarian life in beautiful St. George, Utah with his wife Deb and two cats. His latest book, Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas, Volume One is available at all estores, the Zion National Park Visitor Center, and the Desert Rat store in St. George. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo #2: 101-0647 – Slot section of Arrow Canyon Trail, Arrow Canyon Wilderness – April 2016
Photo #3: 101-0669 – Plant chocked last third of Arrow Canyon Trail, Arrow Canyon Wilderness – April 2016
Photo #4: 101-0662 – Civilian Conservation Corps built dam at Arrow Canyon Trail, Arrow Canyon Wilderness – April 2016