by Tom Garrison
© 2017 Tom Garrison
Upon hearing the words slot(s) and Nevada, most people immediately imagine slot machines and gambling. I have no problem with gambling (I’ve been known to occasionally try my luck), but slots in Nevada can only mean one thing—slot canyons.
My wife Deb and I live in southwest Utah where slot canyons are as common as 100 degree weather in summer. Utah slots tend to be sinuous red rock, almost living structures. We have explored a couple of Nevada slot canyons, they are different (mostly conglomerate rock) and have their own appeal. This trip is dedicated to exploring White Owl Canyon, a conglomerate rock slot canyon near Las Vegas. It is named for the white owls—actually, barn owls—living there.
White Owl Canyon is in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (LMNRA). The nearly 1.5 million acre recreation area, administered by the National Park Service, follows the Colorado River corridor from the westernmost boundary of Grand Canyon National Park to just north of Laughlin.
We began our journey in late October. From St. George, Utah we drove south on Interstate 15 to Las Vegas and then took Interstate 515/95/93 south to Henderson, about a 2 1/2 hour drive. Since October 26 is worldwide “Howl at the Moon Night” (it’s true, look it up) we celebrated by spending the night at a Henderson casino, lost some money playing video poker, had a nice dinner, and howled at the moon.
Early the next morning we went east on Interstate 215/Highway 564/Lake Mead Parkway and drove about 8.5 miles to the LMNRA entrance station. The standard fee per vehicle is $20. We have an American the Beautiful Senior Pass, pay $10 once (it is now a one-time $80 fee) and you can enter any National Park Service managed land and many Bureau of Land Management areas forever for no additional fee. For all the outdoor-loving younger folks reading this, reaching 62 does have benefits. Past the entrance station we stayed to the right on now named Lakeshore Road for 3.8 miles to the signed 33 Hole Road and turned left (north). 33 Hole Road goes toward Lake Mead and three scenic overlooks, each with a different name. At the first left (northwest) on 33 Hole Road we turned and parked in the Three Island Overlook. The parking lot is also the trailhead.
The sky was clear and the temperature in the low 70s as we reached the trailhead/parking area. No water is available, so be sure to bring plenty. There are pit toilets. The trailhead elevation is about 1,160 feet with only a slight elevation change (once past the very first downhill section) during the hike. Before heading out, we spent a few minutes viewing the remnants of Lake Mead from the trailhead vantage point. What in good times would be a full arm of the lake was a small sliver of water and mud flats.
From the parking lot/trailhead the trail goes past the northwestern most picnic table heading over the side of the steep hill following an erosion gully to the flats below. This initial section is the most difficult of the entire hike with an almost 100 feet elevation loss (and a gain on the return trip) over a loose gravel and sand path in a very short distance.
The flats, a dry portion of Lake Mead, lead west around a point and then southwest to the canyon mouth. There is a clear user trail on a the southern (left) ridge slightly above the wash, or you can walk in the wash. We came to a fork near the canyon mouth, stayed left (south) and climbed into the canyon. The canyon walls quickly became steep and deep entering the first narrows—about ¼ mile long. Here the rock is a greyish-brown type of rough conglomerate formed from ancient alluvial fan deposits.
Like most slot canyons, the route twisted like an ill formed pretzel. We scanned the higher areas for splashes of “white wash”, commonly known as barn owl poop. We saw the poop but not any owls. Their prey, lizards and small birds were in residence.
After approximately ¼ mile, the canyon opened up just below Lakeshore Drive. Reaching the other side was obvious, simply walk through the large culvert beneath the road. Just above Lakeshore Drive the canyon again narrows, but not as deep or narrow as the first slot. This second slot section is also about ¼ mile long. Toward the end of this section, the canyon intersects River Mountains Loop Trail (old Lakeshore Drive) and we had a choice of two culverts to cross under the road. On the other side of the road, the canyon opened to a broad gravel wash—a good place to stop and begin our return journey.
This was our kind of hike—wilderness and we saw no other people during our two hour, about 2 ½ mile round trip easy hike. If you want a respite from slot machines, try White Owl Canyon slots—always a winner.
An avid hiker for more than 25 years, Tom’s latest book, Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas, Volume Two was awarded (September 2016) 2nd place in the non-fiction category of the League of Utah Writers published book contest. It is available at Amazon.com and the Desert Rat outdoor store in St. George. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org