Utah: Choprock Canyon, Escalante River

Enjoy a slickrock playground of your very own
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Enjoy a slickrock playground of your very own

Your mission: Explore every inch of your very own slickrock playground, scrambling from sandstone cliffs down through twisty slot canyons to some of the wildest, most spectacular terrain in the Southwest.

Your basecamp: Pitch your tent on the crowd-free shores of the Escalante River near Choprock Canyon. To find it, head east along the north rim of Fence Canyon to the river, then upstream about 2 miles to the first large canyon system.

Day 1: The secret staircases >>> Choprock Canyon isn't named on maps, but don't dare complain-that omission keeps its beauties hidden. Today, search for Anasazi stairways in the rock walls or soak in the river's quiet pools. Then explore Choprock Canyon's numerous tributaries (all options are roughly 9 miles long, one-way).

Day 2: The squeeze >>> To find the skinniest slots and rock formations that would make a gargoyle feel at home, hike downriver past Fence Canyon. Your first stop is a mile or so farther down at the first side canyon on your left, locally called Neon Canyon. Walk up it a bit, and you'll find a magnificent alcove with an arch at its top. Return to the Escalante and hike downstream another mile to the next side canyon on the left, known as Ringtail. This short slot is about as narrow, dark, and chilly as they get. Experienced canyoneers can ascend or descend Ringtail using climbing moves and old Moqui steps, but be ready for lots of swimming and wading.

Day 3: The redrock cathedral >>> If you're feeling claustrophobic after a day in the slots, cruise down the Escalante for 6 flat miles until Baker Canyon appears on your left. Head west through Baker, over a playground of boulders until you reach the soaring slickrock panels of its upper reaches. Here you'll find cottonwood-lined washes and a waterfall pourover that limits further travel. Enjoy the scene before heading back to camp.

getting there: Escalante is 300 miles from Salt Lake City on UT 12. Stop at the Interagency Visitor Information Center for maps and permits. Take Hole-in-the-Rock Road 16 miles to the turnoff for Egypt trailhead, and continue 9 miles to road's end.

guides:Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah's Escalante, by Steve Allen ($22). Trails Illustrated's Canyons of the Escalante #710 map (800-962-1643; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10).

caution: Flash floods are possible from July through September. Camp well above potential watercourses, and avoid deep canyons when thunderstorms threaten.

contact: Escalante Interagency Visitor Information Center, (435) 826-5499; www.nps.gov/glca/cofe.htm.