Neon Canyon – Grand Staircase – Escalante

Neon Canyon is an amazing technical canyon in southern Utah that ends in the iconic Golden Cathedral. It is a great day trip that requires multiple rappels. This is not a technical guide to Neon Canyon. Click here for a technical guide. This focuses on the tips we learned from our experience with Neon Canyon. 

Neon Canyon

We started hiking to Neon Canyon in the dark which made things a lot more difficult. The online guide we were using said to follow the “well traveled and cairned trail” and to mark ourselves up with the “dome” during our approach. Starting in the dark made it impossible to find the dome so we were left to following the cairns. While the cairns are extremely visible and easy to follow, there are actually many well cairned trails in this area. We ended up going in approximately the correct direction but actually on the wrong trail. Not that anyone was complaining, with views like these. 

Neon Canyon Approach

The odd thing is, the GPS and marked route on AllTrails actually said we were on the correct route. However, the guide we wanted to take and AllTrails are different. Following AllTrails gave us about an hour of extra hiking that we could have avoided. What I would do next time is scout out the route the day before to find the dome and the correct “well cairned” trail. This was not an option for us on this trip since we were squeezing this in between working on Friday and having to get back to work on Monday but it is a suggestion I would make for anyone else. 

Once we got back on track, we were able to jump back on the trail we originally wanted to be on just before dropping into the canyon, about a quarter mile before the river. If you have not read yet, there is a river crossing. The depth and flow of the river changes throughout the season. When we were there in April, the depth reached Kenon’s knees and the flow was swift. It was manageable, though. Always check the depth and flow of the river when planning your excursion. 

Just about every guide we read suggested to camp, splitting the objective into one day of hiking in, one day of doing the canyon, and a third day hiking out. Everyone says that it takes so long and this is their reason for camping. If you are just doing Neon Canyon, and no other canyons, it is less than a 12 hour day, and that was our time with a lot of messing around. I really do not think that justifies also packing in camping gear. Between ropes, harnesses, various gear, wetsuits, dry clothing, and packs it is A LOT of gear. However, camping down there is GORGEOUS. If you have the time to backpack and camp, take it. We were drooling and starry-eyed over the campsites near the river. 

Escalante River

We did come up with an alternate plan to lighten our load a little bit. We hiked in all of our heavy gear. Once we crossed the river and got to the mouth of the canyon, we ditched half of our water, extra snacks, dry clothes, and anything else we did not actually need to complete the canyon. This lightened our load for at least the canyon portion. 

We dropped our gear at the mouth of the canyon, where Neon would spit us out. At that point, you have to hike up above the canyon for roughly 30 minutes. This trail is sort of difficult to follow so plan carefully. 

There are many places where you can drop into Neon Canyon. There is one spot where you can downclimb without any gear but we are not big fans of downclimbing. We also wanted to be in Neon for as long as possible. We hit the rappel anchored to a hoodoo just off of a small side canyon that branches from Neon.

The first part of the canyon was extremely dry and we began to wonder if we would even need our wetsuits. About 10 minutes into the canyon, though, we hit the first downclimb, which dropped directly into a pool. Since everything had been so dry up until this point we debated whether or not we needed to put on our wetsuits. I was all for the wetsuits because I hate being cold. Kenon was one the fence. Dan was willing to jump right in and chance the water being cold. We all finally decided to just put on the wetsuits and were all thankful that we did. First of all, the water was FREEZING. Second, there was a lot of water after that first pool, with many deep and long swims. We kept our wetsuits on the entire time, until after the Golden Cathedral rappel. I also had on neoprene socks and gloves, both of which I was extremely grateful. 


The first rappel is relatively easy. If the water is high enough, you can probably downclimb this obstacle. Since we had four people with a couple of newbies, we set up the rappel just for safety. 

The second rappel is incredibly awkward. There are two different stations set up, and neither one of is particularly easy to swallow. The first station is above a chockstone, the second requires you to stem over the pothole to another boulder. We decided to do the first station, above the chockstone, and have major regrets. This is one of the most difficult starts we have ever encountered, and essentially requires you to push off the chockstone, out and fall quickly to get underneath it and out of the way. If you can not accomplish this, you risk the anchor itself falling and pinning your foot, which actually happened to two of our group members. Kenon nearly broke his foot because of the way the anchor came down. While the stemming to the second anchor looks sketchy, this is the way I would recommend. 

Golden Cathedral

The third rappel is into the Golden Cathedral. This is one of the most beautiful, intense things I have ever done. It was intense because it took so much effort to get to this moment and I had to wait so long at the top since I was the last one to rappel. It was beautiful because, well. look at that photo. 

Things to Think About:

Staying warm is your biggest battle. There is very little sunlight inside the canyon, so soak it up whenever you get the chance. Wetsuits are a must for just about all of the year. 

Rattlesnakes do occasionally live in this water. Be wary and prepared. Read up on rattlesnake preparedness here. 

We did see some dead things in the water. Gross. It is part of the game, though, so again, just be wary and prepared. 

Keeper Potholes are present in this canyon. During times when the water is high, they are no problem as you can just swim right across. During low water level times, these can pose a huge problem. Read up on how to manage keeper potholes here. Make sure your group is capable before saying yes to this canyon. We were blessed to get nice, full, swimmable potholes. However, when Kenon first planned this trip he showed me videos and articles on how to overcome Keepers. Every time we would think of someone to invite his number one question was, “Do you think so-and-so would be able to do this to get out of a Keeper?” They were only invited if the answer was “yes”.

Neon Canyon

Neon Canyon is an amazing way to spend a day in Grand Staircase – Escalante!

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