Last year I had the opportunity to run Neon Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The grande finale of this extraordinary canyon is dropping into the Golden Cathedral – a domed pour-off where water has formed three amazing pothole arches into the overhang. Let me tell you about my experiences here and provide a few recommendations.
But first, a little about me. I grew up in a small town called Liberty, Texas and went to Louisiana State University where I earned my BS and MS degrees in Nutrition. I didn’t do many outdoorsy activities as a youngster. I wouldn’t have even considered myself athletic. It wasn’t until 2017, when I took a solo vacation to Sedona, that I discovered my love of the outdoors.
I moved to Sedona two years ago and it was the best move ever. Every single day I get to spend at least a bit of time outside in nature living out my dream. I consider myself Texas raised but living the dream in Arizona!
Crazy Adventures on the Road to Grand Staircase-Escalante
My trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante in July, 2020 was completely unplanned and on a whim. Some friends were planning to visit Colorado but due to weather had to make other plans. So at the last minute we decided to run Neon Canyon, one that I had wanted to do ever since I saw a photo of the Golden Cathedral. Unfortunately, it was quite a short trip.
We drove in the night before, set up our tent in the pouring down rain, camped, ran the Neon Canyon and then made the seven hour drive back home that night. It was a short and sweet adventure! An interesting story about the drive there was that we decided to try to shave off some time and take back roads from Big Water to Hole in the Rock Road.
These roads are pretty rough and a little nerve-racking. Along the way we came across a man in a Bronco who asked us to pull over because there was someone coming over the pass in an RV who had lost his brakes. We drove a little further and pulled off when we could see the pass. Sure enough, here came an RV with a blown out windshield coming down.
I have no idea how he got the RV on those gnarly roads, but luckily some nice guys from Big Water came to his rescue, bled his brakes and got him down safely. As he drove by he climbed out of the windshield of this RV and said to us: “don’t mind me, I’m just being ignorant”! After that strange experience we kept going and eventually it started to rain.
The last “road” we had to take before making it to Hole in the Rock Road went along and through a wash that had clearly flash flooded recently. The fact that it had started to rain was a little scary as we were aware that it could easily flood again. Thankfully we made it through the road safely.
But in trying to take the same way back the next night, we found one spot that was questionable. The day before it was impassable after the rains flooded the area with more debris and mud. Indeed, it was so bad that we encountered a group who got their vehicle severely stuck on this road.
Despite our best efforts, we were unable to help them get their vehicle out and pass ourselves. So we turned around to take the long way and called 911 for the vehicle as soon as we had cell phone service. It became a crazy adventure trying to arrive at Neon Canyon but, of course, it was worth it!
Dropping into the Epic Golden Cathedral at Neon Canyon
I’m not sure when, but at some point I saw a photo of someone rappelling into the Golden Cathedral and immediately it went on my list. Thankfully, I have friends who felt the same way! Although it had been on my list for a while this trip was completely spontaneous, as is most stuff that I do.
This trip was specifically to run Neon Canyon, although I left with a list of things I want to go back and experience at Grand-Staircase Escalante. The Escalante River, which you have to cross to get to Neon Canyon, was muddy when we went, but the water felt nice in the heat of summer.
Along the approach to the drop-in we noticed spots where people had set webbing around boulders to drop in. But we kept going to the official start of the canyon. We would have missed so much had we dropped in sooner.
I was blown away by both Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral! I’m so glad we got to run Neon Canyon and drop into it from the potholes above. The Golden Cathedral is amazing but the canyon is equally as beautiful.
Despite the fact that it had rained heavily the night before, the canyon itself was relatively dry. It would be nice to go back and run Neon Canyon and drop into the Golden Cathedral sometime when there is more water. There is a keeper pothole that we had to escape, as the water level was low – this was actually my first time having to ascend a rope!
Risk of Flash Floods at the Golden Cathedral
One thing to be aware of when canyoneering is the risk of flash floods. The rains the night before and rains in the vicinity that day had our nerves a bit on edge. It doesn’t have to be raining where you are in order for a canyon to flood. This is something you must be aware of anytime you are in a canyon and especially when you want to drop into the Golden Cathedral.
A couple of times we heard what sounded like thunder, so we sped up a little to finish before any possible rains. When we were at the very end, after the first two people in our group had dropped into the Golden Cathedral, I was about to go and we heard what sounded like water rushing down.
It may have just been our nerves but I ran back as fast as I could to get to higher ground – there was a boulder a little ways back that I was headed for. Thankfully, it was just an airplane, but it just goes to show the danger these canyons can pose and how quickly your situation can change.
Need to Know Before you Go
I recommend that everyone camp. We camped along Hole in the Rock Road (a high clearance vehicle is a must). The trailhead is a little ways from civilization and besides, who doesn’t enjoy sleeping under the stars? Just remember the Leave No Trace principle. Leave your campsite clean, free of trash, put out any campfires and leave it better than you found it!
The hike to the Golden Cathedral is long and exposed, so lots of water and electrolytes are a must. Many people forget electrolytes. They should be a staple on every hike. Bring plenty of food as well. The end of the hike is uphill, so you want to be well prepared because it’s a push to the end.
Be prepared to get wet, as you will cross the Escalante a few times. But it feels nice when it’s hot. Above all, bring your sense of awe and wonder and just take in all of the beauty around you. There is so much to enjoy and appreciate at Neon Canyon and at Grand-Staircase Escalante as a whole.
Making it to that last rappel and dropping into the Golden Cathedral from above was absolutely mind-blowing. I can’t wait to do it again! What an incredible way to experience something so overwhelmingly beautiful.