Mary Jane Slot Canyon

Once considered to be more of a hidden gem, Mary Jane is one of the few slot canyons in the area that doesn’t require rappelling or special equipment.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

While the main draws of Moab tend to be Arches and Canyonlands national parks, there are many amazing trails and adventures outside of the parks to be had. One of those trails is the 9-mile round-trip Mary Jane Slot Canyon in the Colorado River Valley near Castle Valley.

Once considered to be more of a hidden gem, Mary Jane is one of the few slot canyons in the area that doesn’t require rappelling or special equipment. It provides a kind of “Narrows-esque” experience without having the logistics of visiting Zion National Park — one of the most visited national parks in the world. 

The trail only features 500 feet or so of climbing overall, or you can negate much of that elevation gain by sticking to hiking through Professor Creek. It is a kid-friendly hike, and you can turn around at any time if the distance is too much. Our group of two adults, two 8-year-olds and a 7-year-old completed the hike easily, but we saw lots of families with littles who just hiked a mile or so in to splash around in the creek.

The creek runs year-round and is the perfect spring hike before temps get too hot. Just like with other popular trails and slot canyons, there are several reasons to get to the trailhead early. While there are areas of shade, most of the hike is exposed. Even in late April, temperatures in Moab can be well into the 80s. Since you are hiking in a slot, there is the potential for flash flooding. Weather is more stable in the mornings, before those typical afternoon storms roll in. 

Lastly, as we kind of experienced, there isn’t a big parking lot (10 to 15 cars) considering that it is the starting point for two trailheads. The road to the trail may be a two-wheel-drive road when conditions permit, but the squeeze-in parking is not made for two-wheel-drive cars if the lot is full. We parked along a fenceline, much to the anger of some cows that roam the area from the Professor Valley Ranch. 

Be sure to bring plenty of water with you as there is no water access or bathrooms at the trailhead. Waterproof shoes or sandals like Chacos are the best bet for this hike as there is no way to avoid the water in places. 

There are two trails that lead from the parking lot. On the right is the Professor Creek/Sylvester Trail. While the trail is named after the homestead of Professor Sylvester Richardson that was once at the mouth of the creek in 1886, a school also once stood at the site, as well as a post office and store. Take the trail on the left-hand (southeast) side, named for Sylvester’s wife Mary Jane, to head toward the Mary Jane slot. 

The trail begins fairly mellow, meandering through a dry wash area in the very beginning, and follows Professor Creek. Wildflowers, including Indian paintbrush and flowering cactus, line the trail. You may encounter cows in the first half-mile or so. We discovered these cows were quite vocal about the visitors to their land, but they also kept their distance. 

The beginning of the hike offers expansive views of the La Sal Mountains. It wasn’t long before we had our first water crossing (about 10 minutes), with views of Castle Rock and the Priest and Nuns rock formations. Be sure to follow the trail left toward the creek at around the half-mile mark. We saw some people backtracking who lost their way and ended up in a dry wash that the cows frequent. 

This is a dog-friendly hike, so expect to see lots of pups enjoying a dip in the water. At our second crossing, a friendly golden retriever greeted us with a shake-off of cool water. 

At this point, there are many options to tackle the trail. With lower water levels, we had the choice to walk through the creek or take the main trail or one of the social trails that you could see sometimes on both sides of the creek. Our trip ended up being a mix of all three sometimes, based on how we were feeling temperature-wise or if we were following another party. If you take some of the social trails, be on the lookout for poison ivy. It can be found in various places along the trail. 

It became obvious to us that most of the elevation gain comes from where you enter and exit the water. As we made our way, the canyon walls began to close in. At about the 2-mile mark, the true slot part of this hike begins where the walls begin to narrow. Rising above us were red sandstone walls, said to be upwards of 100 feet at their tallest point, with incredible striations, alcoves and more. 

We passed lizards basking on rocks, seeking shelter from passersby. A few nests sat above the cliff walls, but we didn’t see any birds while on this hike. Just past the 2-mile mark was an alcove on the right — a perfect spot for taking a shady break. 

I was surprised at the number of trees that could be found within the canyon, even in some of the narrower parts. The greenery was a nice contrast to the reddish sandstone walls. I am sure the hike would be quite beautiful with the golden leaves of the cottonwoods changing throughout the fall.

The closer we got to the waterfall, the more the canyon walls closed in. While we didn’t measure, it is said that the passages between walls get as narrow as 10 to 15 feet in some spots. Some points required a rock scramble or two. If we stuck to the creek, small waterfalls caused some more cautious maneuvering. 

As the day went on, we began to spend more time just walking through the creek rather than trying to stick to the trail. The water temp was perfect for keeping us cool while the desert sun blazed in a cloudless sky above. As we turned a corner, the canyon narrowed to 10 feet. Red sand handprints along the wall told us we were just steps from a hidden waterfall. If you listened closely, you could hear the cascade before you could see it. 

At this point, you have to walk in the water if you choose to see the waterfall. A choke stone creates the spillover some 30 feet above. If water levels permit, two cascades come down, also known as a double-tongued waterfall.

We were treated to only a single flow, but we did revel in its beauty nonetheless. Typical hikers take about 2.5 hours to reach the waterfall, and that stood true for our group, too. None of us chose to stand directly under the waterfall, but the spray felt pretty good after being in the sun. 

Two parties were ahead of us, so we just took in the whole of the view while we waited for our chance to snap some photos. The sun wasn’t in the best position for great pictures, but we all know a photo never does raw beauty justice as it is. 

We found a few rocks and enjoyed some lunch while enveloped in the canyon walls. The crowds of hikers began to thin out, and pretty soon it was just the five of us. Before we turned our back to the waterfall, we left our own handprints along the wall. 

Despite heading back to the trailhead in the afternoon sun, it did get chilly at times with a little wind picking up. We were putting back on layers as we made our way back to the parking lot. The views walking back out of the canyon were just as stunning as the views on the way in. 

As the canyon widened, we knew we were getting closer to the end of our beautiful hike through the Mary Jane Slot Canyon. The cows greeted us from a distance as views of Castle Rock and Priest and Nuns once again came into view. 

We ended our hike with a couple of high fives, seeing that this was the longest that two of the kids in our group had hiked by a couple of miles. I could see why Professor Sylvester Richardson and his wife Mary Jane decided to settle in the area. The hike through Mary Jane Slot Canyon was time well spent in the natural world, and I hope I get the chance to hike it again with friends and family on a subsequent visit to Moab. 

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