Steve Allen is widely recognized as being one of the foremost canyoneers and explorers of remote areas in the Southwest. He has made numerous first descents of slot canyons across the region, and has published several books on canyoneering and hiking, introducing untold numbers to the sport. His books and insight are recognized as the ‘go to’ source for beta and information for virtually any canyon exploration, and have opened an untold number of people to the beauty and need for preservation of the canyon country and the Desert Southwest. This past spring he released his largest book effort yet, an exhaustive and comprehensive 2 volume reference- “Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names” He lives in Durango, Colorado.
How long have you been exploring canyons and canyoneering in the southwest?
I grew up exploring the deserts of the west with my mother, who was both an MD and an archaeologist. We did site surveys. We camped out, hiked a lot, and explored remote country. I like to say that I grew up in a sleeping bag.
How did you get into slot canyoneering?
In the late 1960s I worked as a hiking/climbing guide and instructor for Dave Farney at the Skyline Ranch in Telluride. Besides exploring the San Juan Mountains, we’d also go over to the Utah desert, which was my introduction to canyon country. We’d go backpacking, and we’d go play on the then new Lake Powell. We didn’t do big slots, but we used ropes, swam potholes, learned a lot about stemming, and otherwise had a great time. In 1988 I moved to Utah. I lived in my van for nearly twenty years and all I did was backpack and do slot canyons. Friends would come out for weeks or months at a time. It was a travelling road show. We saw a lot and learned a lot.
What are some of your favorite places/canyons and why?
The last place I’ve been is usually the best place I’ve been. Every area is so different. I love the San Rafael Swell because it has by far the most varied geology and botany and there is history at every corner. The Escalante area, besides having some of the hardest slot canyons, also has some of the most remote backpacking. In the recent past we’ve spent a lot of time in Utah’s newest Wilderness area, Canaan Mountain, which is adjacent to Zion National Park. It has everything from slot canyons to intriguing historical sites. One canyon, simply called Two Canyon, when in nick – with water flowing – is sublimely beautiful. There is an area there we call Bonsai Bench. It is so unique it’ll make a grown man swoon. Whew!
Right now I am spending most of my free time in Navajo country and in the Book Cliffs, which are incredibly beautiful and rarely trodden because there are always big water problems: there isn’t much there!
How has the sport of slot canyoneering changed over the years?
The biggest change has been in the numbers of people now doing slots. The sport of slot canyoneering is very old. Witness the rows of Moqui steps (hand and toe holds pecked into the rock by pre-Puebloans seven hundred or more years ago) in remote slots all over the Colorado Plateau. The Mormon pioneers mentioned slot canyons in the mid-1800s and John Wesley Powell led a group through Parunuweap Canyon – an easy but committing canyon – in the early 1870s.
The modern-day version of slot canyoneering really started in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Small groups were working different areas. But, we mostly didn’t know what others were doing. I’d call those years the Golden Age of Slot Canyoneering. Just about every slot we did was a first descent.
It really wasn’t until the 1990s and the advent of the Internet that the sport became popular. All of a sudden beta for slots became readily available.
I’ve never had an “epic” in a slot canyon. We are cautious and careful. But, I do have what I call a glass ankle; I’ve broken it I don’t know how many times. I was on a long solo backpack on the Kaiparowits Plateau. I broke my ankle. I remember a couple of long painful days gimping over varied terrain getting back to the rim of the plateau. I just about started crying looking down that 2,000 foot descent to the lower desert and my van. I made it just fine, but I was not a happy camper.
What would be a good progression for someone who is getting into canyoneering?
Instead of answering that question straight on, I’ll take a different tack. Safety in the canyons is the sum total of your experience in them. It really is the experience accrued over the years that counts. A good rock climber could certainly do the very hardest canyons right out of the block, but would that person be a good slot canyoneer? Slot canyoneering is not just about “making the moves.” That’s usually the easy part. It is about understanding weather, terrain, your partners, group dynamics, and yourself.
What is an essential piece of gear that you always bring that might not be common?
I almost never hike in the desert without a 100’ length of 7mm climbing rope in my pack, even when I think it will be an easy day. It seems every time I do leave the rope behind, I need it.
Your Utah Place names book is remarkable – How did this come together for you?
It was an outgrowth of years of experience in canyon country. The more canyons I hiked and the more I explored and found, the more interested I became in the history of what I saw on the ground. Over the years I got to know quite a few of the old cowboys simply because I’d run into them out on the range or in remote canyons. We’d sit around the campfire and I’d listen to their stories. I just use the names of places as a convenient and organized way to tell their stories and the story of the land.
What were some of the more interesting things you learned putting the book together?
There are a couple of facets to that question. First, I found that yacking with the old timers was as fun as it gets.
Second, I learned what a joy and what a chore a book like this can be. I changed the layout several times over the course of the fifteen years it took to write the book. And, my focus shifted a couple of times as the writing progressed, forcing more changes.
Third, I am an outdoor person and I hate sitting at a desk, but I found I just loved library archives. I spent months on end pouring over old manuscripts and perusing historic maps. Almost more fun than a person should be allowed to have.
Fourth are the actual historic discoveries I was lucky enough to stumble into.
Where will some of your next explorations take you? Are there any unexplored areas of the southwest for you?
My commitment is to southern Utah and that is still the most interesting country to me. I still have a lot of places there to explore. I look at it as pieces of a puzzle and the biggest puzzle left for me are the Book Cliffs and the adjacent Tavaputs plateaus. They are steeped in history and they are difficult. Can’t get better than that. Other areas of the southwest? That is endless. I am not a Grand Canyon person, which would be a logical extension of what I do. But, the Grand Canyon is pretty well known while there are still swaths of southern Utah that are untouched. Every year we do a thirty day expedition into remote areas of southern Utah and it is rare to see a human footprint. That is not as possible in the Grand Canyon.
The other area in the southwest I would call myself an expert in is the KOFA Wilderness in southern Arizona. Over a million acres and only a handful of people backpack there. No water, difficult terrain, mind-boggling beauty. Wow.
What’s on tap for the future?
I am just starting a new book about the United States Geological Survey. How did all of that information get on those topographic maps? I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks with the last USGS topographers and that is what gave me the idea. I hope this one doesn’t take fifteen years.
Of the many places that you’ve explored, are there any areas that you feel truly deserve protected status?
Yes, most of them. We’ve been fighting for Wilderness designation for almost thirty years in southern Utah. Two points are worth making. First, tourism is the biggest economic driver in canyon country, not the extractive or destructive industries. The tourist boom did a lot more for Moab than the uranium boom. Tourists come to see and experience pretty places. Why are people pushing to take those places – and those jobs and that money – away from southern Utah?
Second, as we as a society get busier and more crowded, we need places where there are opportunities for solitude and quiet.
Are there any places that have seen degradation or overuse?
Since I started hiking in southern Utah in the 1960s I’ve seen large areas of land change from quiet and pristine to noisy and degraded. Sids Mountain in the San Rafael Swell was once the largest area for backpacking there. Now we never go there; it has been completely overrun by off-road vehicles. On Mancos Mesa – an area adjacent to the northeast end of Lake Powell – an old and illegally built road was opened to off-road vehicles a couple of years ago. Now the canyons accessed by that road are just trashy places and we no longer hike there. The biggest changes have come in the Book Cliffs, with even bigger changes yet to come. Oil and gas drilling has reeked havoc there, especially on the east side of the Colorado River.
One of the most disturbing trends now in southern Utah land management is in letting off-road vehicles down to campsites on the rivers that until recently were only accessible to hikers or to river runners. For some folks, running rivers is the only way they can enjoy quiet recreation, and that is being taken away from them on the San Juan, Desolation/Grey, and Labyrinth canyons. So sad.
The best thing about canyon country?
There is something new and exciting to see around every corner: a new view, a rock art panel, a constructed stock trail, an old inscription. I’ve never been bored in the canyons.