Lost in the Wilderness

How to get lost in a Utah Slot Canyon, a story about renewal.

I found myself standing next to REI Co-op’s limited supply of outdoor books, which was sandwiched between a row of the much more extensive selection of day packs and hiking/travel accessories. It was 1:00 p.m. I searched through books that provided suggestions about the best hikes in Utah. I looked at hiking in Salt Lake City, hiking in national parks, hiking in the desert, and then I found just the book about hiking in the slot canyons of Utah.

What are slot canyons? Slot canyons are narrow gorges or canyons that have been formed in soft rocks such as sandstone and limestone. The canyons are formed over millions of years when water rushed through the soft rock. Extreme examples of slot canyons that are 3 feet wide at the top and are 100 feet deep.

In the following pages, you will find the following sub-headings:

As I looked through the pages of the REI book about slot Utah slot canyons, I came to two slot canyons that were located very close to one another within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument near the town of Cannonville, Utah:

  • Willis Creek Slot Canyon. Permanent stream flowing through some beautiful narrow sections, between curvy, nicely eroded walls streaked with desert varnish. The narrows soon open out, and the canyon gradually deepens, eventually meeting Sheep Creek.
  • Bull Valley Gorge Slot Canyon. Good, deep narrows through colorful, thin-layered sandstone, containing long muddy pools and several dry falls, hence quite testing to explore. Below the narrows is a more expansive, deeper gorge sheltering a few pine trees before the canyon meets the more significant drainage of Sheep Creek.

Wilderness-Sheep Creek to Bull Valley Gorge

As I carefully read through the pages, I came across a paragraph that said both hikes could be accomplished in a one-day hike following a U-shaped trail totaling 15-17 miles. The more I read, the more convinced I was that this was the hike for me. I knew the area well. The Willis Creek Trailhead was about a half-hour drive from Bryce Canyon National Park.

It was the perfect recipe for a great day to get lost in the wilderness, have time to reflect on my troubles, have prayer, clear my head, and find direction for a new start. So I bought the book, went home for a bit of internet research, and planned the next day’s slot canyon adventure.

I Just Needed to Clear My Head

Wilderness-I Just Need to Clear My Head

I want to give just a little background on what I mean when I say, “I just needed to clear my head.” Several years earlier, I had the bright idea of starting a business. With all the enthusiasm and excitement that comes with starting something new, I jumped into starting the business with both feet. I thought I done everything right.

The business was an idea I had had for years. I had read every book, listened to every podcast or talk, studied business models, talked to people already in the business world who were engaged in the same business and had enough money to live on for one year as I started the business.

First, I started by moonlighting my services and skills related to my big idea for a business. After that, everything seemed to be perfect. Perhaps I could moonlight and do my day job together. It was the best of both worlds, and I was making good money.

Moonlighting lasted for about two years until it started to get in the way of my day job. Meaning, I was finding myself making decisions to do my moonlighting work first to meet client deadlines. I was now working 70-80 hours a week just to keep up. Ultimately, I found myself not doing an excellent job for my employer or my side job clients. I felt I had to make a decision. Day job or full-time business? I wanted the business. It is all I could think about. My decision was, “Let’s do it. Let’s start the business.”

My decision became real when I gave my day job notice in November of that year that as of December 31, I would be starting my own business.

Things went as planned in the new business for about six months, mostly. I had built the income to be as much as I was making in my day job. I will save details of my business adventure for another day. Allow me to say, starting a business, maintaining a business, growing a business, and funding a business is way more involved than I had planned. It’s nothing like moonlighting, where I had the day job income to back me. I was becoming lost in the wilderness of my own making.

I cut into my financial reserve to fund marketing, sales, software/computers, and more. I told myself that I was investing in my future, the future of my family, and more such half-truths. All I needed was a little more time. In months 6-9, I barely broke even. In month 10, I experienced red for the first time, which never stopped. I kept telling myself it is going to be better next month. But, the next month never came for the next three years. I was gambling away my future. I was too proud to say I was in over my head and I needed help. I was too proud to say I had no business being in business.

At this point, I am in the business for four years. I knew the business was over. I barely had 2 cents to my name. I felt like I had failed myself, my family, and everyone around me. I was experiencing deep depression. Honestly, I was not thinking too straight. I said to myself, “Well, Author, you are in one big mess. You have nowhere to turn. What are you going to do?” Perhaps, I thought, I will get lost in the wilderness having a good hike, prayer, and solitude is just what you need. I wanted to go where I could be alone and just let all my feelings out and talk to God. Yes, that is what I needed.

Off to Get Lost a Utah Slot Canyon

Lost In the Wilderness-Bryce Canyon National Park
My destination was 30 minutes outside of Bryce Canyon National Park.

As soon as I arrived home from REI, I reviewed as much as I could find with Google search regarding Willis Creek and Bull Valley Gorge (Utah slot canyons). Lastly, I checked the weather and made final plans for my trip. It was exactly what I wanted. A place in the wilderness where I go and be alone and find direction and next steps for a new chapter in my life.

During my life, I had spent many wonderful hours in the backcountry hiking and camping. First as Boy Scout, second as a 25-year adult leader for Boy Scouts and Explorers, third alone and with my family. Over the last 4-5 years, I try to get down to Southern Utah to hike at least 3-4 times a year. I had the experience, training and was very accustomed to being in the wilderness.

It is now 9:30 p.m., and I am ready for the trip. My Osprey daypack is packed with food, a first-aid kit, my newly purchased book with a map from REI and a full water reservoir. My clothes are laid out, and I even took time to fill the gas tank in my 1997 Ford Ranger with 187,219 miles. I went over my plan with my wife. All is good.

The travel plan was simple.

  • Leave home by 4:00 a.m. drive 4.5 hours to the trailhead of Willis Creek Narrows slot canyon.
  • Arrive at Willis Creek Narrows by 8:30 a.m.
  • Hike Willis Creek Narrows and canyon for 5.1 miles till you come to a Sheep Creek.
  • Follow the Sheep Creek for approximately 5.6 miles till you come to the opening of Bull Valley Slot Canyon.
  • Hike Bull Valley Slot Canyon for 5.5 miles to the trailhead and turn right on the dirt road.
  • Hike 2.5 miles on the dirt road to my red 1999 Ford Ranger and arrive at 5:00 p.m.
  • Drive home in 4.5 hours.
  • Be in bed by 11:30 p.m.

It is Thursday morning on a brisk 43 °F April morning. My alarm went off at 3:15, and I eagerly climb out of bed to get started. Take time to give my wife a goodbye kiss. Then, sleepily, she admonishes me, just like she does for every trip I take, “Be safe, see you tonight.”

Once in the truck, I plugged my coordinates into Google maps, and I am off.

  • Travel route. Take I-15 South from Salt Lake City. Take Exit 95 for UT-20 toward US-89/Panguitch/Kanab. Stay on US-89 till I come to UT 12 and turn left. From UT 12 in the Bryce Valley town of Cannonville, Utah, 33 miles east of Panguitch, Utah, and US 89 and 36 miles west of Escalante, Utah, turn south onto Cottonwood Canyon Road, signed Kodachrome Basin–9. Follow the pavement through Cannonville, then through the broad valley of the upper Paria River. After 2.9 miles, Skutumpah Road branches right (southwest), signed Bull Valley Gorge–9, and Kanab–61.


On the way out of town, I stopped at McDonald’s to get my go-to travel breakfast, two large Diet Cokes with light-ice and an Egg McMuffin with folded egg. Before I pulled out of Mcdonald’s, I pulled into the nearby parking lot of a grocery store and offered a simple prayer. “Father, I am coming to be alone with you today. You know the heaviness of my heart. A little direction would be grand. I will talk to you later.” Once done, I searched my favorite plays lists and chose my 126 song Beatles collection to get started. The first song up is “Here Comes the Sun.”

The Wilderness Adventure Begins

Lost in the Wilderness-Wild Turkeys

Just as I passed through the small town of Cannonville on my way to Skutumpah Road, the sun was coming over the mountain. To my right in a field was a flock of wild turkeys. I pulled the truck over, stepped out and spent 20 minutes enjoying and counting. I stopped counting at 75.

I arrived at the Willis Creek Slot Canyon Trailhead at 8:45. I took 10 minutes to double-check that I had everything I needed. My keys and wallet were secure in the back. I left a note on my dashboard of the route I was taking and the contact information for my wife, and I bowed my head in prayer and shared my deep desire for answers.

Stepping outside the truck and taking my first breath of the clean, cool mountain air, I could see my breath and my glasses briefly fog. With a turn of the key to lock the truck, I turned toward the trail and said out loud, “Good Morning, Wills Creek. I am looking forward to our walk together.” The adventure begins.

Lost in the Widlerness-Willis Creek

I have always enjoyed being in the mountain and deserts of Utah and Nevada. I get excited to discover what is just around the bend of the trail. I am always in awe of the masterful hand of God in his creations, from the vistas, rivers and rock formations to the garden of trees, plants, flowers and animals. I remember one time I had stopped to spend the afternoon in meditation, and as I open my eyes, I found a cow moose with her calf laying 15 feet from me.

Willis Creek Slot Canyon
Views of Wills Creek Slot Canyon as I was hiking through the narrows.

Willis Creek was a lovely, easy to explore, flat slot canyon enclosed by walls of Navajo sandstone that were 30-plus feet in places. Running the length of the 2-mile canyon was a small stream that was 1-2 inches deep. The longer I walked, the narrows opened to become a more expansive, more V-shaped canyon with pine trees and bushes on the mount sides. Four miles into the hike, the canyon was interested with Sheep Creek, where I would make a right turn and follow the creek for 4 or 5 miles until I came to Bull Valley Gorge.

Sheep creek was about 20-30 feet wide and about 4 inches deep. At first, I tried to stay on the bank and keep from getting my feet wet. However, after about 10 minutes of traversing the bank, I found that I was walking 3x’s longer than if I kept a straight line through each turn of the creek.

Lost in the Wilderness-Sheep Creek

As I followed Sheep Creek on my walk toward Bull Valley Gorge, the canyon’s walls towered high above my head. I was alone, a perfect place to offer up the thoughts and pains of my heart. For the next two hours, I had an open conversation with my Father in Heaven. I rehearsed every pain, every desire, every thought I could muster. My emotions ranged from extreme anger to outright sobbing. Finally, I laid my heart on the altar. “Father, I am your son. Do you love me? I am yours to do with as you please. I am grateful for my pain. I am grateful for the lessons I am learning. I don’t need a plan of where to go as much as I desire to know where to place my next step. Please, please, please show me the way.” And then I became silent. I opened my heart and my soul to listen. All I could hear was the sound of my feet upon the sand, pebbles and water of Sheep Creek.

How to Get Lost in a Utah Slot Canyon

Walking in Sheep Creek
Walking in Sheep Creek.

I had been walking for 5 hours and 9 miles into my journey. I consulted the map in my REI book and knew I was getting close. I was looking for a wide opening in the canyon wall that would be on my right side. Thirty minutes later, the large opening I was expecting appeared. Timewise, I was setting pretty well and felt I was about 30 minutes ahead of my plan.

I walked over to the canyon opening. I double-check the map. The opening met all the criteria of what I had read about. There was only one thing that didn’t seem right. There were only traces of a few footprints that were coming in or out of the canyon. I entered the canyon looking for more human footprints or signs indicating that this was Bull Valley Gorge. Five minutes into my exploration, I noticed that there had been a recent flash flood that had passed through the canyon within the last week or so. The plants and bushes were all at a 45 degree or more slanting toward the mouth of the canyon.

In the Southwest canyons of Utah, flash flooding is a natural and severe danger. A storm that took place 25 plus miles away can end up causing flooding in canyons 30 or more feet deep and has the power to move entire trees and boulders. Therefore, I always make sure I know the weather conditions up to a week or more before my travels.

I had never seen flooding damage this severe before. I had reasoned that all of the signs I was looking for could have easily been washed away because of the flooding. I concluded I was in the proper canyon. I chose to proceed forward.

Lost in the Wilderness-Faux Canyon
Views from within the Faux Canyon.

The canyon was filled with flood damage of every description. I was forging pools of water, climbing over trees, forging through the brush. For an hour or so, I imagined what it might be like for Lewis and Clark on the west journey in 1804 on their way to the Pacific Ocean. I was glad that my journey would be at an end in a few hours. Then, two hours into my travels, I started asking, where is the Bull Valley Gorge Slot Canyon?

Ten minutes later, I found my answer. I came to a 100-plus foot high wall. On three sides of me were 100-foot walls. I had traveled into a Faux Canyon with only one opening. I took a deep breath, looked up and said, “Really, you have got to be kidding me. This is not a great way to spend my afternoon.” I took another deep breath, turned and went back the way I had come. Aloud I said, “Father, I said I wanted to get lost in the wilderness. This is not exactly what I had in mind,” and had a good laugh.

Follow the “Holy Cow”

Lost in the Wilderness-Follow the Holy Cow

By the time I returned to the mouth of the faux canyon, I had spent 3.5 hours hiking. Precious time was lost. It was now getting to be late afternoon, about 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. I had a decision to make. Go back the way I came or find Bull Valley Gorge.

I consulted my new REI book map, had a pouch of Chocolate Gu, half of my peanut butter, cheese and Miracle Whip sandwich, and Costco Natures Bakery Raspberry Fig Bar and water. As I pondered my decision, I bowed my head in prayer as I had done so often that day. I offered my gratitude for the day, my desire to understand my next step, and my sincerest commitment to follow my heavenly Father.

As I raised my head and opened my eyes, I saw a brown cow. I thought out loud, “Mr. Cow, what in the world are you doing in here in this canyon?”

At that very moment, I felt a need, if not a voice that said, “Follow the cow.”

Aloud I voiced, “What? Why in the world should I follow the cow?”

Again, the feeling and voice said, “Follow the cow.”

Sheep Creek-Follow the Holy Cow

Ok. Off I went. I continued in the direction I was going. Willis Creek Slot Canyon was to my back. The cow stayed just in front of me, being no more than 50 yards away at any one time. After 30 minutes of following the cow, I came to the opening of what was for sure the opening to Bull Valley Gorge. I took out my REI book map, and everything lined up. No mistake this time, I was where I needed to be.

As I turned away from following the cow, a feeling and voice again said, “Follow the cow.”

It was now 5:00 p.m. The sun is going down quickly. I don’t have time to be following a cow. I need to be going up Bull Valley Gorge. The feeling to follow the cow would not leave me. The feeling became even more substantial. Ok, I resolved; I will follow this cow. As if on cue, the cow reappeared and off we went. The cow is going down Sheep Creek Canyon. And me following what I was now referring to as the “Holy Cow.”

As the sun continued to drop, light in the canyon turned to twilight, and one by one, the stars began to appear. At one point, I stopped, looked up to the sky and said, “Heavenly Father, I have followed the Holy Cow. I do not have a clue of where I am. I don’t think I will be getting home tonight. Please provide my wife assurance; I will be ok. Oh, and PS. I got the desires of my heart. I am lost in the wilderness.”

I continued to follow the “Holy Cow” until it was pitch black. I could not even see my surroundings. I kept walking, hoping the light of the night sky would help me see my path. I kept walking until and walked into a tree. Bonk, I fell to the ground. “Well, Author,” I thought, “I guess you have gone as far as you are going tonight.”

Stars in the Heavens-Mosaic of Light

Lost in the wilderness-Stary night

It was now 7:30 p.m., getting colder by the hour, and I did not have any matches to start a fire. Yes, that is the one thing I did not pack for my hike in the wilderness that matched. However, I did have enough clothing for two-three layers for my upper body and two for legs, and my trusted black Smartwool Merino Beanie. I took off my wet shoes, changed my wet socks and put my feet into my backpack where I had placed some excess clothing.

I wasn’t toasty warm, but I wasn’t shivering either. I ate the rest of my sandwich and had two more Chocolate Gu. I sat quietly with my legs crossed and tried to meditate. All I could think of was how bad my life had become and how much I wanted to find a way forward. I bounded my head restated much of what I had been sharing with my Heavily Father throughout the day. Was my first step following the “Holy Cow,” I pondered. What purpose would it serve? I am relatively cold, I am lost in the wilderness, and my wife is probably scared that I would do myself harm or something like that.

I looked at my watch and smartphone. It was now 11:30 p.m. Both my watch and smartphone were very low on battery. I turned my phone off until I knew I was in cell tower range to call for help which I hoped would be the next day.

Ok, I thought, let’s try to get some sleep. So I laid on my back and propped my head on my day pack. I looked up into the night sky. OH MY, OH MY, OH MY, what an incredible scene played out before my eyes. The heavens were spectacularly filled with a mosaic of light. I was in awe. I was humbled. It was so beautiful. I felt like I was viewing infinity for the first time.

For an unknown length of time, I just looked into the night sky. Then, at some point, I heard the question enter my mind. “Do you see the Heaven’s above?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you feel the earth upon which you lay?”

“Yes,” replied.

“Do you feel your heart beating within you?”

Again, I replied with “Yes.”

Then the thought came clearly in my mind and heart. “All the stars in the heavens were created by my hand. So, like the stars, I have created you. You are my son. I know you. I love you. I will show you the way.” The conversation then became silent.

Was this the reason why I was to follow the cow? Where will I be guided? What does it all mean? By now, my exhaustion being lost in the wilderness overtook me as I fell asleep and dozed on and off till morning’s first light.

Lost in the Wilderness-No More

Lost in the Wilderness-Yellow Flower
As I woke the next morning, I viewed my surroundings and singular yellow flower.

As the morning sun began to shine, my first task would be to put on my shoes that had been frozen solid and were rather hard to put on. Once on, I stood and looked around. I was able to see exactly where I had spent the night and the tree I ran into, which had caused me to stop for the night. I was looking forward to feeling the warmth of the sun.

Before, I was a small, yellow flower. The only one I had seen all day. I thought it was rather odd because the type of flower did not bloom until May and June. My mind was taken back to the conversation and experience I had had just a few hours earlier. My mind again filled with thoughts. This time, I heard the words, “I have prepared this flower just for you. I count this flower among my many and wondrous creations. Always remember, you are my son. I know you. I love you. I will show you the way.”

My body filled with deep and wondrous feelings. It was as though I was being embraced with heavenly arms. I felt pure love. I quietly knelt and offered up my thanksgiving. I began to weep. For the first time, my soul was free of the tormenting pain of failure and hopelessness I had felt for many months.

As I stood, once again, I saw the “Holy Cow.” It was now 7:15 a.m. I followed the cow as I had done the day before. It was about 8:30 when Sheep Creek converged with the Paria River about a quarter-mile in width with 3-4 inches deep water. At this time, I lost sight of my friend the “Holy Cow” and picked up the barefoot tracks of two people in the moist sand that continued in a Southward direction and of the Paria River basin.

Paria River Canyon Walls
Canyon Walls as I walked down the Paria River.

I followed the tracks for hours. The more I walked, the wider the Paria River became until the water was only an inch deep. At about 11:30 a.m. I heard a voice in the distance. I left the Paria River and walked toward the voices.

Fifteen minutes later, I spotted a couple and older model green van. I raised my hand and waved to get them, and they waved back. As I walked into their campground, they were putting about the last of the camping gear.

I introduced myself and said that I had gotten lost in the wilderness and would appreciate a ride to the nearest town. Their first reply was, “You came from where?”

Off to Kanab and Home

Lost in the Wilderness-Hwy 89 going toward Kanab

“You are one lucky guy. If you had come 5 minutes later, we would be gone. We would be happy to help you get to town. We are on our way home. The nearest town is Kanab.” were the words from the campers.

They finished loading their van with Colorado plates and found a place for me. We traveled for six miles on a dirt road until we intersected with Highway 89. We turned right and went toward Kanab. We pulled into a roadside stop about three miles down the road, where the driver stepped out to talk to the motorhome owner. A few minutes later, he returned and said that the motor home would take me the rest of the way. I gave them my sincerest thank you as they wished me well.

As I met the folks who owned the motor home, I shared with them a little of my getting lost in the wilderness and that I would be grateful for a ride to Kanab where I would be able to use my cell phone to call my family and let them know I was ok.

They replied, “Of course. By the way, you are in cell range right now.”

I turned on my phone, called my wife and said. “Just calling to let you know I am ok. My cell phone battery is low. I will call you when I reach Kanab.”

The reply was, “I have the phone number of the Sherrif in Kane County. They have been looking for you. I will call him, and he will call you.”

A few minutes later, the Sheriff called my phone, and we arranged a meeting place in Kanab. Twenty-five minutes later, we met the Sheriff, where I again shared my story. I bid the couple in the motor home goodbye again with a heartfelt thank you.

Kanab Utah

The Sheriff said he owned a drive-in in Kanab and that I could have anything I wanted. “How about a large Diet Coke.” The Diet Coke never tasted so good.

I used the Sheriffs phone to talk to the family. I reassured them I was alright and that I would be home tonight. I would tell them everything: how I became lost in the wilderness, my personal experiences, and more once I got home.

After the Sheriff confirmed I was Ok, he asked what I wanted to do. “Can you take me to my truck? I will simply go home from there.”

Willis Creek to Hwy 89

He confirmed that he would be happy to accommodate my request. And then we were off. During the next 2-hour drive, the Sherriff said they had a helicopter up looking for me and how lucky I was to be alive and save. They knew, from my wife, that I was experienced in the backcountry. However, he did make sure I understood that I had broken the cardinal rule of wilderness safety, NEVER BE ALONE. I also learned that I had most likely traveled 30-35 miles in wondering from Willis Creek trailhead, down Sheep Creek and then the Paria River.

As the Sheriff pulled out of the trailhead parking lot, I was once again alone. I was very grateful for my safety and genuinely getting lost in the wilderness to find a new direction.

Before I left the parking lot, I looked through my playlists. Finally, I came across one song that I felt best describes how I felt at that very moment. The song was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole which I played continuously for the next hour.

Lost in the Wilderness
As I left the wilderness, I was presented with this view of the land where I would begin a new chapter in my life.

As I left the wilderness, I was presented with this view of the land where I would begin a new chapter in my life.

Did things get better? Yes. It didn’t happen overnight. The business and my decisions had cost my family almost every penny we had ever saved. I had strained my most cherished relationship with my wife. It took me almost a year to close the business and find a full-time job. It took even longer to repair aspects of my personal life.

As far as my relationship with My Heavily Father, he has been faithful to his words that I first heard as I looked up into the night heavens, “You are my son. I know you. I love you. I will show you the way.” Step by step, I have been shown the way. It has been a long road. I know I am in good hands.

Return to the beginning of “How to Get Lost in the Wilderness.”