If you’re a slot canyon fanatic, there’s no better place to explore than Southern Utah. Tucked away deep in Robber’s Roost country lies Happy Canyon, a photographic slot often compared to Antelope Canyon on the Navajo Nation, but without the crowds. While it’s not a technical slot canyon, hiking Happy Canyon requires a good chunk of spare time and a thirst for adventure.
William and I had been trying to get out to hike Happy Canyon for over a year, but due to its extremely remote location we kept putting off the trip. We finally decided to make the trek out over the long Thanksgiving weekend in 2020.
The Logistics of Hiking Happy Canyon
There are a few different ways to access Happy Canyon, each with its own set of logistics:
A) Floating to the mouth of the canyon via the Dirty Devil River. This is probably the least physically demanding option, but it requires very careful planning because the river can only be run in small crafts during certain years when flows are high. As you may suspect, the river is quite dirty, so packing sufficient water or coming up with a creative water filtration system is a must!
B) Backpacking or hiking in from Burr Point. This route is about 16 miles long and requires a 50 ft. rappel down to the old mining road I describe below.
C) Driving in on Poison Spring Road and hiking 12ish miles roundtrip (depending where you park your vehicle). This is the route we took. It does not require rappelling or technical equipment.
Day 1: Driving & Camping in Robber’s Roost Country
WARNING: Do not attempt this drive without a high-clearance, 4wd vehicle!!
Begin driving south from Hanksville, Utah along Highway 95. After about 17 miles you’ll see a dirt road on the left side of the highway. This is the beginning of Poison Spring Road.
There’s a BLM map shortly after the turnoff that shows where the boundaries are for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Canyonlands National Park, and regular BLM land. Each area has its own set of regulations and permitting requirements, so be aware of where you’re traveling. This entire hike is on BLM land and doesn’t require any fees or permits.
The first few miles of the road are well-graded and follow Poison Creek. Be prepared to encounter water. The road is often impassable after a storm, so if you’re heading out in the spring or during monsoon season check in with the BLM office in Hanksville to make sure the road is accessible.
After 10.5 miles you’ll come to a fork in the road. The right fork takes you along the bottom of Poison Spring Canyon, across the Dirty Devil River, through Glen Canyon NCA, and eventually into the Maze District of Canyonlands.
You want to stay left and follow an old mining road that takes you out of the canyon and onto a bench. There are some tight switchbacks and narrow sections with steep drop-offs over the next few miles, which may give oversized vans or trucks some issues. We drove it in a Chevy Silverado and I wouldn’t have been comfortable in anything larger than that. There are a few dispersed campsites along the road if you need to pull-off early, just bear in mind this will make your hike longer!
After about 15.5 miles the road opens onto a rocky peninsula that overlooks the Dirty Devil River. It continues another 1.5 miles before ending abruptly at a rockslide, but we decided to set up camp on the peninsula to avoid another narrow, exposed section of road. Plus, the sun was setting fast and we wanted to take advantage of any light we could!
Regardless of the time of year you camp, you can expect cool to freezing temperatures at night in the desert. It dipped into the 20s both nights we were out, but we stayed toasty with a propane heater and layered sleeping bags.
Day 2: Hiking to Happy Canyon
The hike begins by following the old mining road that you drove in on. As I mentioned earlier, the road eventually ends at a rockslide that’s impassable to vehicles. The best place to park if you haven’t already is about a 1/2 mile before the rockslide where the road opens up onto another rocky peninsula.
There’s a well-defined hiking trail that takes you around the rockslide before leading you back onto the old mining road. The first few miles along the road are easy with minimal elevation gain & loss, and gorgeous views of the canyon below.
About 3 miles from the rockslide the trail leaves the old mining road and begins to descend 600 ft. to the river. Finding the turnoff is a little tricky because there are a few misleading cairns, but a giant arrow made out of rocks will point you in the right direction!
The descent was the section of the hike I was most nervous about because a lot of trip reports made it sound like there isn’t a clearly defined trail to the river, but there is. This section of the trail is about 3/4 of a mile long. It’s pretty steep in certain areas, but it’s well-defined and has plenty of cairns so it’s easy to navigate.
Once you make it down to the river Happy Canyon is in sight, but first you have to ford the Dirty D. For some reason I convinced myself that the river would barely be running and we’d easily be able to just hop across, but that definitely wasn’t the case. The water came up to my knees at the deepest point, and because it was late November, it was FREEZING (there were literally chunks of ice floating by…).
Once you get across the river you enter the mouth of Happy Canyon. You don’t have to walk very far before the walls of the canyon begin to narrow and swirl around you.
It was about 1pm when we entered Happy Canyon, so we didn’t have the best light. If I come back in the future (which I’d like to do because the canyon was incredible!), I’d probably do so in late May/early June, ideally via floating the Dirty Devil.
As far as slot canyons go, Happy Canyon is pretty wide and very easy to navigate. There’s no squeezing, scrambling, or stemming required. Be aware, slot canyons change with every flash flood so you could potentially run into an obstacle I didn’t encounter!
The most photogenic portions of the canyon go on for about a mile. We went slightly further than that and spent about an hour exploring the canyon, taking photos, and eating snacks before we started making our way back to camp. The hike out is the same route you hiked in on.
Happy Canyon was, without a doubt, one of my favorite adventures of 2020. It took a lot of effort to coordinate and get out there, but it was definitely worth it! If you’re short on time or just passing through Robber’s Roost country and the San Rafael Swell, there are other hikes and slot canyons that are easier to access (I recommend Little Wild Horse Canyon), but if you’re looking to explore deeper and you have a capable vehicle, this is a fun adventure!
Distance: 12 miles (give or take depending where you park/camp)
Elevation Gain: 1,867 ft.
Driving from US 95 to camp: 2 hours each way
Hiking: 6 hours roundtrip (including time spent exploring Happy Canyon)
Difficulty (1-10): 8.5
Dog Friendly?: Yes. Pets must be kept under control. Be sure to pack out all waste!
As always, stay safe & Leave No Trace!