Slot canyons and washes are our absolute favorite type of hike, and there are plenty of canyons to be explored in and around Glen Canyon Recreation Area. Of course, there are the renowned slots like Antelope Canyon and Buckskin Gulch, but there are many others worth visiting.
We were looking for a quick hike along our route back to Phoenix and one we could do without a tour (a few slots in Navajo Nation can be visited by tour only). Cathedral Wash seemed to be the perfect option. We didn’t quite know what to expect because of the little online info there was on the hike at the time. But after five days of camping in the brutal August desert heat, we were just thrilled that it would lead us to the Colorado River for a swim.
Getting to the Cathedral Wash Trailhead
The Cathedral Wash Trailhead is easily accessible as it lies only a short ways off Highway 89A. Just past the Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon is Lee’s Ferry Road. Turn onto this road, and you’ll see a fee station turnoff shortly. Display your pass in your car and continue down Lee’s Ferry Road. A short ways past Cathedral Rock is the Cathedral Wash Trailhead. Parking is just a pull-off on the left side of the road. To reach the start of the trail, you will have to walk along the road a very short distance until you reach the wash. There, you’ll cross under the road through the drainage.
Glen Canyon Weekly Pass: $30 per vehicle. This pass is good for 7 days and is still $30 even if you only plan to visit for the day. If you enter by foot, the price is $15 per person.
Glen Canyon Annual Pass: $55 for unlimited 12-month access to the recreation area
You can buy your Glen Canyon Pass online beforehand or at select fee stations and visitor’s centers around Glen Canyon.
America the Beautiful Annual Parks Pass: $80 for 12-month access to many U.S. parks, recreation areas, and monuments. We really recommend getting the America the Beautiful Pass if you visit a lot of parks because it can save you money and it’s very convenient.
Preparing to Hike Cathedral Wash
We want to first point out that this is not an easy hike. It does not require technical gear, but there is a bit of climbing involved where you’ll have to squeeze between rocks and use your upper body to pull you up and lower yourself down as you navigate the canyon. There are only a few difficult sections and you’ll encounter the first one pretty early in the hike.
The canyon is pretty, so just take your time and do only what you’re comfortable with. A family with two kids looking to be around 10 years old were just starting as we were making it back to the parking area. We have heard of families doing this hike just fine, but wouldn’t recommend it for young children without hiking experience or if you aren’t comfortable with giving them a boost along the way.
Beyond the few tricky sections, you may also encounter water and deep mud. We were there in monsoon season when there were quite a few muddy sections. Wear shoes with good traction that you don’t mind getting a little dirty! Other times of year, the canyon may be bone dry. We were able to clean off at the river. Bring a towel if you want to take a dip.
We started fairly early in the morning, but it was still pretty dang hot. Bring plenty of water. Always check the weather before you go to avoid rainy days where flash floods may be possible.
Hiking Cathedral Wash to the Colorado River
Hike Distance: 3.1 miles round trip
Type: Moderate out-and-back trail with a few challenging sections
Duration: 1.5-3 hours plus more if you hang by the river for the day
Restrictions: Passes are required. Pets are not permitted in the canyon and drones are not allowed in Glen Canyon Recreation Area. Practice Leave No Trace.
What to Bring: Shoes with good traction, sunscreen, water, towel and swimsuit/extra clothes, camera, snacks, mini first aid kit
We woke up early and packed up our campsite in Vermilion Cliffs before heading to Cathedral Wash. The August heat had been beating down on us during our past several days of camping at the Grand Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs, and near Tuba City. We were determined to start early to beat the heat and have time to make the drive back to Phoenix.
Once we entered the wash, it was fairly flat and easy going. Not long into our hike, we encountered the first dryfall. At first glance, it looked like we weren’t going to make it down. But after skirting around the canyon walls, we were able to scramble down to the right. There were stagnant pools of water at certain spots in the canyon, so we had to scale the higher walls at times to avoid wading. As you walk through Cathedral Wash, keep an eye out for snakes and scorpions among the rocks.
We continued our way down the canyon. The few drops we encountered weren’t too difficult, but they definitely require some balance and upper body strength to lower yourself down and pull yourself back up. We also encountered some unavoidable deep mud, but all of this was part of the fun.
The Colorado River
Eventually, Cathedral Wash opened up to the Colorado River. It was already hot out and our lower legs were covered in mud, so we were really looking forward to a swim! We navigated around some vegetation and found a little open spot to put our stuff down.
We hung out in and around the river, enjoying the cold water. There were a few raft trip groups that floated by, but we had the shores to ourselves. While we were there, there was somewhat of a calm inlet perfect for swimming. Depending on recent rains, the water level and current can fluctuate, so use your best judgement if you decide to swim.
After a while by the river, we made the hike back up the canyon. It was over 90˚, so we soaked our hats in the river to keep our heads cool and began the trek back up Cathedral Wash. We weren’t quite sure of what to expect when beginning the hike, but we were glad we did it! Exploring the wash was a great combination of challenge, fun scrambling, and pretty scenery with the river to reward us at the end.