Exploring Ding & Dang Canyons
Story and photos by Don Macavoy
My feet press hard against sandstone as my back slides down the cold wall just a few feet away. I’m crouched 10 feet above the sand wash below, slowly inching my way toward the ground. Every move is calculated and decisive. If I slip, I fall. I make my final move then let myself drop safely into the soft sand below.
This is a slot canyon, created by water eroding rock over thousands of years, resulting in tight, deep crevices snaking between tall walls of Navajo sandstone. Utah is as famous for them as the red rock arch that graces our license plates. And while most slot canyons are highly technical, Ding and Dang Canyons in the San Rafael Swell are a great introduction for anyone who has wanted to experience one of Utah’s most unique features. The best part? You don’t need any rappelling gear or harnesses.
Winter is the perfect season to explore this area, thanks to the cooler weather. You won’t need quite as much water, but you’ll still work up a sweat. Ding and Dang Canyons are only four hours from Salt Lake City, just beyond Goblin Valley State Park, and are the perfect place to spend a weekend exploring Utah’s natural wonders while avoiding the crowds at our national parks.
As you enter the wash from the parking lot, it winds through swaths of cottonwood trees and colorful swells of rocky rolling hills. As the walls rise around you, the excitement builds and the colorful striations in the rocks begin showing their long, water-swept history. Eroded pockets line the sandstone facades as you arrive at an obvious fork in the road; the left takes you up Dang, and the right leads to Ding. Everyone has an opinion on which is easier, but I recommend starting with Dang if it’s your first time here. Some of Dang’s obstacles require complicated stemming moves when climbed downward, making it easier to start from the bottom and ascend to Ding.Dang Canyon gets narrow quickly and tests your skills with some tight spaces you’ll need to stem, squeeze, and climb through. The walls ebb and flow as they change color around every corner with the reflected sunlight. You will encounter several obstacles, including chockstones, drops, and pools of water, depending on the recent rainfall. The fun is finding your way over, under, and around these obstacles. Sometimes you’ll need to chimney up a slick, narrow section, and other times you’ll be hugging a wall and using your fingertips to skirt the edge of the water.
Once you emerge on the other side of Dang Canyon, follow the well-worn path to your right towards Ding. Ding Dang Dome towers above you to the left as you traverse the short path, making it a great spot to soak up the sun and enjoy a snack before heading back in. The mouth of Ding Canyon is quite obvious, and you will begin descending right away.The top of Ding Canyon is much wider but still beautiful and unique. About halfway in, you’ll reach several sections of large potholes, which are often filled with water. Each of these presents its own challenges, but most are easy to skirt or climb through. If something seems impassable, your best bet is to backtrack and look for a way around it. You may have to climb up and over, but there’s always a way! Before you know it, you’ll be sliding down a large slab of rock and find yourself back in the wash where you started with a short one-mile hike back to the car.
If you’re unsure about the more difficult sections of Dang, you can hike in as far as you’re comfortable while still enjoying some of the narrows. Ding Canyon offers a much more forgiving jaunt with great scenery if you prefer to hike out and back.
That’s all there is to it. If you’re anything like me these canyons will spark a desire to find more slots, and living in Utah is the right place for it. You could spend a lifetime exploring this state and never be disappointed. Don’t forget; Little Wild Horse Canyon and Goblin Valley are just a few miles back so plan to stay for a few days and take your time exploring the area.
What to Bring
While these are not technical slots, being prepared is paramount on any hike. Bring a daypack with plenty of water, snacks, and a map/trail description. You won’t have cell service so plan ahead. I also recommend a 30’ rope for safety. Even if you can do without it, it’s worth it for the peace of mind. Dress comfortably so you can move freely. Wear long sleeves and pants to avoid scraping yourself while climbing. A hat and sunscreen are a given in the desert as well. Remember, it is typically 10 to 12 degrees colder in a slot than the surrounding area. Ding and Dang always have water in them, so wear appropriate clothing for cold, wet conditions to prevent hypothermia if you get wet.
How to Get There
Just before arriving at the Goblin Valley entrance, turn right on Wild Horse Road. In 5.3 miles you will pass the trailhead for Little Wild Horse Canyon and the road will turn to dirt. Take this for another 1.3 miles to find your trailhead on the right marked by a small wooden sign at these coordinates: N38° 34’ 36”, W110° 49’ 18”. It gets a little rocky, but any car should be able to make it in good weather. There is even free BLM camping along the south side of Wild Horse Road. If primitive camping isn’t for you, Goblin Valley State Park has a small number of developed sites with bathrooms and fire rings.