Buckskin Gulch-Paria Canyon
Distance: 20.6 miles (plus 15.5 miles by car)
day 1: 7 1/2 hours
day 2: 4 1/2 hours
Elevations: 760 ft. loss, 180 ft. gain
• Wire Pass Trailhead (start): 4,860 ft.
• Paria River confluence: 4,100 ft.
• White House Trailhead: 4,280 ft.
Trail: There is no trail for this hike, but the route is easy to follow. You will be walking along the bottoms of two narrow desert canyons. Occasionally there are deep pools of water in the canyon narrows, so be prepared with an air mattress or some other means of floating your backpacks across. You will also need a 30-foot length of rope to help you get down a rockfall near the end of Buckskin Gulch.
Season: Spring, summer, fall. Flash floods are common in Buckskin Gulch, so don’t attempt this hike if there is a chance of rain. Be especially careful from late July through mid-September, when thundershowers in southern Utah are more frequent. For current conditions call the Kanab Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, at (801) 644-2672.
Buckskin Gulch is alleged by many veteran hikers to be the longest, narrowest slot canyon in the world. There are many other narrows hikes on the Colorado Plateau, but Buckskin is exceptional because of its length. The Buckskin narrows extend almost uninterrupted for over 12 miles with the width of the canyon seldom exceeding 20 feet. The walk through the dark, narrow canyon is truly a unique hiking experience.
The key consideration in planning a trip through Buckskin Gulch is water. How much water and mud is there in the canyon? And what is the probability that it will rain while you are inside it? The canyon was created by water, and water continues to shape it and change its character. As you walk along the sandy bottom you will continually be confronted with evidence of previous floods. Dozens of logs have been wedged between the canyon walls, and piles of huge boulders have been jammed into narrow constrictions. The characteristics change from year to year. One can never predict what the last flood might have taken away or left behind. According to BLM statistics there are about 8 flash floods a year, on the average, in Paria Canyon and its tributaries. About a third of the floods occur during the month of August, so if you are planning a trip in late summer you should be especially cautious. Flash flood danger is lowest during the months of April, May, and June.
It is possible to begin this hike at either Buckskin Trailhead or Wire Pass Trailhead, but if you begin at Buckskin Trailhead the hike is 2.8 miles longer. If you begin the hike at Wire Pass you will have to walk 13 miles to the confluence campsite; whereas from Buckskin Trailhead the distance is 15.8 miles-more than a comfortable day’s walk for most people.
From the Wire Pass parking area the trail proceeds for a short distance along the south side of Wire Pass, then drops into the sandy bottom of the wash and descends eastward through the Cockscomb. At first the wash is so mundane it hardly seems an appropriate entry point to the world’s best canyon narrows, but within a mile things begin to change drastically. The sandstone walls begin to rise and by the time you reach the mouth of Wire Pass, half an hour from the trailhead, your narrows experience is well underway. Buckskin Gulch widens slightly at the junction with Wire Pass and then quickly narrows again.
There are several petroglyph panels of big horn sheep at the junction of the two canyons that you might want to look for before continuing. When you are finished check the sky once more, then turn south into Buckskin. There is no way out of the canyon until you reach the Middle Trail, 6.3 miles from the junction.
For the most part it is an easy walk along the bottom of Buckskin. The bottom is normally flat with very few large stones to impede your way. If it has rained recently there may be a layer of slippery clay mud covering the sand, but there is usually very little standing water for the first five miles. It is interesting to note the number of animals that accidentally fall into the steep narrow canyon from the desert above. Rattle snakes are very common, and you will probably see one or two of them if you are observant. Most of them are babies, scarcely more than a foot long. Also, most of the time they are very lethargic-probably because of a lack of food in the canyon. You might also see a dead coyote-again, most likely a young one.
After you have gone about five miles you will enter a stretch of canyon where there are often large pools of stagnant water. Many of the pools contain rotting vegetation and are foul smelling. The largest of these pools has been named, appropriately enough, the Cesspool. Wading through the pools can be a revolting experience, but fortunately they are rarely more than thigh deep. Notice that there are no animals of any kind living in any of the stagnant pools: no tadpoles, no water skaters, no mosquito larva, nothing. Why? Similar pools farther down the canyon contain an abundance of life.
Shortly after leaving the last stagnant pool of water you will notice the canyon rim starting to get much lower, and soon you will come to the Middle Trail. The Middle Trail is not really a trail at all, but rather a route up which one can climb to the top of the north rim. The route is not well marked, but nevertheless easy to spot. It is located in a short, open section of the canyon where the walls are not steep and the rim is only 100 feet above the canyon floor. Look for the footprints of previous hikers going into a fault on the left. The assent is not a walk, but rather a scramble. Hikers with a modicum of rock climbing skill should have no trouble getting up, but don’t try it with your backpack on. Better to leave your pack behind or pull it up after you with a short piece of rope. With a little route finding skill it is also possible to climb out to the south rim at this point.
If you got off to a late start you might want to use the Middle Trail to climb out of the narrows and make camp for the night. Unfortunately there is nothing but slickrock and sand above the canyon, and no water. But the flash flood danger makes it unsafe to spend a night inside Buckskin Gulch.
Soon after leaving the Middle Trail the narrows close in again, and the depth of the canyon continues to increase as you approach the Paria River. There are usually no more deep wading pools below Middle Trail, but after about four miles your progress will be stopped by a pile of huge rocks that have become wedged into a tight constriction in the canyon. This rock jam is Buckskin Gulch’s most serious obstacle, and most people will need a rope to get safely around it. The standard route requires that you climb about 15 feet down the smooth face of one of the boulders. Previous hikers have chipped footholds into the soft sandstone, but unless you are very agile you will still need a rope to make a safe descent. Hikers often leave their ropes tied to the top of the pitch and you might be lucky enough to find a good one already in place. But BLM rangers regularly cut away any ropes that appear to be unsafe, so you had best have one of your own. Conditions change from year to year and, depending on what happened during the last canyon flood, you might find another easier route down the rock jam. But don’t count on it.
Soon after you leave the rock jam you will pass by a series of seeps in the Navajo Sandstone walls that supply a tiny flowing stream on the canyon floor. The fresh water is a welcome change from the stagnant, lifeless pools above Middle Trail. There is plenty of life in the water of the lower Buckskin, even including small fish.
About a mile below the rock jam, or 0.5 mile above the Paria River confluence, you will come to an excellent campsite. Look for a large grove of maple and boxelder trees growing in the sand above the streambed. There are several fine places to make camp under the trees on the benches of dry sand ten feet above the canyon floor. Since this area is the only place in Buckskin Gulch where it is possible to camp you may have trouble finding an unoccupied campsite, especially during the busy months of May and June. If you can’t find a place here the next closest campsite is located about a mile away in Paria Canyon below the confluence.
It is only a ten minute walk from the Buckskin Gulch campsite to the Paria River confluence, where you must turn north up Paria Canyon to complete the hike. The place where the two canyons come together is extremely impressive. The narrows here are much more open than the narrows of the Buckskin, but the reddish walls are shear and smooth. The presence of clean running water at the bottom of the 800-foot gorge also adds a touch of grandeur to the scene. The Paria is often dry in the early summer, but there is always at least a trickle of water flowing out of Buckskin.
The next point of interest as you walk up the Paria River is Slide Arch, located about 0.7 mile above the confluence. This is not really an arch at all, but rather a large piece of sandstone that has broken away from the east wall and slid down into the river. Beyond Slide Arch the canyon walls start to become less shear and the canyon widens until it is eventually little more than a desert wash. There are a few hard-to-find panels of petroglyphs on the west side of the canyon as you approach the White House Trailhead. The first panel is about a mile before the point where the electrical power lines cross the canyon, and the last is just above the power line crossing.
Finally, you may want to pause for a few minutes at the White House Ruins. These are not Indian ruins, as many people think, but rather the site of an old homesteader’s cabin. The cabin was originally built in 1887 by Owen Washington Clark, the same man for whom the West Clark Bench was named. Unfortunately it burned down in the 1890s, and today there is little left but a pile of stones. The ruins are located on the east side of the Paria River, opposite a small side canyon on the west side about 0.3 mile below the trailhead.
Lower Paria Canyon
Many hikers combine the Buckskin Gulch hike with a hike through the lower part of Paria Canyon to the Colorado River. If you turn south at the Paria confluence instead of north you can walk all the way down the Paria River to Lees Ferry. This 30-mile walk makes a long but rewarding backpack trip with a great deal to see. There are several abandoned homestead sites and mining camps along the way dating back to the late 1800s. You will also see several impressive panels of Indian rock art, as well as one of the largest natural sandstone arches in the world. The distance by road from Lees Ferry back to the Paria Ranger Station is about 70 miles; hence two cars are needed for the hike.
Content provided by David Day of utahtrails.com. Click here to order his book Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails.