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Buckskin Gulch

I love it when I’m right. It wasn’t long ago when I predicted this trip to Buckskin Gulch was going to be epic. If anything, I underestimated it. This thirteen mile slot canyon is the longest and deepest canyon in the Southwest and is one of the best hikes I’ve done.  It will be hard to top…but I’m not afraid to try.

The crew was supposed to consist of six hikers, but was reduced to five at the last minute. Major bummer not having Leo with us, but there is always next time. We left Phoenix in the late afternoon with a planned stop in Page, AZ for a fast-food dinner before reaching our final destination–White House Trailhead. All went as planned as we rolled in around 11pm and setup camp as quietly as possible, trying not to disturb the other sleeping campers. With the moonbuckskin-gulch-white-house-trailhead being so bright, we attempted to get some sleep and ready ourselves for the day ahead. We were awakened at 6:30am by the other hikers preparing for the first shuttle. We had one hour before our ride would be there to take us to the Wire Pass Trailhead where we would begin our adventure into the slot canyon known as Buckskin Gulch.

Breaking camp was uneventful and Susan, from Paria River Outpost and Guides,was right on time. We loaded up, headed out, and engaged in some interesting conversation along the way. Apparently Susan, our shuttle driver, had made the same hike we were about to do–once–about 19 years ago. “Never again!” and “Better you than me!” were some of her comments. Apparently she did not have a good experience, and this set everyone on edge, especially Rob, who is a bit claustrophobic. We knew it was going to be a long 8 to 10 hour day, and we felt we were ready. As we crossed a small bridge over the Paria river, I took note of the water level, as we would be hiking up the same river the next day. It seemed to be about 3 to 6 inches deep and fairly wide at that spot. “Should be ineresting,” I thought to myself as we all had different approaches to hiking in cold water.

buckskin-gulch-wire-passThe 30 minute drive to the Wire Pass Trailhead was quick, and we were anxious to get on the trail. We started off around 8:30am and headed into the dry stream bed, that consisted of mostly loose sand. We had a GPS lock on the Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch intersection. Unfortunately, the GPS showed a straight shot and we had to follow the wash as it snaked through the desert until the canyon walls started to rise up around us.


I think the tightest spot of the trip was just a few hundred yards into the slot.  I actually ripped my REI Flash 65 backpack on the rough canyon walls as I tried to squeeze through.  My pack needed some added character, and a few small tears in the mesh side pockets did the trick.  I’ll take it slower next time.  We stopped at the arch for a group picture just before Wire Pass connected with Buckskin Gulch.

buckskin-gulch-slot-canyonI decided to take my Canon DSLR camera on the trip at the last minute, and I’m so glad that I did.  From the moment we got into the canyon it was difficult not to take pictures of EVERYTHING!  Around every corner there was a new and magnificent sight.  Beams of light would stream down from the sun, somewhere above, and wash over the canyon walls.  At times it felt as if you were in a tunnel of solid rock and could see the bright light at it’s end.  The red and pink hues of the Navajo sandstone were vibrant with streaks of black stains left by water.


We hiked for several hours before taking a break for lunch.  Our goal was to get to Middle Trail which marked… the middle.  We were told that it was sometimes difficult to find and that many people walk right past it.  By this time we were pretty hungry and due for a good rest so we were extra vigilant.  We had it marked on a GPS and knew were were within a half mile.  Note: It is VERY difficult to get a GPS signal once you enter the canyon.  We found the Middle Trail with no issue and discussed how diffucult it would be to use the escape route.  We agreed it was all dependant on how hard it was raining and how much you valued your life.  The scamble up didn’t seem too bad.  Pretty sure anyone would scamper up it, especially in a thunder storm.


After lunch and a well deserved rest, we headed out for our next obstacle, the Rock Jam.  Notice I didn’t say “The Cesspool.”  Buckskin Gulch was very dry all the way through. Even in the dry season The Cesspool usually has water in it, and there is no way around.  We counted ourselves lucky as this time we were unable to tell where it was.  There were a few boulder jams along the way.  Nothing too difficult, but we took it slow to reduce the risk of twisting an ankle so far away from civilization.  There were many logs wedged between the canyon walls high overhead as a subtle reminder of just how high the water can get in this canyon.

buckskin-gulch-rock-jam-rabbit-holeThe Rock Jam has what is called a “rabbit hole.”  There must be very big rabbits in this area as I envisioned having to crawl into a small opening to go under the enormous boulder pile.  The “rabbit hole” is huge and is at times full of debris making it impassible.  This time it was wide open and even had a “new-ish” rope to aide in the down climb.  Definetly doable without the rope, but easier with.  It seemed to be about ten feet down the slanted rock to the canyon floor, under the boulder and the famous Rock Jam was at our backs as we headed out.

We began looking for the water seeping from the rock as we hoped to refill our CamelBacks for the trip tomorrow.  Soon enough a small (very small) stream of water appeared on the trail.  It looked pretty “sketchy” as it was full of algae.  We knew the safe camp was close and hoped to find a bit better water source to filter from.

buckskin-gulch-safe-camp-tentAfter nine hours of hiking we rolled into camp.  This campsite is one of my most favorite sites I’ve ever been in.  It seems to be a huge  reddish sand dune with grass and trees growing out of it.  There is a trail that leads to the top and takes you about 30 feet above the canyon floor to an area that can easily hold 4-5 two-man tents.  There was another site below us that a group of three hikers used that was beautiful with trees for their hammock.  Also across the canyon were at least two more sites that  could fit a couple of small tents.  We were very suprised to find out that we were the only two groups staying that night.


We set up our tents and went to assess the water situation.  We found a small spot where the water was about three inches deep and flowing clear.  We were a bit paranoid and decided to err on the side of caution by double filtering.  It was probably overkill, but we did not want to have anyone getting sick.  We filtered enough water to refill our CamelBacks, cook dinner with and have a bit extra just incase.


We had met the three hikers early in the day and passed each other multiple times as each rested or stopped for photographs.  One of them turned out to be Brian Lane, the author of Hikernut’s Grand Canyon Companion.  We chatted a bit was we filtered our water.  He had a UV light that purified his water and I’ve been wanting one ever since!  A real nice group of people and we wish them the best as they hike all the big canyons of the Southwest.


The Buckskin Gulch is a pristine canyon where you “take only pictures and leave only footprints.”  You are required to pack everything out and I mean everything!  While we were filtering water, Julia had taken it upon hereself to read the directions to the “Human Waste Containment Bags.”  Apparently, these are pretty sophisticated little sacks and are much more high-tech than one might think.  The only question now was… who was going to try it first?  I am very disappointed to say that everyone suffered a severe case of stage fright.  And to think that I was actually excited to give it a go!

Dinner was great, as it always is after a long day in the boots.  Mountain House all around with a little bit of chocolate mousse for dessert.  I could tell it was going to be an early night especially after seeing Rob shuffling around the campsite with his treking pole.  Thirteen and a half miles makes for a long day… and a good nights sleep.  After a small dose of Tylenol PM, we were sound asleep… no matter how crazy bright the moon was.

We slept in until about 7am and woke up to an absolutely beautiful morning.  We cooked breakfast and packed up.  We were not in a huge hurry as none of us looked forward to hiking up the frigid waters of the Paria River.  When we finally got going, we headed down off the hill and through Brian’s now empty campsite.  Well, almost empty.  As we passed through we a scared a turkey out of one of the bushes.  Seriously, a real turkey!  I have no idea how it got in the canyon as it doesn’t seem to belong there.  I was lucky enough to get a picture of it because I know there will be many who won’t believe me.

buckskin-gulch-slot-canyonThe next quarter mile or so was my favorite part of the canyon.  The canyon walls rose straight up out of the sandy bottom to over 300 feet.  One truly feels insignifcant while walking these corridors.  It was absolutely stunning.  I wish I would have taken more pictures in this area.  I think I was just awe-struck and forgot.


 Following the stream down the canyon we noticed a side slot.  Can this be the Paria River?  There was no water.  I was pretty sure we needed to continue down stream and fully expected a much different scene at the confluence.  buckskin-gulch-paria-riverJeff decided to walk up the side canyon for a better look and ran into two day hikers.  We asked them where they started from and were shocked when they said White House Trailhead.  I was even more shocked when they told us that this was the most water they had seen all day.  The Paria River was dry.  It was flowing the day before when I took note as we crossed the bridge.  It must have gone underground at some point.  So much for hiking in cold water… Yipee!

We hiked up the Paria dry wash all the way back to our car parked at White House Trailhead.  The hike was an uneventful four and a half hours, except for a rattlesnake!  buckskin-gulch-rattle-snakeIt was actually the second one we’d seen in two days.  Neither one seemed to be the small “midget” snakes that I had read about before the trip.  These appeared to be the real deal and I would estimate them being about 4 footers.  Other than the snake, it was a long hot slog back to the car while the canyon walls slowly disappear around you as well as the shade.  Although the landscape is beautiful in it’s own way, it’s hard to appreciate it with the spectacular views of the inner canyon still fresh in your mind.

buckskin-gulch-slot-canyon-sandThe 21 miles of this latest adventure will not be soon forgotten.  Rob and Carla did absolutely amazing, this being one of their first major adventures with many more to come.  It’s always fun to hike with Jeff and Julia and sense the excitement as our adventure unfolds.  I must say, we had it pretty good with the weather being as nice as it was and the lack of water to hike/wade through.  We just might be getting spoiled.

Even though this trip only had hints of Type Two Fun mixed in (long, hot, second day), the overall adventure was just as I predicted it would be… EPIC!


Get your permits from:

 Arizon BLM website for the Paria Canyon Wilderness Area.



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