Nov. 1-6, 2009
44.5 miles plus side trips
The hike down Buckskin Gulch into and on down the Paria river canyon to the Colorado river at Lee’s Ferry is maybe the most amazing walk I have ever done and it is on many lists of the top hikes in the world.
This trip has been in the making for years. I went to college in Utah and had many wonderful hikes there but the Paria river had never been on the radar screen until 2001 when on another trip to the area I picked up some information on the hike. I began to hatch a plan to walk it for my 50th birthday year so in October of 2006 I gathered together 9 other family members and friends to share the experience with me.
After nearly a year of planning and organizing all these people we flew into Las Vegas, rented cars and drove to the trips end point at Lee’s Ferry. Next day we paid a shuttle service to carry us to the trailhead and we were off. Two hours into the hike the Coconino County Arizona Sheriff’s department rescue helicopter landed in front of us in the 75 foot wide canyon and told us everyone had to get out of the canyon, high danger of flashflood. The trip was over.
This was the redo trip. Turned out that October of 2006 was one of the wettest on record in southern Utah and this is definitely a place you don’t want to be in, in a flash flood! Due to it’s narrow and sensitive riparian area and popularity they only allow 20 people a day into the area who plan to camp overnight. Permits are available online up to four months in advance, during the most popular times (May, June, October) they will sell out in minutes. The permit system works well from what I can see, so well we saw no one else for 6 days. Here is the official Paria canyon website.
As I walked down this amazing place I began to realize what an untamed/active environment it is. It literally changes with every flood, there is no established path for the first 30 miles as it is washed away each time. It is in some ways a very easy trip, down hill all the way with an easy gentle drop (it drops 2000’ in 44 miles) and good water availability for the desert. In other ways it is very difficult, as you will see, with a few crux’s along the way. It is also difficult to plan for as it is shady, cold and wet for the first half and sunny, hot and drier for the second half.
November in southern Utah can begin to get chilly but this fall had been warmer than normal and we had temperatures at least 5 degrees warmer than usual and crystal clear skies. The river had flooded in mid August and again big in mid September (the river gages went up and down 5 feet over night!) six weeks before we went in. The few recent reports that I could find indicated waist deep wading in pools the first day, deep satanic mud near the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria river, and a chest deep pool/wade on the third day.
This time I went in with just one person, Scott. We flew into Las Vegas and 5 hours later were at Lee’s Ferry. We stayed at Cliff Dwellers Lodge again and had a quiet evening packing up. The next morning we met our shuttle (Steve Dodson from Paria Outpost and Outfitters), stopped at the Paria ranger station on the way to the trailhead to check in and get our human waste bags (yes you have to carry out your poop) and got to the Wire Pass trailhead at 10:00. No turning back now.
You walk for about a half an hour down an open wash and then all of a sudden it begins to drop down into the sandstone and you are beginning 14 miles of the longest slot canyon in the world!
Wire Pass is the most common upper entrance and it is the narrowest portion of the canyon with a sandy bottom. So narrow I had to take my pack off at one point and wore holes in my pack side pockets from brushing against the sandstone.
The whole place is otherworldly but upper Buckskin especially so with it’s swirling carved passages and with only a few places more than 10 feet wide. In some places it is so convoluted and dark it is like caving with the walls up to 100 feet high. I can tell you right now that photography is a challenge with the strong light contrast, I did the best I could with a point and shoot.
At places it looked like the canyon just dead ended but would take a 90 degree turn, notice how high the mud line is from the last flash flood.
About an hour and half in we hit the first muddy pool we couldn’t get around but it was near the end of the day when we waded through 22 pools in quick succession. Cold and dirty water with sticky and stinky mud but only a few crotch deep, woohoo!!
We arrived at the point in the canyon where a scrambling/climbing route into the canyon enters, called the Middle trail (about 8 miles). It would be an uncomfortable way to get in and out but it is doable. The first of many petroglyphs from the Anazazi indians we would see was here marking the route. It is called falling man for obvious reasons.
Day two, Nov. 2nd:
We camped on a rock shelf 10-15 feet above the wash. The morning greeted us with 33 degrees the coldest night of the trip. Putting on cold, stiff, muddy shoes was a pleasure as was the first experience with pooping in a bag.
The second morning lower Buckskin widened just a bit but the walls got higher. We both thought that this was the best part of Buckskin Gulch, with more amazing carving and light and a few more open places.
Only two muddy pools in this section and then the next major obstacle, the Rockfall. About a mile and a half from the end of Buckskin is an area with huge boulders blocking the way. Multiple ways down but all require a rope assist to get down the 15 foot drops. Took a while to choose our way down but decided to use the one with some foot and hand holds chipped into the rock.
From here on to the confluence with the Paria river the walls soar to 500 feet and just before the end it opens just a bit with a few campsites up on high sand benches. The reported deep and satanic mud was apparent but we avoided it by walking down the narrow stream of water now flowing in the bottom of the canyon.
If you were coming down the Paria river you could easily walk by the mouth of Buckskin Gulch and people do. The narrow entrance to Buckskin is straight ahead and the Paria flows from right to left.
On down the Paria now and the milky water is even colder than the pools in Buckskin but at least it’s not muddy. The high temperature for the day, down in the dark canyon, did not exceed 50 degrees. Our feet are like blocks of ice but the sights are what took our breath away. (about 8.5 miles today to P10 on the BLM map)
Day 3, Nov. 3rd:
Camp was at one of increasingly frequent high sand benches and across the river from one of the many seeps and springs that come right out of the sandstone in this middle section of the Paria canyon. The river water is usually so silty it is difficult to impossible to filter, everyone just gets water from the springs and drinks it untreated. We carried all our water for the first day and a half but had plenty of easy to get water from here on in.
The third morning was warmer at 41 degrees as it would be for the next several mornings. On down the Paria and while it opened up some in the next 8 miles it was never very wide and the ankle deep water many times went all to wall. The walls are now getting up to 1000’ high of Navajo sandstone.
We stop for water mid morning at Big Spring the largest in the canyon and the last one
until we get through the last winding section called the Goosenecks.
The last crux came as we entered an area known as Boulder Alley where large boulders can create large deep holes in the river after floods. We found the hole we had been warned about being chest deep and we found a way across that was only waist deep, another woohoo!
Just as we climbed back up onto the bank we encountered a 24 inch rattle snake who was moving slow in the cold, it rattled at us and we were somewhat startled to see it.
The canyon from here on in began to get wider yet and we walked on down to camp near a shallow side canyon., the Hole. It had warmed up today, into the 60’s and we had a nice warm breeze this evening. (about 9 miles today)
The full moon was yesterday and it’s light on the high walls was magical.
Day 4, Nov. 4:
The fourth day was intended to be a short one as we wanted to explore some. The first point of interest was Wrather canyon, a beautiful short side canyon with the sixth largest arch in the world.
Further down canyon we spent some time looking for some petroglyph panels and enjoying the sun. Near the end of the day we began to drop down out of the 1200 foot deep Navajo sandstone and into other layers.
We stopped for the night at the last reliable spring in the canyon, about 6 miles today plus side trips.
Day 5. Nov. 5th:
This camp with the river falling over hard rock gave us our last up close view of the massive walls.
Just around the corner from this camp we entered the Chinle formation and the canyon widened substantially and we didn’t have to walk in the river for 5 miles.
As you can imagine this constant walking in the water could be hell on the feet but through deep internet research I had learned some secrets that kept our feet in perfect condition despite the water, sand and gravel that would fill the shoes. The first picture is the footwear drying overnight, the second one is the complete system. We wore a thin synthetic liner sock, under a neoprene sock inside a supportive but fast draining shoe. Every morning we applied Hydropel, an ointment that kept our feet from getting soft from being wet and then encouraging blisters and other problems. Other than having cold feet, especially in the mornings, we had not a single problem.
The last major side canyon just below entering the Chinle is Bush Head. We stopped to walk up it looking for big horn sheep and a spring. Saw no sheep but did get water (it would be much easier just to carry it from the last spring the night before). What we did see and smell lots of were mountain lion sign. At one point we both smelled the strong smell of urine, like the cat(s) had just marked their territory. There were mountain lion tracks all over the place, like some one would say, it looked like they were having a mountain lion dance party. I had a moment when I knew a lion was somewhere close watching me. A dog print on the left, my foot print in the middle, lion on the right.
The canyon widened further and the cottonwoods in fall color were spectacular and we were now up above the river on what is known as the high water trail.
As we came back down to the river level again and began to cross it from time to time there are several large boulders with huge petroglyph panels. This one is the largest and is called Upside Down rock and is huge, something like 6′ X 8′.
About 8.5 miles today to Wilson Ranch.
Day 6, Nov. 6th:
The last morning, camped near the old Wilson ranch we had our only colorful sunrise, the early morning light was beautiful on the now distant high walls.
The final 5 miles to the car, the trail cut the wide meanders of the river with direct crossings in between and long reaching views.
Finally we came to the Lonely Dell ranch at Lee’s ferry with a last look up canyon.
Back to the car, we cleaned up, changed clothes and got rid of the poop bags.