Buckskin Gulch

  • Location: Paria Canyon - Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, southern Utah/Northern Arizona, west of Page, Arizona
  • Access: From the BLM Paria Ranger Station, head west on Hwy 89 4.8 miles, then south on House Rock Rd 8.3 miles to the Wire Pass Trailhead
  • Trailhead: UTM NAD83 zone 12s 408819e 4097485n (elevation=4876í)
  • Trail: Route follows Wire Pass Canyon to Buckskin Gulch, then down Buckskin Gulch to the Paria River.
  • Maps: USGS 1:24,000-scale West Clark Bench & Pine Hollow Canyon, or this mosaic of several quads
  • Fees: None
  • Dogs: Leash law in effect in the wilderness
  • Weather: National Weather Service Conditions and Forecast


April 30 2009

After camping out on a short barely-a-road north of Hwy 89, quickly packed up my car at 6:30 under a clear dawn and ate a quick mini-wheats + powdered milk breakfast. It was warm for that time of morning, and breezy. Sunlight slyly crept down the east-facing cliffs on the other side of the Pariah River. By 7:00 I was on the road, and I decided right away not to try for another day to get a Wave permit. They donít draw the Wave permits until after 9:00, which means the earliest one can get hiking anywhere is about 10:00, after considering the driving time it takes to get just about anywhere. The day before I had attempted to get a walk-in Wave permit, and was one of 66 numbers in the hat, trying to get one of 10 day permits and competing with over 120 other people to get it. Since they ended up only calling 4 numbers to fill the 10 slots, it was little surprise that my number was not among them. One could go for days and days and not get a permit, but waste every morning trying to. Thus, I skipped the Pariah Ranger station and headed west to the Wire Pass Trailhead to hike Buckskin Gulch. 

There were plenty of folks at the trailhead, but their brightly-colored permits let me know they were on their way to the Wave, which is also easily accessed from this trailhead. I got my gear together under the clear blue sky, and hit the trail at 8:15. The route followed a dry wash for some ways that was lined with sagebrush and desert perennials on the verge of flowering. In short order, the wash went into some nice sandstone narrows, with a few minor drop-offs of 5-6 feet, both easily climbable. In about 1.5 miles, I reached Buckskin Gulch and the real fun began. Buckskin is like every other great slot canyon in that it has tall, narrow passages between undulating smooth sandstone walls that curve in parallel and often block out the sky. The difference is that Buckskin Gulch goes on for miles and miles, and is almost always spectacular. Parts of the canyon were a little grim, such as in places where the mud was deep, and the walls closed in to the point of making it seem like nighttime, but other parts were very sunny, with a wide canyon floor enfused with green from box elders and grass. I walked slowly and deliberately through the quiet canyon, soaking it in. This is a pretty wonderful place. 

Three pools blocked my progress in the first narrow section, the first two filled with a soupy goop with the consistency of tomato soup. The first pool I crossed on rocks that just barely floated above the surface of the muck, and I made it about 10 feet before the last rock flipped over, sending my leg plunging into the muck up to my calf. The second pool was much deeper and there was no choice but to wade in. The bottom was very soft, lending to me the unpleasant idea that if one stood here long enough, one would just keep slowly sinking into the mire. I discovered there were rocks just under the muck, and if I waved my foot around, I could usually find one. Not always, though, and several steps had to be taken in the knee-deep muck. Walking in knee-deep water wouldnít bother me, and I do that all the time in canyons, but that opaque sludge was disconcerting, and I did hate to wade through it. The third pool was basically just murky water, and I walked through it, calf deep. 

Beyond this wide narrow section was a wide sunny section where grass grew on sand banks and box elders provided some shade. The wide canyon in this section was pleasant. The canyon alternated between narrow passages only 6 feet wide to open sections some 30 feet wide, but always the canyon walls were straight up, and only once did I see a spot that one might be able to climb up to escape the canyon. 

I passed over a jumble of boulders and shortly after, reached a long narrow pool of muck. I stopped then and assessed the time. It was 12:20, and I had been picking my way along the canyon for 4 hours, stopping frequently to take long-exposures in the twilight of the narrow sections. I sat just upcanyon from the mucky pool, leaned against the rock canyon wall and had a snack, deciding that I should turn back at that point. 

I reached the grassy, wide section of the canyon and found a shady spot in the grass on a sandy bench above the canyon floor to take off my shoes and air my wet feet. My right heel was hurting terribly, as was my big right toe, for some reason. I took some ibuprofren and then laid back in the grass and napped for 20 minutes. That really refreshed me, and I resumed the hike with a spring in my step. 

I passed two backpackers on their way down the canyon, both with the tell-tale knee-high muck stain on their legs from the second pool of the triad near the beginning of the hike. Just as my legs were drying and the mud was about flaked off, I had to recross that pool. I encountered another group of English hikers with strong accents, but otherwise, it was a pretty empty place. 

I broke off from the main canyon to head up the side canyon towards the Wire Pass TH, and stopped along the way to climb to the rocks above and take some photographs of the surrounding terrain. Iíd been walking through it all day, but below the rim of the canyon you canít tell what it looks like. I could see the Wave to the south, the teepees and a number of buttes and pinnacles spread out across a sea of rock. The sky was covered with a high, thin cloud layer, and it was very breezy. I made it back to the car at 6:00, after hiking for 10 hours. Boy was I ready for a shower! I checked into a small motel in Page, AZ called Luluís Sleep Ezze Motel and then had a nice cheeseburger and fries at Slackers a block away. It seems pre-ordained that one should have a nice greasy burger with fries after a long day of hiking. This one really hit the spot. 

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike
Hanging out in one of the wider spots of Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike
The spot that seemed like a convenient place to turn around

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike
Benches above the upper portions of Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch Hike
Nice warped sandstone above Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch Hike
Typical terrain near Wire Pass

Buckskin Gulch Hike
Inside the narrows of Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike
One of the many small pools in the canyon

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike
Buckskin Gulch Hike
The narrowest section of Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch Hike
Bench above Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike

Buckskin Gulch Hike
Mucky slogging section


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