Buckskin - Paria Loop
There was little room for error. I had originally planned to conquer the soggy 21-mile hike and subsequent 15-mile bike ride required to complete the Buckskin Gulch-Paria River loop during an early May weekend when temperatures are balmy and the sun shines for a good 14 hours. But the steady rain that thoroughly flushed the Paria Plateau that weekend would have turned any trip through what is billed as the “longest slot canyon in the world” into a suicide mission. Forced to reschedule, another opportunity didn’t present itself until this past November. Undeterred by the less-than-ideal chilly air and mere 10 hours of daylight, I set out on this excursion determined to check it off my must-do list.
Driving east out of Kanab on Highway 89, my radio’s digital tuner fails to lock onto a station – the cycling numbers emphasize the repetition in my mind as I go over and over this evening’s plan: drop off mountain bike at the White House trailhead by 9 p.m., check the message board at the Paria Contact Station for last-minute updates on trail conditions, drive to the Wire Pass trailhead, set up camp, and be asleep by 10 p.m.
Despite well-developed washboard and poor road conditions to both trailheads, everything goes according to plan and I find myself comfortable in my sleeping bag struggling to fall asleep as I anxiously wait for morning.
Waking up before dawn, I stuff my bedroll into my car, double-check my pack, turn on my headlamp, and jog down the wash leading to Wire Pass.
The first two miles are uneventful and pass quickly. Lighting conditions go from dark to pitch-black as the rising canyon walls block out the starlight. Ghoulish shadows creep, hover, and gradually fade across corrugated sandstone walls opposite my headlamp as I bound down the slot. Every step immerses me deeper into an unknown sea of Navajo Sandstone and I get a somewhat troubling feeling knowing that I won’t exit the Earth’s stony interior for another 15 miles.
At the confluence with Buckskin Gulch, the canyon opens up briefly allowing the rising sun’s light to spill over the canyon rim.
I find the hiking conditions are generally good in Buckskin with just a few stagnant, muddy water holes that never reach more than waist high.
While trudging through a long stretch of muck, I hear faint splashing up ahead. Pausing, I hear only the popping of foul gas bubbles surfacing in my wake. Continuing on, I expect to meet a hiker coming up canyon, but I instead meet a sorry little creature struggling to free itself from the smelly quagmire. Closer up, I watch a small kit fox, belly-deep in mud, lunge with one desperate motion to reach firmer ground before disappearing around a bend. Knowing that there are no reasonable exits and that a major drop-off remains ahead, I figure I’ll get to see my fellow canyon explorer again.
Amazingly consistent in width and color, the Buckskin narrows have been accused of being somewhat monotonous. But, only halfway through the canyon I notice many intriguing changes. In some places the canyon’s walls are deeply sculpted into perplexing combinations of knobs, grooves, scallops, and terraces; elsewhere, walls are perfectly planar, rising invariably for hundreds of feet. Further down canyon, I begin to encounter more substantial sandbars that support a variety of broad-leaved trees still clinging to their fall foliage.
Nearly 6 hours in, I reach the only real obstacle of the day: the infamous rock fall. As I begin to scramble among the colossal boulders to scout my escape route, the fox blows its cover and trots out onto a narrow ledge extending from the rock heap’s crown. The ledge quickly pinches out and with nowhere to go, it carefully turns around, takes a couple of paces toward me, sits, curls its comically large tail around its paws, and then calmly looks into my eyes as I stand only 20 feet away.
After bidding the fox farewell and good luck, I squeeze through a tiny hole between the boulders and drop into yet another gloomy cesspool. Opaque water soon transitions into viscous, sticky peanut butter and I lose my shoes several times as the muck level reaches my navel. It takes me several minutes to travel just 20 feet.
Reaching the confluence with the Paria River, I turn upstream and discover that the BLM ranger I’d talked to the day before wasn’t kidding about deep holes here, as the water immediately deepens to the point that my air-filled dry bag in my backpack gains buoyancy and I begin floating.
The Paria’s water is frigid, and after swimming through three deep holes I can feel my muscles tightening to the verge of cramping. Soon, my joints start creaking and uncontrollable shivering sets in despite dressing in every layer of clothing I have.
A few miles above the confluence, the canyon opens up considerably and for the first time I’m hiking in the full warmth of the sun which now sits alarmingly close to the horizon.
I finally reach my stashed bike near the White House trailhead, change my shoes, and start the 15-mile ride back to Wire Pass. Thankfully, the different range of body motion on the bike provides a huge relief to my hiking-fatigued limbs and I make good time as I complete the loop.
Under a brilliant crimson sunset, I make the final descent to my car and begin reveling in that unique euphoria of being simultaneously exhausted and rejuvenated, felt only after a hard-fought adventure.
For more information on hikes in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, contact the St. George BLM Field Office at 435-688-3200.