Tuesday, November 17, 2009
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.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
After biking nearly 80 miles, the author peers over the edge of the
Like a giant incandescent filament, the morning sunlight ignites the capstone of
Nearing the end of the road, clouds boil in the afternoon sun over the Hurricane Cliffs.
Swinging around Diamond Butte, the road begins paralleling the Hurricane Cliffs, a 1000-foot-high escarpment created by a seismically active, 150-mile-long fracture that rends the Arizona Strip into two massive offset blocks – the higher Uinkaret and the subjacent Shivwits Plateaus.
Continuing south, now some 50 miles from St. George, the weight of my pack stuffed with water, food, and camping gear begins to take its toll on my lower back. I remind myself that any discomfort felt on this little two-day sojourn is incomparable to the suffering of those who have toiled in this land before me.
I think of the three nearly starved men in 1869 that decided they had endured enough with the periled Powell expedition on the
Life at Bundyville, also known as
I roll into what remains of Bundyville just in time to have lunch at the newly rebuilt schoolhouse. Its white paint makes it stand out among the original adobe and wooden buildings which are well past their prime, decaying inconspicuously behind waist-high prairie grasses and sage. Photos inside the school illustrate a colorful and exciting, but difficult lifestyle on the Strip.
This crumbling adobe block home in Bundyville, cloaked in tall sagebrush, is easy to miss.
Beyond Bundyville, the tablelands give way to deep, gnawing tributaries of the perpetually incising
With the elevation loss come changes in flora and scenery. Sage and Juniper are gradually displaced by wiry creosote, portly barrel cactus, and the giant, curled green pipe cleaners of the ocotillo. Piles of soot-black lava choking the lower portion of Whitmore provide contrast to the drab gray ledges of Permian-age Kaibab and Toroweap Formations.
Normally lifeless-looking ocotillo is green and vibrant following late summer thunderstorms on the
The route ends abruptly at the elevated hanging mouth of
Upstream view of the Grand Canyon’s inner gorge from near the elevated mouth of
I try to envisage the stream of glowing molten rock that poured out of
I wonder if the lake quietly overtopped and gradually eroded the rock dam away or if the dam failed catastrophically releasing several trillion gallons of water down the canyon at once.
Scanning the cliffs below, I locate the start of the Whitmore Trail – one of only a handful of routes allowing passage from rim to river – and head down the mile-long path.
Midway down I get an incredible view of uneven tiers of polygonal basalt columns that resemble dangling, heavy stone-carved wind chimes.
The Whitmore Trail rewards hikers with a rare, three-dimensional view of columnar joints formed when thick lava cooled near the mouth of
Leaping into the river at trail’s end, the murky water is shockingly cold but therapeutic on my sunburned skin.
Back on the rim, the sun sets as I spread out my bedroll and continue to ponder the evolution of the fantastic abyss before me.
The canyon turns black and my attention is drawn to the brilliantly stippled sky; not even the annoying glow from distant Sin City quells the stars’ intense burn.
Asleep less than an hour, I wake up panicked, convinced that I am in the headlights of some lost motorist barreling down the road toward the rim. With eyes adjusted, I realize that a full moon has emerged, its blanket of ashen light revealing a much more ethereal and mysterious canyon that is this evening’s encore.
After an equally spectacular sunrise I start the long ride back to St. George.
Sleepwalkers beware! Setting up camp within 5 feet of the canyon’s rim is an unforgettable experience.
The morning sun bakes the Grand Canyon’s northern wall as the tranquil