Slotting It Up: Backpacking Buckskin Gulch / Paria Canyon to Lee's Ferry

  • Updated: March 30, 2019
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

March 30th to April 4th
Day 1: 15 -ish miles 
Day 2: 14 -ish miles 
Day 3: 12 -ish miles
Day 4: 10 -ish miles

I've made a solid attempt of late to stop saying no to more involved trips on account of them being too much time away from work or too expensive since quite frankly the events of the last year or two have shown the things I've been sacrificing for just aren't worth it. And so you're seeing more trips like this, Florida, and the oncoming onslaught of Summer 2019.

This was one of those bucket list trips that I'd looked at for years. Buckskin Gulch is considered the longest and deepest slot canyon in the southwest United States and possibly the world.  It's claim to fame is that you can backpack through it and them meet up with the Paria River and spend several days descending down to the Colorado River. Compare this with other slot canyons in the area where you're lucky to get the better part of the day.

I of course love me some slot canyon. So then the limiter became getting the permit which are rather limited (more on that below) but this year Jen got lucky and so the week after the Wilderness Travel Course Snow Camp wrapped up we were off!

Much to Jen's long suffering chagrin I approach any trip wanting to do the longest most complete version possible.  If we're going to spend the time then it's best to do it right after all.  (See our version of the Trans-Catalina Trail trip as another example of this.)

In this case it's actually a bit frustrating as the Buckskin / Paria area consists of two branches on the northern end so you can't really see the entire thing in one go without a lot of backtracking.

Jen originally booked Wire Pass to White House figuring we'd want to see the most interesting part of the trail.  And then I came in and insisted if we were going to do it we needed to do the longest possible variation aka Buckskin to Lee's Ferry.  (For the record most people consider Wire Pass to Lee's the better variation because it's shorter and the 5 or so miles it skips is less interesting than the rest.  And to that I say pfft.)

From our research the Wire Pass to The Confluence is the most impressive and challenging section while White House to The Confluence is less pretty but significantly easier hence why you see a fair number of people go that way who just want to backpack in to The Confluence.

As with all wilderness areas of any fame permits are required to limit the amount of foot traffic. However permits here are handled in a rather interesting way.

Dayhikes are the usual self registration situation with a nominal fee.  Backpackers are required to get permits in advance which they limit to 20 people total for the entire canyon.

In the Sierra and elsewhere permits are done by trailhead and by day meaning if the quota for a trailhead is 10 people and it fills up on Friday you can wait and grab one of the additional 10 offered on Saturday.  Once you get your entry permit you can technically stay out at long as you want with a few restrictions around heavily used areas like Whitney or Half Dome.

In the Paria Canyon Permit area they issue 20 spots total.  That means only 20 overnight visitors can be in the bounds of the Buckskin / Paria area at any given time.  This is actually really cool as it means you aren't spending the entire time making your way past hoards of people and it actually feels like a relatively non impacted wilderness area.  As much as I hate to say it I wish more areas took this approach.  Because even if it added a lot of additional hassle for planning trips me planning trips it prevents issues like what we've seen the last few years in places like Angels Landing.

Jen snagged our permit by realizing they release permits for an entire month at 12 pm on the first of the month.  She booked our trip starting on the last day of March meaning the April 1st to 3rd days could only be taken by people entering before.  YMMV but we were able to snag our two permits that way with ease.  And as it turned out the BLM was very accommodating as far as swapping trail heads so if you're reading this and currently have plans to do anything other than our awesome plan there's still time to change!

Day 0: Driving out and setting up the car shuttle

After what could charitably be called a slightly rough start to 2019 March finally rolled around and I was more than ready for a good long backpack.

Most every trip I do involves a mad rush to leave town after work fighting traffic and driving hundreds of miles until the wee hours of the morning.  This time around around the requirement to grab a permit in person in Kanab and set up a car shuttle meant it made more sense to take an entire day for setup.

And we *only* had to make it out about 548 miles and be ready to meet a car shuttle at 4 pm.  Piece of cake :P

We did originally have a slightly more aggressive plan where we'd drive out past Vegas the night before, sleep on the side of the road, and be out there early enough to grab out permit and day hike Coyote Buttes (which we'd also managed to snag a highly contested permit for) but as the trip approached circumstances led to us falling back to leaving Saturday morning a bit before 5 am.

We were in Las Vegas by 9 am in time to grab a quick breakfast and arrived at the Kanab by 1:30 pm.

Our permit was waiting for us at the Kanab Visitors Center where a rather nice older lady expressed how unpleasant the chest high pools of water we'd have to wade through would be and tried to impress on us to be careful of quicksand. And seeing how we were not put off by that she handed us our permit and a pile of wag bags.

One of the less pleasant aspects of this trip is the need to use WAG bags aka Waste Alleviation and Gelling bags aka you poop in a bag and carry it all with you.  This is because you're walking down a narrow canyon with limited access to dry land and no one really wants that much human fecal matter flowing down the river.

The bags are issued with your permit and according to what we'd seen online we initially expected to only have to use them as far as The Confluence.  That meant just hold things down for a day and we would be back to our usual wilderness catholes.  As it turns out that rule changed a year or two ago and you now have to use the bloody things for the entire length of the canyon.

It's not *that* big a deal but I will say I far prefer using wag bags in the snow where the cold helps keep the smell down.  Also it's slightly obnoxious that your pack doesn't end up getting any lighter as you go through your food.

From Kanab we drove to Lee's Ferry which was where we planned to emerge after 4 or so days of backpacks.  We had contracted with Grand Staircase Expeditions to pick us up at 4 pm leaving us just enough time to grab a beer and burger at the nearby Marble Canyon Lodge before packing our bags and jumping in their beat up old Ford Explorer.

The shuttle cost was $200 which sounds like a lot but the drive really isn't trivial.  Most of it involves a slow bumpy drive along the House Rock Valley Road which is how you access the Buckskin trail-heads, White Pocket, Cotoye Butes, and a minor attraction called The Wave.

Depending on conditions the road can be a bit rough and this time around there were deep ruts and muddy patches which would have made Blondie's little car a no go.

Our driver Rob had been guiding and exploring the area for years and we spent the 2.5 hour drive swapping stories and getting his advice both on this trip and other things in the area to explore. For example he was the one that told us about the campsite at Middle Trail while most sources say the first real camp is at the far busier Confluence.

He also had some maps and a guide book  called Hiking and Exploring the Paria River by Kelsey which were interesting to see. Depending where you are looking the mileage in estimates can very quite a bit hence my -ish estimates at the top. (I ran a GPS for the entire trip but the canyon walls played havoc with it)

When we arrived at the Buckskin Trailhead we found a few other cars in the parking lot and debated heading down the trail a short distance to get some privacy.  In the end easy access to our last bathroom for a few days decided us on just staying in the parking lot and as it turned out the other cars were all day hikers and by sunset we were alone except for a few disinterested cows.

We settled down for a relaxing if chilly dinner and then gratefully crawled into our sleeping bags.

Day 1: Buckskin Gulch Trailhead to Middle Trail

We woke up the next morning to find frost covering everything and the temperature a bit chillier than I'd anticipated. I'd packed my down quilt for this trip instead of my warmer and much heavier mummy bag but I also had plenty of layers along.  And as it turned out this was the coldest day of the trip.

Things warmed up quickly once the sun was out and we packed up, did all the business we could manage at the pit toilet, and set off down the trail a little after 9 am.

As advertised the first 4 miles or so were not the most interesting. I don't regret coming in this way and I'd probably do it again just because I like feeling like I did the "entire" thing but the terrain is pretty standard for this part of Utah. Granted that means it's disgustingly pretty but not quite achieving the level of eye gougingly beautiful. Because Utah.

Past the trailhead we followed footprints along a sandy use trail that crossed dry riverbeds here and there while we were watched by the occasional group of disinterested cattle.  At one point we followed the wrong set of footprints and briefly ended up heading east before correcting and making it into the canyon proper where navigational errors become all but impossible.

Then right before the junction with Wire Pass we started to get some relatively low canyons which got Jen amusingly excited.

It was along this section that we ran into an interesting couple who had been backpacking for a few days starting at Wire Pass and heading east along Buckskin to the Middle Trail bailout point.  They took this north out of the canyon and had looped back across West Clark Bench and were now headed back to their car.  The guy was on a multi-month epic of backpacks across Utah that made me jealous just hearing about it.

At the junction with Wire Pass we came across more people than we'd see for the remainder of the trip.  Everyone was day hiking in from Wire Pass and they were mostly just heading in as far as the first deep pool which we were told wasn't far.

Sure enough once we entered the narrow part of the canyon proper we soon found ourselves at our first pool. We dutifully dropped our packs and swapped into crocs and neoprene socks before wading in.

The water was cold but not too bad at least at first.  Below the knee it was trivial, above the knees it was uncomfortable, and above crotch level it really started to be uncomfortable.

How many pools did we have to wade through?

Enough that we soon gave up switching back into our hiking shoes and just walked in crocs.  And then we hit enough deep ones that I gave up on pants as a concept and just started running around in boxer briefs to avoid cold wet pant legs.

In between those bits the canyon was breathtaking in that way that's unique to slot canyons.

The most frustrating thing about my pictures are that while they are pretty they really fail to capture the sense of scale. But hey, that's why you're going to plan your own trip here as soon as you're done reading.  Right?!?

The wading sections slowed us down a bit but we were still making decent time until we almost reached Middle Trail at which point I boofed and things got a bit complicated.

We finally hit the promised chest -ish high water meaning our packs were in danger of getting wet.  We had bagged everything on the inside so our sleeping bags and dry layers were all reasonably safe but I still didn't particularly want my pack soaking in stale canyon water.

Since we were doing this the cheap way (aka we hadn't bought waterproof canyoneering packs) we pulled on yard bags like reverse raincovers and I waded through multiple times.  First to scout the shallowest path, then again to get my pack across, and then again to carry Blondie's pack since she is quite a bit shorter and I didn't want her to have to get her pack wet.

This was a mistake.  First off I spent too much time doinking around trying to figure out how not to get wet above my belly button when I should have just gone for it.  And the multiple crossings left me having spent a fair amount of time submerged in very very cold water past my waist.

By the time I got to the other side I was cold.  By the time we had to cross another similarly deep pool I was really cold and we had to make the call whether to stop and change me into warm clothing or push on.  I insisted on the latter and charged forward wading through a series of shallow pools but my legs and core temperature didn't bounce back despite the exertion.

We reached Middle Trail soon after and decided it was prudent to stop here.  Depending on which map you believe we'd already done about 15 ish miles so we were in reasonable shape for the following day. Also if we'd continued we'd have had to make it past the rockfall before getting to the Confluence campsite.

Thanks to the guy who drove our shuttle we knew about the flat area partway up the canyon on the south side which has enough room for several tents.  Just watch your step walking around at night because there's a bit of a drop off on the north side of the slab. Jen set up the tent while I changed into every layer I owned and climbed into my sleeping quilt.  And then added Jen's sleeping bag on top of that.

Despite all of that it felt like my legs were shedding cold and it took hot drinks, and hot food and several hours before I started to feel normal again.

There's no water here but we'd planned on dry camping that night anyway and unlike The Confluence there's a very good chance of having this site to yourself.

Day 2: Middle Trail To Paria

One good night's sleep later we were both feeling better if slightly less than enthused about wading through more cold water this early in the morning.

One interesting feature of this site is the petroglyphs high up on the wall. We spent a while debating how someone might have gotten up there to make those and decided that however they did it was an excellent way to show off / make sure they lasted.

I also checked out the north and south routes from there that take you up the canyon walls.  Both looked 3rd -ish class and fun though I didn't go up very far.

Sure enough we had some more wading to do which did a better job than coffee at waking us up. At this point we had our technique down and made quick work of them all.

That brought us to our major obstacle for the day, The Rockfall.

The NPS list this as third class and say you might want a rope.  Being a pair of badass mountaineers we of course shrugged this off and figured we could make something work. So I'm guessing you know what's coming next...

Scrambling to the end led to big drops that we had no hope of down-climbing.  We ended scrambling around the entire area before we located the moki steps mentioned in the guides.

The steps were something I wouldn't personally care to do without a rope considering how high up you get and the fact a fall would land you on a rock edge perfectly positioned to break your back.

Jen had checked out the middle area and declared she couldn't find anything that looked like it went and it briefly looked like we might have an issue.  But then I came over and managed to make my way down an only slightly precarious slab over another deep pool of water.

View from the top.  Go off the end of the rock Jen is on and drop down carefully.

And from the bottom. This area can apparently get blocked by debris leaving you no other option but the moki steps.

I reached the bottom of the moki steps while scouting to make sure my route went and rather than climb back up I had Blondie lower down my pack using the remains of an old rope someone had left. She moaned loudly about the weight of my pack and then scrambled down the way I'd come.

After that we were back in business with no more major obstacles.

We reached the famous Confluence campsite which is located a short distance back along the Buckskin side of the junction. It was a rather magical spot (as much as I'll usually gently mock Jen for using that description) with the green grass, high canyon walls, and the sound of running water echoing from all around. The pictures just don't convey the cathedral like feel to the area.

There were multiple established sites on the mound with room for a few tents each but someone was already set up quite comfortable at the top and I was glad we'd camped at the quieter Middle Trail.

As we'd been told the Buckskin did start flowing for the last mile or so before The Confluence and it's clear enough enough that you can manage to filter it with a bit of care. Unlike the Paria River which we'd be following south for the next several days.

This is the Paria. The water is incredibly cloudy due to the clay like soil and takes a very long time to settle out.  Apparently you can add some alum to help this along or like us you can just plan to carry water in between the springs and save yourself a whole lot of hassle.

The water wasn't deep rarely reaching our knees but wading through it was unavoidable meaning we were in crocs the entire time.  It also slowed us down quite a bit since it's hard to walk quickly through water like that without splashing yourself.

We also had our first encounter with the quicksand the lady at the BLM visitors center had described.

This was actually my second quicksand encounter.  The first time I was walking along and noticed the ground in front of me jiggled oddly when I planted my hiking pole leaving me just enough time to warm Blondie to stay back before I promptly sank in past my kilt.

Now if you're like me mention of quicksand brings something like this cinematic classic to mind.

Swamp of sadness indeed. *sniff* *sniff*

Here you only sink down so far and it's a matter of trying to crawl out with your shoes and some semblance of dignity. I had an extra challenge in that I was wearing crocs so I couldn't just lift up my leg without risking breaking the rubber strap on the back and potentially leaving myself up a long canyon without footwear.

Eventually I emerged intact if slightly covered with something the consistency of melted chocolate ice cream. And then an hour later wandered into a second pool which is where the pictures above came from.

After that we got a bit wiser and learned to test the sand with our hiking poles first and avoid any eddies in the river. And of course to back off quickly if we started to sink at all. In the event you do end up in one I'd recommend poking air-holes around your feet with the hiking poles to give yourself an easier time getting out.

On the plus side it was easy to clean off considering we were stomping through a muddy stream.

At this point we were still working off our initial 5 or 6 liters of water that we'd carried in from the trailhead but we were going to need to fill up in order to cook dinner and get through the night comfortably.  Fortunately there are several springs along the side of the canyon which can generally be relied on.

We had a water filter with us on the advice of the BLM office and so we used it though I felt a bit silly seeing the clear water trickling out of the rocks. Personally I'd probably just not filter next time though some of the locals will tell you it's a good idea on account of the amount of livestock that's wandering around up top.

We also noticed small fish living in the pool and wondered if they could even survive in the Paria itself. (Based off what we saw later apparently they can.)

After one last push we pounded out a few more miles and found a rather nice campsite around 6:30 pm.  It consisted of a large area with trees and grass and several established campsites.  Unfortunately around the edges of the canyon you could also see that not everyone had been using wag bags like they were supposed to.

We set up, kicked back, and enjoyed a dinner of red wine, fancy cheese, and pasta.

Day 3: Paria to just past Last Reliable Spring

After an exceedingly pleasant evening of not walking followed by a gloriously slow morning accompanied by several cups of coffee we reluctantly got moving.

Actually multiple things started moving. Up until this point I'd managed to hold off using a wag bag which anyone who backpacks with me knows is highly unusual as I'm generally the one waking the camp up at the crack of dawn because my intestinal tract has decided it's time to do business. I credit lack of eating, lack of drinking, and determination for getting me this far but now it was time.

The wag bags the BLM provided are perfectly functional even if they lacked the inspiration of the Shasta models which include a scoring system to help bring a sense of competition to your morning business.  Here you just unpack the bag, laugh at what someone thinks is an appropriate amount of incredibly thin tp, do your business in the open bag, then seal it all back up.

This left me feeling significantly more comfortable and lighter.  At least until I shouldered my pack with it's new slightly smelly burden.

The canyon had been getting wider ever since The Confluence and by now the walls had drawn back quite a bit.  Forward progress also felt a little limited here as the river snakes back and forth agressivly.

We passed the biggest group we encountered the entire trip near Wrather Arch.  They were doing the trip a bit slower than us and it was interesting to see the the differences in approaches. Most of them were actually wearing lighter hiking boots and neoprene socks which at this point seemed a far better idea than our crocs.

There also started to be longer and longer sections where we left the water and were on dry sandy trails on either side of the river. These always led to another crossing but they made for much more pleasant travel as the river itself was becoming less friendly with more deep spots and rocks.

I'd been worried the canyon wouldn't be as pretty further south but as it turned out the views open up giving you grand views and the terrain becomes spectacularly rugged.

We planned for today to be the last time we filtered water since the guides say past the appropriately named Last Reliable Spring you're basically stuck getting water out of the Paria.

There was only a small amount of water flowing down by the Paria so we hiked a fair distance into the canyon looking for the source of the spring. The scrambling was rough (especially wearing crocs) and we eventually decided it wasn't worth it to go any further and settled for pumping out of this pool.

There were some really nice sites near the spring but Jen was insistent we try and get as far along as we could considering we had a fairly long drive home after we got out the following day.  So on we went.

Until we reached this point I I plopped down and declared this cozy little patch of sand was home for the night. My feet were holding up surprisingly well considering I'd done the better part of 40 miles wearing soggy crocs but I was quite happy to sit and enjoy the last of our precious wine.

The clouds looked a bit unsettled but nothing that screamed bad weather. At least until a few hours later when all hell broke loose.  A blast of wind shot down the canyon causing me to leap into the tent and do my best to keep the tent poles from snapping from the force of the wind while Jen scrambled around outside trying to secure our gear.

We literally went from a calm evening relaxing by the tent to getting pelted by wind and rain out of nowhere. And to think I joke about being cursed by bad weather...

Day 3: Out To Lee's Ferry & Home

The next morning things had calmed down a bit but it sure looked like we were going to be dealing with weather. Sure enough the first hour or two out of camp we were sprinkled on off and on.

The trail was now a lot more defined and would stay on either side of the river for a decent while to the point where we would debate switching back into hiking boots only to run into another crossing.

My big mistake was following a set of footprints up the side of the canyon here in the hopes it could get us away from the river where we could pound out some distance.  However after about 1/4 of a mile and one exceedingly unhappy hiking partner I gave up and we dropped back down to the river.

Fortunately I found some petroglyphs and she started talking to me again in non-clipped tones.

The last few miles involved a lot more tromping through the river again and I was surprised to see some rather large fish including this one that had managed to beach itself in the shallows. I helped it into deeper water while Jen watched on with puppydog eyes.

We didn't find much at the Wilson Ranch site marked on the map. Just a few foundations, a cattle pen, and some scattered debris.

The sky was just disgustingly pretty which made up for the slightly more drab  terrain compared with the past few days.

And with that we strolled past the Lonely Dell Ranch, past a construction detour, and were back at our car.

And that was that.  Well, except for the wag bag disposal

And of course the well earned beer.

If like us you emerge slightly smelly and craving a hot shower after slogging through days of muddy water they can be found right next to the Marble Canyon Lodge at the junction of the 89A and Lee's Ferry Rd. Unfortunately the Lodge itself and accompanying restaurant wasn't open for lunch hours so we ended up at the Cliff Dwellers Restaurant which is maybe 30 minutes down the road.

The drive was long but we had an early enough start we made it home at a decent hour.  We had lunch around 2 pm, made Vegas around 7:30 pm, Baker where we ate at the Mad Greek around 8:30 pm, and home sometime around 11 pm.

Wrap Up and what to do better next time

So would I do it again?  Absolutely!

This compared favorably to any of the other destination backpacks I've done.  The amount of time you get to spend inside a slot canyon makes up for the fact it's not the narrowest or most extreme and as I mentioned above the feel of the canyon is something that's impossible to capture in pictures.

So that begs the question what I intend to do differently next time.  While at some point I'd like to hike White House to The Confluence I think I'd prefer to repeat the Buckskin / Wire to Lee's route we did this time. From everything I've seen the Buckskin section is the most impressive and the difficulties along the way make the trip all the more memorable. Depending on the timing I might elect for Wire Pass vs the Buckskin Gulch TH but personally I did enjoy starting at a quieter trailhead and doing the "entire" thing vs cutting off a few miles.

Gear wise I'd do things a bit differently.  First off Jen had neoprene pants and next time I'll grab a pair of those. Pool depth varies depending on when you go (I was contacted on Instagram by someone who went a few weeks after me and reported multiple mid chest height pools) so I'd just wear those and plan on plowing through.

If we were early in the season like this I'd likely throw in my 8mm 30m rope for the rockfall just to be safe.

Similarly I'd either bring a waterproof pack or just plan for whatever pack I bring to be soaked on the outside since trying to ease our way through the pools just ate valuable time.

Footwear I'd change completely. I was fortunate this time that I picked up neoprene socks but the crocs were not the best choice considering the amount of time we needed them. Based on what I saw others using I'd keep the neoprene socks and bring some light weight non gortex hikers so the water would drain straight out of them. I actually have an old pair of Merrell Moab Vents that would probably be perfect.

Beyond that I liked how we handled the water. If you have 5 liters per person of capacity that frees you up significantly when it comes to selecting campsites and based on the others we ran into saves you a significant amount of hassle vs trying to get water out of the Paria.

Next up: Advanced Mountaineering Program! Desert provisional dayhikes! And a bit of diving here and there...

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