Let’s be honest, slot canyons can be intimidating. In fact, they can be downright scary. The prospect of rappelling into a claustrophobic slot with no sure way out, that’s enough to make anyone nervous. Or how about swimming through a cold, muddy pool of water when you can’t see below the surface? Perhaps the most concerning is the possibility a distant cloudburst could send a flash flood churning down the canyon and there’d be no way to escape. With these thoughts circling around my head in a storm of anxiety, I was feeling a little uneasy on the eve of my first slot canyon adventure, Buckskin Gulch.
After much deliberation, my wife and I had settled on Buckskin Gulch for a summer backpacking trip. We wanted to see the subterranean beauty of a slot canyon, but were hesitant about jumping head first into a technical canyoneering adventure. Buckskin Gulch offered what we hoped would be the perfect introduction to the world of Utah’s canyons: a long, narrow, esthetic slot with limited technical difficulties.
At 13 miles in length, Buckskin Gulch enjoys the distinction of being the longest continuous narrows in the American Southwest. It is also one of the deepest, with walls climbing hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. Despite its length, Buckskin Gulch requires none of the technical hurdles fueling my anxiety. No rappelling would be necessary. Wading through shallow pools of water was possible, but swimming wouldn’t be required. And although a one way trip was preferred to avoid backtracking, retracing our steps was always an option in case we were forced to retreat. Calming my fears even further was the knowledge that mid-way down the canyon there was a spot to clamor out of the slot if necessary. With my worries under control, my excitement about the trip was starting to build. “The Dive of the Buckskin” is touted by many to be the premier slot canyon in Utah. Not to mention, one of the best all-around backpacking trips in the world.
After securing a permit and enlisting our friends for moral support, my wife and I found ourselves camped at the White House Trailhead the night before our trip. Located in the Vermillion Cliffs National Recreation Area in southwestern Utah, the White House Campground accommodates hikers preparing to explore Buckskin Gulch and the equally popular Wave rock formation in the adjacent Coyote Buttes. Having been featured in a non-verbal nature film by German filmmaker Gogol Lobmayr, the Wave is an international destination for European travelers. It’s also a favorite spot for landscape photographers to try their hand at capturing the twisted red rock strata. So despite that fact that our campground was in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves sharing the isolated landscape with a lively, diverse group of campers. Laughter mixed with German, French and thickly accented English filtered through the evening air as the sun went down, barbeques were fired up, and cold drinks helped take the edge off the desert heat.
Our plan was to hike down Buckskin Gulch and back up the Paria River Canyon in a two day, 20 mile trek. After triple checking the weather report, we were confident our late June timing was best to avoid flash floods. A week of blue skies and hot temperatures were in the forecast, and now it was the heat, more than the floods that had our attention. Day time highs were expected to climb above the century mark, so we knew hiking in the sun during the middle part of the day would be out of the question. What we didn’t know was what to expect inside the depths of the canyon. Would it be uncomfortably hot for carrying heavy packs? Our packs were small but dense, filled with enough water for the entire hike. Or could it even be too cold after repeated wades through chilly water? Conventional wisdom dictates the best time of year to hike Buckskin Gulch is in late spring or early fall. During mid-summer thunderstorms are common, and the rest of the year the lingering water pockets and chilly temperatures inside the canyon make things too cold to be enjoyable. Statistically, June is the driest month, so we had hedged our bets and scheduled our trip for the end of the month.
After a balmy night spent under a canopy of stars, we woke early to make the most of the cool morning and readied our packs for the hike. A short stroll down a dry wash quickly brought us to Wire Pass, the narrow squeeze through rock corridor marking the beginning of Buckskin Narrows. It was immediately obvious why this hike received so much acclaim. Constricting, salmon colored walls of sandstone rose above a narrow ribbon of sand. Layers of reflected light filtered down into the tunnel, gently illuminated the sandpaper textured walls. Each ridged line in the stone representing eons of geologic time. Looking at the countless multi-colored layers and feeling the cool dry earth as we slid between its unyielding mass, it was hard not to ponder the geologic history and creation of such a beautifully bizarre natural phenomenon. It felt like we were quietly slipping into another world.
Buckskin Gulch is carved out the Colorado Plateau’s Navajo Sandstone formation that is approximately 180 million years old. From a geologic perspective, the gulch itself is relatively young, perhaps only 5 to 10 millions years old. Slot canyons are sliced out of the desert bedrock by the accumulative effects of millions of years of flash flooding. Buckskin Gulch is no exception and typically gets flushed by several floods each year, often times as a result of thunderstorms originating as far away as 30 miles upstream. Walking down the narrow stone hallway, I tried to imagine myself as that water, surging down the canyon, racing around each bend, and carving away a tiny bit of the rock. It was difficult to wrap my shortsighted human mind around the concept: millions upon millions of years of erosion. I picked up a handful of sand and let it filter through my fingers, slowing falling to the canyon floor. I felt tiny and insignificant, not unlike a single grain of sand. At the same time it was refreshing to think of time on a larger scale. My trivial human worries seemed to shrink away while my hunger for exploring the canyon grew stronger.
As the sun climbed higher into the cloudless blue sky its rays penetrated further into the depths of the canyon, adding to the richness of the already spectacular palette reflected on the sandstone. The muted pinks of early morning steadily built into robust oranges and radiant golds. Shafts of light filtered into the deep cavern and highlighted the dust particles hovering in the still air. Cameras were pulled from packs and shutters clicked in an effort to capture the lightshow and subtle beauty of the underground gallery. Further down canyon signs of recent flooding served as constant reminders of what had sculpted our trail. On the sides of the canyon floor, dried water pools were covered in what looked like peeling tree bark, the dried mud surface cracking and curling into hard brown slivers. Fifty feet above our heads huge tree trunks, as thick around as telephone poles, spanned the narrow slot, wedged firmly in place by long since receded waters.
It was difficult to gauge our progress as we tramped down the canyon, necks craned skyward, enjoying the natural sculpture of stone. We were fairly sure we had missed the Anasazi petroglyphs etched into the north-facing wall of Wire Pass. We thought we had passed the “middle trail,” a mid-point escape route and possible camp site. The next major landmark we figured would be impossible to miss, a short down-climb through a boulder-jam. Perhaps the only technical challenge Buckskin would throw at us on this trip.
As the miles slipped by it became clear none of my original fears would be realized on this adventure. I settled into the rhythm of the long walk, enjoying the little surprises each turn in the canyon presented. There were the mysterious rabbit’s feet we kept finding on the canyon floor. Not the soft kind you’d rub on a key-chain for good luck, but ugly, recently discarded dinner scraps with delicate exposed bones extending away with from little fur-covered feet. Could it be the jet-black ravens who kept watch over the long corridor? Or possibly it was the desert owls leaving a day-time reminder of who patrolled the canyon at night. We stopped and ate lunch in the company of a young, diamond back rattlesnake, too small to feel threatening, yet large enough to display its tell-tale rattle and distinctive geometric pattern.
With our energy waning, we approached the boulder-drop where a collection of huge house-sized rocks clogged the canyon and seemingly blocked our passage. A frayed piece of old climbing rope protected a short clamor down steep rocks. We carefully but safely slid through an alternative tunnel between the rocks. The rock scramble marked the end of the tightest narrows, providing an unmistakable landmark, and a bittersweet finish to the slot section of our hike.
With weary legs we arrived at camp, a raised sand bar with room to pitch a pair of tents under the shelter of cottonwood trees. A small trickle of water seeped through the sand near the campsite, offering the first hint of moisture we had seen all day. The shallow stream wasn’t enough to collect for drinking, but where it did pool, it offered a refreshing place to soak our tired, swollen feet. Standing there watching the tadpoles dance around my aching feet, I felt lucky to be able to visit such a unique and inspiring place.
Photo Tips for Slot Canyons
Slot canyons demand you photograph them. They’re so unusually beautiful and starkly different from our normal environment they practically scream out at us, “Shoot me!” With almost everyone carrying a digital camera these days there’s no reason not to. But the same characteristics that make these natural wonders so appealing also make them difficult to photograph. Low light, challenging conditions, and unfamiliar surroundings all combine to frustrate even the most seasoned shutterbugs. Here are a few quick tips to improve your slot canyon images.
Carry a tri-pod. If there’s one single thing you can do to improve your slot canyon photos, it is carry (and use) a tri-pod. Light levels at the bottom of slot canyons are much lower than what we’re accustomed above ground. It’s very difficult to take sharp hand-held photos down on the canyon floor. A tri-pod will make it possible to use long exposures and soak up all that lovely reflected light.
Don’t use your camera’s flash unless you absolutely need to. Cameras in “Auto” mode will default to use a built-in flash to compensate for the low light. Turn off the flash and use long shutter speeds to capture the rich colors of the canyon walls.
Find the middle tones. If there’s sunlight shining directly down into the canyon, your camera won’t be able to handle the extreme range of light from the dark shadows to the bright highlights. Find an exposure based in the middle of the spectrum. This will create more natural looking photos.
Focus on the details. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the overwhelming scale of the natural landscape. Take a moment to look for the small parts of the canyon that make good photographic subjects. Patterns in the sand, layers in the rock, animal tracks in the mud; the little details will help give you a more complete picture of what the canyon was like when you’re finished.
Take lots of photos in the middle of the day. Photographing slot canyons is very different from normal landscape photography. Typically landscape photographers make their best images at the magic hours near dawn and dusk. But in slot canyons, the best light is actually at mid-day when the most sunlight is pouring into the canyon.
Mike Matson is the author of the guidebook Moon Utah Camping. His photos and writing have also appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Backpacker, Canoe and Kayak, and Northwest Travel Magazines. www.mmatsonphoto.com.