Backpacking Buckskin Gulch


The moment was peculiar, I noticed, when Matt Walker tossed an inflatable pool toy into our shopping cart. Polygamous women and girls wandered the aisles in grubby prairie dresses, wearing hair so big they could paint the ceiling by just walking beneath it. Also in the cart, an assortment of the usual last-minute trip essentials. Energy bars? Check. Instant oatmeal? Check. Bratwurst and beer? Check and check. I almost laughed, not because this was my first time roaming a grocery store with religious zealots as seen on TV, but because I’d once again fallen into the trap of buying too much food for a short outdoor trip, and then buying some more. I couldn’t help it. Self-doubt and fear of starving took hold as I pondered over a bag of squeaky cheese.

Perhaps it was an instinct of survival, like stocking up for the winter, or in this case, the unknown. The problem was that Matt and I, along with Dave Hert, Robert Stanley, Aaron Parkin, and Jared Anderton, plus his pit bull, Tyson, knew exactly where we were going (well, maybe not the dog) and what we were getting into. The plan was to backpack through Buckskin Gulch on the Utah/Arizona border from Wire Pass to the White House trailhead over two days and 21 total miles. We would stay one night in the canyon, camped at the confluence of Buckskin and the Paria River.

Buckskin Dark and Light

This was a bucket-list sort of trip for me. To prepare, I read numerous blog posts and trip reports online where every mile was described to the slightest detail. I knew it by heart without having been there. Yet my pre-hike nerves were activated. The uncontrollable and unforeseen, like flash floods, kept feeding the butterflies in my belly. I grabbed the cheese and put it in the cart atop the pool tube, the latter to be used for floating packs in case of deep water.

After setting my mind and stomach at ease at the grocer in Kanab, we drove east on Highway 89. The red rock landscape contrasted with distant thunderheads, summoned up between patches of clear sky like white bed sheets billowing from a clothesline on a windy day. The scene looked threatening, yet we were not entering the slot canyon until tomorrow.

Buckskin Immense Cliffs

But to consider Buckskin Gulch a mere slot would not do it justice. With a narrows section that extends 15 miles long, Buckskin is considered by many to be the longest slot canyon in the world. Flash floods are obviously a terrifying prospect here, as there is no escape if rain as far away as Bryce Canyon coalesces into a torrent of muddy water funneled into this rock-walled slit only 10 feet wide at its narrowest point. To top it off, there’s only one escape route, halfway through the hike at Middle Trail. In 2008, Backpacker Magazine named Buckskin Gulch “one of America’s most dangerous hikes,” not because there’s anything overly technical like free-hanging rappels or class 5 scrambles. They only cite the extended exposure to flash flood danger. To enter Buckskin Gulch, one must be positive that there is 0% chance of rain over the course of their itinerary. We were rolling the dice at 20%.


Howard Stern Interviews the “Vomit Guy”

We slept amongst diminutive hoodoos at White House campground. Daybreak came and all six of us (plus the dog) piled into Robert’s pickup truck. We left the rest of our vehicles behind for a post-trip shuttle. A stop at the BLM ranger station to check the weather forecast revealed positive news. Still 20% chance of rain, but clearing. The rangers informed us that we should be good to go. As we coasted west on the highway, then bumped south on a dirt road toward Wire Pass, I watched sage and juniper blur by. Squeezed in the back seat, jostled by the rough road, I felt queasy. Convenient, I thought, because on the satellite radio Howard Stern was interviewing a man on the phone they dubbed “the Vomit Guy,” a self-described emetophiliac soliciting female listeners to puke on him. The conversation was disgusting and totally inappropriate listening material for getting into the right mindset for a grand desert adventure. Yet somehow our strained smiles and uneasy laughter was a welcome distraction to the effects of being intermingled with other unwashed man-bodies crushed into close quarters.

Buckskin Log Jam

At Wire Pass, we slung heavy packs and hiked a sandy wash. I lagged behind taking photos and video for posterity, or at least to provide footage for newscasts documenting the last time we were seen alive. I hummed a favorite tune in time to my steps, mostly to get the vomit guy out of my brain.

The wash narrowed. We entered Wire Pass slot. It was a primer for the main event waiting in Buckskin. At a drop-off, we carefully descended, first lowering packs to one-another, then Tyson’s muscled, canine body. Below, Jared stood with outstretched arms as I slowly lowered the dog down. But he panicked, twisted and jumped, then landed square on his owner’s chest, knocking him flat to the rocky ground. A short scare, and both were battered yet okay. Our thoughts turned to the rock fall before Paria Canyon and how we can possibly get the dog down that much higher drop.

A Crack in the Earth

Beyond Wire Pass slot, the canyon opened at the intersection with Buckskin Gulch proper. Here, a myriad of ancient petroglyphs dotted the walls below overhanging sandstone. I mostly saw the forms of bighorn sheep interspersed with stick-figure bowmen. A record of fruitful hunts? A superstitious rendering pleading native gods for a hoped future? Nobody really knows. We continued on and passed an older man sitting in the sand, fiddling with a drone that refused to fly. He looked crestfallen.

Buckskin Log

Down-canyon loomed the entrance to the Buckskin narrows. Sheer cliffs on either side of the gulch tapered down to the far end until they almost met, like an artist’s vanishing point perspective. At the terminus, a crack in the earth gaped open like a lightless doorway to the underworld. We entered.

Immediately, we were thrust into a skeletal realm. Within the narrows, the earth was exposed and bare. Sinuous walls carved by flash floods were like vertical topographic maps detailing eons of erosion. As I walked the sandy bottom, my neck hurt from looking up so much. It was impossible to tear my eyes away from the water-carved slot, illuminated only by a sliver of blue sky and sun beams that cast mottled shadows over the rock’s variations.

The rest of the gang was just as enamored and our going was slow. Each time we stopped for photos or to marvel at a geologic wonder, Tyson would wait at the next bend, impatiently barking at us to catch up. A wagging tail gave away his true feelings as he appeared even happier than us humans.

Buckskin Petroglyphs

I passed under a giant bird’s nest of tangled branches, rocks and tree trunks. It was wedged at least 30 feet above, where a past flood deposited hundreds of pounds of wood and stone as casually as a child tossing Lincoln Logs. The power and force to cause such an impossible-looking display was terrifying to look upon. Thoughts of what would become of fragile, human bodies in such destruction sent shivers through my core. I hurried on. Ty was waiting up ahead again.

Dave found an owl sitting on a ledge. All white with flecks of light gray, the bird was a monochrome contrast against the red rock. Downy chest feathers ruffled in a still breeze. Saucer eyes stared straight ahead, blinking occasionally. I cursed myself for not packing a telephoto lens.

I Love Chocolate Milk

Seven miles from Wire Pass, we reached the pools. Depending on recent rainfall and floods, these water pockets can either be totally dry, or neck deep. Lucky for us, the muddy water with a consistency of chocolate milk only came up to our hips, or, as a hiker ahead of us wrote in the mud before a particularly deep pool, “balls deep.” He even underlined it for emphasis. I supposed that’s because the water was frigid, making the experience of slowly immersing one’s most sensitive parts a bit breathtaking. We counted dozens of pools, including the infamous Cesspool – the deepest and most rancid of them all.

Buckskin Robert

With legs submerged in icy water, and no sun penetrating this narrow, deep part of the canyon, I was wracked with uncontrollable shivers. A cold wind blew up-canyon, as if to torture me. We stopped taking photos and kept moving to keep warm and tick off mileage. Thankfully, not long after the final pool was crossed, the canyon walls became lower, and burst into gloriously warm sunlight at a place called Middle Trail.

Middle Trail is the only emergency exit in the canyon, accessed by a tilted, slickrock gash on the north wall that can be scrambled. A few petroglyphs chiseled into desert varnish representing bighorn sheep and anthropomorphic men provided a landmark. It was here where we caught up to a family of six. Parents, along with children from twenty-somethings down to as young as 11-years-old, were hiking all 21 miles from Wire Pass to White House in a single day. They lounged on rocks, sunning themselves after wading through the pools. I admired them and their lackadaisical attitude toward the canyon, even with kids in tow. Suddenly, I felt silly for my pre-trip jitters. If a tween can conquer this slot canyon, then it should be a breeze for me. I blamed my heavy pack for making me far more tired than these kids appeared, as they rock-hopped and searched every nook and crack for petroglyphs.

Buckskin Pool 1

Down the Rabbit Hole

A few clicks past Middle Trail, Buckskin Gulch closed in and the cliff-tunnel deepened once again. In fact, this portion of the narrows was the most dim, claustrophobic set of miles in the drainage. It was late in the day, and the sky was a fading slice of slate grey between darkening walls of twisted, flood-carved stone. The slot never relented. Each corner rounded exposed another identical straightaway of sandstone walls hunched over like a boulevard lined with haunted trees. The never-ending passage was punctuated by more knee-deep pools, which I cursed after having just dried my socks out at Middle Trail. There were no landmarks here, therefore no way to get a sense of distance traveled. We marched, and Tyson barked if we slowed too much, or stopped for too long. The dog was just as anxious to get to camp as we were. Nightfall was approaching.

Finally, we reached the rockfall, the only landmark that let us know we were near the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River. This jumbled mass of bus-sized boulders wedged between sheer cliffs was easily down-climbed thanks to ropes left behind by previous parties. In fact, there were two sets of fixed ropes, one going right down the middle to a slickrock ramp, and another near a set of deeply chiseled moki steps. But how to get the dog down was not so easy to figure out. Despite the set ropes, I dug out my own length of cordelette to lower packs and to hopefully lower a mass of muscled pit bull. However, there was a third option: the rabbit hole.

Underneath the boulders was a small tunnel that is often exposed, but is also just as often buried, depending on recent flash floods. As luck would have it, the hole was open today and provided a much shorter drop for the dog. Still, Jared rigged up a harness (read: a dog pack) and I tied my rope to it using a figure-eight knot. Jared went down first and caught Tyson as I slowly lowered the furry guy with a hip belay.

The Confluence

With all men and beasts safely down the rockfall, we made quick work of the rest of Buckskin Gulch to where it intersects the Paria River. The sun had long cast its final light on the canyon walls which glowed an amber tinge, only to be chased away by encroaching shadows that swallowed the light from the bottom up like a rising tide.

The Confluence

Before the confluence, there was a series of high, flat-topped sandbars to set up camp, safe from floods. After tents were pitched and muddy clothes hung out to dry, we set to work filtering river water by headlamp. The stream was so shallow, and the bottom so silty, we dug pits and stacked rocks and mud to create tiny dams. The hope was that our mini-reservoirs would allow the silt to settle so as not to clog our pump filters. It mostly worked.

The night was filled with whiskey. Without a campfire to illuminate, I would accidentally blind someone with my headlamp each time I looked up. Before the trip, rangers warned of big rattlesnakes here at camp. Peeing in the dark coincided with extreme sensory vigilance. We laughed too hard at stupid jokes after the whiskey kicked in. Robert played Adam Sandler songs on his phone, so loud I was afraid our neighbors in the camp next door would murder us. So I gave in and fell asleep to a lullaby called, “At a Medium Pace.”

In the morning, we did the usual routine: packed, ate breakfast, peed on bushes, and trekked up the Paria River to our waiting cars at White House trailhead. The seven-mile day of exit hiking was great in its own right, with more deep canyons to explore, a shallow river to walk in, and semi-cold beer waiting in coolers at the end. But, as with all outdoor explorations, a key moment tends to imprint in the mind that overshadows the rest. I hardly remember the hike out, because just before starting that hike, I was enthralled by The Confluence.

Never having been there before, my mind’s eye imagined a canyon with two waterways converging. But the scene was nothing special – typical Utah desert, really. My imagination could not have been more unremarkable, because the confluence of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch was one of the most stunning places I’ve ever stood in my life. It’s also the most neck-aching place, because I could not keep myself from looking up.

Buckskin Start

Sheer walls of red and gold the height of downtown skyscrapers climbed above us. Looking above, a cross of sky illustrated the intersection of one slot canyon joining another. Our voices echoed within three chambers as we took too many photos, and each one disappointed. There is no camera lens wide enough to capture the immensity of that place. Not even the human eye, with its peripheral vision, can process it all at once. Before exiting beneath a hulking stone tunnel up the Paria, I tilted my head back once more and spun around in circles. Maybe it was a futile attempt at taking a mental photo that my camera could not, but still I tried, same as I tried in many other such places, many times before. Experiencing a solar eclipse from the path of totality, watching spring avalanches explode off summit cliffs on Deseret Peak, and being mere yards away from breaching humpback whales on Alaska’s Inside Passage – those are just a few stellar moments in time that gave me a singular feeling that can’t be put into words. Yet even those memories fade. With Buckskin Gulch, I simply had to try and remember it all.

Paria Arch

If You Go

Backpacking Buckskin Gulch requires some planning.

Overnight permits are required and must be reserved through the BLM months in advance. Day hikes in the Paria Canyon system require a $5 permit that you can pay at the trailheads.

All human waste must be packed out. The BLM will issue you “wag bags” when you pick up your permit at the office near the White House trailhead.

Bring rope. A 40-foot rope is needed to descend the rock jam. Sometimes ropes are left behind but you can’t guarantee there will be a fixed rope the day of your hike.

Flash floods are a huge concern and are not survivable in Buckskin Gulch. Always check the weather forecast before entering the canyon. If rain is probable, change your plans.

Be mindful of rattlesnakes. They live in the canyon, so look before placing your hand on any rocks.

Apply for overnight permits through the BLM’s website at

Leave a Reply