BUCKSKIN GULCH & PARIA CANYON

An epic Thru-Hike from Wire Pass to Lee’s Ferry. 47 miles. 3 days.

After backpacking Zion Narrows, we were amazed by how difficult it was to capture the magnificent grandeur of slot canyons in photographs. You could say this about a lot of places, but we were blown away by the slot canyon experience. Buckskin Gulch & Paria Canyon was no exception.

Buckskin Gulch is one of longest slot canyons in the world, roughly 16 miles long with narrow sections barely as wide as your arm span. Looking up the canyon, there are logs and debris stuck high in the walls, reminders of how dangerous the canyon can be during a flash flood. This one of a kind adventure took us through knee, waist and chest deep frigid murky pools. Challenges included boulder hopping, scrambling and close encounters with small rattlesnakes.

Buckskin Gulch feeds into the even taller, but wider, Paria Canyon.  Buckskin and Paria are both magnificent. From murky pools to the silty Paria River to shallow quicksand, we were wet almost our entire journey.

This 47 mile thru-hike was difficult because of the length, the weather (cold then hot) and the elements (wind & wet). Starting in Buckskin Gulch were cold, feet numbing muddy pools.  Then Paria Canyon included exposure to the blazing 90°F sun and gusty wind conditions, sometimes with sand.

* Note the discrepancy in total miles from Wire Pass Trailhead through Buckskin Gulch to Paria Confluence. National Geographic Topo Map lists 16.2 miles while the BLM map shows 13.2. Sometimes we prefer to measure by hours hiked,  the day 1 hike took us 9 hours to get to the first campsite.

OVERALL TRIP INFO

Distance 47.1 Miles Thru Hike (Wire Pass to Lee’s Ferry)
Days 3 Option 3-5 Days
Hours 25.5 Thru Hike, include breaks
Elevation 500-1500 ft Mostly Loss, Can vary on Day 3
Scenery 4.5/5  Excellent
Crowds 4.5/5  Almost Solitude
Adventure 4.5/5  Excellent
Difficulty 4/5  Difficult
Permit $5 Book 4 months in advance
Shuttle $200 Grand Staircase Discovery Tours
Start Wire Pass TH Same trailhead as The Wave Trail
End Lone Dell Ranch 10 mins to Long Term Parking Lot
Trip Date May 2018

DAY 0 – CAR CAMPING AT LEE’S FERRY CAMPGROUND

Lee’s Ferry is a historic site and modern day boat launch surrounded by wonderful scenery of the Colorado river, Marble Canyon and Glen Canyon cliffs.

Logistics Tip

Book a shuttle from Lee’s Ferry to Wire Pass trailhead as soon as you’ve received confirmation of your permit.  We used and highly recommend Grand Staircase Discovery Tours. Be certain to clarify your pick up time zone (Utah vs. Arizona).

Get the earliest possible start to give yourself time to shuttle to and hike Buckskin Gulch. Pick your permit up the day before and camp at Lee’s Ferry Campground, then be early for your pre-arranged shuttle to Wire Pass trailhead.

Lee’s Ferry Campground costs $20 per night (self paid). Bathroom and water were available at the campground. Tenants were mostly RVs and for the amount of RVs parked at the campground, it was relatively peaceful and quiet with a nice view of the Colorado River. After we settled in, we decided to explore the area and familiarize ourselves with the long term parking, which is where we met our shuttle service the next morning.

Basic campsite but the view made for a nice staging area.

DAY 1 – BUCKSKIN GULCH (WIRE PASS TO CONFLUENCE)

Hiking through Buckskin Gulch was an awe-inspiring experience. We were completely consumed by the scenery and the solitude. The echo in the canyon magnifies the rare sounds of birds chirping and wings slapping, along with our own voices and footsteps. With backpacking gear (including the weight of 5 liters of water each) and obstacles, this was a long and challenging 16 mile adventure never to be forgotten.

The shuttle arrived early and our ride was pleasant and informative thanks to our driver Rob, who was very knowledgeable with the history of the land. We started our hike around 8am and saw only 2 groups on people, neither heading down through Buckskin.

The wide and established Wire Pass Trail quickly gives way to cold muddy pools as you enter Buckskin Gulch. Mostly knee deep, one was chest deep, while another smelt just like its name (cesspool). It had rained in the area a week prior to our trip, so there may have been more water than usual. Near the Middle Route exit, we found some much desired sunlight reaching into the canyon to warm our numb feet.

At its narrowest the canyon walls were just as big as our arm span and they continued to get taller as we hiked toward the Confluence. Log and boulder debris perched high and precariously in the walls point to the danger of Buckskin Gulch in a flash flood.

A notable obstacle closer to the Confluence is the boulder jam next to a vertical rock wall with Moki steps. We were lucky and the rabbit hole in the boulder jam was open.  So we climbed down through the boulders of the rabbit hole instead of using a rope and repelling down the Moki steps.

QUICK INFO

Distance 16.2 Miles One Way
Hours 9 Include breaks
Elevation Gradual Loss
Scenery 5/5 Excellent
Crowds 4.5/5 Almost Solitude
Adventure 4.5/5 Excellent
Difficulty 4/5 Difficult
Start Wire Pass TH Same trailhead as The Wave Trail
End The Confluence

A half mile into the hike, there is a trail that forks right with a sign for The Wave at North Coyote Buttes. A mile in, you reach the first boulder jam. Note this is the easy boulder jam.

Towards the end of Wire Pass Trail, the walls got extremely narrow where both your shoulder are right up against the walls. After this section, the walls open up where Wire Pass Trail meets Buckskin Gulch Trail. Petroglyphs can be seen on the south end wall.

As you head south of Buckskin Gulch, muddy frigid pools are common obstacles.

Logs and debris jams are common.

After wading through cold pools and navigating around and over large boulders, lunch break came early for us.

Rattlesnake Alert

This little guy, in the middle of the trail, was ready to strike.

The murky and stinky pool called “The Cesspool”. It was at least waist deep as you walk through the wood debris, and possible other things.

After passing the Cesspool, the canyon starts to open up. We noticed the left wall became shorter and a ledge can be seen, although it looks like a steep scramble up. We were close to the Middle Route.

At the boulder jam, we saw the “Moki Steps” on the near vertical rock wall. We had rope but much preferred to use the “Rabbit Hole,” an opening within the boulder jam. The Rabbit Hole can easily be blocked with debris so be prepared to descend using the Moki Steps.

Safety Tip

Don’t underestimate the Moki Steps. This picture doesn’t do justice to the steepness or height of the drop.

The water gets clearer and faster flowing as you approach the campsites and Paria River confluence.

Widening canyon walls gave way to an elevated river bank, the first campsite. We climbed up the bank and found a flat campsite with great views. After a hard day of hiking we were thinking “Yes! We’re going to stop right here.”

Great views from inside our tent!

DAY 2 – PARIA CANYON (CONFLUENCE TO SHOWER SPRINGS)

The Confluence of Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon is where one steps into Arizona from Utah. The canyons are both stunning in their own right, but offer different experiences. Where Buckskin Gulch offers the narrow slots and obstacles, Paria Canyon offers wider and much taller majestic streaked walls. We crossed the Paria River multiple times, mostly ankle to shin deep. The river is gray and silty with small pockets of shallow quicksand. The canyon weaves around bend after bend with eye catching wall arches and hanging gardens like Big Springs.

As we navigate southeast (downstream), the bends become less common and the canyon widens. We originally planned to end our hike at the campsites near Wrather Canyon, but the site was exposed to the hot sun and gusty winds. Not wanting to hang out in the heat we decided to go further and reach Shower Springs. This decision turned our planned 4 day hike into a 3 day epic. We were pretty beat by the time we reached Shower Springs.

Yet again, throughout the entire day, we had almost complete solitude. The only people we saw were at the confluence campsite area, another group at Wrather Canyon area and a few groups at Shower Springs. The permit process, along with everyone hiking in the same direction on their own schedule, worked to our advantage.

QUICK INFO

Distance 15 Miles One Way
Hours 8.5 Hours Include breaks
Elevation Gradual Loss
Scenery 5/5 Outstanding
Crowds 4.5/5 Almost Solitude
Adventure 4/5 Excellent
Difficulty 4/5 Difficult (Due to Length)
Start The Confluence
End Shower Springs

A relaxing morning soaking in the views.

Crossing from Utah to Arizona at the Confluence, where Buckskin Gulch meets Paria River.

Big Springs is easy to spot, you can hear the flowing water as you approach the hanging garden.

Logistics Tip

In hind sight it would have been nice to camp near Big Springs and make day 2 a shorter hiking day. A second night spent deep in the canyon would have been enjoyable. Check out our prefered alternate itinerary at the bottom of this post.

Shower Springs provided the shade we desired.  We love our Chair Zeros, especially after hiking over 30 miles in two days.

DAY 3 – PARIA CANYON (SHOWER SPRINGS TO LEE’S FERRY)

From Shower Springs, the canyon opens up further and the hike is mostly exposed, especially after the Last Reliable Spring. The scenery to the Last Reliable Spring is incredible with big boulders and sandstone river banks. From Bush Canyon Head (there was a nice campsite area), we took the high water route. The sandy trail weaves through brushes and prickly pear cacti. The high water route offers a different perspective and a higher vantage point. There is a section where the trail weaves narrowly along the edge of a cliff.

We were glad for our desert hiking experience as we hiked through the sun and heat. We filled up 4 liters each at the Last Reliable Spring, and drank almost every last drop. A marker for the Vermillion Cliffs and Glen Canyon boundary was a good indicator that we were on the home stretch. Toward the end of the hike we passed Lonely Dell Ranch, a historic homestead by Mormon pioneer John D. Lee at Lee’s Ferry that includes a well maintained apple orchard.

QUICK INFO

Distance 15.9 Miles One Way
Hours 8 Hours Include breaks
Elevation Gain/Loss 750ft gain High Water Route
Scenery 4/5 Excellent
Crowds 4.5/5 Almost Solitude
Adventure 3.5/5 Great
Difficulty 4/5 Difficult (Due to Length)
Start Shower Springs
End Lone Dell Ranch 10 mins to LT Parking

Our campsite at Shower Springs. It was a beautiful morning and we were in no rush to pack up camp as we prepared ourselves and enjoyed a relaxing morning.

Shower Springs is hidden behind this vegetation, near the tall tree.

Our minds wandering in the beauty, we actually missed the Last Reliable Spring but this tricking water is on the opposite side of the same bend. Be sure to have a water plan.

The high water route took us to higher elevation with great views of the Paria River.

GEAR & FOOD

  • Backpack – Osprey Exos 48L Medium – 40 oz
  • Bag Liner – Contractor Trash Bag – 2.5 oz
  • Water Bladder – 3L Camelbak Military Spec Antidote – 115.6 oz
  • Water Bag – 2L Evernew – 71.9 oz
  • Tent with Footprint – Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2 – 57 oz
  • Summit Chairs (2) – Helinox Chair Zero – 34.89 oz
  • Food (Sealed) – 63.1 oz
  • Food Dry Bag – 13L Sea to Summit eVac – 2.55 oz
    • Food (Non-Sealed) – 105.8 oz
  • Tripod – Zippod 45 – 11.74 oz
  • Dry Bag – 8L Sea to Summit eVac – 2.07 oz
    • May’s Darn Tough Hiking Socks Crew (1) – 2.11 oz
    • May’s Wigwam Sock Liners (1) – 1.35 oz
    • May’s ExOfficio Panties (3) – 3.03 oz
    • May’s Long Sleeve Smartwool 250 (1) – 6.62 oz
    • May’s Long Underwear Smartwool 250 (1) – 6.67 oz
    • May’s Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer Jacket (1) – 7.1 oz
  • Dry Bag – 8L Sea to Summit eVac – 2.07 oz
    • Brian’s Darn Tough Hiking Socks Crew (1) – 2.67 oz
    • Brian’s ExOfficio Briefs (3) – 5.31 oz
    • Brian’s Long Sleeve Smartwool 150 (1) – 6.38 oz
    • Brian’s Long Underwear Smartwool 150 (1) – 5.74 oz
    • Brian’s Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer Jacket (1) – 6.98 oz
  • Swiss Army Knife – 0.85 oz
  • Compass – Suunto Clipper Compass – 0.18 oz
  • Trail Map – Paria NatGeo Topo Map – 3.33 oz
  • Water Filters – Sawyer Mini with Camelbak in-line attachment – 4.63 oz
  • iPhones (for Videos, Pictures and Mapping) – 9.65 oz
  • Car Keys, IDs (2), CC (1), Cash (2 bills), Rubberband – 1.01 oz
  • Garbage Bags (2) – Gallon Ziploc – 0.85 oz
  • Sunscreen – Repackaged into 1/2 oz bottle – 0.74 oz
  • Lip Balm – Burts Bee – 0.33 oz
  • May’s Locals Slippers – 4.46 oz
  • Brian’s Locals Slippers – 7.04 oz

ITINERARIES & TIPS

ITINERARIES

We’d love to do this backpacking trip again. The scenery, landscape and experience exceeded our expectations. When we do go back we’d prefer one of these two itineraries:

Same general through hike but camping at Big Springs and hiking over 4 days instead of 3:

  • Day 0 (no change) – Car Camping at Lee’s Ferry Campground
  • Day 1 (no change)- Buckskin Gulch (Wire Pass to Confluence). Using shuttle service from Lee’s Ferry to Wire Pass.
  • Day 2 – Paria Canyon (Confluence to Big Springs). Make day 2 more relaxing and give yourself time to enjoy the best parts of Paria Canyon.
  • Day 3 – Paria Canyon (Big Springs to Bush Canyon Head).  Bush Canyon Head campsite is just a mile or so past the Last Reliable Spring.
  • Day 4 – Paria Canyon (Bush Canyon Head to Lee’s Ferry).

Another option we would also consider is 5 days:

  • Day 0 – Car Camping at White House Campground
  • Day 1 – Buckskin Gulch (Wire Pass to Confluence). Using shuttle service from White House to Wire Pass.
  • Day 2 – Paria Canyon (Confluence to Judd Hollow area). Really relax and take our sweet time hiking to Big Springs and camping somewhere between Big Springs and Judd Hollow.
  • Day 3 – Paria Canyon (Day hike from Judd Hollow area to Wrather Arch and back). We didn’t make it to the arch which is something we would have liked to check out.
  • Day 4 – Paria Canyon (Judd Hollow area back to Confluence). The grandest scenery is near the Confluence so would like to spend another night there.
  • Day 5 – Paria Canyon (Confluence to White House)

TIPS

  • Be prepared for the Moki Steps in Buckskin Gulch.  You can’t be certain the Rabbit Hole will be open.
    • Bring your own rope.
  • The National Geographic Topographic Map was very helpful.
  • Have a water plan.
    • We carried 5 liters each and filled up at:
      • Water from home – for day 1.
      • Big Springs – couple hours into day 2.
      • Shower Springs – end of day 2, beginning of day 3.
      • Last Reliable Spring – couple hours into day 3.
    • All water sources need to be filtered or treated.  Filtering the Paria River water is likely a bad option, it’s very silty.
  • It was windy with occasional blowing sand on day 2 and 3. Neck gaiters would have been nice.
  • Disposable toilet packets are provided when you pick up your permit, but we only received one each.
    • Be prepared to carry out your own waste.

Do your part to help preserve nature.

Please Leave No Trace