Monday, April 16, 2018

Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch--A Great Slot Canyon

Buckskin Gulch is one of the longest and deepest slot canyons in the WORLD...but I had never even heard of it until I started researching hikes near Page, Arizona.

The Gulch is in Utah, just north of the Utah/Arizona border, between Kanab and Page, and there are various routes you can take.  One classic is a two-day backpack trip from White House trailhead down Paria Canyon and up Buckskin Gulch to the Wire Pass trailhead or the Buckskin Gulch trailhead.  Intrepid and experienced and well prepared backpackers can follow the gulch all the way to Lee's Ferry.  I took the easy day hike from Wire Pass trailhead down to Buckskin Gulch and then just explored as much of the gulch as a wanted before returning to the trailhead.

DO NOT ATTEMPT ANY OF THESE HIKES DURING MONSOON SEASON OR IN ANY OTHER PERIOD OF REGIONAL RAIN.  A serious flash flood would mean certain death in many stretches of the gulch.   The BLM's Paria Contact Station will have current trail and weather conditions.

I started at Wire Pass trailhead, a bumpy 8.3 miles south of highway 89 on House Rock Road.  You have to pay a day-permit fee here (currently $6 per person, envelopes provided at the fee station, interagency passes not valid).  There's a pit toilet and some informational signage. 

Cross the road and follow the wash left.  After about a mile, it narrows to a wonderful little slot canyon, where you can almost always touch both sides of the wavy smooth red rock walls. 

At one point rock jams create a 5-8 foot drop.  People had set up a rather sketchy-looking "ladder" out of a big old tree branch and some stacked rocks.  Hikers braver than I went down first and helped me down.  It wasn't a big deal with help.  However, the configurations changes after floods, and if you're alone or scared or have mobility problems, you can backtrack out of the slots.  Once it opens up, look for cairns to your left (headed out of the slots) and follow them up the hill to bypass this drop.  However, the bypass trail is no walk in the park, especially the descent on the other side.

About 1.7 miles from the trailhead, you reach the confluence with Buckskin Gulch.  There's a massive stone cliff and alcove with petroglyphs at the base (though I suspect some of these petroglyphs are rather recent.  Shame, vandals! 

I headed downstream (right) in Buckskin Gulch, but was soon blocked by a pool of water.  The ranger at the Paria Contact Station had warned that some of the pools were currently waist or chest deep (the beginning of April, with good rain a couple of weeks previous).  I hung around, wondering if anyone would try going through.  The four guys who'd helped me at the rock jam arrived and decided to try it.  I put on my river shoes and went with them.  The water was icy but not even to our knees, so we forged ahead.  One pool after another blocked our way. 

The canyon walls soared high, straight above us, yet sometimes I could touch both sides, and it was rarely more than about ten feet wide.  Amazing place. 

The pools started getting deeper, our feet were getting pretty cold, and a group hiking the opposite way told us that it just keeps going this way.  My new friends decided to turn around, but right then a Utah family arrived (mom, dad, young adult daughter, teenage son).  I wasn't quite ready to turn back, so they kindly accepted me as part of their group.  We went on, past an invisible bird squawking at us from on high, through pools that were up to mid thigh, some with mud sticky enough to almost steal our shoes.  The family was looking for a sunny lunch spot, but the canyon walls blocked out the sun.  Finally, our toes so numb we couldn't feel where we were stepping very well, we turned back. 

All told, we crossed about 14 major pools and a few little ones.  I've heard that water can be neck high here sometimes, and you have to swim, but that by summer it's mostly dried out.  This section goes for miles, but we probably only explored about a mile and a half of it.   

If you look hard here, you can see me in one of the iced-chocolate-milk pools. 

Once back at the Wire Pass junction, I headed upstream along Buckskin Gulch.  If the lower narrows are too wet for you, try these.  Though not as narrow or deep or long, they're still awesome, with fewer and shallower pools. 

Going upstream, once you get out of the narrows, keep following the wash.  You'll soon get up close and personal with some magnificent sandstone mountains, buttes, dunes, and fin rock, much of it striped red and white, a bit like a less-showy cousin of the famous Wave (which is just south of here).  It feels like you're on another planet.

The ranger called this area Edmaier's Secret, but it's hard to know exactly where it starts and ends.  I think this is just the edge of it.  If you explore any part, be VERY careful where you step.  You don't want to break any of the delicate sandstone fins and ridges.  Preserve it for all the future hikers.


It was an amazing trip.  I'd go back in a heartbeat. 




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