Snaking through the southern topography of Utah is one of the longest and deepest slot canyons in the world. Over thirteen miles in length and rarely more than 20 feet wide, Buckskin Gulch beckons backpackers and hikers from around the world. But this beauty comes with a beast: Distant storms can cause flash flooding in the slot canyon, making this hike one of the top 10 most dangerous hikes in the US. So how can you prepare for such an amazing hike? Here are ten tips to help you plan your trip.
1. Get a permit
A permit is required for any length of time in the slot canyon, which is found in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Although a great extent of the canyon can be done as a day hike, you’ll have more time to enjoy yourself if you do it as a backpacking trip. Day hiking permits can be purchased at the Wire Pass and White House Trailheads using the self-pay boxes (no limits), but overnight journeys through the area require one of the highly sought after permits issued per day (the Bureau of Land Management limits permits to just 20 per day). The safest and most popular time to hike Buckskin is during the dry season (April-June) when flash flooding is historically low. It isn’t surprising to see weekends during this time “selling out” up to six months in advance! So how can you get an overnight permit? Check out Arizona’s BLM site to reserve your permit.
2. Talk to the rangers at Paria/Kanab.
The BLM rangers at both Paria and Kanab are your friends. They know more about the canyon than most humans. Seek their knowledge prior to setting out on the hike! They can tell you about current conditions of the trail and warn you of any storms that might cause flash flooding. I’m sure they have many search and rescue stories. Don’t become a statistic! Although the canyon has been rated 2B V using the Canyon Rating System, it does involve scrambling, and trekking through pools of mud and quicksand. There is a rock jam that might require a rappel and lowering of your backpack by rope or webbing. The rangers will let you know the latest conditions so stop in to either the Kanab or Paria BLM offices and have a chat with them. You’ll be better for it.
Kanab Field Office – 318 North 100 East, Kanab, UT 84741 – Phone: (435) 644-4600 Fax: (435) 644-4620 firstname.lastname@example.org
3. Use a shuttle or two cars.
The most popular route through Buckskin Gulch starts at the Wire Pass Trailhead and ends at the White House Trailhead/Campsite, a 21-mile eastward journey. Elevation gain/loss is unnoticeable. Some have started at the White House TH and hiked up the canyon, but this would require you to go up the rock jam, which might require climbing gear to get up the 10-15 feet of rocks. Either way you do it, you’ll need to either leave a car at your destination or hire a shuttle service. I used Steve Dodson’s Paria Outfitters. He’s been living in the area since 1995 and knows the area better than most. Plus, he’s quite a character so don’t expect a boring drive! He’s full of jokes and is knowledgeable on the flora and fauna that you might pass on the 18-mile drive. After you have acquired your permit, give them a call to set up a shuttle pick-up. You’ll meet them at the your destination trailhead and drive you and your gear to the other trailhead to begin your hike. Prices are listed at the bottom of this page of their website.
If you do use two vehicles, check with the ranger station on the condition of House Rock Valley Road. You will need to travel about 8 miles down this unpaved, graded road to get to the Wire Pass Trailhead.
4. Check the forecast for a week leading up to your hike.
Backpacker Magazine (Oct, 2008) calls Buckskin Gulch one of America’s Ten Most Dangerous Hikes. Using a scale between 1 (friendly) and 10 (deadly), they rank both weather and terrain in the canyon each at a 7. The “x-factor” – the unforeseen unique challenges the hike might offer – is ranked at 6. Of all the challenges the canyon offers – including scrambling, mud, and quicksand – flash flooding is the biggest danger. The magazine puts it best: “Should thunderstorm-bloated flood waters come charging down the tunnel, you’re no better than a bug in a firehose.” Remember, rain falling as far away as Bryce Canyon can end up gushing through Buckskin!
Another aspect of the weather you need to prepare for while packing is air temperature, both hot and cold. Some areas of the canyon have rarely seen sunlight. One area – appropriately nicknamed “The Cesspools” – is dark, wet, and cold, even on a hot summer day. My friends zipped off the bottom of their pants for this section and although it helped keep their pants clean from sticky mud, they got cold. On the other side of the coin, the last few miles up to White House Trailhead were hot and nearly shadeless. During this 21-mile hike, we experienced daytime temperatures as low as 50°F and as high as 90°F!
Here are a few resources for keeping your eye on the weather.
5. Wear water shoes
I’m a huge advocate for boots. They offer ankle support and protection. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) released a report stating that, “Almost 213,000 people were treated each year in emergency departments for outdoor recreational injuries from 2004 to 2005.” And of those injuries, 23.9% were sprains. I wear my boots even on short day hikes because I know that it just takes one missed step and I’m in big trouble.
However, with that said, I think that if you have strong ankles and/or wear ankle braces, water shoes is the best footwear for Buckskin Gulch. At least ten of the 21-miles of hiking are done in or near water. I’d guess that we crossed the ankle-deep Paria River over 40 times, and with water shoes, I enjoyed simply walking up the river rather than trying to navigate along side it.
But every trip down the canyon will be a different experience. It could be that the only water you come across will be in The Cesspools. I’ve seen photos of a completely-dry Paria River bed! If that’s the case and there’s report of little or no water, it wouldn’t hurt to strap a pair of water shoes (or sturdy sandals) to your bag for when you need to navigate The Cesspools. I wore Men’s Merrell Waterpro Tawas with a pair of SealSkinz Water Blocker Waterproof socks on the entire hike.
6. Bring plenty of water
Every drop of water you drink in the canyon should be carried in. You don’t want to drink the water trod upon for two reasons: the stream has passed around any and all dead animals, cow pastures, and scat (including human) as far north as Bryce Canyon. Do you really want to drink water that has passed through an area called “The Cesspools”? Also, it’s worth mentioning now that in the instruction pamphlet distributed by the BLM, it is OK to piss in the river (but they do want you to carry out your poo in specialized baggies.) Sure, they say that a lot of the water you see in Buckskin has seeped through the Navajo sandstone, but I don’t care how many iodine tablets or what filtration system I use, I’ll pass!
There is one exception: About a mile south of the confluence with the Paria River is the Wall Spring. You can safely refill water from here, but using tablets is always a wise choice.
7. Learn how to read a map and compass
Don’t rely on your GPS to tell you where you are in Buckskin Gulch. I brought mine as a curiosity and, although it did do a good job tracking our progress at the beginning and end, it wasn’t able to get a clear enough view of the sky in the narrower spots of the canyon (here’s what my GPS did record). I recommend printing out topographical maps of the canyon and bringing them with you. There are online resources that offer free topo maps, but personally, I use TOPO! National Geographic USGS Topographic Maps of Utah. Since there is a chance you might be trekking through pools of water, make sure to also bring a water-proof map holder. You can purchase one from an outdoor gear retailer for $15-20, or you can make a poor-man’s version: one large Ziploc freezer bag.
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave me a comment below.