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Hike of the Week: Buckskin Gulch / Paria Canyon

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This weekly series aims to inspire you to go out there and see the marvelous sights in person. Merely viewing them on your phone or monitor is not enough. Feel the wind, breathe the air and bask in the sun.

Our hike this week is the inspiring Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon.

Featured Photo: Hiking Buckskin Gulch Trail (photo by Mark Byzewski)

Why this Hike?

This 4-day hike takes you through 38 miles of beautiful sandstone walls with crevices and caves and the winding riverbed, and you will find yourself in awe of the different yellows, oranges, and purple hues. Prehistoric footprints, fossils, and petroglyphs can be seen along the trail. The park also allows backpackers to bring their dogs along for the adventure.

  • Total distance is 38 miles / 61 km
  • Accessible from Kanab, Utah
  • Moderately difficult, Buckskin Gulch is best suited for experienced hikers
  • Multi-day hike, 4 days is recommended
  • You will need to schedule shuttle services to get to the canyons.
  • Motivation? Gorgeous views and a wonderful trail that is relatively isolated and experienced by few

It is important that you remember these factors before starting your adventure:

  • The trail is remote with no available amenities
  • There is almost no cell phone, GPS or satellite coverage in the canyons
  • You will be hiking through the riverbed, so be careful because the water is heavily silted
  • There are freshwater springs but they are relatively hidden
  • The local wildlife includes snakes, scorpions, and spiders
  • It is important that you check the weather forecast at the canyon before your trek, flash floods usually happen after storms but subside after 8-10 hours
  • Hikers are required to pack out their own waste
  • Sandstone is brittle and could easily break, so you'll need to watch your step and make sure that your footing is stable
  • Campfires are not permitted

How do I get there?

Due to the need for permits and shuttle rides, you should begin your planning months in advance. Kanab is pretty remote, so Las Vegas or St. George are your best options for flying in. From there, renting a car is probably the best way to get to Kanab. There are several shuttle operators in the area that will give you a ride from Kanab to the Wire Pass Trailhead to start your hike. Since you'll end in Lees Ferry, you will also need to arrange transportation from there after the hike. The other option is to leave your car at Lees Ferry and have a shuttle take you to Wirepass. These are the shuttle service providers in the area:

  • Paria Outpost (928-691-1047)
  • Circle Tours (888-854-7862
  • End of the Trail Shuttles (928-355-2252)

Map

Here’s a map of the recommended route:


The hike could be done in 2-3 days by experienced hikers but we recommend that you finish it in 4 days so that you have enough time to enjoy the scenery.

  • Day 1: Wirepass Trailhead to below the Paria River / Buckskin Gulch confluence ( 13.5 miles )
  • Day 2: Confluence to Wrather Canyon (12.5 miles)
  • Day 3: Wrather Canyon to Bush Head Canyon, (9.5 miles)
  • Day 4: Bush Head Canyon to Lees Ferry (8 miles)

Trail Description

The trek starts off at Wire Pass Trailhead which is a downward hike to the sandy riverbed. You would need to climb over a couple of obstacles along the way. At the 1¾ mile mark, Wire Pass intersects with Buckskin Gulch. Here you will see several petroglyphs that are located on the right walls, just before the junction. Please respect these prehistoric artifacts and do not add to the vandalism left by others.

At this point, you will enter Buckskin Gulch which is an incredible slot canyon that can get as deep as 500 feet. In many places, the canyon is only 10 feet wide.

Throughout Buckskin Gulch, you may encounter some knee-deep or deeper pools. 3 miles down from Middle Point, you will reach a large rock jam. This is the most difficult obstacle in Buckskin Gulch. 45 minutes past the rock jam, you will encounter several freshwater springs/seeps in the Navajo Sandstone. This would be a good place to refill your water containers.

There are 2 great campsites after this, both of which are near the confluence with Paria River. The first is ¼ mile from the confluence, while the second is further downstream. They are easy to identify by large flat open areas above the waterbed and the presence of trees. After these two campsites, the next closest would be 1 mile past the confluence. It is important to note that camping inside Buckskin Gulch is not recommended due to the potential of flash floods. You will need to reach the confluence area to be able to set up camp.

Past the confluence, the hike simply follows the Paria River downstream towards Lees Ferry. If you are lucky, you might see several freshwater springs along the way down the gorge. Otherwise, just remember to take your time and enjoy what nature has to show you.

What will I need?

Because of the remoteness of the trail, it is important to be well prepared. Make it a point to check the forecasted weather conditions for the area to be able to plan what to bring and wear for the Paria Canyon hike. There are parts of the hike where there is limited shade so dress accordingly and use sunscreen. A lightweight tarp may also be a good option to bring along for added shelter in your camp.

Because of the many water crossings, hiking boots are not recommended in Buckskin Gulch. It would be best that you bring water shoes or hiking sandals and pair them with neoprene socks. Trekking poles could be invaluable to provide added stability during the water crossings. Pets should wear footpads because sandstone is harsh for your dog’s paws.

Water containers are vital in this hike because of the heat and poor availability of fresh drinking water. It is best to carry 2-3 collapsible or rolled up water bottles / bladders if you can. Freshwater springs can be found in the canyons but may be hard to spot. Be on the lookout for vegetation along the canyon walls which are a good indicator of where these springs might be. If you need to drink water from Paria River, always filter the water first since it is highly contaminated. The silt from the flowing water may be too much for water filters so you may need to either let the water settle first or use a coffee filter first to remove as much of the silt as possible.

It is also important to note that campfires are not allowed in the canyons so be prepared to cook on a stove.

There is almost no cellular or satellite signal in the canyons. It is better to carry and familiarize yourself with a good map and follow the photo guide that will be included with your permit.

There is a zero human waste policy implemented in the canyons. All guests are required to bring their waste out with them. You will be provided with easy to use human waste bags in the BLM Kanab field office or the BLM Arizona Strip District office. The bags are airtight and contain chemicals that neutralize odors. The same rules apply to your pet’s waste.

Depending on when you will make your trip, the temperatures are usually pretty mild inside the canyon. A lightweight quilt like our Thermodown quilt and a lightweight mesh tent / tarp combination would be great options. Note that there are snakes, scorpions, and spiders in the canyons. Always shake off your boots and sleeping bags before getting in. It is also advisable to bring bug repellents.

Refer to our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List for a comprehensive list of other gear that we recommend on a multi-day trek like this.

Do I need a permit?

Overnight permits are available online and should be applied for at least four months before your scheduled hike. At the moment, the number of allowed hikers is limited to 20 persons per day, and groups are only allowed a maximum of 10 people per group. For walk-in guests, permits are available via lottery at the BLM Visitors Center in Kanab, Utah.

Day use permits are available through self-serve envelopes at each trailhead. Permits cost $6 for day hiking and $5 for overnight trips per person. The same rate applies to dogs as well.

Resources

Paria Canyon Backpacking Guide
Paria Canyon/Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness - A Lasting Legacy
Buckskin Gulch/ Paria Canyon - Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area

Have you explored Buckskin Gulch / Paria Canyon and other trails in this amazing corner of Utah? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.

Buckskin Gulch Hike of the Week Paria Canyon

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