Buckskin Gulch is the slot canyon every lover of slot canyons longs to conquer. It is found deep within the remote 112,500-acre Paria Canyon–Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, almost hidden from sight on the Utah side of the Utah/Arizona border. ‘Your list of slot canyons is incomplete until you’ve come here’, they’ll tell you, and it’s no good arguing the point. Buckskin Gulch is the longest, deepest slot canyon in the southwest and while not perhaps the prettiest (its rocks lack some of the light and colour of other slot canyons) it is nevertheless unrivalled in its variety of terrain: it is replete with fluted rock walls of Navajo sandstone, and the Chinle and Moenave formations make up many sections. With most of its tortuous course less than 3 m wide, there are some bottlenecks so narrow you’ll be removing your pack in order to squeeze your way through.
What is there to see in the Buckskin Gulch?
How much of Buckskin Gulch you see and experience will depend upon how much time you have and which of its four trailheads you approach it from. The vast majority of hikers choose to do it in a day, and to do this you need to start at the Wire Pass Trailhead, located about 13 km south of US89 on House Rock Valley Road and from which it’s about 2.6 km to its confluence with Buckskin Gulch. Taking this route allows you to bypass the upper 6.5 km of the canyon, which is not its most dramatic stretch. Immersing yourself in Wire Pass is a lovely teaser, a short drainage passage into Buckskin with walls nowhere as high as those yet to come, but walking it is like threading the eye of a needle at times, plus you can take some lovely photographs of its illuminated walls that can – depending upon the sun’s position – be lit all the way to the canyon floor. But it is when you emerge into Buckskin itself that the real fun begins.
Most popular times to hike the Buckskin Gulch
Buckskin Gulch is a tributary of the Paria River, and can be a dangerous place when it rains: water drains from countless streams across the Paria Plateau into the river and in no time is funnelled through its crevasses and sandy bottom like a fury, washing everything before it. This is why the most popular time to hike it is the dry period from April to June, when flash flooding is less likely to occur. Permits can easily be picked up at its trailheads if you decide you’re up to doing it from Wire Pass in one long day, although two days is a much more ‘civilised’ and rewarding option. Unfortunately, to stay overnight you will require an overnight permit – these are often snapped up as much as six months in advance, so plan well ahead. However, don’t let the paperwork dissuade you. It’s worth a little advance preparation to traverse this multi-hued wonder of nature.
One of the most dangerous hikes in the United States
Buckskin Gulch is no walk in the park. It involves rock scrambling, and you’re going to get your feet wet, too, although the depth of any water encountered is rarely above 1 m – flood waters notwithstanding. And obstacles include a beautifully wedged boulder in Wire Pass and various other rock jams that will require a little rope work (about 6 m should do it) to get your pack up and over. You’ll want boots here too, not Nikes. Almost a quarter of all recreational injuries in the United States are sprains, and this is just the sort of place you’re likely to get one. You’ll also want to bring a topographical map with you and know how to read it. GPSs are ok at either end of the canyon but once you’re inside and direct lines to the sky above become intermittent thanks to the 160-m-high walls that surround you, well, they just will not work through rock. Sandy bottoms can be transformed into 20-ft-deep pools of swirling frothing water in mere minutes. And for most of its length the walls are so high any thought of getting up and out should the weather unexpectedly turn horrible is, well, a forlorn hope. No wonder, then, that this trail regularly makes the list of the United States’ most dangerous hikes.
No drinkable water
Although you’ll encounter residual pools of muddy water and the aforementioned streams, there will be no drinkable water sources so be sure to bring enough water with you. The terrain, though, is forgiving – a mixture of sand and stones/boulders that present no technical difficulties but might result in your progress not being quite what one would expect over what is essentially a flat, gradient-free trail. Along the way you’ll encounter sandbanks with grasses, trees and wildflowers, as well as boulders, tree stumps and log jams that are never in the same place twice, which makes Buckskin Gulch a different experience each time, no matter how many times you come here.
Buckskin Gulch is a beguiling crack in the fabric of the Colorado Plateau, isolated enough (mercifully) from the tourist hotspots around it – the Grand Canyon to the south and most of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument above and around it – to ensure you’ll have an experience to remember deep within one of America’s most spectacular hidden treasures.