A slot canyon is simply defined as a canyon which is deeper than it is wide. They are narrow “slots” in the Earth where water has eroded rock into unique twisting channels. There are many conditions conducive to the formation of slot canyons including type of rock and rainfall. While slot canyons can be found across the world, the Southwestern U.S. happens to have the largest concentration. Having already done Antelope Canyon, by far the most visited and most photographed, it was time to pay a visit to Buckskin Gulch- the longest and deepest.
Glenna and I made the drive up to Page, AZ late after work on Wednesday night. Too tired to set up at a campground, we slept in the car at the parking lot of Horseshoe Bend. Up bright and early, the sun’s morning rays were all the alarm we needed. A short half mile hike later and the famous bend of the Colorado River was in sight. We sat on the edge of the 1,000 foot cliff, watching the tiny fishermen below try their luck. When the crowds from a big tour bus started down the trail, we decided to head out.
About 30 minutes past Page, we made a quick stop at the Paria Contact Station to pick up our permit. Buckskin Bulch is inside the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness/National Monument and requires a $5/person/day permit. The BLM only allows 20 people to enter the area per day, so I would strongly recommend buying it far in advance. I had bought the permit back in March, selecting this weekend because it was one of the few that was still open. The ranger also gave us a map and WAG bags- all waste inside the canyon has to be packed out. From there, it was a left onto House Rock Valley Rd and an 8 mile drive down the dirt road to the Wire Pass Trail head. Almost three gallons of water and 3 days worth of food made for some heavy packs, but our spirits were high. Time for some slot canyons.
Across the road, the trail initially led us down a dry wash before entering the narrow slot of wire pass. It was an impressive stretch of twists and turns with both walls within arm’s reach. The sun created a faint orange glow that seemed to highlight the impressive handiwork that water had produced. A choke stone lodged between the walls necessitated a short scramble, nothing we couldn’t easily handle though. 1.7 miles from the trail head, the slot widened and merged with Buckskin Gulch. It is possible to follow Buckskin Gulch North to a separate trail head, though Wire Pass allows quicker access to the narrower sections and is quite remarkable in itself. Now the real fun began!
As we followed Buckskin Gulch east, the term “hiking” became very subjective. The dry wash we had been following before suddenly became very wet, coating the rocks with a slick muck that threatened to suck our feet straight out of our shoes with every step. In between sections of sludge, we waded through pools of stagnant water. The water was so foggy it was impossible to tell how deep each one would be; every step was a mystery! We somehow managed to slip and slide our way through the canyon without ever hitting the water face first, though we did come close a few times.
The slot canyon itself was simply incredible. Every turn proved to be more interesting than the next. The walls were so steep and narrow that in most places little light entered at all. In other places, a beam would splash the wall with color, making for some intriguing photos. Sticks and logs lodged between the two walls, sometimes as high as 40-50 feet in the air, were ominous reminders of past floods. The constant threat that these flash floods present led to Backpacker Magazine ranking Buckskin Gulch in its 10 Most Dangerous Hikes. Surprisingly, no one has yet died.
It was 11.5 miles of sludge and pools until the canyon slightly widened and we reached the confluence of the Paria River. Until then, we had no idea how far we had gone. There were no landmarks and little to separate one section of the narrows from another. Just before the confluence, there were two enormous sand banks lush with trees and vegetation.
It was a stark contrast to the otherwise bare canyon. A quick look and we figured out they were impacted sites that other campers had used before. We heaved off our packs and took a well-deserved break in the sand. Dinner consisted of the leftover sausage and crackers as well as handfuls of trail mix. When the sun went down, we made a small fire and talked for a bit before the day’s hard work caught up to us and we crashed.
The next day we wandered up the Paria River. The shallow stream made for a lot easier walking than the previous day’s mud. While not nearly as narrow as Buckskin, the Paria River had carved quite a canyon of its own. Sheer sandstone walls soared above the river and glowed in the sun’s light. We walked through a huge natural span called Slide Rock Arch. In the sand beneath it, someone had scrawled the words “This is Awesome”!
We had to agree. Just past the arch, a slope in the wall allowed us to scramble out of the canyon and get our first glimpse of the surrounding landscape. It was a world full of wavy red sandstone, bizarre rock formations, and sparse vegetation. The hot sun beating down on our backs was actually a relief after being in the dark canyon for two days. After a lunch of crackers and granola bars, we climbed back down and soaked in the river. On the way back to camp, we met an awesome couple on their pre-marriage honeymoon trip. They had both recently quit their jobs and were traveling until their wedding later this summer. The trip was both a vacation and a quest to determine where they wanted to live next.
Back at camp, we decided to pack up and head a ways back up Buckskin Gulch in an effort to make the next day’s trek out easier. An hour’s hike brought us to another smaller sand dune. We ate a dinner of ramen, tuna, and chicken and fell asleep staring up at the stars. Saturday we made the trek out, once again getting covered in mud. We cruised through the rock obstacles that had given us some trouble two days prior, including one which required a rope climb up some crudely carved steps. At about 12:30, we emerged from the canyon into the blinding midday heat.The car was so hot, our apple and banana had completely baked inside. Good thing we had more crackers! A stop at Lake Powell allowed us to clean off a bit before our feast at Big John’s Texas BBQ in Page. Right off S Lake Powell Blvd, this place was the bomb! A huge sample plate of traditional smoked meats satisfied us until we had some Guinness and brats back at the place. Buckskin Gulch had been incredible, but it was nice to be clean again.