Buckskin Gulch is the longest and deepest slot canyon in the Southwest, starting in Utah and spilling over the borders into Arizona. The canyon is exceptional in terrain and imagery. From the swirls in the red rock walls to the narrow passages that are eternally starved of sunlight. While the entire trail spans around 47 miles, most hikers only choose to do certain sections of the canyon. Very few actually undertake the multiple day trek that is the entire Buckskin Gulch Trail. However, for those that do, it is a difficult, but rewarding journey mixed with hiking and climbing.
Buckskin Gulch is one of the most beautiful experiences hikers will ever undertake, but it is also quite dangerous. The canyon not only serves as drainage for the Paria River watershed, but is also prone to flash floods. Since it is so long and so deep, hikers have had trouble escaping flash floods in the past, though there have been no reported deaths as of yet. Occasional rainfall can also lead to deep mud pools that are more of a danger to your shoes than your life, but a danger none the less.
|Trail Length:||47 miles||City/State:|| Kanab,
The trail has several starting points, but officially it starts at the Buckskin Trailhead. From closest town of Kanab, Utah, hikers should drive east down Highway 89 for just short of 40 miles until they reach the exit for House Rock Valley Road. It is a dirt road, but well packed to accommodate two-wheel drive vehicles. After about 4 miles, hikers will reach the parking lot. There is no water or restrooms, so plan ahead. Hikers may want to park a car or arrange a ride in Lee's Ferry near the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center in Arizona as that is where the trail ends, but there is a shuttle in that area that heads back to Buckskin.
From the Buckskin Trailhead, hikers walk down that old dusty trail and, for awhile, it is much like any other desert trail. However, slowly but surely the area around the trail begins to rise and before hikers know it, they are in a canyon with high walls of beautiful Navajo sandstone. The walls will only get taller as hikers travel further in, but for now, the trail is at least still bathed in plenty of sunlight. As hikers approach the junction where the Wirepass Trailhead path meets Buckskin proper, the canyon will begin to narrow. At some places it can be as tight at 10 feet, but the narrowness isn't the awe-inspiring thing about this section. The amazing part of these narrows is how the rock twists and turns as if it were made of water. It is a thing of indescribably beauty and unlike any sight that hikers have ever experienced. Of course, with these narrows, there is often very little in the way of sunlight. They are several degrees cooler and refreshing after wider sections of the hike.
The goal for this first night is to hike 8 miles to the Middle Trail Exit. Hikers can camp in the canyon, but it is recommended to make the climb out of the canyon here and camp on the edge. This way there will be no surprise floods in the middle of the night and from the campsite, hikers can see that beautiful clear desert sky. Hikers will not only want to camp outside of the canyon for safety, but for comfort as the canyon floor is often wet. However, during long dry spells, the canyon doesn't start to get very muddy until hikers reach Paria. Unfortunately, climbing out of the canyon here does require actual climbing which can be unpleasant after a long day of hiking, but there is a large crack which offers a number of good footholds.
The second day has another long hike from the Middle Trail camp to Wall Springs. Confluence, where Buckskin meets the Paria River, is also a good campsite and closer for those that get tired before they reach Wall Springs. However, Wall Springs is a nice oasis and perhaps the most scenic camping area in the canyon.
After a brief wide spell in the canyon, the walls will begins to close in again as hikers continue towards Confluence. However, when they start opening up again, after about an hour or two into the hike, it only means one thing, hikers are getting near Rock Fall. There is a reason it's called Rock Fall and that is because the trail drops off a giant 20 feet rock. Usually, there should be a climbing rope already attached, but just in case, hikers should have about 30 to 35 feet of rope on them if it isn't there. Give the rope a few tugs to make sure it is solid and continue down. The rock is smooth, but it seems whoever maintains this trail cut a few hand and foot holds into the rock face for those that don't want to repel down.
After Rock Fall, it is just a short trek to Confluence where hikers will get their first glimpse of Paria River. If it is in the middle of the dry spell, the river will be running low. During a wet, year, hikers will need to be extra careful on the trial ahead just in case the river decides to rise suddenly. This area is also a great place to stock up on water from the river, but it must be filtered first. During the wet season, the river will be loaded down with silt and will cause some decent wear on any water filter, but during the dry season most times the water will be clear as can be.
For those with extra time or are camping at Confluence, they should consider heading up the northern trail for a brief side trip to Sliderock Arch. It is two very massive slabs of rocks propped up in to a nice little house shape. There are also some really cool ancient Anasazi Petroglyphs in the area, but you have to really look for them. It is just a half mile out of the way, with Wall Springs just two miles past Confluence so it is a fun and short trip.
Once hikers continue on, they will know Wall Springs when they see it. They will round a sharp bend and there is a massive wall with water and greenery spewing from it. It is one of the coolest parts of the trail and a great place to camp. While the water comes from a spring, one should still purify it, but it is cool and clear. There are sandy ledges all around the little stream that it makes, so pick one and hunker down for the night.
About three miles further is Big Spring, this is a place that hikers will hear long before they see it. The spring is in a crack in the rocks and forms a small pool. As it is in a cave, it sounds like a roar from the outside. There is also a lot of ferns and greenery in this area, a nice change from the orange-yellow-brown sandstone. The pool is decently deep and a good cool place to take a dip.
The following section of the hike after Big Spring is known as "The Cracks," where occasionally there will be giant cracks in the canyon wall from age and other factors. Willing climbers often use them to climb out the canyon to camp, since the rock is rough and footholds are in plenty.
After the fourth crack, it is time for Boulder Alley. By now, hikers should know that the landmarks in Buckskin Gulch are always very literal in their names. That being noted, Boulder Alley is filled with large boulders that can occasionally be tight squeezes to get through. Some of them have handholds carved out in them so that hikers can climb up them. Overall, it is one of the most fun places in the canyon to explore.
The final destination for the day should be The Hole. While there are many good spots to camp before the hole, not many of them are near a good water source. Biting flies also like to hang out in this section as well. The Hole hosts a little spring with some greenery around as well as many flat places to camp.
The next stretch of the hike is actually rather boring unless you make side trips. There aren't a lot of interesting landmarks along the trail, but one of the best side trails is through Wrather Canyon to Wrather Arch. It is less than a mile to the arch, but it feels like longer. Much of that side trail is steep and sandy, which is a tough combination. However, the Wrather Arch is impressive and that's saying something considering Utah is filled with impressive arches.
As there are no landmarks here, there is no named place to give as a good camping spot. There are a lot of springs along the trail, which are always good camping spots, but many of them dry up in drier years. There are also spots of the trail that follow along the Paria River with boulders that create good pools to cool off in. However, camping along the river is risky. It is best to find a spring with clear flowing water and stay there.
Hikers are getting close to Lee's Ferry now, but it is still a day off. The penultimate leg of the hike traces the river quite a bit. The hike starts off narrow, but drastically widens out when it comes to the river. It is a leisurely sort of walk that is welcome after the hard hiking of previous sections. Much of the path is sandy and the water is shallow so hot hikers can wade in the water. This area is also a good place to hunt for petroglyphs as they are all over. After the trail leads away from the river, the hiking gets a bit harder. Boulders and rock ledges become common place and hikers will have to climb over, down or wiggle around them. Eventually the area will open up again, this is a great place to start looking for a camping spot, since the boulders will start up again after.
After camping in that area, it is just another nine or so miles to Lee's Ferry. Most think the last leg of the hike will be easy, but unfortunately that is not the case. The hard obstacles from the previous leg start up again and with a vengeance. The worst part is the top of the canyon gets wide, so it is hot and sunny down on the trail. It gets refreshing when the trail gets back to the river, but there is little in the way of land during those sections, so hikers will be walking in the water whether they want to or not. However, eventually civilization kind of just pops out from around the bend. Quite literally, it is secluded and lonely rock canyon trail and then the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center and parking lot pops up.