Hiking The Paria River – Buckskin Gulch – March 2015

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and and above the clouds.” 
Edward Abbey
The Paria River Canyon is an area of Utah/Arizona that i’ve always wanted to visit, but never took the leap to make it down there. You hear about Buckskin Gulch all the time and how beautiful it is. Well I finally got the chance to go after putting in a suggestion to one of my school professors. I am a student at Utah Valley University studying Outdoor Recreation Management. This class that I took is an Outdoor Leadership class, focused on teaching leadership skills and group management in the field. A challenge I was looking forward to. 
This class involves a six day backpacking trip during the month of March. I was beyond excited about going on this long of a trip. 
The Route: Whitehouse Trailhead south to Lee’s Ferry
Day 1 – We arrived at the trailhead and would spend the first night at the trailhead. We had a few hours to kill before we needed to setup beds for the night and get ready for the first few miles of hiking in the morning. We played Bocci Ball next to the river and threw rocks at sticks. You know, what all people do to kill time.

Day 2 – The adventure begins. Adventure is the right word for this day because a lot happened on the first day of hiking. We had a lot of ground to cover, as the first night on the trail would be at the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River. The water level at this time of year was at an abnormally high level. The week prior to our departure, the water discharge level at Lee’s Ferry was over 200 cubic feet per second. In other words, too high for anyone to hike down. Water level when we got there was mostly never above our knees at the highest, and we were prepared however for lots of time in the water. 
Our first ten seconds on the trail involved a river crossing, and over the next mile we either crossed the river at least eight times, or walked in the water cause the walls of the canyon were surrounded by sloppy mud. The mud would become our enemy for the next four days. After several miles we entered the narrows of the canyon. In some areas of the canyon, the walls are maybe ten feet apart from each other. A truly beautiful sight!
By this time it was getting later into the afternoon, the time we call the witching hour (5pm) was soon approaching. We entered a spot of the trail where we had to truly get wet. 
Excuse the language – it was cold and miserable!

We had hiked almost 11 miles at this point in the day and we were tired and cold from being in the narrows of the canyon for so long. Through much of the narrows we were hiking in water up to mid thigh and then we came to a section where we had no choice but to get wet. A depth we referred to as nipple deep. I went through and was soaked, and the remaining seven of us all had to go through too. If you’ve never been in a situation like that, then it’s hard to understand. This is a level of discomfort and moral destroyer like no other. The water temperature in the canyon at this point was maybe 40 degrees. This is where everything changed.

We started hiking as fast as we could to get to the confluence of Buckskin and see if we could camp in the one spot that is a few hundred yards up Buckskin Gulch. About 1/4 mile from the confluence, Betsy, our professor lost her balance after one of her trekking poles sunk into the mud. She took a full on swim and was wet from head to toe. Once we got to the confluence, the water and wind coming down the canyon was so incredibly cold. One of the people in our group had a thermometer and dipped it in the water. It was 34 degrees! Luckily the one camp spot was available and we dropped our packs and stripped down to get into some dry clothes, get warm and cook dinner. What was one of the most amazing days of hiking, was also one of the most miserable and cold experiences of my life.

Day 3 – This class two years prior to this trip, went on this exact same trip, and the plan for day 3 is to not cover as many miles because the plan is to hike up Buckskin Gulch to the rock fall a few miles up the canyon. We got up, and to be honest, the thought of taking off nice warm thermals and putting my wet shorts and wet cold shoes back on was far from anything any of us wanted to do. Once we had packed up camp we as a group decided that we would try to hike up Buckskin. Now you should know that most of the time, there is no water running through Buckskin. It’s for the most part a dry canyon unless there’s been a lot of rain and later in the year is better to hike Buckskin. There however was shin height water running down the canyon and it was soooo cold! I know I sound like im complaining a lot, but it was something i’ll never forget.

We started hiking up Buckskin and within minutes we couldn’t even feel our feet. It was apparent we weren’t going to make it very far up the canyon. We came to a spot where it got super narrow and we used a trekking pole to see how deep the hole was. We were unable to find the bottom of the hole with the pole. So instead of going swimming again, we opted to turn around and start heading back down the Paria and see if we could find some sun to soak up.

This section of the Paria is probably the most beautiful given the features that are in this layer of rock. The walls are incredibly narrow, and the hiking is amazing. Because there was so much water in this section, we had to hike in the water for several miles, with an occasional rocky/muddy shore to get out of the cold water. We planned to hike five miles this day and camp at the next reliable spring.

One of the students, Smitty, in this section was hiking close to the side of the wall and ended up getting stuck in some quick sand, which also meant he went swimming up to his chest. A great way to start the day.

After covering the miles needed, it was time for us to find a place to camp. We had been hiking kind of in a slingshot method with a group of guys that were down there. They found a place to camp before us, and it would have been ideal for a large group. But we pushed on a little further to an area that was in the sun. Dropped our packs and started cooking dinner.

Lots of water in Buckskin Gulch
Found a low spot of water in Buckskin

Sections like this were fun because you never knew how deep the water was, or where the holes were.

Days 4-6
The canyon starts to open up at this point. There are still really tall walls, but we had left the narrow sections and the layers of sandstone start to change by this point. On this day we dropped our packs when we got to what’s called, The Abandoned Meander, which is a small canyon that the river at one point ran through, but doesn’t any more. This little canyon was absolutely beautiful and is worth the trek up into it. There’s really beautiful, lush vegetation and at the right time of day, it glows from the sun.

The hiking at this point in the trip was just tiring. My shins and the muscles right below my shins were beyond sore. We had crossed the river probably 100 times by now and each day started off with a river crossing. What a way to start the day, get your feet wet and cold. On either side of the river was several inches of thick, sticky mud, which I attribute the sore shins to.

The below photo is one of my favorite from the trip. Here is the group all together, I knew very little about each person in this group before we left, and after 6 days on the trail with them, there was a respect for each person that wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been on this trip. I remember walking through the river at this bend in the canyon, and I looked behind me and the light in the canyon was glowing, the rock was glowing, the river was glowing, and it was kind of a magical moment. I had to take a few seconds to just stop and appreciate the absolute beauty. It was then that I requested we all get together and get what would end up being the only group shot of the trip.
The photo doesn’t do the light justice, but you can appreciate the beauty.

Trail to Wrather Arch
Wrather Arch
Selfie Time!

What’s amazing about the lower sections of the canyon is how fast the landscape changes. I think you hike through three different layers of sandstone through the lower 15 miles of the canyon. It’s truly an amazing place though. We camped at obvious camp sites each night, which were convenient to good springs. Because of a knee injury, our pace the last couple days was much slower than anticipated, and the last night of camping was at Wilson Ranch, which if you end up having to camp there, we did find water from a spring at the ranch.

An incredible trip that was highly anticipated for many weeks leading up to it. Even though it was my first experience using WAG bags and having to carry all that extra weight, I wouldn’t trade the experience gained in that canyon for anything else. Friendships were made and an appreciation for the wildness of the area will stay with me forever.

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