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Paria Canyon & Buckskin Gulch Backpacking Guide

If you like mud, rivers, slot canyons, awesome rock formations, and a vastly varied beautiful landscape, then this trip is for you! Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch offer some really amazing slot canyon hiking with areas as narrow as 2ft (in the Gulch), but you better be ready to get wet!

paria canyon narrows

The landscape and hiking here is similar to the Zion Narrows, but with almost no people (only 20 permits per day). There are incredible geologic patterns and colors throughout the entirety of the canyon with walls range from 100-500 ft tall. There are several different routes available for backpacking through the canyon (detailed below), and you’re in for a real adventure with every one!

Overview:

  • Distance: 6-51 miles – varies based on route
  • Days Needed: 2-5, varies based on route
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: 500-1500 ft, varies depending on route
  • Difficulty: Moderate- Difficult
  • Crowd Factor: Low
  • Best Time: April-June or September-November
  • Permits: Yes, competitive
  • Water: Yes

I think it’s most valuable to read this guide from top to bottom to make sure you’re fully informed, but if you’re looking for something specific,

Jump to:

  • Where is Paria Canyon & Buckskin Gulch Located?
  • WhenIs The Best Time To Go?
  • How To Get A Permit & Costs
  • How Long Does It Take To Hike In and Out?
  • Choosing Your Route
  • Day Trip
  • Weekend Trip
  • 3+ Days Trip
  • Pros & Cons of Buckskin Gulch
  • Our Route & Recommended Itinerary
  • Shuttle Options
  • Safety & Weather: Flash Floods, Quicksand, etc.
  • Maps: Campsites & Water Sources
  • What Gear To Bring
  • What To Expect At Along The Trail

Where is Paria Canyon & Buckskin Gulch Located?

Located in the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness of the Colorado Plateau in Utah and Arizona. It runs along the boarder of both states, more towards the western half of each following along the Paria river. This area is most famously know for The Wave, which is almost impossible to get permits for. It’s also super close to Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon. If you’re planning a trip here, I recommend seeing all three as they are literally within an hour of each other.

When Is The Best Time To Go?

paria canyon trail
The best times to visit are April-June and September-November when the temperature is cooler and there is less of a risk of flash floods. Summer hiking can get very hot (into the 100s) and the risk of flash floods is higher.

Permits & Costs

Advance PERMITS ARE REQUIRED, there are no walk-in permits for overnight use. They are limited to 20 people per day, making them highly competitive.

The online permit application form is available here, however given how quickly these permits go, I recommend reading our detailed guide for getting a permit, which includes some time saving tips to help get you the dates you want:

More Details On Getting Permits Here

2018 Costs

  • $5.00 per person per day
  • $5.00 per dog per day

Unless you are able to leave a car at the exit, more than likely you are also going to need to hire a shuttle to take you from your exit point to your entry point (or vice versa) in order to pick up your car. (See More Below)

How Long Does It Take to Hike Paria Canyon & Buckskin Gulch?

paria canyon
This is going to depend on the route you decide to take through the canyon. Buckskin Gulch can be done by itself in just one day, whereas hiking the entire canyon to Lee’s Ferry can take 4-5 days.

Choosing Your Route

You can pretty much mix and match any of the trailheads to create whatever route fits you best. Regardless of which route you take, you’re going to be following a river, crossing it several times, which means lots of mud and water.

buckskin-gulch-paria-canyon-backpacking-map-distances

Points of interest and mileage:

  • Buckskin Trailhead to The Confluence: 16 miles
  • Wire Pass Trailhead to The Confluence: 13.2 miles
  • Wire Pass Trailhead to Middle-Out Escape Exit: 6.5 miles
  • White House Trailhead to The Confluence: 7.3 miles
  • The Confluence to Lee’s Ferry: 31 miles

paria canyon

Day Hikes

The BLM does not limit the number of day-use access passes (unlike the 20 person overnight limit), which makes this a great option for those who want to see the gulch, but were unable to get an overnight permit. You do still need to get a day-use permit and leave it in your car, which can be accessed via self-serve envelope stations at the trailhead.

Wire Pass Trailhead to Buckskin Gulch (The Gulch, not the trailhead)

  • Distance: 1.7 miles one way
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: 206 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Crowd Factor: Low
  • Water: No

This trail provides a “take a quick look” at Buckskin Gulch. Wire Pass Trailhead offers the most direct access to the gulch for a day hike. From the Wire Pass Trailhead, the trail is 1.7 miles before landing you into the gulch. From here you can just take a look around and go back or travel left/north towards the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead (4.5 more miles), or right/south towards The Confluence (11.5 more miles).

Wire Pass to Middle-Out Escape Exit

  • Distance: 6.5 miles one way
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: -380 (before scrambling)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Crowd Factor: Low
  • Water: No

From Wire Pass to The Confluence (where Buckskin and Paria Canyons intersect) is 13.5 mi – pretty long for an out and back day hike. You can go from Wire Pass for 1.7 mi to Buckskin Gulch, then turn right and and head towards The Confluence and turn back at any time, or you can exit through the “Middle-Out Escape Route”, which is the only other access point to the 15mile long narrow portion of the gulch. It’s a difficult exit path and requires some steep rock scrambling (ropes are recommended), route finding, and is recommended only for experienced hikers without a fear of heights. Once you scale the rocks you’ll be rewarded with some petroglyphs that are thousands of years old! If you’re attempting this route, here’s a great detailed post all about it.


Weekend

Wire Pass to White House (2 Days, 1 Night)

  • Distance: 20.5 miles one way
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: -720 ft, then 180 ft gain
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Crowd Factor: Low
  • Water: Yes, unreliable

The White House Trailhead is the entrance to Paria Canyon. Choosing this route (or vice versa), you get to experience the most impressive parts of both the Paria Narrows and Buckskin Gulch. You could also start this hike at the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead if you want to hike the entirety of the gulch (and add 4.5mi to your trip). (See below “Safety & Weather” warnings for Buckskin Gulch).


3+ Days

White House to Lee’s Ferry

  • Distance: 38 miles one way
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: -1,130
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Crowd Factor: Low
  • Water: Yes, reliable

While you don’t travel directly through the gulch, you still get a lot of what this canyon has to offer, including a wide variety of different types of terrain. You’ll go through the Paria Narrows (as narrow as 5 feet in some places), which gives you the slot canyon experience, and also through the desert portions of the canyon towards the end.. It’s a slightly easier and shorter route than the next one listed here.

Wire Pass to Lee’s Ferry

  • Distance: 47.7 miles one way
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: -1,760
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Crowd Factor: Low
  • Water: Yes, reliable

Again you can also start this hike at the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead if you want to hike the entirety of the gulch (and add 4.5mi to your trip), but the Wire Pass Trailhead still gives you access to all the good stuff. You’ll be passing through a good part of Buckskin Gulch and then meeting Paria Canyon at the Confluence for the rest of the journey. (See below “Safety & Weather” warnings for Buckskin Gulch).

Pros & Cons of Hiking Through Buckskin Gulch vs. Paria

buckskin gulch

Pros

  • Change of Scenery – Much of Paria before and after the confluence has very similar topography, where as Buckskin is very different from Paria.
  • Bragging Rights – Buckskin is one of the longest and narrowest slot canyons in the world and has a reputation for being extremely grueling and difficult.
  • Temperature – Because Buckskin is so narrow, it doesn’t get as much sun and is noticeable cooler than Paria. There was a cool breeze coming through the Gulch when we visited and no direct hot sun up above. However, this also means the water you’re walking through is MUCH cooler as well.
  • It’s Just Awesome – let’s face it, Buckskin is just cooler than Paria, for many of the items mentioned above. There’s an ominous forboding tone to the canyon and you feel like you’re walking into a tomb that no one has visited before. It’s really awe-inspiring and unlike anywhere else in the world.

Cons

  • Boulder Blocks – yep, big piles of rock boulders that you have to scramble over to continue through the canyon. There are 2 of them in The Gulch.
  • Chest-deep Water – not all the time, but enough of the time that it can be a turn off. The water in Buckskin is much deeper than Paria. You should expect to be knee or waist deep in water at a minimum regardless of when you go. (When you pick up your permits at the BLM, they will tell you the current water levels you can expect).
  • Stinking Cesspools – since the Gulch doesn’t get much sunlight and the water doesn’t move quickly like it does in Paria (which is actually a river), the pools of water in Buckskin get smelly… like really smelly – gross stagnant water that may or may not have dead decaying deer carcasses floating in it (true story).
  • Flash Floods – while this is a concern in both canyons, it’s much more of a concern in Buckskin since it’s so narrow. In Paria, you’d have a fighting chance but in Buckskin, you’re pretty much screwed.
  • Quick Sand – again a concern for both canyons, but more so for Buckskin, and with no way around/out, if you’re stuck that’s all folks!
  • Distance – Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s no place to stop or camp in the Gulch. You have to do the entire thing no matter how tired you are (unless you’re turning back) before coming to a campsite.

Why We Chose White House to Lee’s Ferry

  • (See Above) Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch are much narrower than Paria Canyon, and while that makes it more interesting, it also has deeper water and large boulder obstacles that you need to climb over. This increases your danger in a flash flood and also, when carrying a backpack, this makes your first day really difficult.
  • Buckskin Gulch or Wire Pass trailheads also add a lot of miles to your first day. There is no where to camp until you reach the Confluence, which from Wire Pass is double the distance of White House to the Confluence.
  • Once you reach the Confluence, you can camp just past it on the first night and take part of the day to explore Buckskin Gulch with just a day pack (which is what we did). You can explore the gulch and turn back at any time rather forcing yourself to get through waist-deep water if you don’t want to.
  • The difference in the width between hiking the Paria Narrows vs. Buckskin Narrows is at most 3-4 ft, so you still get a great slot canyon experience either way.

If I Could Do It Over Again:
I would do this trip differently and would NOT hike all the way through to Lee’s Ferry. Once you hit mile 14 or so, the canyon has widened considerably and there’s little to no shade for pretty much the rest of the hike. The last 10 miles especially is wide open desert with precarious lose rock formations you’re walking up and over. It feels a lot like being a Hobbit on the way to Mordor. We got VERY lucky in that the last 2 days (19miles) were overcast and in the high 70s. If not, this part of this hike would have been BRUTAL.

Pro Tip: Thus, I would recommend:

  • Day 1: Enter at White House. Hike through the Paria Narrows and set up camp at one of the sites past the confluence.
  • Day 2: Spend the day exploring Buckskin Gulch. You can go as far as you like and turn back at any time if it gets too gross or rough.
  • Day 3: Explore down Paria Canyon. There’s still some really interesting beautiful things further down the canyon from the confluence which is worth a look and you can see it without being forced to trek through it, with the option to turn back at any time.
  • Day 4: Go back out Paria Canyon to White House. Yes, you’re seeing the same thing twice, but it’s really quite beautiful and is worth a second look 🙂 Plus, then you don’t need to worry about a shuttle to get from one trailhead to another.

Pro Tip: If you really want to go all the way through, I strongly recommend taking 5 days instead of 4 like we did. Having to hike 9-10 miles a day was tough on us and we were too tired to do much extra exploring of things like the Petroglyphs, which I wish we had more time to explore.


Shuttle Options

In order to complete most of the backpacking routes listed above you’ll need to use a shuttle service to get you back to your car or vice versa. The majority of backpackers start at either White House or Wire Pass and then exit at Lee’s Ferry. There is a 14-day parking lot at Lee’s Ferry, making it an easy place to leave your car.

Pro Tip: Leave your car at the exit and take a shuttle to the entrance. Then you don’t have to worry about the timing of exiting the canyon in time to catch your shuttle.

We used Tim from Trail’s End Shuttle who was really wonderful.

Two other options are: Seeking Treasure Adventures and Grand Staircase Discovery Tours

Safety & Weather

There are some very real dangers when hiking through these canyons. More so for Buckskin Gulch because it’s narrower and longer than Paria Canyon, but these warnings apply to both.

Flash Floods

Check the weather before you enter! If there is even remotely a chance of rain, do not enter. This area is prone to fast and deadly flash floods (you can see debris stuck between the canyon walls high above you from previous flash floods). The Narrows portion of Buckskin Gulch is 11mi long with only one exit if bad weather hits: the “Middle-Out Escape Route”. This the only way out of Buckskin if bad weather hits. The Middle Out Escape Route is in “the middle” of this stretch and is 6.5 miles south of the Wire Pass Trailhead. It requires steep rock scrambling to get out. Call the Paria Contact Station – (435)-644-1200 – before your trip for current conditions.

Quicksand & Sticky Slippery Mud

The advice we were given by the BLM was that quicksand likes to hang out “in the corners”. So that’s what we avoided – any edges or corners with rocks or canyon walls. Essentially, if you’re going straight down the middle and staying out of the pockets, you should be pretty safe from quicksand.

There’s going to be mud, and lots of it. The majority of it is pretty slippery, roughly the consistency of pudding, and you can pull your foot out. There are some sections however where the mud is more aggressive and more sticky. These thicker mud pockets aren’t quicksand, but they can still grab you and suck you in. I got stuck in one section where I couldn’t get enough force to pull myself out without a steady helping hand. Pay attention to the footprints of the people who came before you (there will be lots) in order to get an idea of how far into the mud you can expect to sink.

Tips for Crossing The River

Look to cross the river at places where you can see the water moving. Flowing water is a good sign that there’s no quicksand underneath. Also, try to cross in areas where there are some rocks since again rocks = no quicksand. That being said, you don’t want to stand in the middle of flowing rapids with a sandy/muddy bottom for too long either. As you stand still in the river, the currant washes away the sand from under you causing you to sink, so make sure to keep moving.

For anyone who didn’t grow up playing in streams as a kid like I did, funny things can happen around big rocks when in the water. The area surrounding big rocks tend to be deeper and muddier than others, so again, best to avoid. The spot where I got stuck in the mud and was unable to get myself out as mentioned above was in trying to pass between two large sized rocks.

Maps

The BLM will provide you with a map when you pick up your permit. This is the most up to date map with available campsites etc., but I found another map online that I thought was much more detailed and helpful:

Tom’s Desert Maps

I used a combination of both of these for our trip – the BLM map to show where the campsites are, and Tom’s map for other landmarks and mileage markers (such as the Petroglyphs, additional “non reliable” springs, or the power lines that cross the canyon at Mile 2).

paria-canyon-buckskin-gulch-water-source-map-thumb

Campsites

There are lots of places to camp once you get past the Confluence. It’s kinda a free-for-all honestly. Yes there are marked campsites on the BLM map that you should adhere to since these have already been impacted by humans and are more easily accessible, but really there’s so many river banks where you could set up camp if you need to.

paria canyon campsite

The BLM campsite map mostly just gives you a good idea of the areas where there’s going to be enough solid ground to camp so that you can gauge these distances effectively.

Remember to Leave No Trace!

The campsites closer to the confluence are more obvious as more people have used them, but further into the canyon some of the sites becomes harder to spot. I honestly can’t even tell you if the place we camped on the second night was a designated campsite or not even though that’s what we were aiming for.

Water Sources

There are so many fresh water springs and seeps! I was really nervous about knowing exactly where all of the reliable springs were before we left, but as it turned out, there were so many springs that I mistook some of them for being the marked reliable springs.

Between 2 and 13 miles after the confluence (at least in May when we went) there were plenty of opportunities for fresh water, some better than others. The reliable springs were flowing strongly and steadily whereas some of the other seeps where barely dripping, but either way there were options.

Some of them are very obvious and hard to miss, whereas others are a bit more hidden. But ALL of them have this plant growing around the spring:

paria-canyon-spring

In some cases, the seep is literally coming right through the cracks in the side of canyon wall. For these, the fresh water collects in pools below the seep. As long as there wasn’t any algae or anything growing in the pools, we scooped the water right out of it and that worked just fine. We purified everything regardless just incase.

If you see green on a canyon wall, that’s probably a spring!

  • Big Spring – 4.5 miles from The Confluence
    the big spring
  • Shower Spring – 15.5 miles from The Confluence (on the right side, hidden in some rocks)
    paria canyon shower spring
  • Last Reliable Spring – 18.5 miles from The Confluence (on the left side, hidden behind some boulders and ferns, across from a large campsite)

There are a few other springs/ seeps we found:
paria canyon spring

  • There were two in quick succession around 2 miles past the confluence. I confused the second one to be the “Big Spring”.
  • A small seep shortly past Judd Hollow’s Pump
  • A small seep on the left side of the river at the bend just before the “Shower Spring”.
  • Between “Shower Spring” and “The Last Reliable Spring” there were several springs on the right side of the river up a bit from the canyon. You might have to climb a little to get to them, but it could be done.
  • A small spring/pool at the campsite at Bush Head Canyon.
  • Two small spring at Wilson’s Ranch (8.5mi after the Last Reliable Spring). These were a bit muddy and came out of the ground, but would work if you were really desperate.

Pro Tip: Fill up at the “Big Spring” as there aren’t as many small seeps between that and the next reliable spring. Also, make sure to fill up at “The Last Reliable Spring” even if you don’t think you need to. The last 10 miles of your hike could be brutally hot and you’re going to need that water.

Since you’re following the river, you could also drink from it if you really want to with purification tables and a filter. The river is very silty and some hikers have had difficulty with osmosis filters getting clogged (but did have luck with ceramic filters that can be scrubbed clean between uses). Also as it’s a river, there are animals that live upstream, so purification would be necessary.

Backpacking Gear

In addition to our:

Essential Backpacking Gear Printable Checklist

These are the items that you’re gonna need on your trip:

Water shoes: Rubber Sole Mesh Water Shoes
Leave your hiking boots at home – you won’t need them! I literally wore mine for 3mi out of the entire trip. You will be walking through water the entire time, so rather than be stuck in wet hiking boots, water shoes provide a good quick-dry alternative while still maintaining a grip.

Neoprene socks: 3mm, Calf- High
To go with your water shoes and protect your feet! I went with 3mm and wouldn’t recommend going any lower. They will add extra cushion in your water shoes and also will keep your feet warm. The 18″ height is also important because it helps to keep the silt and mud out. My fiancé got ankle socks and was getting stuff stuck in his socks constantly.

Open Mouthed Water Bottle: Nalgene or similar
Some of the seeps are little more than a trickle, but multiple trickles will fill up faster than collecting just one. Also, if you’re trying to get water out of a pool that has collected on the ground, an open mouthed container is much easier for doing this than your hydration bladder.

Distance Tracker: GPS Watch
Given that there’s no cell service and you need to make sure you find the fresh water springs, you need to know how far you’ve hiked and when you should start looking for them. A GPS or pedometer or other sort of mileage tracker will help you keep track of where you are in the canyon so that you know when to start looking for the fresh water springs and also if you’ve made your day with how far you needed to travel before setting up camp.

Trekking Poles: Adjustable Trekking Poles
I personally don’t usually use trekking poles since I like to have my hands free, though I know many do. Trekking poles would be very handy here for: crossing the river when you can’t see what’s on the bottom, testing muddy areas to see how much they slip or grip, as a third leg when crossing some treacherous mountain/ rocky areas towards the end of the trip.

Foldable Stool: REI Co-op Trail Stool
Normally, you wouldn’t want to carry the extra weight, but it was SO glad I brought this! In many of the campsites there’s no place to sit at all and after walking all day, sitting on the ground on tired legs kinda sucks. Also, this was super handy and helpful for getting off those wet neoprene socks and water shoes!

Camp Shoes: Lightweight, foldable sandals or similar
This is already included on the backpacking checklist, but I just want to reiterate it. After walking in water for 10 miles, you’re going to want to put your feet in something else. Plus your shoes will be wet (even with water shoes) until the next morning, so you need something to wear around camp.

Optional:
Hammock: Odoland Lightweight Camping Hammock
There were surprisingly a lot of trees, especially towards the beginning and end of the hike. Pretty much every campsite had a tree or two of some kind and most were pretty sturdy. If you wanted to, you could probably make a hammock work in quite a few of the campsites.

What To Expect Along The Trail: White House to Lee’s Ferry

When you pick up your permit from the BLM, you will be given Wag Bags. In the past, Wag Bags were only required in the narrows and you could just use a trowel for the rest of the canyon, but this is no longer the case and they’re required for the entire hike.

The terrain changes drastically as you go through the canyon. There are 4 pretty distinct sections that I think you can separate the trail into, each with its own unique challenges and beauty.

“The Canyon”

White House/ Wire Pass /Buckskin Gulch to 7miles Past The Confluence

paria canyon narrows
This section is what you think of when you think of this trail and what the majority of photos you see are from. Tall canyon walls, narrows, and river water. The canyon twists and turns which allows for a good amount of shade depending on how narrow the canyon you’re going through is. The first half of this section encompasses “the narrows” and then the canyon opens up a bit shortly past the confluence, but can still be considered canyon hiking. There are some really amazing canyon landscapes that make you feel very small and diminutive towards the end of this section. The rock formations are really impressive and have a surprising variety of colors.

The Marshlands

7miles – 16miles Past The Confluence

paria canyon trail
This was my least favorite section of the hike, and “marshlands” is the best thing I can think of to describe it. Here the canyon has widened considerably so that there is pretty much no shade. You continue to follow the river as it horseshoe-s back on itself over and over again. The sides of the river are lined with sandy banks with tall grasses and a few sparse trees, which don’t offer many places to set your pack down and rest. It was nice to start to see many small birds living in the grasses and trees along the river, and even a few tiny freshwater fish in some places.

The Rocky River

16miles- 21miles Past The Confluence

paria canyon
I grew up playing in a stream next to our house, so I thought this section was pretty much. The canyon has gotten slightly more narrow here, though the walls are no longer as tall, but there is some shade as you trek along the river. The river has become littered with big rocks and boulders that you have to bypass. The sides of the river have transformed from sandy river banks to rock ledges that blend into the walls of the canyon. The river has picked up speed here and there are several rapids and even small waterfalls in some sections. The going is slow as you’re more careful crossing the river and are mostly climbing over rocks along the side of the river to continue on the path. In this section is also where we started to see a bunch of lizards scurrying across the rocks.

I thought that the 1.5 miles from Bush Head Canyon to the next campsite in this section was the hardest section of the entire trip. Within that 1.5 miles, there’s one section where you’re up away from the river and walking through a b



This post first appeared on Our Infinite Earth, please read the originial post: here

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Paria Canyon & Buckskin Gulch Backpacking Guide

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