Sunday, October 11, 2015

Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch Trailhead: Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness

Essence: Permits are available at the trailhead. While Coyote Wash (Wire Pass) is commonly traveled, Buckskin Gulch upstream of the confluence is sparsely visited. Slots and narrows diminish a mile north of the junction. Explore a hidden and fantastical sandstone world east of the wash.
Travel: At mile marker 25.7 on U.S. Route 89, about five miles west of the Paria Contact Station, turn south on House Rock Valley Road. Conditions on this dirt road vary widely but a 2WD vehicle with moderate clearance can usually reach either trailhead.  Buckskin Gulch Trailhead is 4.5 miles down the road; Wire Pass Trailhead, 8.4 miles. While we began at the Wire Pass Trailhead, this out-and-back may be done in either direction. A shuttle will save half the distance. Trailheads have pit toilets but no water.
Fees: Permits for day hiking can be obtained at the self-serve pay station in the parking lot. The fee is $6.00 per person/dog.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 13 miles roundtrip minimum, additional to explore "Pink Pocket;" roughly 500 feet of elevation gain
Time: 6:00 to all day
Difficulty: Extreme flash flood hazard. Hike only on a severe-clear day. Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; mild scrambling in Coyote Wash; no exposure; mud and pools are common;
Maps: Pine Hollow Canyon; West Clark Bench, UT 7.5 Quads; Trails Illustrated: Paria Canyon, Kanab No. 859
Latest Date Hiked: October 11, 2015
Quote: Light is the language of God. Gregory David Roberts

Buckskin Gulch. (THW, photo)
Route: Begin at the Wire Pass Trailhead. Walk east down Coyote Wash to Buckskin Gulch. Turn upcanyon/north, and continue to the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead. Detour and explore Pink Pocket, a wonderland of sandstone.

Obtain your day-use permit. Leave the stub on your dash; this parking lot is heavily patrolled since it is the staging area for day hiking in Coyote Buttes North and backpacking in Paria Canyon. From the trailhead, elevation 4,880 feet, cross the road. Either walk in the bed of Coyote Wash or use the trail on the south side.

Early morning, we enjoy peaceful solitude. The Big Four keep company: piƱon-juniper, rabbit brush pumping out the wattage in October, and three species of sage in bloom. (THW, photo)

At 0.6 mile, the Coyote Buttes North trail branches right. Leave the trail; stay in the wash. It is flat, rubble free, and lovely. Walls slot up at 1.4 miles.

There are two sets of narrows in the  0.3 mile preceding the confluence. Enter the scalloped passageway. Rosy sandstone shimmers with captured, sunflexed light.

Scramble down a chockstone obstacle with a seven foot drop. Every step through fluted sinuosity is unique and yet nothing is surprising. The union of water and stone creates predictable patterns. (THW, photo)

The slot takes a break in the sun and then tightens up again.

As we approach the confluence the finger canyon is dark, vertical, and hushed with anticipation. I am in love with Coyote. (THW, photo)

At 1.7 miles, emerge at the nexus. Common in significant locations, petroglyphs adorn the base of the southwest wall. Find a 40 foot wavy line and bighorn sheep. Around the corner are more images. (THW, photo)

Here, our route turns upcanyon/left. However, if your passion is slots, I recommend you spend the day in Buckskin Gulch downcanyon and return through Coyote Wash as you came. It is 10.8 miles from here to the Paria River confluence. Please link to my earlier Buckskin/Paria entry for images and text on Earth's longest (and prettiest) traversable slot canyon.

Going upstream toward Buckskin Gulch Trailhead, the constricted corridor runs half a mile. The floor is 8-20 feet wide, the walls are 30 to 100 feet tall. (THW, photo)

The canyon opens gradually, the narrows concluding 0.9 from the confluence at mile 2.6. Conical sandstone structures are captivating. (THW, photo)

To visit Pink Pocket turn right/east into a broad sandy wash at 4.2 miles. Note: if your goal is to spend the day in Pink Pocket, start at the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead and walk 2.0 miles down the wash before going east. The image of the juncture below was taken while walking downstream. The conical point is the landscape marker for the side trip. Slog through deep sand for 0.2 mile. The wash flares from an easily scaled natural stone barrier. Emerge in a slickrock world of exhumed desert sand dunes. We gave the area the informal name Pink Pocket because it is reminiscent of White Pocket with a color adjustment.

The ancient dunes, exposed by uplift and erosion, are Navajo Sandstone, the most prominent rock layer on the Colorado Plateau. Walk on slickrock with characteristic polygonal cracks. On this day, we spent only an hour in Pink Pocket. We returned in April, 2016 and explored all day. First, we climbed the dome, elevation 5,220 feet, south of the entrance. From its crest, Coyote Buttes is visible in the south. We were attracted to the bench made exclusively of turtleback weathering mounds so we went there next.

From there, we found a slope with colorful and complex cross-bedding. This image looks back on the 5,220 foot dome. (THW, photo)

We walked along the slopes of The Dive attracted by huge fin sheets. While these are easy to avoid, Pink Pocket is covered with tiny, fragile fins that mustn't be crushed underfoot.

These outrageous fins are north of the entrance. (THW, photo)

Stupefying fins going every which way cover this knob.  (THW, photo)

Return to Buckskin Gulch and continue upcanyon. The Portal is at mile 5.8 without the side trip. There is a petroglyph panel featuring bighorn sheep upcanyon-right about 100 yards before the narrow passage. We checked out a side canyon coming in from the east; it walls up in 0.4 mile.

Past the Portal, a wide open flat flanked with Vermilion colored globular rock mounds precedes the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead. This is at 6.5 miles without side trips. If you planted a shuttle vehicle, this ends your hike. We are grateful for a second pass through this visually sensational landscape. It is good fortune to be walking on rapidly drying mud instead of tiresome soft sand. The Dive rises high in the east. The highly textured cross-bedded walls are polychromatic.

Our canyon eases into its business of narrowing in fits and starts. Typical of the renowned segment of Buckskin beyond Coyote, even here the canyon floor is uncommonly clean. The vertical, fluted walls have a natural, pleasing orderliness. (THW, photo)

Walk on jets of sunlight. (THW, photo)

We enjoy complete solitude until we arrive back at the confluence with Coyote Wash. There, the canyon was beset with scads of people. Nevertheless, the mystical and inexplicable power of this Earth rift, the luminous quality of ventricle light, prevailed and it always will.


  1. It is August 28, 2017 and my wife and I are planning to go to Utah via Arizona on the 15th of September. Your photo-journal and topo map will help out and are needless to say are very inspiring. The areas we plan to hike are Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch "up canyon," West Clark Bench, Wahweap Hoodoos, Cobra Arch, Broken Bow Arch, Yellow Rock, Willis Creek, Mule Canyon South, Comb Ridge and if we can find a reputable Navajo guide, Poncho House Ruins and Chinle Wash area. We have a busy day hike schedule for our 9 days, but I've selected what I believe to be relatively easier and varied hikes because my wife likes to hike and is getting better, but some hiking situations still scare her and I have to coax her along. Does anyone have any info on the West Clark Bench area? We wanted to hike around the beautiful sandstone fins etc. in that area. Thank you for your article. Any suggestions on navigating better any of these areas or situations to beware of is much appreciated...
    Ed Burns

    1. Hi Ed,
      You have made a superb and eclectic selection of hikes. They are all on-trail so the navigation shouldn't be too tough. I totally rely on my 7.5 topos and recommend them. None of the hikes you list are terribly difficult--no scrambling, no exposure. Road access should be good in September. I don't have any more information on West Clark Bench other than what's in Earthline. You should see awesome fins in Pink Pocket. I have explored Comb Ridge thoroughly over 20 years but I feel SE Utah is too sensitive to include in public writing. You are going to have a wonderful trip. Thanks for reading, Debra