Thursday, May 10, 2012

Paria River via Buckskin Gulch

Essence: Paria Canyon is world renowned for sculptural sandstone narrows. Buckskin Gulch is the longest traversable slot canyon in the world; Wrather Arch, one of the largest Earth spans. Explore two abandoned meanders. A five-day backpack through a soaring, vertical-walled canyon.
Travel:  From Page, AZ, drive west on Hwy 89 for 30 miles. The Paria Contact Station is on the left/south. Stop here to pick up the required human waste bags. Drop a shuttle vehicle at the White House Trailhead, two miles down a dirt road that begins at the station.  From here, it is 15.3 miles to the Wire Pass Trailhead. Return to Hwy 89 and go west 5 miles to The Cockscomb. Turn left onto House Rock Valley Road at mile marker 25.7. This road is suitable for 2WD when dry. Wire Pass Trailhead is 8.3 miles south. Allow 6 hours to reach the Paria Contact Station from Durango.
Stateline Campground: From Wire Pass, go south another mile to this pleasant campground: outhouses, shade covers over tables, no reservations and no water. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 53 miles; Roughly 1,200 feet of elevation gain with side trips
Difficulty: Flash flood hazard in 12.5 mile-long Buckskin Gulch; one boulder-jam, class 3 downclimb in Buckskin; river channel walking; navigation moderate; carry all the water you will need for the first and last day.
Maps: Hiker's Guide to Paria Canyon, BLM; and the following 7.5 Quads: Pine Hollow Canyon, UT-AZ; West Clark Bench, UT-AZ; Bridger Point, UT-AZ; Wrather Arch, AZ.
Dates Hiked: May 6-10, 2012
Permit Required: May is the ideal time to backpack. Days are long and warm, the threat of a flash flood is minimal, springs are generous. On February first, at noon precisely, the international competition for permits opens online and within minutes, all slots for May are allocated. Only twenty people per day are allowed to enter the Paria Canyon complex via any of the four trailheads: White House, Middle Route, Buckskin Gulch, and Wire Pass.
An important note from author Steve Allen about protecting endangered National Monuments in Southern Utah.  
Quote: I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. Henry David Thoreau
Route: The classic backpacker's route through Paria Canyon begins at White House Trailhead and ends 38.2 miles downstream at the confluence with the Colorado River.  Alternatively, enter at Wire Pass, walk 12.5 miles down Buckskin Gulch to the Paria River confluence, and on to Lee's Ferry, 43 miles. Our group settled on a nonconventional approach. We entered at Wire Pass, walked downcanyon to Wrather Arch, and then upstream to White House for a total of 53 miles. By doing so we doubled up on some of the most scenic portions; avoided the waterless, sun exposed lower Paria; and minimized our shuttle hassle. Mileage monikers are from the BLM guide: B=Buckskin and P=Paria.

Map is downloadable for viewing in full resolution.

The Paria River gathers its water from the high country in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and runs roughly southeast, crossing the Utah/Arizona border, slicing through Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, and spilling into the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry.

We were warned of potential hazards in Buckskin Gulch: no escape from flash floods; cold swims through stagnant, nasty cesspools; a boulder jam at mile 11. Yet, how could we pass up the extraordinary opportunity to begin our trip by walking through the longest slot canyon in the world? Fortunately, the flash flood hazard for our permit period was nil and following a dry winter and spring, Buckskin was favorably void of water.

From the ample parking lot at Wire Pass TH, 4,870', cross the road, briefly sharing the trail with the Coyote Buttes North route. In 0.3 mile, drop into Coyote Wash (Wire Pass) and enter the first narrows. Stay in the wash as 40 foot high walls come and go. 

Buckskin Gulch. (THW, photo)
Reach the dry confluence with Buckskin Gulch at 1.7 miles and turn right. The large opening rapidly pinches to the inescapable slot. The only place for an emergency exit is 5.7 miles downcanyon where the Middle Route joins (B10.5). Do not enter if there is any threat of a flash flood.

We enter a pool of shade while walking on a shaft of light. Note the lintel so perfectly placed by a flash flood. Inside the constriction we find vertical sheer walls; fluted and scalloped stone walls; a few straight passageways among the labyrinthine; and womb-like recesses. This slim, longitudinal canyon with its vertical emphasis is rarely more than ten feet wide. In places it squeezes so narrowly our packs scrape both walls. (THW, photo)

Buckskin is primarily bathed in chilly darkness.  So when there is light, it is dramatic luminosity. We stand in jets of sunlight to warm ourselves. Occasionally, thin cracks in the ceiling reveal a flawless, solid blue sky. The feeling is ethereal.

Well into the sinuous canyon, deep within the rock, noise from horizontal directions is cut off. We are in a storm-carved, corridor cathedral. Rounding a corner in Buckskin. (THW, photo)

Again and again the dark entries of elliptical chambers beckon, satisfying our attraction to the unknown without the usual anxiety. On this warm day, with no threat of rushing water or even wading pools, Buckskin is a refuge, a peaceful hallway exuding a sense of protection, security and serenity. And yet, a bit of magic mixes with awe. Happily trapped in the ventricle, when raucous ravens fly between canyon walls, I envision a fire breathing dragon flying straight at me.

Sandstone plays tricks. This water sculpted wall is the ocean surface lying on its side.

Two hikers enjoy almost flat, effortless walking in Buckskin. (Richard Butler, photo)

Buckskin Gulch is a highly unusual slot. If it were typical, it'd be filled with obstacles and obstructions that would bar human travel or restrict it to those handy with a rope. This truly remarkable drainageway goes on and on offering no resistance. The one exception is at 11 miles, 1.5 miles from the Paria confluence, where garage-size boulders block the channel (B14.4). We packed a rope for the boulder jam but find it already well adorned with line. After lowering packs, we do an inconsequential downclimb and are quickly back on our way. If you pass this way when the canyon is pooled, there are steps chiseled into a stone face; most people would need a rope. Or, you could go for a swim.

As we approach the transept with the Paria River, straight up and down walls meet the flat, uniform, sandy floor at 90 degrees. A glistening thin filament of water accentuates this nexus. Our first night we camp 0.5 mile downstream of the Buckskin, Paria intersection for  total of 13 miles. The camp, just before P8, is downcanyon-right on a grassy sand dune well above the canyon floor. We gather clear water from the base of an in-stream boulder.
Water can be problematic in Paria Canyon. If there is too much, passage is impossible. It can be too turbid to easily treat. We find it plentiful and clear. Well upstream, water is siphoned off for irrigation so travel is easy through the shallows. In low morning light, cliffs reflect on the moist plane. (THW, photo)

What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well. Antoine de Saint-Exupery

All the seeps are dripping and springs are gushing. While I simply dip and drink, the cautious purify. Perennial Wall Spring at mile P9.4. (THW, photo)

Paria Canyon is characterized by the elemental topography of bare necessity: water, sandstone, sand.

Scramble up slippery slickrock into the entrenched meander at P11.2, and behold a multihued, prismatic spectrum of desert polychrome: carmine, cayenne, cinnabar, terra cotta, henna, burnt orange, tamarisk pink, smoke grey, and bone white. Scale a rockfall into a hidden grotto, raven black. This jettisoned world is as beautiful as my dreams. We walk through the rincon, returning to the living river, not far from where we left our packs. Don't miss this side trip. (Richard Butler, photo)

We construct our lives by a series of complex choices, one twining to the next, incising one meander, abandoning another. Decisions are driven by idiosyncratic, authentic motivations, indicative of who we are. The Paria was similarly constructed but our experience of it is unlike ordinary life in every way. This canyon was formed long before us, carved by water and rolling stone. Today, it is a constricted, thin cleavage with precious few entryways and exits. Once committed, the hiker has but two choices, to carry on or to turn back. We sojourn onward, of course, for that is why we are here. Free of the drive or need to make decisions, we allow ourselves to be directed by the landscape, not by our calculating minds. Ah, such a consuming burden lifted. For a time we are one with the Paria, carried by ancient water. This leaves us free to observe the simple topography of our sanctuary, and the complex landscape of our souls.

Towering walls reach to the heavens as hikers walk benignly. 

Big Spring at P12.3, is a copious gusher. Pass an immense alcove at P12.8 that covers the whole river. Wiggle through the sinuous Goosenecks. Pass the Third Crack. Attempts to penetrate First, Second, and Third Cracks were a bust. Drop packs and climb into the double abandoned meander at P14.3. Fluted sandstone, sculpted by an ancient watercourse is now stranded 50 feet above the river. Flowers enhance a sand mound: spiderwort; peachy white, pink and yellow prickly pear; and hedgehog with cerise blossoms. Amble for a mile on the timeless channel bottom. You will be cliffed out at the end of the rincon with a stunning view of the river, and must return the way you came.

After a 10 mile day, we spend the first of two nights at Amphitheater Camp, mile P14.8. A 500 foot high curve of over-hanging stone reaches across the river, casting camp with its forest of box elders, in perpetual shade. The siren alarm of peregrine falcons contrasts with the raven's low croak and the incomparable canyon wren's descending cascade of laughter. Clear, echoing calls dominate the sound environment, rivaled only by amphibious croaks in the night. The mysterious power and grandeur of this astounding canyon is at its peak in the moonlight when cliffs are draped in light and shadow.

On our third day, we leave our big packs in camp and blithely trek six miles downstream to the tributary canyon bearing Wrather Arch. At P15, we were able to penetrate 0.8 mile up the Fourth Crack before turning around at a barrier fall. Maneuver through Boulder Alley at P16.2. At Adam's Pump (P17.4), the author, center, and companions pause to consult a map. (THW, photo)

A spring gurgles through a pebble-filled cavity in the streambed at P18.4 and we fill our bottles, untreated. The Hole (P19.2), is a sensational reflection pool.

Paria Canyon is most unusual because its walls are exit. Wrather Arch canyon is a notable exception. At P20.5, walk southwest up the lush and narrow side canyon for 1.0 mile. Climb the steep, sandy hill to the arch. One of the largest arches in the world, this broad-backed, muscular span with a cylindrical orifice, looks like the open tube of a breaking wave. (THW, photo)

Backtracking to camp, the full-length, linear wall cracks and towers look like sentinels. There is more vegetation along this lower section of river, the banks crowded with cottonwoods. It is a 14 mile day without the detour up Fourth Crack.

Most trekkers will, of course, continue downstream from Wrather Arch to Lee's Ferry. A thru-hike is generally preferred over an out-and-back. Paria Canyon is such a sensory overload, I was delighted to repeat 12 miles. On our fourth day, we walk upstream and go out of our way to camp 0.5 mile up Buckskin Gulch at a lovely site on the right. We stop below the confluence to water-up for a dry camp and the hike out. Notably, the water level in the river had dropped significantly and it is a lengthy process getting sufficient water. We spend a couple of hours wandering in lower Buckskin. It was an 8 mile day without the afternoon walk.    

On our final day, we return 0.5 mile to the confluence, below, and turn left toward White House Trailhead.The juncture of Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon is raw. A whisper of water veils sand and we wend our way through near vertical, towering narrows. Over 7.5 miles, water is now hidden beneath the surface, walls shorten, the canyon widens, fantastical sandstone structures delight, and then appears the white Navajo Sandstone formation that signifies the approaching trailhead.

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