Buckskin Gulch

After our first visit to Buckskin Gulch, we looked at each other and asked, “How could there be a place this amazing that we’ve never heard of before?” Dumb luck was on our side when we hiked it for the first time; the canyon was bone dry, which saved us from having to wade through the pools of stagnant water that usually greet hikers on their trek through the longest, deepest slot canyon in the southwest.

A combination of things makes Buckskin unique: the winding, narrow walls hundreds of feet high with sides sculpted into ripples by wind and water, and the reflected light from above creating infinite shades of color as it makes its way to the canyon floor. Many landscapes are labeled awe-inspiring; this one left us speechless.

Buckskin Gulch
Karen in Buckskin Gulch

There are many ways to hike Buckskin Gulch. Ironically, starting at the Buckskin Gulch trailhead is not the preferred route. We’ve always done it by driving to the Wire Pass trailhead and hiking from there to the confluence of Buckskin Gulch. The Wire Pass parking lot is about eight miles south of Highway 89 on House Rock Valley Road, which is halfway between Kanab, Utah and Page, Arizona. Once you exit Highway 89, the road to the parking lot is gravel and somewhat rough. I wouldn’t recommend driving it in a small rental sedan, but we have, and we didn’t have any problems.

There’s nothing wrong with stopping at the Buckskin Gulch trailhead, which is about four miles from Highway 89, and hiking into the canyon from there. What we’ve read, however, is that the canyon is less interesting from that trailhead to the confluence with Wire Pass, so you’re better off starting at Wire Pass and skipping that portion of the gulch. Once at the junction of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch, we turn right and hike until our legs tell us we better turn around if we want to be able to move the next day. Getting through the slot canyon portion of Wire Pass requires a bit of scrambling but is doable for most people. It helps to be with another person as long as they are comfortable pushing on your butt to help you get over a couple of the taller choke points.

Sign at Wire Pass trailhead. The green lines are the trails. You can see how starting at Wire Pass and hiking east bypasses the first section of Buckskin Gulch.

If you encounter pools of water on the trail and are still intent on forging through, trekking poles are useful to help gauge the depth of the water ahead of you. You also might consider bringing extra layers as the temperature is much cooler in the canyon. Even if you don’t need a change of dry clothes, layers are nice to have. And, put those extra clothes and whatever else you don’t want to get soaked with stank water in a dry bag. Buckskin is on BLM land, and it’s worth a visit to one of their local ranger stations before heading to the trailhead. There’s one in Kanab and another a couple of miles east of the House Rock Valley Road on Highway 89. The rangers can tell you if the trail is flooded and can also give you specific information about all of your hiking options and where exactly to find the trailhead.

While the temperature was in the 80s in the canyon, my compass/whistle/thermometer said it was over 110 degrees when we got back to our car after hiking Buckskin Gulch. (June 2012)

Another way to experience Buckskin is a one-way, multi-day backpack trip through the gulch, connecting with Paria Canyon where the two meet. Buckskin Gulch is over 13 miles long. Continuing through Paria adds another seven miles before there’s a place to exit the canyon. Some even go all the way to Lees Ferry, which adds another 20 miles to the trip. Wherever you exit, you’ll have to leave a car at the other end of your route or arrange for a shuttle to pick you up. Permits for overnight stays in the canyon are limited to 20 persons per night and often sell out well in advance. There is no limit on permits for day hiking in the canyon. Pay stations at the trailheads collect the $6 per person fee.

Regardless of whether you’re planning to be in the canyon for a couple of hours or several days, the most critical detail to pay attention to is the weather forecast. The Paria and its tributaries, of which Buckskin Gulch is one, usually experience several flash floods each year. Flooding in Buckskin is especially dangerous because there’s virtually nowhere to climb to safety if a flash flood comes through while you’re in the canyon. Along the six-mile stretch we hiked, there were precisely zero places we could have climbed out had the canyon flooded. And it doesn’t have to be raining overhead for it to flood where you’re standing. The most dangerous situation is one where a storm, miles upstream—one you might be oblivious to—causes a wall of water and debris to sweep through the canyon several hours later. The risk of flood is a big reason why Backpacker Magazine named Buckskin Gulch one of the most dangerous hikes in the United States.

Sign at Wire Pass trailhead

Flash floods can also change the trail in remarkable ways. It’s not uncommon for debris from the most recent deluge to create choke points that didn’t exist before. Or, floods can remove obstacles that have been in place for years. Use trail descriptions—like this one—as a general guide; the trail may have changed since the author was there last.

We’ve hiked Buckskin several times and will probably go back many more. Having read most of the online descriptions of the trail, we were surprised to learn that there are rattlesnakes in the gulch. We’ve seen photos and videos of other hikers’ encounters with them, but we’ve never run into one—that we know of. One blogger mentioned that the rattlers in the gulch tend to be small and docile, which doesn’t bring us comfort in any way. Years ago, Karen told me of a hiking tip she’d read that suggested always to carry a Sharpie when hiking. The logic is that if you get bitten by a rattlesnake, you can circle the bite and write the time and date next to the wound (and the telephone number of your next of kin). This way when (if) the EMTs arrive and you’re passed out, they’ll have a clue as to what happened. I laughed at this tip when she first told it to me; now, after several close encounters with poisonous snakes, I never hike without a Sharpie.

Now that the obligatory flood and snake warnings have been noted, let’s get back to the main point of this article: Buckskin Gulch is truly awe-inspiring and a must-see destination.

Click here to go to the BLM’s Buckskin Gulch web page.

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