Buckskin Gulch—the longest, deepest slot canyon in the Southwest—has long been on our hiking bucket list. Located in the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness in southern Utah, the canyon is an undulating, narrow, 13-mile long corridor of sculpted sandstone.
We enjoy challenging hikes. But when I happened across an article in Backpacking Magazine that described Buckskin Gulch as one of the most dangerous hikes in America, I started having second thoughts.
Tackling the entire canyon requires an overnight trip (it’s a 21-mile journey); wading through waist-deep pools of cold, muddy water; and navigating rock and log jams with 15-foot or more drop-offs. What makes the canyon so perilous, though, is the risk of flash floods—with no means of escape along most of the route.
Still, we wanted to hike Buckskin Gulch—not the entire length, but part of it. And preferably, not the part with the deep, cold, mud baths, or the part with the rock falls that require ropes and canyoneering skills. With some research, we came up with a plan.
We stopped at the BLM contact station to inquire about the current conditions. The ranger assured us that with no impending storms within a 50-mile radius, it was a good day for hiking the canyon. The road to the trailhead had even been recently graded. But when I inquired about the condition of the trail, the news was less encouraging.
Our plan was to begin hiking at the Wire Pass Canyon trailhead, an option with more interesting scenery and a quicker route into the heart of Buckskin Gulch. But I had read accounts of the rock fall that blocks access to Wire Pass Canyon, with some people saying it was a four-foot drop off, others saying it was ten. “The canyon changes with every flash flood,” said the ranger. “Right now, there’s at least a ten-foot drop off.” Could we climb down the rock fall? “Probably not—but there’s a workaround.” Is there a marked trail? “Nope, but you can’t miss it.” And with these rather vague but encouraging directions, we headed out.
As promised, the road to the Wire Pass trailhead was an easy drive over a recently graded dirt road. We signed in at the trailhead and started out along the sandy wash. After an easy three-quarter mile hike, we entered the slot canyon, wanting to see for ourselves just how challenging the rock fall would be to navigate. We had already encountered several people on the trail who had turned around, discouraged, when they reached the enormous choke stone blocking the trail. “What about the alternative trail?” I asked. Everyone told us there wasn’t one.
We reached the choke stone, looked over the edge, and I said, “No way.” But finding the workaround was not as easy as the ranger had promised. With no marked trail, we started a sharp ascent up the sandstone cliffs, scouting the edge of the canyon until we reached a place where descent was possible. I have no pride when it comes to these kinds of challenges—crawling, scooting on my butt, I don’t care what it looks like—my focus is on getting down without falling over the edge. Once in the slot canyon, it was a remarkably easy and beautiful one-mile hike to the confluence of Wire Pass Canyon and Buckskin Gulch.
At the confluence, you have a choice: turn right (down canyon), and you’ll likely encounter mud or deep water about a half-mile in. Turn left, and you wend your way through the magnificent slot canyon of Buckskin Gulch for about two miles before it opens up into a wash—a wonderland of swirling sandstone and fanciful rock formations that look like soft serve ice cream. You can guess which way we chose.
Hiking back, we retraced our steps through the sandstone cathedral of Buckskin Gulch. This time, though, we opted to tackle the boulder fall that chokes Wire Pass Canyon, figuring it couldn’t be much more difficult than the workaround we chose on the way in.
The rock fall is easier going up than coming down because you can see what you’re doing. But at least in my case, being taller would have helped a lot. After I quite gracefully (at least in my mind) climbed the rock fall and hoisted myself up onto the boulder, I got stuck on my belly, unable to move forward or backward because I couldn’t reach a wall to gain leverage. I started doing little pushups, trying to move myself along, but was stuck so far back on the boulder that I wasn’t making much progress. And then I started to laugh, which didn’t help at all. Fortunately, two kind hikers at the top each grabbed an arm and pulled, while Eric climbed up the rock fall behind me and pushed on my feet. (I told you I have no pride when it comes to these kinds of situations.)
If You Go:
The best and safest time to hike Buckskin Gulch is the dry season (April through June), when the likelihood of a flash flood is minimal. It’s also the most popular time to hike the canyon, but in mid-May, we saw few other people.
To access the Wire Pass trailhead from Page, travel west 34 miles on Highway 89. (Be sure to stop along the way at the Paria BLM contact station for updated road and canyon conditions.) Turn left (south) onto House Rock Valley Road (BLM Road 1065) and drive approximately 8 miles to the trailhead parking area.
Permits are required for hiking and can be obtained at the self-serve pay station at the trailhead. The fee is $6.00 per person/per dog. Be sure to take plenty of water, because there’s none available at the trailhead.
Next Up: Toadstools And Technicolor Hills: Southern Utah