Paria River and Buckskin Gulch, Utah
April 11 - 13, 2004
Dave Svilar, Jill Wolverton
Pulling out his calendar the ranger expressed his doubts, "You know kid, this is the Southwest's toughest permit besides the Grand Canyon." A quick scan of the calendar revealed "FULL, FULL, FULL...." - my heart sunk. However upon closer inspection there were somehow two nights with permits available - April 11, 12 - just the nights we needed. Ecstatically I looked over at Jill sitting in the corner of the station and gave a thumbs up. She didn't really see what the big deal was, she left trip planning to me, but gave me a courteous smile anyway. Within a couple of hours she would see what caused my excitement - one of the truly beautiful and unique outings of our lives.
The trail begins innocently along the Paria River in a wide open sandy wash. Two women, geared out in REI's latest must-have backpacking gear had left before us, but seemed to be struggling just ahead. "We had to turn back, there's no way to cross the river!" Looking at us like we were a couple of savages the women watched in utter amazement as we stepped directly in the water hiking shoes and all. The Paria isn't exactly the Mississippi and we knew that wading in the river was ultimately inevitable, so why waste time keeping your feet dry. For the first few miles the river meandered through an open area rimmed by rocks with a 'wavy' texturing like those of the nearby Vermilion Cliffs. Crossing the river numerous times, which was mostly ankle deep and never exceeded knee depth, we enjoyed watching the scenery improve with every turn.
|SANDBAR A brief respite from wading the river.|
|THE WAVE Inspecting formations unique to the area.|
After several miles neither of us flinched when crossing the river as our feet went numb. Soon the walls of the canyon began to grow higher and closer together - we had entered the narrows. Walls of Wingate and Navajo sandstone glowed a deep red while river wading became the norm, in some places water filled the canyon wall to wall. Near the eight mile point a tributary of the Paria, the Buckskin Gulch, forms a confluence with the river. We thought this a good point to start looking for camping.
|SLIDE ROCK ARCH Jill feels small inside the giant landmark.|
|NARROWS Approaching camp the scenery's beauty is surpassed only by that of Jill's.|
Our campsite didn't miss a beat in continuing with the theme of awe-inspiring beauty. Near the confluence, perched on a laser level flat sandbar we threw down the tent. Walls rose grandly on all sides extending over 200 feet vertically leaving only a small window of sky directly overhead. Green grass and one lonely green tree contrasted sharply with with canyon walls that glowed deep red from the reflected sunlight. Gurgling inevitably towards a dam somewhere down river, the Paria provided a soothing background of white noise. Next to me sat one of the cutest girls I had ever seen. A true Shagri-La. Perhaps even heaven.
Not so fast. There was still the issue of cold feet and where to find clean water. Not to mention a large foil bag in which I was supposed to poop and then carry back out.
The numbing of our feet caused by numerous river crossings had helped us during the hike, but now that we were relaxing in camp they took their time thawing. Jill, who prefers to live on the verge of perspiration was squirming in discomfort. I rubbed them and stuck them in a sleeping bag finally warming them some two hours after the last wade. Before leaving for Colorado Jill had purchased a water filter for times just like this. I searched high and low for the elusive spring, but found only mud. Characteristic of desert rivers the Paria was brown with silt. Finding a pool that was mostly settled out I pumped four liters without a filter plug. On the fifth it jammed rendering the pump useless. As a last resort we boiled water directly out of the river. This added texture to our drinking water, and a healthy crunch to our pasta.
Opening the poop bag I marveled at its complexity. Double bagged with absorbent and plenty of room to deposit three or four duties, it looked nothing like the infamous 'bluebag' handed out in my hometown Cascade Mountains. I actually enjoy duty in the woods, but that all goes out the window when I have to aim in a bag that will end up next to the sleeping bag in my backpack. Saving the details, I forgot toilet paper and was forced to waddle back to borrow Jill's. The mess was everywhere, but after some good cleaning and cursing I was able to go on with the day.
Unless you have the misfortune of finding yourself near Las Vegas star gazing in the desert is worth staying up for. Surrounded by steep cliffs we could only see a small slice of the sky. However, the intensity of the stars was magnified by the window-like effect of the jet black cliffs. We didn't need the tent, so we slept with our torsos out the front door allowing us to fall asleep staring straight up at the stars.
|FEELING SMALL Camp dwarfed by towering sandstone walls.|
|YUM Overwhelmed with excitement, Jill throws our $0.50 dinners on the stove.|
|PENCIL PICKER What's Jill using that pencil for?|
|STAR-STUDDED Brilliant desert stars seen looking straight up from the tent. 4.5 hour exposure|
Choosing to stay for two nights our strategy was different than most of the other thru-hikers. Instead of spending $$ on a car shuttle we decided to make a base camp at the confluence and spend the our one full day hiking the Buckskin Gulch. Our camp would have been hard to leave anyhow, and it was nice to hike without the weight of our overnight packs through the Buckskin. If I did it again I'd do it the same or hike in through the Buckskin and out the Paria.
Buckskin Gulch is known by desert veterans as the world's premier slot canyon hike, and after our day's hike I wouldn't doubt it. Starting in a magnificent grotto the muddy, but dry Buckskin narrows to arm's length in places with walls that rise over two hundred feet overhead. Best of all, it goes on for over 15 miles in the same way. Feeling like we were walking through some sort of amusement park we hiked through the cool corridors enjoying new looks at every turn. We had to retrace our tracks to camp, but it never felt like we were seeing the same scenery twice. Reflected sunlight on canyon walls caused them to glow in ethereal tones of red, yellow and even periwinkle. Working myself into a picture taking frenzy wasn't difficult, and at one point, I told myself no more film pictures, just pictures in the mind to be developed in the future by my memory. This place was that good.
|GOTHIC Magnificent entrance to the narrows of the Buckskin.|
|SENIOR PICTURES Jill hates this picture.|
|MUD Slimy, but dry, the Buckskin provided comfortable hiking.|
|GLOWING Jill peers around the next fantastic corner.|
Returning to our wonderful camp we ate a silty dinner and began evening activities. Jill worked a crossword and then went through a yoga routine on the sandbar. I began reading Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang, but became distracted by my surroundings and reverted to what I do best - nothing. The babbling river eased what little stress I felt as I watched the canyon walls fade from glowing red towards night. Slowly, the sky transformed from deep blue giving way to the first stars of the night.
Before the sun rose the next day we were plunging through the chilly waters of the Paria making our way back to the trailhead, Page, a slot canyon, Telluride and the next day, Minneapolis. The one problem with hiking out, besides the hike being over, is that the scenery becomes less spectacular. A mishap negotiating a river crossing left Jill with a dislocated ankle. Even with a gimp Jill would agree the Paria was an unforgettable experience.
-written May 2004