Hiking Buckskin Gulch: A Belated Trip Report
Back in April, Ted Ehrlich and I spent a few days hiking and camping in southern Utah – One highlight of that trip had to be our hike through Buckskin Gulch, one of the longest and deepest slot canyons in the world. With a snowy drive through Wyoming and then a whiteout in Colorado, the drive wasn’t a fast one and I met Ted at a deserted trailhead near Grand Junction around 10pm. From here we’d carpool into Utah. We drove west in the night, eventually moving past the snowstorm and into Utah, where we caught a few hours of roadside sleep.
We woke early the next day and were met with icy conditions through the higher elevations of Utah on the morning of day 2, but with assistance from ample amounts of gas station coffee we eventually made it, and descended into warmer weather near the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area.
With only one vehicle for this 20 mile point to point hike, our plan was to self-shuttle. Ted's mountain bike was in the bed of the truck, and that evening we left the bike at the White House Trailhead, our finish point the next day. Our starting point would be at the Wire Pass Trailhead, and after the hike one of us would then ride the bike 15 miles along a dirt road, a highway, then another dirt road back to our starting point. Retracing the ride by vehicle, the driver would return to White House Trailhead to pickup the other hiker. Ted had a shoulder injury and was actually due to have surgery as soon as the trip was over, so the bike ride would be in my hands. With an upcoming 20 mile hike of yet to be determined difficulty, capped with a 15 mile bike ride, I mentally prepared for a somewhat long next day. I knew we’d probably finish the hike late in the day, and I just hoped I didn’t get a flat in the dark halfway back to the truck as we’d both left our flat kits at home. We were already down a tire on the truck from our travels earlier that day along House Rock Valley Road.
The night prior to the hike we camped at the appropriately named Stateline BLM Campground, located right on the border of Utah and Arizona. The weather forecast had called for nighttime lows in the 30’s, but I struggled to stay warm in my 30 degree Western Mountaineering Megalite. The next morning revealed frozen water bottles, and in the cold we got a later start than expected but managed to make it to the Wire Pass Trailhead by mid-morning. That might have been a good thing, with the sun now high in a cloudless sky temperatures had climbed. There was still a slight chill to the air, but it was perfect hiking weather.
After paying the day use fee, our hike began and we followed a sandy wash, heading east and slightly downhill. Quickly, things began to close in and we found ourselves in shade - We'd seen the last of the sun for the day. We soon found ourselves at the confluence of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch, (First photo in this post above) where we admired some rock art, cowboy signatures, and unfortunately, some very modern rock carvings. We didn't linger long with many miles left on the hike however, and quickly made a right and entered Buckskin Gulch proper. We tried to keep our feet dry for a while, but that didn't last long. And the water was cold. Though we'd cross through pool after pool of water throughout the hike, we lucked out and it was never more than around thigh deep.
Bend after bend - We hiked onward, with our cameras getting a heavy workout along the way. The hiking was easy. Imperceptibly downhill / downstream with sand and gravel underfoot - An occasional rocky section. The main challenge was not falling over and receiving a dunk in one of the many pools encountered along the way - And the water didn't always smell that great. The scenery was hard to believe. And it just kept going. Sensory overload that brought a smile to your face with each turn of the canyon. Flood debris appeared out of reach high overhead, this isn't the place you want to be when a flash flood occurs. I was glad we checked the forecast and there was no chance of rain.
After a few hours of hiking we ran into a pair of backpackers from Boston, and with our hiking paces at a near equal speed the 4 of us hiked through the canyon for a couple miles as a group. They had planned to overnight near the confluence with the Paria River, then a finish at White House the next day where their car lay in wait. They decided to take a break, and Ted and I pushed on at a quick pace since we wouldn't be stopping for the night. I hiked faster - I didn't want to be riding a bike in the middle of the night. Occasionally birds would fly in and out of the canyon from above, easily navigating in and out of the canyon as they wished. I was surprised to even find life close to the canyon floor, however, some of which was best avoided.
Ted and I continued to try to maintain a steady pace, but Buckskin Gulch can be distracting. We found ourselves hiking with camera in hand, frequently stopping in an attempt to capture what we were seeing as a photograph. I'm not sure we realized it, but our pace was significantly slowed by scenery, and soon we heard the echo of footsteps approaching. The 2 women we'd met earlier approached from upstream. They'd changed their minds. Making the decision to skip the overnighter and hike through as we were, they offered to give us a ride back to our vehicle at the end of the hike. Not only that, but Ted and I were running low on water, and they'd brought enough for two days. They were looking to reduce their pack weight, and we refilled our supply. I was quite relieved to know I wouldn't be setting out on a 15 mile bike ride, already tired from hiking, as the sun set later that day. Life was good. Now able to slow our pace, we hiked together through the canyon in a leisurely style. Conversation ensued and miles flew by. Soon we found ourselves at the crux of the trip, the rockfall.
Here, with the help of a rope we all down climbed the main obstacle in Buckskin Gulch. To the right an alternate route around the rockfall / jam existed, referred to as the "Rabbit Hole", but that route appeared to involve a bit of down climbing as well, then a claustrophobic crawl under a pile of huge rocks. We all elected to simply take the steeper, but more direct route down via the rope. The climb wasn't too bad, but you definitely don't want to let go of the rope. We were quickly on our way without incident.
Soon we came to the end of Buckskin Gulch and the confluence with the Paria River.
We started to trek upstream towards the White House trailhead, still about half a dozen miles ahead. Gradually, the terrain began to open up. We crossed the river dozens of times, and peregrine falcons swooped overhead, then observed our trek from the rim above.
We eventually made it to Whitehouse Trailhead as the sun was setting, with soggy feet and shoes full of sand. I was definitely glad for the ride and we soon found ourselves back at the Wire Pass Trailhead and our vehicle, and after many thanks we parted ways with our impromptu hiking companions for the day. Having just finished one of the more memorable day hikes I've ever completed, Ted & I pulled back into Stateline Campground just as darkness fell, ready for dinner, sleep, and a change of socks.
Best Time to Go: Buckskin Gulch is best hiked in late spring and fall. It stays cool within the canyon, so in colder weather the water could be quite chilly. Check with the BLM office in Kanab for current conditions and check the weather forecast for precipitation in the area, as well as the vast area upstream, before you enter.
Getting There: From Kanab, UT head east on Highway 89 for approximately 38 miles, then take a right / head south on the unpaved House Rock Valley Road. 8.4 miles later you'll reach the Wire Pass Trailhead. For a longer hike, start at the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead, 4.4 miles from the Highway 89 / House Rock Valley Road intersection. To reach White House Trailhead by car, drive east 4.9 miles from Highway 89 & House Rock Valley Road, take a right and head south on a dirt road. 2.1 miles later you'll arrive at the trailhead / campground - One spot towards the end could be tricky for low clearance vehicles. Stateline (1.6 miles south of the Wire Pass Trailhead) or White House Campgrounds offer good places to setup a staging point.
Maps: I printed off USGS topos to cover the route, but never needed them. (Do however, take a map!) For driving in the area I found Delorme's Utah Atlas and Gazetteer very useful.
Information: For day use, permits are available at the self-serve pay station at the trailhead - $6 per person / dog per day. For overnight use, you'll need to get a permit, try to pick one up in advance as they tend to go fast. If you happen to pass through Kanab, consider getting there early and entering the lottery to visit The Wave. Most of the time a use at your own risk rope will be in place at the rockfall, but it's best to take a suitable rope for lowering packs and yourself over the edge. You could possibly sneak through the "Rabbit Hole" as well, but it can at times be blocked by flood debris. If you keep a close watch, a few seeps and springs are available for water resupply along the way. Commercial shuttle services are also available if needed.
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