Buckskin Gulch, and Wire Pass…My love note to Utah – Part 1 (Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument)

This trip was nearly two years in the making,  and with one obstacle or another along every step of the way. I had originally planned a solo thru-hike in June of 2014, however those plans changed when monsoon weather patterns developed two weeks earlier than average, forcing me to cancel and quickly adjust my itinerary for the region. It was disappointing to say the least, and I wasn’t sure when or if I would ever reschedule the nearly 50 mile hike, beginning at Buckskin Gulch Trailhead and ending at Lee’s Ferry.

Fast forward to August of 2015, fellow nature lover, backpacker, outdoor extraordinaire, Dusty House and I began planning an excursion to the Nankoweap Granaries ruins in the Grand Canyon. In the process of developing the excursion, I randomly threw out the idea of reviving the Paria River Canyon thru-hike. Without any hesitation, she agreed, and we abandoned Nankoweap for the time being, and set our sights on the hike that I had been itching to do since a monkey wrench interfered over a year prior.

We planned 3 nights and 4 days to travel the 47 miles. The excursion would begin at the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead in Utah, travel the entirety of Buckskin Gulch, then drop us at the confluence of the Paria River Canyon, from there we would follow the river out to Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, where the Colorado River and Paria River meet. The significance of this hike is the 13 miles of Buckskin Gulch, the world’s longest and deepest slot canyon. Here you drop 500-feet, and 200-million years below the earth’s surface into a slot that at times is so tight you are shoulder to shoulder with the walls surrounding you, which were all carved by ferocious flash flooding, something that continues to this day. For this reason Buckskin Gulch has earned a place on Backpacker Magazine’s, “America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes” list.

Dusty and my permit began on a Monday, but we arrived the Saturday night prior. We both agreed that the idea of getting there, and starting the hike immediately wasn’t in our best interest. We wanted the time to enjoy our new surroundings, some 500-600 miles from our homes in California.  The following day we traveled to the Paria Contact Station to pick up our permits, then spent the remainder of the day in House Rock Valley, doing short walks into and around some of the more interesting and colorful features that we could see from the well traveled dirt road which traverses one side of the valley to the other.

Come evening we settled down at the Marble Canyon Lodge, and thoroughly enjoyed a stroll through the confluence of the Paria and Colorado Rivers at sunset. The adjacent mesas were set on fire in a dazzling orangish hell-fire as the sun crept below the horizon. These are the sunsets that inspire, they burn themselves in your psyche, and create life-long memories.

 

Sunset at Lee's Ferry - The confluence of the Paria and Colorado Rivers.

Sunset at Lee’s Ferry – The confluence of the Paria and Colorado Rivers.

 

Dusty House enjoys a walk in the confluence. Take notice to the clear water of the Colorado River, and the murky water of the Paria.

Dusty House enjoys a walk in the confluence. Take notice to the clear water of the Colorado River, and the murky water of the Paria.

 

Dusk sets in - Lee's Ferry.

Dusk sets in – Lee’s Ferry.

 

We returned to the lodge where we were to meet up with the person that had volunteered to drive us in the morning from Lee’s Ferry to the trailhead. Since this is a thru-hike you leave your vehicle where the hike ends, and work out a shuttle to the trailhead. I had been in regular contact with our ride leading up to the day, however they never showed up that evening.  They assured me via text that they would indeed be there by our agreed upon time in the morning. I was worried at this point. I slept terribly (if at all). I rolled around in bed restless, wondering if they would actually show up. In the AM, I would find that my worry was warranted. The ride never came.

We quickly hatched a plan B.  We would drive to the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead, and leave our vehicle. What we would do once we entered the canyon in terms of logistics was up in the air, but we had options: we could exit via Middle Route (a somewhat treacherous escape route) or via White House. Whatever we did, we’d likely be hitch hiking back to the trailhead when we emerged some days later.

En route to Buckskin my phone rang, it was our ride. It was an hour past pick up time, and we had already been on the road for 40 minutes. When I picked up, “Hi. I’m here. Where are you?” was the first thing the caller blurted out at me. I replied, “It is an hour later than you were supposed to pick us up, we moved on to plan B.” The only excuse offered was, “I’m sorry, I fell asleep.”  The caller went on to chat at me for 5 minutes, when all that I wanted to do was hang up, and move on from the situation, which I eventually did. That person would, however, go on to be the brunt of many jokes for the next several days.

 

Near the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead.

Near the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead.

 

We reached the trailhead at 10am, and were off. Despite mild temperatures, the first several miles were in direct sunlight in a wide open canyon. After the first couple of miles, I told myself, “This isn’t what I signed up for, where is the slot?!” The sweat pouring off of me…  Meanwhile, Dusty began proclaiming, “Boring!” “Same!”, a joke that would follow us for the next several days.  We were both carrying a good 50-60 pounds on our backs, a majority of which was water. With no drinkable water for nearly 20-miles, I believe in the philosophy of being over prepared.  When we finally reached the beginning of the slot canyon we were thrilled, relieved, excited, and a host of other words with similar meaning.

 

As much as we can joke about, "same" or "boring" the scenery is without a doubt beautiful.

As much as we can joke about, “same” or “boring” the scenery is without a doubt beautiful.

 

Perfection in sand stone.

Perfection in sand stone.

 

The reddish/orange sandstone walls grew tall, the canyon closed in, the sun disappeared, and darkness set in quickly. The week prior, a flash flood had engulfed the canyon, sending as much as 20-feet high surges racing through the narrows. The aftermath of that flood was an unavoidable slick, muddy, pudding-like mess. We learned quickly to embrace it, it was unavoidable, and the further we went the fouler it became.

I walked slowly, embracing, and taking in every tantalizing moment of the awe-inspiring beauty. I never once felt trapped, endangered, nervous, or even scared of the towering narrow walls. Rather the opposite, a calmness was found within me.

 

The beginning of the narrows of Buckskin Gulch.

The beginning of the narrows of Buckskin Gulch.

 

Unavoidable slick, muddy, pudding-like mess.

Unavoidable slick, muddy, pudding-like mess.

 

Sandstone walls

Sandstone walls

 

Buckskin Gulch is chock full of interesting, swirling formations formed by whirl-pooling flood waters.

Buckskin Gulch is chock full of interesting, swirling formations formed by whirl-pooling flood waters.

 

We didn’t hike too far that day, when we reached the confluence of Buckskin and Wire Pass we decided that would be our camp for the night. We had been told that Wirepass was a must see, so we stashed our packs, and stripping down to the necessities of a short day hike, and hiked out of the canyon via the Wirepass route. Indeed, Wire Pass lived up to its reputation of beauty and some mild chaos. In places, the canyon walls were damp from seeps that drizzled out of the sandstone. Mild boulder jams presented a few obstacles, but nothing out of the ordinary or strenuous (after all, I’m rather used to Joshua Tree National Park’s chaotic boulder jams that will either make or break you).

 

Wirepass meets Buckskin.

Wirepass meets Buckskin.

 

One of several small boulder jumbles in Wirepass.

One of several small boulder jumbles in Wirepass.

 

Enjoying the slottiness of Wirepass.

Enjoying the slottiness of Wirepass.

 

Wirepass contains some of the narrowest passages of the two slot canyons.

Wirepass contains some of the narrowest passages of the two slot canyons.

 

Upon returning to the confluence, we spent a significant amount of time with a panel of petroglyphs that had been pecked or carved into a towering wall by the Puebloans or an earlier Native American culture that had inhabited the region. Like we see across a vast majority of the west, bighorn sheep designs dominated among the chaotic lines and circular shapes. Anthropomorphic, or rather, human-like figures also played a significant roll. A continuous long waving line extended for several yards along the wall. Was it a map? Maybe it pointed to a hunting ground, a water source, or possibly the route through the towering canyon walls.

 

Petroglyphs at the confluence of Wirepass and Buckskin. Bighorn are the dominating symbology.

Petroglyphs at the confluence of Wirepass and Buckskin. Bighorn are the dominating symbology.

 

Anthropomorphic figure (human) that appears to be holding a bow-and-arrow. Possible depiction of bighorn sheep head on the right.

Anthropomorphic figure (human) that appears to be holding a bow-and-arrow. Possible depiction of bighorn sheep head on the right.

 

In the center of the image you can make out a long wavy line.

In the center of the image you can make out a long wavy line.

 

An assortment of lines, shapes, and even more bighorn sheep.

An assortment of lines, shapes, and even more bighorn sheep.

 

It was still kind of early, about 4pm – but we proceeded to set up camp, and cook our dinners for the night. We had no detailed set plan, and nowhere that we needed to be. We talked, and we talked some more. We probably managed to solve every world problem in the duration of that evening, but what fun would it be to tell? As the darkness overtook the light, the stars poured down upon us like a never ending rain. We could hear the sound of coyotes calling out above the rim as they hunted for their nightly treasure. It was in every sense of the word, wild.

With all 19 quadrillion miles of stars lighting the sky, I suddenly saw the face of a man above us, he was glaring into the sky. Out of his mouth shot the 100 billion stars that make up the milky way. His head was made of the same towering wall that the petroglyphs were etched into. Was it a coincidence? I think not, there was something very powerful and mighty about our 200 foot tall friend, and I’m sure that the Native people before us also took notice of him.  He commanded the sky.

I tried to photograph our friend, however immediately my camera battery went from full to dead. I changed the battery, but yet my camera refused to cooperate. After several additional attempts my second battery was drained – I only had one more, and it would have to last me for the duration of the multi-day trip. I gave up.

Our new friend watched over us that night, as we did everything from play shadow puppet improv on an adjacent amphitheater wall, to walking the canyon, and attempting to sleep in temperatures that dipped down into the 30’s.

As the sun crept back into the sky, the man disappeared. He was no longer recognizable in the morning light, and so started our second day in Buckskin Gulch.

 

The man during the daylight. I shot this image before realizing the "head like" features.

The man during the daylight. I shot this image before realizing the “head like” features.

 

 

CONTINUE TO PART II

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

3 Comments

  • I’ve read this story backwards….sorry! But great descriptions and wonderful photos! During the time I was waiting for rescue (after the fall that broke both legs!) in Death Valley up a slot canyon, I too saw what appeared to be a dog head standing guard over me. I thought I’d got a picture of it, but can’t see it when I look at the picture now. Perhaps in my pain riddled brain, I created him? I know there are many such guardians out there tho! LOVE this story!

Leave a Comment