We hiked from sunup to sundown and only felt the warmth of the sun on our faces for a few fleeting seconds. It was the first of November and the Paria Canyon region hadn’t seen rainfall since May. This was our moment.
Straddling the Utah/Arizona border, Buckskin Gulch is a 13-mile chasm carved deep into the Navajo sandstone. It is likely the longest slot canyon in the entire world. I don’t know of any canyons that even come close to its immensity in both length and sheer marvelousness.
Slot canyons form when flood waters rush through sandstone or sedimentary rock, carving convoluted passageways through the rocks. A flash flood in Buckskin is deadly; there are only two or three places to escape to higher ground in the entire canyon.
Driving to the trailhead from Kanab, we watched the temperature plunge into the single digits – oh boy! We left one car at the White House Trailhead and then drove to the Wire Pass Trailhead while watching the temperature slowly climb into the teens.
When I called the ranger’s office a few days prior inquiring about water levels and current obstacles in the canyon, the ranger simply stated that there was zero water and zero obstacles. Apparently someone carried an aluminum ladder into the canyon and placed it in the most difficult section. The rangers have to constantly battle ladders, ropes, and slings being placed in the canyon and the rangers had not had the chance to remove this one yet. I had been debating whether or not to bring the dog and this sealed the deal.
We were greeted by a ranger at the trailhead who informed us that she was going in to take down the ladder so we couldn’t plan on using it to get back out. This didn’t pertain to us since we were planning on traversing the entire canyon so I just nodded and half listened to all her dire warnings and chased Roo who was going apeshit in the parking lot running circles around all the hikers and barking and pointing in the direction of the trail. The ranger, of course, said dogs were not recommended on this trail and I, of course, said thank you and walked away uttering my dog’s climbing resume under my breath.
From the trailhead, I was surprised how quickly we entered the slot. We passed down the ladder, also not recommended, and were immediately engulfed in a several hundred foot abyss. It was instant awe as we wound our way through the first passageways. I had gotten my money’s worth in mere minutes, although I hadn’t spent much. Hiking passes are $6 per person per day and also $6 per dog per day.
The day passed with a blur of swirly sandstone patterns and twisted layers of rock. The hours seemed to fly by as we wandered this infinite labyrinth of rock. It was like a meditation of sorts – a journey through millions of years of geological time. I never took my hat or puffy off once and only added to the layers throughout the day.
I don’t think Kangaroo the Dog cared much for the canyon. He was always running ahead and looking up as if he was trying to find a way out of the damn thing. When we hike in the desert, he often scrambles up to the highest point to take in the views. He thrives in treeless terrain where he can see for miles in every direction. We knew we were in trouble when he would run back to us. That meant there was quicksand, boulders, or angry squirrels lurking and he would prefer some assistance. Roo has this way of signaling to me that he would like to be picked up. It only took one instance of his paws sinking deep into the quicksand like sludge for him to decide he wasn’t going to try that again.
Eventually the canyon started to open up and cow pies dotting the canyon floor became numerous. We joked about cows being swept away in flash floods and wedged in the canyon overhead like the logs jammed between canyon walls a hundred feed above our heads. Our joking came to an abrupt stop as we rounded a bend and saw a swirling river rushing in from the north. This was our way out.
This can’t be it. The ranger said it was mostly dry. It was at this moment that I realized the ranger had misunderstood our intentions. Very few people attempt this whole route in one day, especially with limited daylight and a little Kangaroo dog, we were quite possibly screwed.
I went into boss mode. Do not fall in, do not get your core wet, put on all your layers, move as fast as possible. We had about 6 or 7 more miles to go and less than 2 hours of daylight and it couldn’t have been more than 30 degrees. Hypothermia was inevitable.
The water was only mid-calf deep, if it got any deeper, we would have to turn around and trudge 13 miles back up the entirety of Buckskin Gulch and back to the car at Wire Pass. We knew we would have to cross the Paria River in spots, but did not think we would have to wade in it for miles.
Thankfully the canyon started to open up in spots and we could hug the canyon walls for a brief reprieve from the ice cold water. And then we ran into a group of backpackers heading in (the first people we had seen in 6 hours) and they told us they had crossed the river approximately 76 times, but it does get better. It did get better, but my feet had never hurt so terribly in my life. The moral of this hike was neoprene socks.
We made it to the White House Trailhead right at sunset and Roo fell fast asleep in the middle of the parking lot and we weren’t that far behind him.