Crossing Buckskin Gulch off my Bucket List
Crossing Buckskin Gulch off my Bucket List has been on my mind for over a year now, and one that I am happy to say that I accomplished last week with my friend, Myra. For those of you who have never heard of Buckskin Gulch, it’s listed in the top 10 most dangerous hikes in the country on Backpacker.com. The entire hike is 21 miles long, but although the slot canyon is only 13 miles long. ONLY?? At 13 miles it is touted as the longest slot canyon in the world with only one exit at the 8 mile mark. Hence the danger; if the canyon were to flash flood, there would be no way to get out of it to safety.
Buckskin Gulch, the way I wanted to do it, required purchasing permits online about 3 months in advance. I got them for the 29th & 30th of June with the ability to stay the night in the canyon. Because I’m a photographer and the hike is so long, I figured I wanted to be able to take my time doing it. I did a lot of research in advance and planned out the 21 mile adventure starting with a shuttle from White House Campground on Monday morning. I called all four shuttle providers listed on the BLM Website and this was the result:
Grand Staircase Discovery Tours 928-614-4099 Chris was very accommodating in spite of the fact they had another group they were doing a tour for. Because of that, we planned the shuttle for 11am which seemed to be our only choice.
Circle Tours- Doesn’t shuttle White House to Wirepass
End of the Trail Shuttles – Lady warned me she was very far away and it would cost at least $150 for the shuttle. She suggested I call Paria Outpost.
Paria Outpost – were on vacation and when I requested a referral from them, their answer was, “Maybe you should do it some other time.” So not impressed!!
As we got on the road, I called the ranger station to see their thoughts on the 20% chance of rain we were seeing; They weren’t concerned so we headed out. One thing after another happened as we were trying to make it the 4hrs from Vegas to the trailhead and we had to postpone our shuttle a couple hours as well as wait till after the tour the shuttle provider was on finished. Due to lack of cell service in the area, after we stopped at the Paria Contact Station to pick up permits and then napped at the parking area for the White House Campground HOPING that they would show up soon. It was about 4pm when they arrived to drive us, and 4:30 when we said goodbye to Buckskin Brent (as I affectionately dubbed him), before heading into Wirepass.
When I realized we were delayed by so much, I quickly picked a new camp spot for us at Middle Trail, 8 miles into the hike instead of 13 miles in right before the Paria Canyon Confluence. I figured if we didn’t take too much time taking photos, we would make Middle Trail before sunset at 8:50 and still have light to make the difficult climb out of the canyon. Boy was I wrong.
The hike started out very simple. About 3/4 of a mile from the trail head, the slot canyon made it’s initial appearance. The ground was sandy at the time, but we weren’t quite sure what to expect once in because about a week and a half prior there had been a flash flood through the gulch. We got to the Wirepass/Buckskin confluence in about an hr and found the petroglyphs located low on the right hand side right before turning into Buckskin Gulch. Thunder we kept hearing overhead pushed us to step up the pace a bit.
The first mud pool we had to cross wasn’t too big of a deal. I took my time (leading the way into each one) to feel out the depth and keep me from any sudden drop offs. These pools were scattered throughout as the terrain varied from sand, to rocks, to open canyons where we saw incredible rock arches, to massive pools of mud. From the illustrated map I had downloaded to my phone, I spotted an area called “The Cesspools” and knew it could not be a great place to be in the dark. So I tried to speed up our pace in the hopes of arriving there well before sunset.
In all the research I had done on the hike, I had never seen any mention of Cesspools, or any photos of said obstacles. I had also seen no photos. I pondered this as we hiked, but as they day waned, I knew we wouldn’t get there with light still in the sky. It was after 9pm when we finally reached an area I assumed was the cesspools. Mud bog after mud bog as a result of a narrow slot that allowed for very little light to shine to the canyon floor. I pulled out my headlamp and then we made our way carefully through. It was smelly, disgusting and I was worried that at any moment the ground was going to drop off and we would be in mud over our heads. Going through this at night made me think of Swamp Thing or some other scary movie. Lucky for us, the deepest it got was high thigh.. I’ve since seen a video of how bad the Cesspool gets, and we’re very fortunate we didn’t have to deal with that in the dark!
We finally got through this crazy, dark, muddy area and I was concerned as it was close to 9:45 I think. The sky was indigo and we had to find Middle Trail. Myra made a weird owl nose as I was voicing my concern which I thought was odd but continued, “We may get stuck camping inside the canyon because it’s too dark to climb out.” And to my startled surprise, a mans voice replied, “Well there are plenty of places to camp up here.” When we realized he was the owl sound culprit, Myra indignantly said,”I don’t make animal sounds!” lol
We joined our new friend, Maxim (or “Middle Trail Maxim” as we nicknamed him) up on the large ledge which was conveniently located across from the Middle Trail we had been looking for. I am pretty sure we would have missed the exit so Maxim was somewhat of an angel to us that night. There was a large flat area we were able to lay out our sleeping bags on and set up camp; it was definitely high enough to be out of harms way if there were to be a flash flood. We peeled off our muddy clothes and shoes before settling in to make our dinner. I am somewhat addicted to the backpacker meals and am always excited to have a chance to make them, however odd that may sound. We had a lot of snacks and food so we quickly offered anything we had to our new friend Maxim. After I ate, Myra and Maxim as exhaustion set in for me. The light of the full moon was hidden behind the canyon wall we were closest to so didn’t bother me, and the sounds of lightning and thunder put me to sleep.
My sleeping pad deflated in the night and I woke at about 5am to a stiff neck and back from sleeping directly on the rock. I quietly began breaking down camp, cooking breakfast, and cleaning myself up although I wasn’t in a hurry and this process took at least an hr and a half. We checked our water and I had an entire bladder left (I had brought 2) and Myra had most of hers left. We had brought tablets to treat water that we had read we would find near the confluence. We woke up Middle Trail Maxim long enough to say goodbye, snap a photo, and send off on trail by 7:30.
In my head I had renamed Middle Trail to Purgatory after doing (rename) Satan’s Cesspools in the dark. When we reached a long narrow hallway in the canyon at about 8am, and the sun had filled it with its rays, those names stuck and this became Gateway to Heaven. I’m not religious at all, but it all seemed to fit nicely. Only thing is to see this part of the hike in this light, you would have to spend the night at Purgatory as we did.
We had 5.5 miles to get to the Paria Confluence. It was such a nice part of the hike with no more pools of mud. We kept a steady pace as we went through the canyon taking photos and enjoying the comfortable temperatures. The trails were well worn in and sandy through the center of somewhat dry mud. The mud in many areas had dried and curled and reminded me so much of chocolate shavings. I walked on them as much as I could because the sand was too soft and slowed my forward progress. I think one of my favorite parts of the canyon is the Echo Room (I named it for what it is) and I broke out into song and yelled a few times to check out the room’s acoustics.
We got to the rock fall where we needed to lower our bags down and then using a handline, climb down 15-20 feet. I am so happy that I hadn’t taken a small pair of gloves out of my bag prior to the trip; it was beneficial in our descent. I had looked for the rabbit hole that went under the rock jam from above and although it wasn’t blocked with debris as it is sometimes, all I saw was a lot of mud down there. I checked it out from the bottom after climbing down and saw that the path turned left under the rock and we could have easily gone under instead.
We passed the area where we were originally planning on camping and although I looked for the small stream that was mentioned to get water from, we never saw it. I almost didn’t bring an extra bladder of water; thankfully I did. Somehow we still took longer than we expected and got to the confluence at about 12 where we took at least a 15 minute break. Our heavy packs were beginning to wear on us.
From the confluence, we had about 7 more miles to go. The first mile or so was still in the canyon, but the next 6 were in an open wash in the hottest part of the day. We started hopping back and forth across the wash taking small breaks in every pocket of shadows we could find. I guess it had rained somewhere nearby the night before because at about 2 pm, the stream created by that rain had reached us in the otherwise dry wash. We were excited because our water was getting low and we wanted to treat some but when we touched the water it was extremely warm and was very dirty with debris. We continued in the water for a good rest of the way though because the breeze kicked up and wet parts became cool.
It was 330 when we left the wash and got back to my car at White House Campground. I’m guessing it was named because of the large white rocks resembling houses overlooking the wash but if you for some reason missed those in your hike out, you would eventually see the portapotties; I doubt you would miss the exit out. We were extremely grumpy, terribly parched and at the end of our energy level. The car with it’s bottles of cold water waiting in it was a welcome site.
Our adventure didn’t quite stop there. As we were changing and putting our packs in the car, a car pulled up and it was our buddy, Middle Trail Maxim! He joined us as we went to jump in Lake Powell to cool off at Lone Rock about 30 minutes away from where we were. I managed to get my car stuck in the sand and Myra didn’t even hesitate to help get it unstuck. We continued on to Page to eat ice cream and then dinner with Cory, a friend I made when he used to be a tour guide at Antelope Canyon when I visited last summer. Buckskin Brent met up with us right after dinner and the four of us trekked to Horseshoe Bend to watch the sunset go down over the iconic canyon. Although the Cesspools and the hike out of the wash almost ruined it for us, when I look over the photos and remember the things we saw, I am thrilled to have crossed this beautiful canyon off of my bucket list.
Afterword to the hike.. If I ever did it again, I would attempt to do this as a day hike. Start early and plan it to take about 12 hours. If you decide to backpack it, make sure that you start early enough on the first day so that you can camp at the 13 mile point instead of the 8 mile. Then you start through the confluence and the wash in the early part of the day. We didn’t use our tent, or my tripod (except once) so if you can, save yourselves the weight. Take TONS of water. There was hot, stagnant water available from the confluence on, and that was about it. There was a rope available at the rock fall but you never know what condition that might be in. You need about 40 ft of rope with you in case the rabbit hole isn’t open. Check the weather; any sign of rain should have you calling the ranger station for their opinion on doing the hike. And be prepared for any type of trail whether it be sandy the entire way through, or completely muddy. I actually think we got a nice in between without it being too sandy, or too muddy. Take lots of photos, and have FUN no matter what the conditions are!