Wire Pass Buckskin Gulch Paria Canyon Vermillion Cliffs

  • where:

    Southern Utah / Arizona, United States

  • what:

    Hiking, Nature

  • why:

    Wilderness and Solitude

  • when:

    Spring, Fall, Summer can be hot

  • warnings:

    Flash Floods, Some Scrambling

  • Geotag Icon Show on map

Usually I come back from a trip with 500 to 1000 photos, but this time I went fast and light, so I apologize for the lack of pictures. If you google any of the trails in the title of this article you will find lots of pics.

My trip started at 7:00 pm in NYC. I boarded a plane for Salt Lake City that was supposed to arrive around 11:00 pm, but didn’t get in until 1:00 am. Since I was going solo and the route I was taking is a one-way trip I had to hire a shuttle from the base to the trail head. If you need a ride arrange it before you go. At the end of the article I provided a list of authorized shuttle providers. I had to meet my shuttle at Lee’s Ferry which is about an hour and a half outside Page Arizona, so I picked up my rental car and started the six hour drive. On the way I stopped at the BLM station to pick up my permit. You can get the required permit online at: www.blm.gov/az/asfo/paria/. I finally reached Lee’s Ferry at 9:30 am and started the two hour drive back to the Wire Pass trailhead. This timetable is a little extreme. I recommend spending the night in Page or camping in one of the nearby campgrounds before you start backpacking, rather than traveling for nineteen straight hours.

I started my hike at 12:00 pm. From studying the map I picked up at the BLM I decided to make it to the first fresh water spring which was 20 miles from the Wire Pass trailhead. The first part of the walk is in a fairly open desert wash, but after a mile or so you enter the Wire Pass which definitely lives up to it’s name. The Wire Pass is a slot canyon which ranges from 6 feet to 18 inches across, and at places a hundred feet deep or more. The Wire Pass connects to the Buckskin Gulch, which is another slot canyon that is only slightly wider. I was there in the middle of a very hot July so there wasn’t much water in the Wire Pass or the Buckskin Gulch. I have read that pools form that can become pretty disgusting. The floor of the trail was soft sand littered with the bones of rabbits and other rodents that were meal remnants for the huge crows that nest on the ledges above. Every once in a while one of the crows would fly down the canyon creating a sound like rushing water, not what you want to hear when you are in a slot canyon. You walk through this surreal world for 16 miles in the undulating walls with logs jammed between the rock 80 feet above your head which are the remainders of past floods. Walking in a place like this alone was amazing, at times the walls would converge, blocking out the sunlight. It was like being in a dimly lit cave. Every thing is quiet you only hear your footsteps in the sand and the occasional crow.

There is only one technical obstacle in the Buckskin called the boulder jam where you have to descend 12 feet. There are steps cut in the wall and there is also a rope, which everyone says not to trust. I used it, but I will tell you not to trust it to for liability reasons. I recommend bringing a length of sash cord to lower your pack, then climb down the carved out steps.

The Buckskin, Paria River confluence is truly an astonishing place. Painted cliffs hundreds of feet high converge to see the blue sky above. I would have like to spend hours there, but I still had six miles to go to the first reliable spring and it was getting late. You cannot camp in the Wire Pass or Buckskin because of flood danger. I arrived at my camp at dusk. I had been on a subway, a plane, in cars and had walked for nine hours. I set up my tent refilled my water and passed out.

I had three leisurely days left. My hard push the first day left me with only 8 or so miles a day to travel for the remainder of the trip. The temperature during the day got up to 107, so I walked in the mornings and found shade in the afternoon. When hiking in the Paria make sure you have foot wear that is good in water, as you will by making many river crossings and sometimes hiking directly in the river. The canyon is wider that the Wire Pass or the Buckskin, but no less spectacular. Large cottonwood trees line the sandy banks of the winding Paria, and dreamlike rock formations provide shade for lizards, rattle snakes, and scorpions.

My trip was going great until the middle of my second day. I began to get a low level pain in my abdomen. I had been filtering all of my water from spring, so I knew there wasn’t much chance of it being a parasite. The pain persisted for four hours then went away. I woke up the next morning and felt fine, but the pain came back in the afternoon. I woke up on the fourth day with 8 miles to travel to my car. I gulped down a liter of water as I did every morning, then in hit me. I had kidney stones. The pain was almost unbearable. It made me vomit. I forced myself to get my things together. There is not much shade the last part of the trail as the canyon opens up to a wide valley, so I knew I had to make it to the car that morning. Every step I took sent a sharp pain into my back and stomach. I continued to force myself to drink water, most of which came right back up. My pulse rate dropped to 40 beats per minute. If it continued to drop I was going to dig a trench and make a shelter because I didn’t want to pass out in the mid-day sun. It was too bad really because there were some very bizarre formations in this last part of the trip, but I just kept moving.

I reached the car safe and somewhat sound and started my drive to the emergency room in Page. On the way I hit canyon construction and had to sit for an extra hour. I made it to the ER. They put me on an IV and I fell asleep.

Usefull Resources:


Shuttle Services:

  • Betty Price – (928) 355-2252
  • BackCountry Adventures – (928) 608-0860
  • Canyon Country Outback Tours – Wally Thomson (888) 783-3807, (435) 644-3807
  • Paria Outpost – Susan and Stephen Dodson, (928) 691-1047, www.paria.com
I got my ride from Susan Dodson at Paria Outpost, who was a wealth of information on the surrounding area.