“You’re going to a slot canyon in Utah? Be sure to bring a sharp knife in case you need to cut off your arm!”
Buckskin/Pariah is a run we’ve been talking about for a long time. While it is a slot canyon and it is in the Beehive State, that’s about the extent of the similarity between the now-famous Blue John Canyon of Aaron “Rock and a Hard Place” Ralston and Buckskin/Pariah. Buckskin Gulch is famous for a couple reasons. First, it shares a trailhead with the famous Wave formation. More importantly, it’s about the longest non-technical slot canyon to be found in the American Southwest and was listed in a book of 23 Breathtaking Treks from all over the world. The combined Buckskin Gulch/Pariah Canyon system is 20-some miles on non-technical slot canyon in the extreme south of Utah. And it’s entirely runable, at least in the somewhat esoteric kind of running my fellows and I favor!
Considering that we had eight people plus a dog, we managed to get on the road without too much fuss and reasonably on-time. Still, we fell short of our goal of camping at Goblin Valley State Parkin Utah by a couple of hours and ended up crashing at a trailhead near the state border at the wee hours of the morning. It was a very cold night and I immediately regretted my decision to bring my “20 degree” bag. After a short, frigid night under a startlingly bright moon, we woke in the middle of a cow field. An active cow field. In the daylight, there was little to recommend sticking around the the cows were starting to gather and look menacing, so we continued on our way toward Green River and the canyon country beyond.
Friday – Little Wild Horse & Bell Canyons
An hour past Green river, we stopped near Goblin Valley State Park to run a nine mile “warm-up” loop through Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons in the heart of the San Rafael Swell. It felt great to finally be out doingsomething after so long in the car and dealing with all the logistics required to plan the trip. Everyone was excited to see what this slot canyon thing was all about.
We ran up the sandy wash from the trailhead as the river banks switched from sand and scrub brush to head-high sandstone and eventually to tall cliffs. The river bed correspondingly got narrower and narrower until we reached a junction; left for Bell Canyon, right for Little Wild Horse. Bearing right, we encountered our first bone-fide slot canyon of the trip, the first I and many of the others had ever seen. The floor was either sand and gravel or sometimes smooth stone that merged seamlessly into the walls. The passages were serpentine and organic-looking, sometimes no more than shoulder width. The textures and features were like something out of another world. Running through the slot was a weird; part caving, part parcour, all with the exhilaration of the unexpected. We weren’t setting any speed records, but why rush through something so amazing.
Little Wild Horse is deservedly popular and we came across quite a lot of people hiking their way through the canyon including quite a lot of small children. What a wonderful place for a kid to explore! We pretty much felt like large, fast kids ourselves. There were a few bits of scrambling required to surmount one step or another, but generally it was all pretty mellow. After a couple miles of bouncing off the walls in the exhilarating canyon, the walls opened up and we were in another broad, sandy wash. From here, the route looped up to a jeep road and curved away to the southwest toward Bell Canyon, the shorter return leg of the loop.
While Little Wild Horse was relatively crowded, Bell was nearly empty. In general, Bell was less slot-like with shorter walls and more rounded profiles, but it was still an amazing place. There were several optional scrambles and we spent a long time climbing the rocks on either side of the canyon, posing for dramatic action photos, and generally having a great time. All too soon, we reached the trail junction a mile from the trailhead. It was getting hot and our initial energy levels had dropped quite a bit. We jogged in the hot last mile and spent a nice hour at the trailhead having lunch and enjoying being Idiots Abroad.
A Whole Lot of Driving
Utah is really big and getting to the southern edge of it takes far longer than you’d think it should on the map. Satisfied from our warm-up canyons, we hopped back in the cars for another 6 hours. We drove south through Hankville, then crossed through the tantalizing Capitol Reef National Park, a sharp range of sandstone domes and deep canyons that blocked westward travel like a reef threatening a shipping lane. We proceeded through one tiny Mormon hamlet after another, climbed and descended the spectacular Aquarius Plateau, and finally reached Cannonville in the Escalante.
Chris had determined that our route options were either 55 miles on the dirt but 2WD-passable Cottonwood Canyon Road or 150 of paved road to reach the White House Campground, our planned base of operations for the next two nights. The direct dirt roadr seemed like a faster and more interesting option, so we set out on a cross-country marathon drive as the sun sank lower and lower worrying that the five campsites at White House would be taken by the time we got there. While this may have been the faster option, it still seemed to take forever. The Escalante is huge and desolate and very very remote. After a long and arduous drive, we reached pavement again just as the sun set, and quickly made our way to the campground… where there was one site still available! Camp was established and we relaxed over dinner and plans for tomorrow.
Saturday – Buckskin Gulch and Pariah Canyon
Our appetizer at Little Wild Horse/Bell had definitely left us eager for more slot canyon running. Little did we know that the main course at Buckskin/Pariah would make our warm-up look boring and drab by comparison! After milling about at camp for a while, we set out crammed into the minivan for the Wire Pass Trailhead 15 miles distant. Given the number of people crowding the Ranger Station/Visitor Center hoping for permits to visit the Waveand the popularity of Buckskin Gulch as a hiking destination, the trailhead was surprisingly empty and we didn’t see anyone else for at least half the trip.
Much like Little Wild Horse the day before, we started by running a dry, sandy wash twisting between outcroppings of red stone, cacti, and scrub brush. The river course gradually narrowed and started to drop noticably. Ahead loomed a wall of red rock blocking the path from horizon to horizon. Clearly something was about to happen! Wire Pass itself came abruptly in the form of a vertical slot into the rock about three feet wide, two dozen feet high, and leaning slightly to the right.
We jumped right in and started the canyon running. The nature of the canyon varied from one moment to the next; sometimes the passage was a narrow, twisting corridor formed by dark, scalloped, organic-looking walls soaring a several hundred feet. Other times we ran through wider corridors of vertical varnished slabs. The floor varied from basket-ball sized rocks to soft sand. We passed through occasional galleries where the passage became 20 to 50 feet across and decorated with trees and grasses along the edge. Then the canyon would make an unexpected turn and be back to the dim narrows again. The depths were often startlingly cold, sometimes desert-hot.
It’s impossible to capture the majesty and mystery of this place. Sometimes it was so astonishingly beautiful you’d just stop and stare without meaning to. It felt criminal to hurry the pace, but you couldn’t wait to see what was around the next bend. It could be anything! Even the photos don’t do it justice. Once, I looked down the canyon to see my companions running along a straight, narrow corridor under a strip of blue sky high above. And framed in that strip of sky was a huge raven flying with wingtips nearly touching the walls on either side. Beams of sunlight would appear in unexpected places seeming almost solid in contrast to the cool gloom of the narrows. We wondered what was going on in the upper world. Was the desert above the rims perfectly flat or were we delving unknowing through a realm of weird humps and gulleys? Would you have any idea up there that stuff like this existed just a few feet away?
The passage was entirely dry at the moment but everything we saw spoke of the power of the water that occasionally flows through the canyon with unimaginable violence. Sizable tree trunks were stuck like toothpicks between the canyon walls and many of these were a hundred feet up! Flash floods must be astonishing in here! While no precipitation was expected, I still kept an eye out for places to take cover should we start hearing water. Dried and drying mud patches along the trail looked like bark curling off a tree and individual panels of mud felt a lot like terra cotta roofing tiles. Occasionally pools of standing water were found. Sediment was settling out and the upper, watery part would be drinkable… if we were realy desperate. Fortunately, we’d brought plenty of water along because it was pretty unappetizing.
Eight miles in, we came suddenly to a small gallery filled with sun and greenery. The walls here were lower than usual (perhaps only a hundred feet) and not as steep as we’d seen before. This was the Middle Path, a scrambly escape route from the canyon to the rims above. We paused here for lunch, warming ourselves in the hot sun and admiring a great panel of petroglyphs high on the opposite wall. We’d seen some other petroglyphs at the junction of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch proper, but these were much more impressive both in clarity and in their seemingly-inaccessible location.
Back in the canyon for the remaining five or six miles to the Confluence, we started to encounter a bit more water. There were a few mud puddles which had been been bridged with stepping stones by hikers with time on their hands and an aversion to getting wet. At last we came to the “Cauldron”, a four foot wide stretch of water perhaps 15′ long. Several people waded right in finding it mucky and knee-deep. Peter carried Stephanie across while Chris, Ben and I managed to stay dry by stemming between the sloping walls. This was easy enough for six-footers like Chris and I, but Ben faced a full-on belly flop if it didn’t work out.
Things were definitely changing in the canyon. We encountered a couple of boulder mazes and had to do a bit of scrambling to get around them. The biggest and baddest of these was about a 15′ drop draped with a couple of knotted ropes. Some scrambled down with the help of the ropes while others caved their way under and between the boulders arriving at the same place. Some enterprising soul had chopped moki steps in a steep, smooth boulder; definitely the hard way to negotiate this obstacle.
Beyond the boulder climb, the canyon widened and became noticably wetter. Inch-deep rivulets of water ran down the sandy floor and the canyon began to look pretty awesome. We came around a bend and found the largest gallery yet, complete with a flanking pair of grassy, tree-covered hills. These are the official campsites within Buckskin and we chatted with a couple backpackers occupying one of the sites. It is a glorious spot and I could easily imagine spending a half-day poking around and enjoying this amazing cathedral under the desert.
A few hundred yards later we came suddenly to the Confluence with the Pariah River and met a second group of backpackers headed from Whitehouse to Lee’s Ferry 36 miles downstream. The Confluence is about a hundred yards from the Arizona border, so Ben and I decided that we should cross state lines for form’s sake. We ran down the Pariah around a bend or two until it was pretty clear we’d crossed time zones, then made our way back, headed for home.
The Pariah is beautiful and amazing with shorter, blonder walls 20-50 feet apart and a broad, sandy wash to run in. The water in the Pariah is laden with minerals and all the pebbles and driftwood along the way is crusted in white crystals. But after the astonishing Buckskin Gulch, it’s not nearly as exciting. Combine this with tired, muddy legs and the run became very much a trudge. Camp, beer, and dry socks were 7 or 8 miles away, upstream in the hot sun.
We alternated running and walking on wet, rippled sand in the meandering stream channel and higher, gravelly bench on one side or another. Occasionally, the ripply sand felt springy and a little sticky; like walking on a mattress rather than the firm beach sand it resembled. Puzzled, I stopped and quickly found myself sunk in an inch or two… Yikes! Quicksand! This was definitely something we’d never encountered before. Eric and I grabbed a long stick, found a likely looking patch of sand, and started probing. The stick went in about six inches with the consistency you’d expect poking a stick into packed sand. But below this there was almost no resistance against further poking to a depth of a couple feet. After a few pokes, water started welling up all over a several square meters and the entire surface turned to a very thin slurry of water and sand. Fortunately, even quicksand isn’t all that quick and it wouldn’t be a problem to get back to more solid ground. But I can see how cattle and the unsuspecting could easily get in trouble.
After the quicksand patches in the first mile or two, the canyon walls started to become much lower and farther apart. It’s hard to say exactly when we transitioned from slot canyon into a regular canyon, but soon we found ourselves hiking and running doggedly through hot sun on soft sand splashing through the ankle-deep river occasionally. And that was the other strange behavior of the Pariah; the farther upstream we ventured, the more water was flowing in the river.
Chris, Eric and I maintained a good walking pace with occasional running bits as the whole party got pretty strung out. We took our time examining the weird rock features at the side of the river and stalking a pair of White-faced Ibises. At long last, we came around a bend and even the pretext of canyon walls dropped away. Ahead was a large white dome of rock… the White House below which was our camp and the waiting non-Mormon refreshment! And there were Steph, Peter, and Ben lounging in the creek, shoes off and beers in-hand! We joined them for the traditional post-run river-soak. It was no more than 30 minutes later when Tressa and Ray came into view around the last bend. Despite having never run more than 12 miles before this, Ray did amazingly well on this long and very challenging route. I’d be lying if I said I was feeling particularly fresh or energetic myself.
We hiked back to camp and variously lounged around camp in the shade of a juniper tree or explored the adjacent rocks and canyons until dusk. A fabulous and raucous group dinner was concocted, a campfire lit, and numerous illicit beverages consumed, to the detriment of some. When we finally all stumbled off to our respective tents, it was with a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. This was definitely one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.
None of us was terribly spry getting out of bed and the sun was fully up by the time we mobilized and started breaking camp. We drove out to Kanab, the closest town of any size and located a great little coffee shop and restocked at the grocery store across the street. This fortified us for the long drive home north up the very scenic US89 and then a long, fast haul east on I70. By 9pm, we’d reconvened in Boulder, hurriedly redistributed camping gear, and made our way home to showers and very nice beds.
Wow! What a trip!