Buckskin Gulch

April 1973

By: Girard Haven


In the spring of 1972, John Vitz and I, with three other people, took a magnificent hike through the Paria River Canyon in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona (DPS Newsletter #113), One of the most exciting places we saw was the canyon of Buckskin Gulch, aptly named the Dive. However, we had time to explore only the first two miles of it, so we vowed to return soon to explore the rest. Our first attempt was planned last November after the scheduled South Guardian Angel climb, but when the high temperatures fell into the low forties, we decided to postpone the trip until spring. And so, early April found the five of us once again assembled in Southern Utah.

Turning south down the Doll House Valley road, which intersects U.S. 89 5 miles west of the Paria River, we soon reached the Buckskin. It was flowing several feet deep and ten feet wide with a substance that looked like slightly thinned brown paint, The upper six miles of the Buckskin can be explored on a day hike by leaving the canyon at Wire Pass, the only reasonable exit between the road and the Paria. A mile below the road, we reached the Portals, a 100 foot high sandstone gate which marks the true start of the canyon. The sky was clear and deep Utah blue, but at times the wind blew the sand at us viciously. The canyon is wide, and the walls not particularly impressive by Colorado River standards, relying on bedding and coloration for variety more than on tapestries and sculpting. Several miles past the Portals, the Catacombs begin, a 100 foot deep canyon only 4 to 6 feet wide. The brown muck ran wall to wall, but the bottom was smooth and provided reliable footing. We lunched at the junction with Wire Pass, apparently named for its 3 foot width. Beyond that point, the Buckskin seems to be swallowed by the rock walls. The Dive looked to us to be as much a cave as a canyon. However, the high level of the water and its refusal to settle into something palatable caused us severe second thoughts about trying the canyon. We hiked out Wire Pass and then 4 miles up the road to the cars, and then drove around to inspect the Paria. In contrast to the previous year when it had almost no flow at all, it flowed swiftly with the same brown paint as the Buckskin, so we decided once again to postpone the trip down the Dive and headed for the Grand Canyon.

Our third attempt on the Buckskin occurred over Memorial Day. I met John Vitz and Larry Fink at the Paria, where we left their car, and then drove around to the roadhead for Wire Pass. (There are large BLM signs both there and where the road crosses the Buckskin.) we camped that night at the roadhead, weathering a light rain in a shallow cave in the sandstone.

It was still overcast the next day when we shouldered our packs, which were ridiculously top heavy since we had packed everything at the top in the hope it would stay dry during the expected periods of wading, and headed downstream, Soon we entered the Dive.

It is a lovely canyon, narrow, beautifully sculpted, and in places, dark as a dungeon. There are spots where the canyon runs straight at a vertical wall and it is only when one is right at it that a narrow slit to the left or right reveals the continuation of the canyon. There are also wider spaces, where cottonwoods and tamarisk grow, offering pleasant campsites (except that this time there was no water in the Buckskin). The overcast broke up in late morning so the skies were clear in the afternoon and, of course, dark blue.The hiking proved to be much easier than expected, requiring only one wade over mid-thigh. The biggest problem was the areas of slippery mud. The sounds of air first bubbling around a boot as it was placed down and then sucking back in as it was withdrawn were delightfully obscene. There were several places where it was necessary to jump down, but there were no real problems. A large rock blockage two miles from the Paria formed the most serious obstacle, but there was a rope leading down behind the largest rock to a passage beneath it.

After passing that, we were back in the portion of the canyon that we had seen the year before and the changes surprised us. In one place, we had to duck under wedged logs that had been ten feet overhead a year before, All the tanks were filled with silt. Apparently such changes are common. We met a man who had been down the Dive a year and a half earlier and had been in water up to his armpits much of the way.

We camped a quarter mile from the Paria in a magnificent wide turn in the Dive, noting that a large vegetation covered sand bar had completely disappeared since the last time we were there. The Buckskin had a tiny, relatively clear trickle which surfaced about a mile from the Paria, saving us the trouble of trying to use the muddy water in the Paria.

We had planned to spend a day on the Paria and then hike out to the cars but changed our minds and left the next day. Somehow the trip had not come to life. Partly it was the threatening weather at the start, which partially buried the wonder of the canyon in worry. Partly it was the later time of the year, which caused the sun to shine more directly into the canyon, making it appear less deep. Partly it was the dirty water in place of the clear stream of the previous year. And partly it was our unreasonably high expectations. Still, the Buckskin and the Paria are superb canyons and, when the opportunity arises, I will be eager to return to them.

Our first plan after we were mudded out of the Paria (see article above) was to spend three days on Nankoweap Creek in the eastern part of the Grand Canyon and then three at Toroweap. To reach Nankoweap, we drove south along the dirt road that parallels the Kaibab Plateau on the east, heading for the hunting camp near Saddle Mountain. Although the snow was heavy on the plateau, we were below it until we reached the 6,500 foot level a mile from the camp. We left the cars and headed toward the saddle just vest of Saddle Mountain. It was a gorgeous day and the going was good until we dropped into the canyon that leads to the saddle where it became a snow wallow. Having the good sense to realize that wallowing is no fun, we decided that we were still too high and too far north, so we returned to the cars and after an overnight beer break at Lee's Ferry, reached the South Rim at 10 am.

As our alternate alternative plan we chose a trip down the Hance Trail to the Colorado, along the Tonto Trail to the Bright Angel Trail and then up the Bright Angel Trail to the Village. After obtaining hiking permits and setting up a car shuttle, it was 1 pm before we started down, The first 800 feet of the Hance Trail are quite steep and were covered with snow so we took over an hour to pick our way down. However, once we were below the snow line, the trail was in reasonable shape, easy to follow and only washed out in one or two places which were easy to cross. A ranger had attempted to dissuade us from using the Hance Trail saying it was dangerous, but fortunately we did not believe him and we proved to be more correct than he.

Since we had started late, we were not able to reach the river the first day, and since we had not packed water, we had to find a spring. Ordinarily there would not be any on the Hance Trail, but since it was early spring, we were able to find a good one only a quarter mile from a lovely campsite on a shoulder that sticks out into the canyon. The next. day we hiked down the trail into Red Canyon, where we stopped for a break at the first water, and then reached the river about 10 am. We had expected to find the river clear, as it had been at Lee's Ferry, but found it muddy instead. A raft group was also stopped there prior to running the rapids and told us that indeed the Colorado was clear until the Little Colorado joined it, a factor we had blithely overlooked. So, instead of staying at the river, we left that afternoon on the Tonto Trail for Hance Creek, the fist creek to the south.

The Tonto Trail rises from the Colorado at Red Canyon and climbs on top of the Tapeats Limestone. It then contours for miles along the Tonto Plateau, cutting sharply into one side canyon after another. Typically, it wanders one or two miles along the river until encountering a tributary stream, at which point it goes in three miles to cross it where it rises to the top of the Tapeats and then three miles back out to the river, necessitating a six mile hike to gain a quarter mile downstream. The areas on the Tonto are completely without shade so even in the fairly pleasant temperatures of April (near 80) the brilliant sun becomes a bit oppressive. How people manage in August is beyond my comprehension.

The Tapeats is relatively impervious to water, forcing the water in the streams to the surface right where the trail crosses them. Most of these streams have cottonwoods to provide shade and some sculpting and a few small waterfalls where the stream cuts through the Tapeats. On Pipe Spring Creek, a quarter mile below the trail the stream falls cleanly a hundred feet, as if poured from a pitcher, The streams are conveniently placed about 4 to 6 miles apart, so our typical daily routine was to hike to one in the morning, spend about two hours there for lunch and exploration, and then hike to the next in the afternoon, arriving in time for a bath in one of the pools and a leisurely dinner. In this manner, we camped at Hance Creek, Grapevine Creek, Lonetree Canyon, and Pipe Springs. It is worth noting that there were only three other people at Pipe Springs, while two miles away the over-c(r)amped picnic campground at Indian Springs was swarming.

The weather throughout was lovely, providing clear blue, skies behind the reds and whites of the canyon walls. We saw several herd of burros, about 20 animals in all! and many wildflowers, Just below Red Canyon it is possible to see the remains of Hance's asbestos mine across the river, unworked for almost 80 years. But mostly the viewing is of the vast panoramas of the Grand Canyon. One wanders beneath the gigantic forms like an ant in a monument, in endless parade of multi colored rocks marching off in all directions. Once again I was struck by how much the Grand Canyon is like an inverted mountain range, one which certainly rivals the Sierra in challenge and complexity. If it climbed up instead of down, many of its peaks would be on the DPS list, but somehow we have failed to include even a single point in this great wilderness.

After five glorious days, we hiked out to the Village, where temperatures were in the fifties and the wind blew sharply into our faces, quite a contrast to the warm summer days we had experienced below. This trip further confirmed our belief that the Grand Canyon season is from October to April, when the water runs and the air is cool. The problem is to reach the rim and find a way down. But if it can be done, the rewards are well worth the effort.

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