Buckskin Gulch, Pariah Canyon


By: Gordon MacLeod




Although originally scheduled only for the traverses in the upper drainage's of the Paria River centered on Hackberry Canyon and for the Under-the-Rim Trail, we were able to add a transit of the famous Buckskin Gulch as a bonus.

Buckskin Gulch, a tributary of the Paria River in southwest Utah, is perhaps the most spectacular canyon in the United States in terms of its average depth-to-width ratio. The Buckskin presents scheduling problems, however, for those organized groups who need to plan months ahead. The dangers of potential flash floods during parts of the year or longs deep, unpleasant water pools at other times are the confounding factors for long range planning. Prior rain patterns need to be just right for a pleasant trip through the Gulch, but we were fortunate enough to recognize--and to take advantage of--the very favorable conditions that existed in the Buckskin as we were passing through Kanab, Utah. We elected, during breakfast at the Colonial Inn there, to do the Buckskin as our first traverse-- perhaps even at the expense of having later to drop the Under-the-Rim Trail segment as a result. The Wire Pass variation of the Buckskin was selected, because it is, fortunately, both more spectacular and somewhat shorter than alternate routes, thus better fitting our schedule. A car shuttle was set up Saturday morning with vehicles stationed at White House roadhead on the Paria River Just south of US Hwy. 89 and at the Wire Pass roadhead. Starting down after lunch, with each of us carrying a gallon of water or so (whatever water that might be in the Buckskin is best left to evaporate), we reached the only suitable campsite in the 12-mile long canyon at about its midpoint in late afternoon. Here the canyon opens slightly, which allows more daylight to penetrate to the floor of the canyon and also affords a couple of Class 2-3 escape routes. Indeed, three gals we met in the gulch actually availed themselves of this opportunity to camp on the plateau free of the concerns of the canyon--or of us! In addition, there is a small sandy beach upon which to camp. We had a nice campfire, making use of local driftwood. A number of knee-deep and hip-deep water pools of 20-to-30 feet length had to be negotiated and one 3rd-class, 10-foot obstacle was down climbed that first afternoon.

The next day also involved some more water pools and another obstacle, this time a 30-foot, 3rd-class waterfall situation, which would otherwise have involved rappelling or 4th-class down-climbing, were it not for a fixed, large-diameter manila rope plus steps cut in a side-wall boulder (--thanks to the BLM?).. Old climbing boots or Army-surplus Vietnamese-style boots worked well for those that had them, while others wearing running shoes complained at the end Of the day of rock-induced bruises to their feet and/or of the annoying sand that had penetrated their socks and shoes. (I personally keep an old pair of mountaineering boots for this kind of trip, having learnt long ago that tennis shoes--and now running shoes--are inadequate and that even Vietnamese boots leave something to be desired.)

The confluence of the Buckskin and the Paria River occurs in a section of Paria Canyon called the "Narrows," which consequently affords a passage of this interesting feature of that magnificent canyon. The marvelous water-canal sculpturing within the Buckskin, together with its extraordinary depth-to-width ratio, makes that desert canyon traverse one of--if not the most--spectacular in the United States and certainly worthy of being added to a "Desert Traverse List".

Monday morning we set up the rather long car shuttle for the traverse of the upper Paria canyons. We left a vehicle at the Junction of Hackberry Canyon and Cottonwood Canyon, which is only a few miles north of the old Paria movie-set location north of Hwy. 89 on the Paria River, and two vehicles at a road crossing of Sheep Creek, which lies some 6 miles southwest of Cannondale. Cannondale itself is some 15 miles east of Bryce Canyon National Park. Sheep Canyon took us 5 miles downstream to its confluence with the Paria, where we camped. Water was taken from Sheep Creek in preference to the Paria. Incidentally, we treated all water used on the trip--save that we brought with us from home--either by suitable filters or by iodine. Tuesday, we backpacked 10 miles down the Paria to Hog Eye Canyon, where we found an excellent campsite with good water a quarter of a mile upstream from the Paria. These sections of Sheep and Paria Canyons are reminiscent of parts of the lower Paria below the famous "S-curves."

Wednesday saw us backpacking up Hog Eye, a narrow but very pretty 3 or 4 mile long canyon with a couple of 3rd-class waterfall situations. Exiting Hog Eye does pose some interesting climbing and route finding opportunities. The canyon forks into a number of side canyons where it encounters a hard, gray sandstone formation, and these side canyons end in rock-cliff barriers. Our objective, Lower Death Valley (in which Sam Pallock Natural Arch is located), was reached by a scramble up a long, steep dry water course ending in a 2nd-to-3rd class headwall. On the other side of the divide, we hiked down past Sam Pollock Arch and beyond to a dry waterfall--where we had the shock of the trip. I had been led to believe that this expected waterfall was 20-30 feet high with a 3rd- class down-climb along one side. Instead, we faced a 70-80 foot dry waterfall or a 50 foot, 4th-class crud wall covered with loose debris as the best local down-climb options. The two ropes that we carried were about 50 and 75 feet in length, so we looked for alternatives. Abe Siemans climbed a short 4th-class wall out of the canyon to investigate an adjoining canyon, which joined the main canyon a few hundred yards downstream. Fortunately, he located the waterfall/down-climb configuration that had been described to me--but in that other canyon. We proceeded back up Lower Death Valley Canyon a hundred yards to a point where we could ascend to a ledge system that got us to the down-climb chute adjacent to the dry waterfalls in the other canyon. We lowered packs over a cliff about 40 feet with one rope, while some of the less experienced were belayed down the rotten 60-foot, 3rd-class chute.

Our tribulations were not yet over, however. Later, after reaching the confluence, we hiked up Hackberry Canyon a mile-and-a-half to a side canyon, where a spring shows on the topo map. I had been informed that this spring was a good one, and moreover a good campsite was close at hand. Instead, we found no spring worthy of the name--but did encounter a tribe of cows--worthy of any name that comes to mind--fouling up whatever water was available; nor could we find a camp that matched our expectations. Disappointed, we marched downstream to locate a small seep we had noted on our way up Hackberry, but unfortunately missed it and had to settle for a camp near the junction with Lower Death Valley Canyon, which we had exited two hours earlier. It was Just as well, for Erick Schumacher, who later found the lost seep upstream, spent three-quarters of an hour retrieving just a single gallon of water from the seep. The rest of us satisfied ourselves with the cow-enriched stuff from Hackberry Creek. That evenings we opted to cancel our intended exploration of the upper Hackberry--in part because of those cows--and instead to use our remaining time to "do" the Under-the-Rim Trail in nearby Bryce Canyon.

So, on Thursday, we ran down the 5 miles of the lower Hackberry--which I understand is the prettiest section anyway--to our car stationed at the Junction with Cottonwood Canyon. After undoing the car shuttle and driving the short distance to Bryce, we were soon enjoying the intellectual atmosphere of the Visitor Center and, shortly afterward, the culinary arts of a local restaurant. At this Juncture, Abe, who had earlier declared that his new bride at home held more attraction for him than the Bryce's premier trail, bid us ado. Rod Murray somehow developed the notion that horseback riding would provide a welcome change from backpacking, and so opted to spend his money that way. These defections, on the other hand, reduced our party size to the legal permit limit of 6 for the designated camps along the Under-the-Rim Trail.

Friday morning we set up the car shuttle for the Under-the-Rim Trail traverse and were on our way down from Bryce Point by 9:30 AM. Each of us gathered a gallon or more of water from Yellow Creek, which is about 3 miles from and 1500 feet below Bryce Point, and we carried that water an additional 7 miles over a number of intervening ridges to our campsite at Swamp Creek. In this very dry year at Bryce Canyon, there was no water between Yellow Creek and Sheep Creek, a distance of about 12 miles. By 11:30 AM Saturday we had already covered the 7 miles to our appointed night camp at Ponderosa Creek, which was then conveying more than its share of mud to the Colorado River. Thereupon, during the lunch break, we unanimously voted to backpack the remaining 5 miles to our car at Rainbow Point, which we reached by mid-afternoon.

The Under-the-Rim Trail is Bryce's most notable trail, developed years ago to show off its grand, colorful cliffs and spires to those willing and fit enough to negotiate either its full length or any of the shorter segments made possible by connecting trails running down from the Paunsaugunt Plateau. We saw only three other backpackers in the entire 23 miles. The Trail does not traverse along a level platforms weaving in and out of great amphitheaters, like that along the Tonto Plateau in the Grand Canyon, but instead goes up and, down over a number of ridges that jut out from the Paunsaugunt Plateau, while weaving in and out of great amphitheaters set off by these ridges. As a result, the Trail is much more strenuous than the Grand Canyon analogy would suggest, but worth the effort.

After the usual car un-shuttling, we were on our way home by 4 PM, in time to drive through Zion National Park for dinner at the Driftwood Inn in Springdale. We arrived in L.A. early Sunday evening. My odometer indicated a roundtrip distance to Erick Schumacher's home in Sepulveda of just under 1300 miles. We had backpacked a total of nearly 70 miles, with 17 miles devoted to the Buckskin/Paria traverse, 30 miles for the Upper Paria/Hackberry traverse and 23 miles for the Under-the-Rim Trail.

There were three newcomers to such canyon trekking---Chris Collord, Rod Murray and Paul Ackman. This was about Chris's first backpack--but he came well equipped--everything was borrowed from Dick Agnos (his step-father)--except his boots, which were new, of course. Like the guy who's got the proverbial bull by the tail, he was learning at twice the rate of us on-lookers! Rod and Paul both also had foot problems, but not so us veterans--Barbara Reber, Abe Siemans, Erick Schumacher, Ron Leach and myself. On the other hand Chris--a young athlete--wondered on a couple of occasions why we (i.e., the veterans) faded on the up-hills--indeed a young whippersnapper!

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