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Backpacker Magazine – August 2012

Life List: Buckskin Gulch, Utah/Arizona

Yes, all wilderness is sacred. But this mystically beautiful slot canyon is holier than most.

by: Jonathan Dorn

Photo by Jonathan Dorn
Photo by Jonathan Dorn

In a serpentine hallway so narrow I can touch both sides, the March morning is cool and still; only the singsong trill of canyon wrens breaks the silence. A dusty sunbeam has somehow angled between the undulating 400-foot sandstone walls to reach the sandy canyon floor. The rays illuminate stone warped into psychedelic waves by eons of liquid erosion, the rock layered with burgundy, scarlet, and burnt-orange streaks.

At this moment, I decide that Buckskin Gulch is the coolest place I’ve ever been. And that’s saying a lot: In 10 years as editor of BACKPACKER, I’ve hiked on seven continents and ogled countless natural phenomena. I’m glad my two daughters, ages 13 and 15, are here to share this 12-mile journey through the canyon, whose unusual dimensions radiate an intimate immensity I’ve only felt in places like Chartres Cathedral.

Buckskin, North America’s longest, deepest slot, is the first leg of our 48-mile trek that will dovetail into also-extraordinary Paria Canyon and end at Lees Ferry. Days two to four in Paria increase in grandeur and solitude; we’ll see zero hikers there. Credit the BLM’s daily quota (20 people total across four trailheads), the route’s limited water (the Paria River is too silty to filter, so hikers must rely on a half-dozen springs), and our timing (we’re ahead of the April/May high season).

For today, though, Buckskin is our holy place. There’s even religious art of a sort: Ancient pictographs decorate the redrock every few miles, faded symbols from past pilgrims. And just as they do in Notre Dame, visitors here talk in reverent whispers—if they speak at all. When we finally reach camp at the Paria/Buckskin confluence, after 13 hours of gaping and photographing, one word finally spills out: amen.

Trip Planner
Do it
Stage cars at Wire Pass (free camping, no water) and Lees Ferry (pay camping, water) or book a shuttle ($175; vermilioncliffs.net). Plan on 4-5 hours of driving, half on washboard dirt.

Season
Spring and fall (see flood chart above)

Contact
(435) 688-3200; on.doi.gov/pariapermits

Permits
Reserve 3 months in advance (e.g. Jan. 1 for April trips; $5 pp/day).

Trip data backpacker.com/hikes/1672218 

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