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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes - Buckskin Gulch, UT

Gambling in the slots

by: Kelly Bastone


The Hike No one's died here–yet. But the odds mount every time a dark cloud crosses the sky. This tortuously twisting sandstone bottleneck is the longest, deepest slot canyon in the Southwest (and probably the world). Its narrow walls carve a 12-mile gash through the southern Utah desert, although most hikers bypass the first of those pinched miles by starting at Wire Pass, a tributary that enters Buckskin from the south and plunges them right into its tightest squeeze. The extended exposure to flash flood danger makes Buckskin one of the country's most dangerous slots: Rarely more than 10 feet wide, the eerie corridor is 400 feet deep at its junction with the Paria River. Most chilling: The entire length of sandstone wall is virtually insurmountable–except for a single escape hatch at the Middle Route, about 8 miles in from Wire Pass. Should thunderstorm-bloated flood waters come charging down the tunnel, you're no better than a bug in a firehose.

Exhibit A Not only is it long, but Buckskin also drains a big watershed. Streams all across the Paria Plateau funnel into this slot, where the smooth rock walls support little vegetation that would slow the onslaught of water. The combination of big flows and polished passage results in floods with massive force, and Buckskin's narrow dimensions allow the torrent nowhere to go but up: Waters here can swell from zero to 20 feet deep in mere minutes. "We've never lost anybody," says ranger Michael Salamacha–but they've come close. A few hikers have gotten trapped but miraculously managed to climb above the water. "They were lucky to be near one of the few ledges," Salamacha says.

Survival Plan It's impossible to know for sure where or when storms may strike, but hedge your bets by checking weather updates; noaa.gov issues the region's most accurate flood forecasts. Avoid Buckskin from July through mid-September, when afternoon storms shower water through the slots. Should you hear water thundering upon you, "Try to scramble up or out," advises Rich Carlson of the American Canyoneering Association. "It's surprising how many little ledges and ripples you can climb when your life depends on it." Failing that, secure yourself to something: Hikers in other canyons have survived by clinging to debris wedged between the walls. Should the current take you, ride the flood like whitewater, feet downstream and elbows in. Says Carlson, "Hopefully, you're wearing a helmet, because you're going to be a pinball."




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ALL READERS COMMENTS

Cooper
Jan 24, 2014

Among the most enjoyable hikes m'dad and I have ever done. We're from Alaska and have been hiking together for over 30 years. We took four days to do Buckskin / Paria. Here it is in four minutes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72YfmE9oVuM

Thank you for the post!

Spaghettiwestern
Oct 10, 2012

Backpacked Buckskin Gulch thru Wire Pass with intention of hiking out White House trail.The pools of water, mud and obstructions makes this a fun,yet challenging hike.Unfortunately, I injured my ankle severly coming down one of the obstructions. I continued at a painful pace to a beautiful campsite right above the confluence of the Paria River. In the morning my ankle was the size of a cantaloupe and realized I wasn't going to make it out on my own. My friend and his dog hiked out for help. I thought search and rescue would assist me out by horseback,but I was later told it was too muddy. To my disbelief, I heard the sound of a helicopter and watched the pilot land in narrow Buckskin Gulch. I had thoughts of guilt that the pilot and crew would risk their lives and a feeling of being blessed washed over me. At take-off the rotors of the helicopter were extreamly close to the canyon walls. I was overwhelmed by the shear beauty of canyons from a birds eye view.

NEVER HIKE ALONE!!
Thanks to: Jason, Rio
Classic Helicopter crew: Pete,Jarred & Joanie

Spaghetti Western
Oct 10, 2012

Backpacked Buckskin Gulch thru Wire Pass with intention of coming out at White House trail. The pools, mud and obstructions are a nice challenge. Unfortunately, fractured my ankle coming off one of the obstructions and continued a painful hike to a beautiful campsite just before the confluence with the Paria River. The next day my ankle was the size of a cantaloupe, and my friend and his dog Rio hiked out to summon help. I thought search and rescue would carry me out by horseback, but was told later it's too muddy. Heard the echoes of a helicopter and watched in disbelief the pilot and crew land in Buckskin Gulch. Feelings of guilt overwhelmed me that they would risk their lives to rescue me. At take-off the blades of the helicopter were extremely close to the canyon walls and was taken back by the shear beauty of all the canyons from a birds eye view.

NEVER go alone!!

Kirsten
Aug 11, 2012

My sister and I hiked from Wire Pass to Lees Ferry in 10/2011. The first day started great although we wished Betty would havr dropped us off earlier than 10am... by the end of the first day my left knee was shot. (Found out later I had blown a popliteal cyst that was leaking down both sides). Needless tothe say to pulling my legs put of quicksand and through hundreds of river crossings and through the muck was excruciating. Did the hike in 3 days as we couldn't bear the thought of another day. Funny how you forget the misery after a while... am actually thinking about another trip! Highly recommend good boots!!!!!!! And get some good anti-inflammatory meds and muscle relaxers for this one. That's whay saved me!

Jon Ferguson
Jun 04, 2012

A word about the shuttle services. About four years ago, I first had a deal with the Dodson's, who when I called, asked where I was from and I told them, San Francisco Bay Area. They said $150 and I set a reservation. The morning they were expected, Betty Price, another of three shuttle drivers showed up, picking up a Sierra Club group of five hikers in her van and said Dodsons couldn't make it and she would be giving me a ride. When we dropped the Sierra group at White House Trailhead, I asked the group leader what he paid and he said something to the effect of $340 for two van loads (12 people), adding that he gave a $100 tip and gives them business every year with trips. When I was dropped off, after being squeezed in the back seat, I found out I was still charged $150. Later I talked to two people from Salt Lake, who were charged $110 for two people by Betty Price. Basically, I paid more than anyone to be squeezed in for a ride. As a former Utah resident, I see the value in services such as this in remote areas, but I found this experience quite dishonest and preferential. Moral, say you're from Salt Lake City if they ask. Then make up a Ward number if they pursue that avenue before setting a price.

Oliver
May 31, 2012

We hiked from Wire Pass on day one (May 14)) to 1/4 of a mile from the Paria River confluence. We were carrying heavy packs 40+lbs and taking pictures. We started at 7 am and got to the last campsite before the confluence at 7:20 pm. It was a long day. We had 3 choke stone obstacles to climb down. The shortest being about 12 feet the longest 30 feet. There are a number of ropes at the 30 foot drop. It took us about 5 hours to hike out the next day to White House TH. Ages of our hikers are 23, 55, 64 and 68. Plus we had our Weimarner with us. We were all in good shape. We did not encounter ANY water. It was a dry hike for us. It is beautiful hike but not for the faint of heart!

Jim
Apr 29, 2011

Hiked from Wirepass to Whitehouse in July 2010 with a group of older Boys Scouts. This is truly one of the great hikes in the world. It did start to rain when we were just past the cess pools in the deepest part of the canyon. We couldn't tell if the rumbling above us was from thunder far off or water coming down the canyon. It was a little unnerving. It turned out be be thunder which does have some amazing acoustics in this long narrow canyon. Luckly it didn't flash flood, but it did build up a pretty good stream that made hiking rather messy. It cooled things off nicely for a July hike. I can hear its siren's call again to return to explore its mysteries.

jim
Feb 25, 2011

I have been in Buckskin 2 or 3 times. Look at the logs jammed way above your head. Flash floods put those there. A very dangerous cathedral. Got caught in a flood in the Paria near Buckskin (which did come from Bryce). That was frightening enough, as the Paria grew to the size of the Colorado River. Some Australians in Buckskin were lucky to survive.
Cloudless days only please & take the time to stop at the ranger station.

Derek Young
Dec 31, 2010

I've done this route twice; the first time solo from Buckskin trailhead, the second from White House with my wife. Camping across from the springs and seeing a full-moon was an amazing experience. Is the End Of The Trail shuttle service still in operation?

Kristen
Dec 30, 2010

LOVE this hike, one of my all time favorites.

Hiked the full length of Buckskin through Paria a few years back, in October, the typically "safest" time of year and was caught in a HUGE flash flood. Camped at mile 38 we awoke to chocolate waterfalls over the edge, boulders tumbling and a nearby side canyon sweeping away a few incidental pieces of gear. We spent an extra day on high ground watching the raging waters recede and enjoying the sunny afternoon. Completely out of water, and past the last spring, we tried to hike out the next day but ended up stranded on the wrong side of the river. Trip ended with a helicopter escort for the last 7 miles. Memorable for sure!

Geezer Runner
Dec 30, 2010

Did the White House - Highway - 4X4 road - Buckskin Gulch - Paria - White House loop several years ago. 38 miles - Incredible trip!! Will never forget the Cess Pool. Deep sticky mud up to my knees. Some ground squirrels apparently starved to death after getting in the mud and then were unable to get traction to get out. It was good to get to the pools of water to wash off the mud. Also remember dead crows in the bottom of the slot that may not have been able to get out of the canyon. My guess is crows do not fly straight up, they gain altitude slowly, and the narrow canyon did not provide a flight path long enough to escape. Any other thoughts on this??

KBR
Oct 11, 2010

truly beautiful and awesome to see how high those clumps of flood debris are. Definitely necessary to check recent and upcoming weather.

Anonymous
May 17, 2010

My favorite hike ever ... definitely one you have to try in your life! A great memory!

C. Watson
Dec 31, 2009

I took a group of Family and friends thru this pass Oct. It's one for the mermony books. Like everyone saying you have to be on ur toes. Plan on doing the twelve miles the first day. Lots of mud, and muddy water to go thru. So be prepared.

CW

WB
Sep 01, 2009

I hiked solo from the Wire Pass TH to the White House TH on Saturday and did not come across a single person all day. This is an amazing hike and a great experience. I was so busy taking photos over the first several hours that I had to pick up the pace slightly (and take less photos) after getting to the Middle Route. I left around 8:00 AM, and the entire hike took just over 10 hours.

I arranged shuttle service through Steve Dotson at Paria Outpost (a good guy), and he was on time at White House TH. Michael Kelsey -- the author of several well-known books on the area -- was at the WH TH that morning and getting ready for a hike down the Paria.

darla wright
Aug 26, 2009

We are planning a backpacking trip into buckskin. Our group wants to make it to the confluence the first day. Is that doable? We are all in good health and shape, but it is 14 miles. Could you e-mail with the pros and cons of this? thanks

Jon Ferguson
Nov 18, 2008

Narrow to be sure and less ability to escape than most, but there are numerous spots that widen out a little bit, many with sand hills high enough to escape many flood emergencies (although a big enough flood would likely erode these away), but there are also mile or longer stretches with nowhere to go. Also, Buckskin originates some 40 miles away at the southern flank of Bryce Canyon, so there could be major storms feeding it with sunny skies above, and it takes approx 15 hours(??, ask rangers) for water to drain from up there to Buckskin, so it could have rained early the night before and come down and swamp you on a beautiful day with no rain predicted. Not dangerous if planned well and done at the right time. Check with rangers the morning you depart in addition to the NOAA forecast.Also, it's actually 16 miles from Buckskin TH to the confluence with the Paria and 13 from the Wire Pass TH to the Paria, not 12 for the whole length as mentioned above. And if you want to spend any kind of time enjoying and taking pictures, start at daybreak. Parts can be slow going, and I didn't even have to wade through a puddle last spring (a rarity in this slot, but it's been several years of drought conditions). Most years, up to a mile wade or even swim in brackish cold water is to be expected.

Eric Johnson
Nov 14, 2008

When I went through Buckskin I walked under huge clumps of flash flood debris (a ton or so of logs, brush, rocks, ect). I couldn't touch these clumps with my extended arm and staff. One of the best hikes I ever made.

Lynna Howard
Nov 14, 2008

My brother, Leland Howard, and I hiked from the Wire Pass tributary canyon into Buckskin Gulch. An other-worldly experience, that's for certain. We included the hike in our book "Utah's Wilderness Areas: The Complete Guide" and my brother posted some of the images on www.wildernessbooks.com. Enjoy.

Derek
Nov 14, 2008

I've done the Paria hike twice - once from Buckskin Gulch trailhead, the other from White House. The petrogylph wall at the confluence of Wire Pass and Buckskin is amazing, and will never forget the scenary, isolation, and peace.

Firekeeper
Nov 14, 2008

This is a beautiful hike with a great panel of rock art at the junction of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch.

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