Two Hikers Found Dead in Utah Canyon As a Dangerous Spring Continues

This weekend's deaths mark the second double fatality in Buckskin Gulch this spring, and follow a string of rescues caused by wet conditions and flooding.

Photo: BSTPhotography / Cavan via Getty

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Two hikers found deceased in a popular Utah slot canyon over the weekend likely died in a flash flood, the Kane County Sheriff’s Office says.

Around 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 21, a member of the Kane County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team informed authorities that a group hiking from the White House trailhead to Lee’s Ferry in Paria Canyon had messaged him saying they had encountered a “deceased male individual” about a half-mile across the border into Arizona and south of the river’s junction with popular slot Buckskin Gulch, the sheriff’s office wrote in a statement posted to Facebook. A helicopter from the Utah Department of Public Safety transported members of Arizona’s Coconino County Sheriff’s Office to the scene, where they recovered the body.

Authorities were only able to identify the body on Monday morning, when Kane County received a call from the West Chester, Ohio, police department. Family members had reported two local residents missing after they had embarked on a planned hike in Buckskin Gulch on Saturday afternoon.

“The men indicated they were going to hike about 5 miles into Wire Pass and the Buckskin Gulch,” the Kane County Sheriff’s Office wrote. “The family had not heard from them since.” With the help of a picture provided by the family, authorities identified the body as 65-year-old Gary York.

Armed with this new information, search and rescue teams headed back to the area in search of the second missing hiker. After an extensive search beginning at the Middle Route trailhead, they located the body of John Walter, 72.

In its release, Kane County said evidence suggested that Walter and York had drowned when a flash flood took them by surprise in the canyon and swept them both away. Searchers located Walter 7 to 8 miles downstream from where officials believe the water caught them; York was more than 10 miles downstream.

Buckskin Gulch draws hikers from around the world with its sculpted sandstone walls and otherworldly light, but when the canyon floods, it can be dangerous: At no more than 10 feet wide in most spots and up to 400 feet deep at its junction with the Paria River, escape from rising waters can be difficult to impossible.

This is the second double fatality in Buckskin Gulch this spring. In mid-March, Bill Romaniello and Jeff Watson passed away in a flash flood there, while authorities had to rescue their companion by helicopter. At least 10 other hikers have required rescue due to flooding caused by a high snowpack and an unusually wet spring. In the wake of March’s incident, Lt. Alan Alldredge of the Kane County Sheriff’s Office told Salt Lake City’s KSL that he expected conditions in the canyon to be more hazardous than normal for “a couple of months.”

From 2023