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 Gulch 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.
The Danger of Flash Floods
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.
Buckskin Gulch 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.”