Rays of sunlight decorate the varnished sandstone cliffs along the deep narrows. The liquid trills of canyon wrens add melodic accompaniment to the sounds of water trickling through hanging gardens of fern and monkey flower. No hiker's life is complete without experiencing such desert wonders, and the 38-mile Paria River trek from southern Utah to Lees Ferry in Arizona's Grand Canyon is one of the world's best places to get it all in one gulp.
Most backpackers follow the Paria River for the entire hike, descending from sagebrush flats into the canyon's winding corridors. Slowly, over the course of a few days, the narrow slot of sky overhead widens like a parting curtain, and the canyon takes on its Grand cousin's flavor as the trail climbs to benches high above the river for the last 11 miles. Save time for exploring hidden side canyons, prehistoric art panels, abandoned homesteads, lush seep springs, and soaring arches.
More adventurous hikers should consider beginning their trek at the tributary gorge of Utah's Buckskin Gulch, which stretches the trip to 43 miles. Traversing the incredible, 12-mile narrows of the gulch usually involves swimming or wading through several cold-water pools and lowering packs down a 20-foot cliff. The reward is an otherworldly journey on the longest, narrowest slot canyon hike in existence.
Permits: Reserve permits up to 7 months in advance. The cost is $5 per day per person (see Contact below).
Trails: Start at the Paria Information Station on UT 89 in southern Utah, between the towns of Kanab, Utah, and Page, Arizona. You'll need at least 4 or 5 days to reach Lees Ferry on the Colorado River, but you could easily stay busy for a week or 2. If permits aren't available, try the 20-mile hike through the equally spectacular upper Paria River canyon.
Season: Late March through May and late September through November are the best times to travel in this hot country. The flash-flood risk is high from late July through August.
Guides:The Paria BLM Hiker's Guide ($8, plus $2 postage), a flip-map containing mile-by-mile descriptions of the canyon, is available from the Arizona Strip Interpretive Association, (435) 688-3246; www.az.blm.gov/asfo/asia/asia.htm. Hiking and Exploring the Paria River, by Michael R. Kelsey (Kelsey Publishing; $11.95), is available at bookstores.
Contact: Arizona Strip Field Office, Bureau of Land Management, (435) 688-3200; http://paria.