Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon Backpacking Guide

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Located in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness of Utah and Arizona, this spectacular and unique hike winds through one of the deepest and longest slot canyons in the world. Wavy sandstone walls twist their way to the sky for nearly thirteen miles, creating surreal patterns of light and sound. The canyon walls often soar hundreds of feet above the wash, and are sometimes only a few feet apart. Buckskin Gulch is truly an amazing place, and visitors are sure to appreciate it’s stunning beauty. This is a popular area though, making permits difficult to obtain. Also, flash flood warnings should be treated with the utmost of caution on this hike, as there are very limited opportunities for shelter.

Quick Facts

  • Distance: varies, 21-51 miles depending on trip
  • Days Needed: 2-5 days
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: varies, 500-1500 ft, depending on trip
  • Best Travel Time: April-June or September-November
  • Permits: Yes, very competitive
  • Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
  • Shuttle: Yes, unless doing an out-and-back hike

Highlights

  • Stunning slot canyon scenery
  • Less sun exposure and slightly cooler temperatures than nearby locations
  • Nice campsites, especially in Paria Canyon
  • Lower congestion due to limited permits

Lowlights

  • Possibility of dangerous flash floods
  • Highly competitive permit system
  • Limited water sources
  • Two boulder jams require moderate scrambling
  • Muddy pools require wading, sometimes waist deep
  • Rattlesnakes live in this area

Best Time to Travel

Officially, the hike through Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon is open year-round, but every time of year brings different conditions. The best times to visit are April-June and September-November when the temperatures are cooler and the risk of flash floods is lower. Hiking in the summer months can be dangerously hot and the risk of flash floods is higher. If you hike in the winter, be prepared for very cold temperatures. Also, keep in mind that fires are prohibited in this area.

Flash floods are a serious threat of backpacking in this area, especially in summer months. You need to be diligent in monitoring the weather before your trip as conditions can change quickly. Call the Paria Contact Station - (435)-644-1200 - before your trip for current conditions. Be willing and ready to change plans if there is even a slight chance of rain in the forecast.

Difficulty

  • Total Distance: varies, 20-50 miles, depending on route
  • Total Elevation Gain/Loss: ~1500 feet
  • Overall Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult

As always, difficulty ratings depend on your experience, physical fitness, pack weight, & weather conditions. There is not much elevation gain or loss along this route, but you'll likely have a long day of hiking through sand and loose rock to get through Buckskin Gulch to an area where you can camp. Along the route you'll encounter two boulder jams that will require moderate scrambling ability, balance, strength, and confidence. You will also encounter several pools of muddy water, resulting wet and muddy shoes/feet.

As always, know your limitations, brush up on your skills, and dial in your lightweight gear. Doing so will make for a safe and enjoyable adventure.

Permits

Advance permits are required for overnight stays in the Paria Canyon. They are limited to 20 people per day, making them highly competitive. Reservations can be made up to four months in advance of your departure date. As of 2017, the fee is $6.00 per person per day for day hiking and $5.00 per person per day for overnight trips. Check the BLM.gov Paria website for more info.

Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon day use permits are available via self-serve envelopes at the Wire Pass and White House Trailhead.

Solitude

Because there are such tight regulations on the number of overnight visitors to Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon, there's a decent amount of solitude on this trip. You may see day hikers closer to trailheads, but if you are spending the night things should quiet down later in the day. 

Possible Itineraries

Wire Pass to White House Trailhead (2d/1n)

The most common way to explore this area is a one-night trip beginning at the Wire Pass Trailhead and ending at the White House Trailhead. Over the course of two days you will hike just under 21 miles. Make sure you get an early start on your first day as you will hike through the most spectacular portion of Buckskin Gulch and camp near the confluence with the Paria River. There is not a year-round dependable water source along this route, so make sure to carry enough water for your entire trip (more water info below). After camping near the confluence, you'll hike north through the Paria Canyon to the White House Trailhead on your second day.

Wire Pass to White House Trailhead (3d/2n)

If you have more time, we recommend spending an extra day exploring the Paria Canyon south of the confluence. Big Springs is an excellent water source located about five miles south of the confluence with good camping options nearby. There are many more camping options in Paria Canyon, although many of them are dry camps. On day 2 you could do an out-and-back hike to Wrather Arch and camp around Big Springs again. Another option would be to camp farther south at Shower Springs in the Paria Canyon. Shower Springs is another good water source located about 1.5 miles past Wrather Canyon. End this trek by hiking out to the White House Trailhead.

Wire Pass Trailhead to Lee’s Ferry Trailhead (3-5 days)

This options is the longest and most challenging of our suggested itineraries, but also quite rewarding. Begin at the Wire Pass Trailhead, hike through Buckskin Gulch and continue south at the confluence down Paria Canyon all the way to Lee’s Ferry. This trip should take 3-5 days one way. You’ll notice the farther southeast you travel, the more the canyon will open up, becoming wider, hotter, and more exposed. There are plenty of campsites in Paria Canyon to choose from, but water planning is critical. This itinerary will require a longer shuttle (roughly 2 hours by car).

Buckskin Gulch Trailhead to White House Trailhead

You could choose this option if you wanted to hike the entire length of Buckskin Gulch. When people begin at Wire Pass Trailhead, they cut off about three miles of Buckskin Gulch. We generally recommend beginning at Wire Pass because you'll still experience the most impressive parts of Buckskin and it's a quicker access point. 

MIddle-Out Route

The narrows of Buckskin Gulch run for about fifteen miles with only one access point along the way referred to as the Middle-Out Escape Route. This the only way out of Buckskin when bad weather hits. This route can also be used for day hikers and backpackers, however, it requires some steep rock scrambling, route finding, and is definitely not recommended for beginners or those with a fear of heights.

Day Hiking Options

If you are planning on day hiking in this area, there are a couple options. Our top recommendation is an out-and-back hike from Wire Pass Trailhead into Buckskin Gulch. From the trailhead you'll hike 1.7 miles to reach Buckskin Gulch, then explore the gulch as far as you like and turn around when you're ready. Know your limitations, carry water for the entire day (more water info below), pay close attention to the time, and turn back with plenty of energy to reach your car. Ambitious and fit hikers can still explore a good portion of Buckskin Gulch this way.

Another option is to hike from White House Trailhead south into Paria Canyon towards Buckskin Gulch. This is far less ideal for exploring Buckskin Gulch because most of your day will be spent in a sandy and exposed section of Paria Canyon (roughly seven miles one way) before reaching the confluence with Buckskin Gulch.

Getting To the Trailheads

Wire Pass Trailhead: From Kanab, head south on US-89 for 38 miles. Turn right onto House Rock Valley Road and continue for 8.4 miles. Wire Pass Trailhead will be on your right.

White House Trailhead: From Kanab, head south on US-89 for 43 miles. Turn right onto White House Trailhead Road. About 2 miles down this road you will arrive at the White House Trailhead and Campground.

Lee’s Ferry Trailhead: From Kanab, head south on US-89 for 78 miles. You will cross over into Arizona on this route. Turn right onto Lee’s Ferry Road and follow this for 4.4 miles, then turn left onto Lee’s Ferry Campground.

Buckskin Gulch Trailhead:  From Kanab, head south on US-89 for 38 miles. Turn right onto House Rock Valley Road for 4.5 miles to the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead.

Shuttle Options

In order to complete many of the backpacking routes listed above you'll need to use a shuttle service or drive two cars and shuttle yourself. Using two cars is the most economical, but it's also more time consuming. For a more convenient option, you could hire a shuttle service instead. Grand Staircase Discovery Tours is a good option and their 2017 prices are listed below (*prices are for a group of up to 4 people). You could also call the ranger station for shuttle service recommendations before your trip.

  • White House to Wire Pass - $100
  • Lee’s Ferry to Wire Pass - $200
  • Lee’s Ferry to White House - $175
  • Lee’s Ferry to Buckskin Gulch - $200

Maps & Guidebooks

  • Best Backpacking Trips in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico - This book is a fantastic resource for backpacking Buckskin Gulch and the Paria Canyon. It has in-depth information on the itineraries listed above and it also covers other excellent trips in the area.
  • Paria Canyon, Kanab National Geographic Map - A good topo map is essential for any backpacking trip, and this one is detailed and reliable. It has information on trailheads, campsites, mileage, and water sources.
  • We use Caltopo to research trips, plan routes, and print maps for many of our backpacking adventures. It takes a little time to learn the tool, but it's is an excellent resource.
  • We use Gaia GPS for on-trail navigation on most of our backpacking trips. We always bring a topo map and compass, but Gaia is an excellent tool in the field.
  • BLM-Buckskin Gulch Website - This website offers a good overview of information you’ll need to hike in the Buckskin Gulch area.
  • BLM-Paria Canyon Website - This is where you will apply for permits and find up-to-date information on the Paria Canyon conditions and regulations.

Water

Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon have limited, and at times unreliable, water sources. To be safe, you'll want to carry 4-6 liters of water per person per day. If it’s hot out, you’ll likely want to drink 5-6L per day, though you could survive less comfortably on 4. The first year-round, reliable, and clean water source in this area is Big Springs, located 5 miles south of the Paria/Buckskin confluence. Many hikers head north at the confluence towards White House Trailhead, so they'll never pass a year-round reliable source. In an emergency or when water is plentiful, there is usually water in Paria Canyon and near the Buckskin confluence. However, the water in Paria Canyon is generally not considered clean and should be avoided if possible. For water treatment, we often use the SteriPEN Ultra when backpacking, but in the desert we prefer chemical treatments. The lightest and most foolproof method is chlorine dioxide tablets or drops. If you prefer to filter your water, our top choice is the Sawyer Squeeze.

Navigation

There is no official trail to follow through Buckskin Gulch or the Paria River Canyon. Instead, you will walk down sandy, rocky river beds and following the curves of the canyon walls. It’s easy to follow as there is nowhere else to go. That being said, having a GPS or offline navigation like the Gaia GPS phone app is still recommended. In wider sections of the canyon you'll still get a connection and can plot your location. Caltopo is another excellent pre-trip mapping software that we recommend. Navigating the twists and turns of these canyons can be tricky due to the similarity of the landscape. Always pay attention to key landmarks like boulder jams and confluences to help orient yourself.

Human Waste

Human waste bags are mandatory for Buckskin and Paria Canyons. "Wag bags" are easy to use and improve everyone's experience in this beautiful area. Just think about how many visitors hike in these canyons every year, and there's nowhere for human waste to go. When wag bags aren't used, campsites smell awful and water sources become contaminated. This is for the greater good and you love nature, so please do your part to preserve this special place. Human waste bags are provided with overnight permits at the Paria Ranger Station, Kanab Field Office, and Arizona Strip District Office, though you may need more than one depending on the length of your trip.

Backpacking Gear

We prefer lightweight backpacking because it’s more comfortable and it allows us to cover more ground with less effort. For recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and Top Picks page.

What to Pack

TENT - We used the Zpacks Duplex single-wall tent on this trip. It's one of lightest tents we take on the trail and it's included in on best lightweight backpacking tents list.

BACKPACK - For this trip we used the Zpacks Arc Blast backpack. It's incredibly light and comfortable if your base weight is minimal. The Arc Blast made our favorite lightweight backpacks list as well.

SLEEPING BAG - Nighttime temperatures in the desert vary greatly depending on the season. When evening lows dip around freezing, we use the Feathered Friends Egret UL 20 Women’s Sleeping Bag and the REI Magma 10 Men’s Sleeping Bag. When nighttime lows are 40°F or higher we prefer lightweight quilts like the Enlightened Equipment Revelation. Here’s a list of our favorite lightweight sleeping bags/quilts.

SLEEPING PAD - We used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite and Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated sleeping pads on this trip. Both are light, comfortable, warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping pads.

COOKING SYSTEM - We used the BRS StoveSnow Peak Mini Solo Cookset, and Snow Peak Folding Spoon on this trek, all of which make our top picks gear list and best lightweight stove list

WATER PURIFIER - It’s important to remember that you will likely not find clean, reliable water until Big Springs, 5 miles south of the Buckskin/Paria confluence. When we’re backpacking in an area with clear water sources, we often use the SteriPEN Ultra. However, in the desert, water sources tend to be a bit less dependable, so we prefer filters or chemical treatments. The lightest and most foolproof method is chlorine dioxide tablets or drops. If you prefer to filter your water, our top choice is the Sawyer Squeeze

WATER BLADDER -  You will have to carry a lot of water along this route, so good water bladders are key. We used Platypus Platy Bottles on all our desert hikes this year and were impressed with how well they held up over the miles.

SHOES OR BOOTS - Footwear is a somewhat complicated choice for this trip. You could hike in trail sandals if you have long-distance hiking experience with them. However, sandals are not a good choice for rock scrambling and will get small rocks/sand stuck in them. A more reliable choice would be lightweight trail runners, such as our favorites: Saucony Peregrines. Trail runners will get wet in the pools, but will dry relatively quickly. The problem with most trail runners is that they'll slowly fill with sand through the mesh and will need to be emptied out every now and again. Boots are another option, and they won't fill with sand as quickly, but they will get wet in the pools, and then they'll be very heavy and take much longer to dry. Also, your feet will be much hotter/sweatier in boots which often leads to blisters. More info: 5 reasons to ditch your hiking boots. In the end we chose to hike in trail runners for this trip and would do so again.

HEADLAMP - We used the Petzl Actik on this trip, which is an affordable, bright, and lightweight option.

FOOD - When backpacking in Buckskin Gulch and the Paria Canyon you'll have to carry all your food. For some suggestions on common backpacking food options, check out our backpacking food video.

FOOD STORAGE - Although you won’t have to worry about bears, we find the Ursack Bear Bag is the most foolproof food storage method to prevent critters (mice, chipmunks, squirrels, etc.) from getting to your food.

CLOTHING

Here are some of our favorite hiking/backpacking clothing items from our Top Gear list

MAP &  COMPASS -  We used Gaia GPS phone app and Caltopo in planning our trip and printing maps. We also carried the Paria Canyon, Kanab National Geographic Map. In addition, we always hike with a compass too, though the route was easy to follow and we didn’t end up needing it.

GPS MESSENGER -  We used the Spot Gen3 GPS Messenger throughout all our backpacking trips in Utah this year. The Spot can be used to send GPS distress signals in areas without cell reception, which is excellent, but it can also be used to send pre-programed messages (email or text) to let loved ones know you’re okay.

FIRST AID KIT - A small personalized first aid kit is essential. We used the .5 Ultralight Kit and added extras, like painkillers and personal medications.

SUN PROTECTION - We cannot overemphasize how important it is to prepared for desert sun conditions. Sunglasses (polarized recommended), sunscreen, and spf lip balm are all critical on this trip.

POCKET KNIFE - We brought along a small Swiss Army Knife which came in handy here and there. 

OTHER ITEMS:

  • SMALL TOWEL - the Nano pack towel is great.
  • CASH and ID
  • PERMITS
  • PERSONAL TOILETRIES
  • HAND SANITIZER - Always apply after using a bathroom and before eating.
  • WET WIPES - These are useful for cleaning up after hiking.
  • INSECT REPELLENT - Insects weren't an issue for us on this trip, but we always carry 1oz of DEET per person and pre-treat our clothing with permethrin.
  • CAMERA - The Sony RX100 is our go-to camera for lightweight backpacking.
  • PROTECTIVE PHONE CASE - You will be trekking through wet, sandy, and dusty trail conditions on this trip, so a protective phone case is a good idea: LifeProof Fre phone case.

Buckskin & Paria Photo Gallery

More Information

We hope this guide helps you plan a fun adventure in Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon. As always, please leave a comment below if you have any recommendations, questions, or suggestions. And if you found this guide helpful, click the little heart button below to give us a digital high five! 

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