24 Hours in Buckskin Gulch
24 hours ago we were in a hotel, watching TV, eating hot pockets. 24 hours ago we had wifi, running water, clean clothes, and easy access to anything we needed. That’s because 24 hours ago we weren’t in Buckskin Gulch.
I’d done my research, I knew it was a tough one. We’d packed all of the essentials and rammed in more than enough water for the overnight stay in the canyon. But, sometimes things don’t go to plan no matter how much you plan.
To begin with, we were late. We had decided to stay for breakfast at the hotel to make sure we had a full stomach to start the hike. We needed as much energy as we could get for the roughly 13 miles we had planned for the day.
We rushed to the Paria Canyon Contact Station to pick up our Backcountry Permit, which you need for any hiking in Paria Canyon, whether just for the day or for staying overnight.
To try and compensate for the late start we changed the route to be an out-and-back hike instead of all the way through. I let the lady at the Contact Station know our change of plans as she talked me through the dangers and risks of hiking the canyon and handed me our poo bags. Yep, you pack it all out.
She mentioned we were still late to do the 12 miles and made sure we had enough water with us. Doing an out-and-back hike meant we would have to do the same 12 miles back out the next day. Basically, we would be walking a full marathon in the next 24 hours. She double checked I knew that, before handing me the map, and letting me know where to drop off our rubbish and waste once we made it back out.
We jumped back in the car and headed to the Wire Pass Trailhead down a bumpy dirt road which seemed to go on forever. Surprisingly, the parking lot was full when we arrived. There are a number of trails that branch off from Wire Pass (including The Wave), but it was still a surprise to see so many people braving the desert wilderness in this summer heat.
We triple checked we had everything in our rucksacks and did a final run to the toilet (trying to avoid using the poo bags!). We swung our bags on, took a long sip of water and took our first steps on the trail…
Our first thought, it was HOT! Wire Pass avoids the 4 mile open hike from Buckskin Gulch Trailhead, but it also has little shade or relief from the sun as you make your way to the canyon.
Our second thought, our bags were HEAVY! We needed the extra water, but really felt the extra weight as we squinted in the morning sunshine.
Excitement pushed us onwards as we made it to the entrance of Buckskin Gulch. We quickly met the first obstacle. We looked over the edge at a 10 foot drop. There was a small free standing, wooden ladder leaning precariously against the canyon wall. There was no way we were dropping down with our rucksacks so I dropped down the ladder first and then we slowly passed the bags down one by one.
Once you make it inside, things get beautiful pretty quickly. It was amazing. After almost an hour hiking through the dry, barren wash on Wire Pass, we were now looking up at the smooth, curving walls of Buckskin Gulch. The midday sun was peering through the top of the canyon and leading us on towards it’s glowing orange light. A light at the end of the canyon!
Every bend brought new jaw dropping views. We were still running behind, but it was impossible to walk through without stopping every few steps for a photo.
Some walls curved and twisted as if we were walking through a sea of red waves in the middle of the desert. Others were perfectly flat and stretched high into the sky as if they would never end.
Before we knew it, we were a few hours into the hike. We dropped the bags and stopped for a cereal bar. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast and we were starting to feel it.
We’d probably walked about half as much as we should have by this point. I blame my camera. We checked the distance and the time and I reluctantly put the camera back in my bag and promised not to take it out until we arrived at the camp site.
Things had stayed relatively calm up to this point. We had to scramble over some pretty large rocks and splash through some shallow pools, but other than that it was just a lot of walking!
Not long after our cereal bar break we were met by the next obstacle. Deep, dark water. Zebra Slot Canyon was clearly just preparation for this day. It was a little different doing it with overnight packs though. Thankfully we knew we would have to get wet at some point so we were at least mentally prepared for it.
The first couple of pools didn’t reach our waist, which was a huge relief. The worst thing about walking through water like this is not how cold it is, but the fact that you have no idea how deep the next step will be. One moment your up to your knees, the next it’s climbing up to your shoulders.
With the camera back in the bag, we started to make good time and passed the halfway point in the next hour despite the deeper waters.
Things took a turn at around hour 6. There are strong warnings about snakes in Buckskin Gulch, but for 6 hours we hadn’t seen any sign of life (we’d literally only seen dead things!). After so many hours I started to relax and stopped thinking that every stick I saw was a snake. Of course, this is when I heard it…
I can’t quite explain what it sounded like, but I knew it was bad. I heard it well before I saw it, but as I looked towards the sound, I saw the rattle snake slithering off a couple of feet away. I had only been two steps from standing right on top of it as it crossed over the trail. Yikes. It kept rattling as it curled up in a dark corner of the canyon. It seemed to be more scared of us than we were of it, but we still moved very quickly on.
Just as our heart rate began to lower again, we were met by the next set of pools. This time they were up to our waist and seemed to feel a lot colder and dirtier than earlier. We splashed out of each, hoping it was the last, only to walk into another one soon after.
It was draining. We were wet, cold and still miles from the camp site. The thought of the rattle snake behind us was probably the only thing moving us forward at this point.
As we climbed out of another waist deep pool, we started to realise that the light was fading. We had made it 9 miles into Buckskin Gulch and had just 2 miles to go before we made it to the confluence where we would set up camp.
We gave each other a small motivational speech and convinced ourselves that 2 miles more of this was better than going back through what we’d just made it out of.
We powered through deeper and darker waters for another half a mile before it hit us. There was yet another pool of water stretching out ahead of us until it went out of sight. It was longer than anything we’d walk through so far and looked much deeper. I dropped my bag and took a couple of steps in. It went straight to my knees and sloped steeply downwards. In seconds I was up to my shoulders, with the ground still sloping down. There was no way, after 9 miles, we were going to swim through this canyon with our very heavy backpacks above our heads.
We were so close. So, so close. But, this is where we would call it quits.
It’s important to know your limits in situations like these. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. After a couple of tears, we spun around and started to make our way back the way we came.
It’s not like you can just stop and set up camp wherever you like in here. You squeeze through gaps just big enough for you and your bag, go up and down rocky ledges, and are constantly wading through the murky pools of water. Even if you wanted to, there isn’t space to set up a tent for miles on end.
On top of that, flash floods are a very real risk inside of the canyon. Even though the forecast was clear all week, you can’t risk staying in the river bed overnight. We knew there was a raised bed about 4 miles back, so that’s where we needed to get to before dark.
We were in survival mode. We tracked back 3 miles, twice as quick as we’d walked them earlier. Our bodies had nothing left, but somehow we kept going. We made it through the final pool of water, just storming straight through the middle of them now.
We made it back to the snake canyon and guess who was waiting for us. This time at the other side of the trail, our little rattling friend welcomed us back in the dark. It was twice as scary before, with hardly any day light left. I grabbed Johana’s hand and pulled us through.
We kept going.
Just as the last light kissed the top of the canyon walls above us, we found the raised bed that we had seen earlier in the day. We’d made it. We’d really made it.
We quickly set the tent up and climbed inside. You could hear the wind howling in the canyon before it blew passed us. It lasted for a few seconds before leaving us in the eery silence of the canyon at night.
We’d only eaten cereal bars and dried mango since breakfast, but neither of us were in the mood for cooking or eating anything. We curled up on our roll matts and tried to get some sleep.
We woke up just before sunrise the next morning after a less than comfortable night. Stopping and resting, even if we didn’t sleep much, was just what we needed though. We watched as the sun light crept back down the tops of the canyon walls and felt somewhat revitalised for the final miles back to the car. A few more cereal bars and a lot more water later and we were back on the trail again.
The morning was pretty uneventful, in comparison to the night before at least. We pushed our way through every bend and crevice, desperate to get back to the car. We scrambled our way back up the wooden ladder. Yesterday’s first obstacle, now our final.
24 hours later, we made it back to the car.
We took off the bags, which didn’t feel any lighter, and fell into the car. We were exhausted in every way possible. I think it’s safe to say, this is the craziest thing we’ve ever done.
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Buckskin Gulch was the fifth stop on The Big Trip. Click here to follow the rest of our journey as we spend 3 months exploring America’s most beautiful National Parks. You can also become a patron for The Big Trip and help support us as we continue our adventure, sharing more photos, stories and travel guides as we go.