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Hiking Buckskin Gulch
By Golden Webb
Buckskin Gulch, a tributary of lower Paria Canyon, is the prototype slot canyon, the slot by which all other slot canyons are judged. Brimstone Gulch of the Escalante is narrower; Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, more colorful; Gravel Canyon of the White Canyon drainage more technical; but no other canyon on the Colorado Plateau combines beauty, length, and narrowness the way the mighty Buckskin does. From the Wire Pass Trailhead near the Cockscomb through to its confluence with Paria Canyon, Buckskin Gulch is 12 sinuous miles of relentlessly narrow canyon, a serpentine corridor of stone that averages between 5 and 10 feet in width.
Buckskin drains a large area that extends up to the Pink Cliffs of Bryce, over 30 miles away from Wire Pass, as the crow flies. Deer Range Canyon, Park Wash, Lower Podunk Creek, Lick Wash, and Deer Spring Wash coalesce in Kitchen Corral Wash near Mollies Nipple. South of U.S. 89 Kitchen Corral becomes Kaibab Gulch, and at the Cockscomb Kaibab becomes Buckskin. Flashfloods are a real hazard here, and the watershed extends well beyond the horizon if one were checking the sky at Wire Pass. A flashflood in Buckskin would strip the flesh right off your bones, and thats no joke. If theres any threat of storm activity in the local weather forecast, even if its as far away as the Bryce/Tropic area, you should save Buckskin for another day.
There are three routes into Buckskin, the best of which is Wire Pass (starting at Buckskin Trailhead adds 2.8 uninteresting miles to the hike, while the Middle Trail turned out to be more hazardous than I expected and is not recommended).
Wire Pass begins as a wide sandy wash cutting through the Cockscomb. To the east rises the wall of The Dive, a Zion-like expanse of cliffs that marks the southwest corner of West Clark Bench. The red dome to the south is the Paria Plateau, a section of the Cockscomb that includes the world famous Coyote Buttes.
The wash turns a curve and then pinches into a slot barely the width of your shoulders. A couple minor drop-offs make things interesting, but pose no major obstacles. (I arrived at one of these drop-offs, started to shimmy down, and came perilously close to crushing a big hairy tarantula under my splayed hand. A convenient boulder had offered its support and I was reaching over to put my weight on it before I noticed the arachnoid sun-worshiper hanging out on top. Buckskin is notorious for rattlesnakes. Add tarantulas to the list.)
The 6.8 miles from the Wire Pass confluence to the Middle Trail contain numerous residual pools whose depth, length, and temperature vary depending on the season and on flooding. In general the deepest pools will only come up to your chest, but there have been times, most notably the spring of 1991, when certain pools were deep enough to swim. They are always cold, always scummy, and some of them smell bad.
The Cesspool, in particular, lives up to its billing. This long, deep, gruesome pool, located about 6 miles in from Wire Pass, seems to be alive with malicious intent. You go wading unprepared into its watchful depths and The Cesspool will dunk your $2,000 Nikon F4 sure as sunrise. If its not waterproof wrap it up good in something that is before braving the bilge pools of Buckskin Gulch.
The Middle Trail is located about 6.3 miles from Wire Pass. Its not a trail at all but a joint in the north wall that some have construed as a possible entrance/exit route. I used the Middle Trail to get into Paria Canyon via Buckskin and almost wet my shorts in the process. The Middle Trail drops off West Clark Bench, contours down The Dive, and then plunges into Buckskin by way of a hard-to-find crease in the canyon wall. I spent half an hour scrambling along the precarious rim before I finally located it. The crease or joint is extremely steep and is always covered with a slick layer of pink wind-blown sand. One false step here could mean serious injury or even death. Dont use the Middle Trail. If you do use it lower your packs with ropes and cushion the descent with a belay.
Buckskin Gulch is muddy. The never-ending mud can be both irritating and whimsically beautiful. Halfway through my hike I started to get hungry and found myself looking longingly at the peeling, curling flakes of drying mud on the edges of bilge pools. The flakes looked like chocolate. Im not kidding. Drying mud cracks and splits into amazing geometrical patterns. Individual mud flakes curl in at the edges and come to resemble the peels and shavings Julia Childs used to make with a 10 pound block of chocolate, a chefs knife, and an old gooseneck desk or clamp lamp with a 60-watt bulb. I picked up one deckled-edged mud flake that looked so much like a chocolate ruffle that I almost put it in my mouth.
The last and most serious obstacle in Buckskin is the Rockfall. Here a pile of choke stones form a 15 foot dryfall that can be pretty hairy to reconnoiter with a pack on your back and gumbo clay coating your boots. Someone has chipped footholds down the face of one of the chokestones, but inexperienced climbers will need a belay. You might find an old rope left by previous hikers at the top of the pitch. Dont use it.
As of October, 1999, there was a kiva-like opening at the top of the Rockfall that led to a constricted space beneath the chokestones. A little spelunking brought me out into the open at the Rockfalls base. How long this hole will remain open and dry is anybodys guess. Go prepared for the worst.
Below the Rockfall seeps and springs feed a thin sheet of water that meanders over the now smooth sandy floor of the canyon. This paper-thin trickle of pure water is beautiful, like a flowing liquid lens of translucent ice. Here the walls of the Gulch start to come alive. Mosses grow in green belts along seams in the rock, pocks of calcium carbonate dot the stone, and mineral deposits filigree the walls in vivid tapestries of desert varnish.
Just before its confluence with the Paria the canyon opens up into a vast amphitheater. A sandy hill crowned with cottonwoods makes for a perfect campsite. Its a great place to take off your boots, wiggle your toes, and reflect on the wonderful muddy majesty of Buckskin Gulch.
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