Full photo albums from the trip can be found here....
Little Wild Horse/Bell canyons(60 photos)
Summary album(30 photos)
Buckskin/Paria Canyon Trip Report: Wandering the AbyssFresh off a decent showing at the Spring Desert Ultra 50miler the idea of taking off on another 3 day road trip seemed a little much. That Sunday/Monday I was debating pulling out of the trip down to run the deep slot canyons of Southern Utah. Fortunately Chris sent out a trip report someone else had posted from the previous weekend. Just browsing through the photos hooked me in, and with the recovery going well there was no way I was going to miss this trip. Emails flew around all week as a frenzy of planning, organizing, and bad puns dominated my inbox.
The week flew by as I scrambled to cram 40h+ of lab work into 4days. I ran home, threw a bunch of running, camping, and photography gear into my car and was off to Boulder to meet the crew. There were 8 of us heading out to Utah to explore the slots; myself, Chris, Charles, Peter, Ben, Steph, Tressa, and Ray. We loaded the two cars with as much camping gear as we could fit and hit the road. We made it to the Colorado/Utah border before crashing out for the night. On Friday we were headed for the San Rafael swell, a giant rock ridge that juts out of the barren landscape of Central Utah.
Little Wild Horse/Bells Canyons 4-25-08
At Chris's suggestion we were going to break the drive up by running the Little Wild Horse/Bell canyon loop near Goblin Valley. This 8.6mile loop wanders through two of Utah's higher rated non-technical slots. We got a late start, taking off from the trailhead at 11a, slowly jogging up the wash in anticipation of the fun that would await us. Almost immediately the canyon walls began to rise and the striped yellowish rock narrowed in on us. We ascended Little Wild Horse first, weaving and bouncing through the narrow canyon walls. It was as if we'd all returned to elementary school and were on the playground, we jumped off rocks, scrambled up the cliffs, and ducked into small cracks. The canyon oscillated between sheer twisting slots no more than 3-4ft wide and wide sandy washes with giant rock towers looming overhead.
At last the canyon widened out, giving way to the upper reaches of the wash, a vast plateau in the heart of the San Rafael swell. We jogged along the jeep road as it curved around the back side of the swell back into Bell canyon. Bell canyon isn't quite as spectacular and narrow as LWH, but the sheer cliffs that surrounded us rose straight out of the sandy wash. Steep side slots rose from the main canyon, and undulating rock shelves lined the canyon. After scrambling down a dry waterfall (10ft) we soon found ourselves back at the junction of the two canyons and soon back at the cars. What a wonderful way to start off the trip, with some running and scrambling through the San Rafael swell.
Finally it was off to the Paria/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness via the Aquarius plateau and Cottonwood Crk Rd. The drive up over the plateau and down into Boulder city was quite scenic, with great views of the mountains and canyons far below. Cottonwood Crk Rd is a 50mile dirt road shortcut from near Boulder, UT down to the Paria/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. While this saved us much time on from Boulder, the driving route as a whole is much slower than driving around I-70 to Hwy 89.
Buckskin and Paria Canyons
We arrived at camp fairly late, snagging the last campsite in the White House campground at the head of Paria canyon. Buckskin canyon is one of the premier slot canyons of Utah, steep narrow walls, a soft sandy trail, rocks with all kinds of patterns and striping, and at times complete solitude. Paria isn't too shabby either, while wider, the cliffs tower hundreds of feet over the shallow meandering Paria River. The decision was to start at the Wire Pass trailhead and head down Buckskin canyon (13.5mi) to the confluence with the Paria River and then head back up Paria canyon (7.5mi) to our campsite at the White House CG.
We got a later start than planned, though this is probably expected with a group of 8, starting from the trailhead at 930am. We started jogging down the sandy wash, just after a mile the rock suddenly jutted upward and the canyon narrowed down to 5ft wide, the fun was starting and it wasn't even 10a.
We jogged along, snapping photos every few minutes, setting up action shots, and just marveling at the narrow slot we were now in. Before we knew it we popped out of the slot at the junction of the Wire Pass trail with the Buckskin trail (different trailhead). We were hemmed in on all sides by 200ft+ cliffs of reddish brown rock, and something about the thought of being "walled off" from the rest of the world was very soothing. As we descended deeper into Buckskin the canyon got deeper and narrower, and soon even the sunlight was having trouble penetrating the depths of the canyon. Where the sunlight filtered down between the canyon walls the rock glowed with a reddish/orange hue, lighting up everything else near by.
We jogged slowly down the canyon, taking pictures as if the world were about to end. The striations and waves in the rock undulated overhead, and an occasional log or tree was seen jammed high up the walls, remnants of past flash floods. Occasionally beams of sunlight would strike the canyon floor, creating instant photo ops. Ahead we could see the canyon finally widening, and we entered a giant amphitheater with red cliffs towering overhead, caves from where the river bends had worn the rock away, and bright green cottonwoods springing out of sand bars. The canyon alternated between dark narrow slots, and wide sandy washes, all trapped several hundred feet below the canyon rim. While jogging through one of the dark narrow sections we started to notice the canyon rim dropping and more light filtering in, finally we came to a bend where a steep rocky staircase led up to the plateau above, this was the "middle passage" and only midway exit point from the canyon to the sun-baked land above. We paused here to grab a bite to eat and check out the petroglyphs etched into the canyon wall high above us.
At the urging of Ben we returned to our run down the canyon, quickly dropping back into the deep narrow slots and the darkness. Overhead a thin ribbon of sky was our only light, and even after marveling at the canyon for over 2h we were still acting like kids in a candy store. The lower section of Buckskin is in general wider than the narrow slots of the upper canyon, but that did not take away from the beauty of the deep canyon we were trapped within. Finally came the first mud puddle of the trip, a short calf deep crossing that half the group stemmed across on the rock, while a few of us simply waded in.
Before my shoes could dry we arrived at the one rappel in the canyon, a 15ft drop down slick boulders. Several ropes were already fixed in place at the top of the rappel; alternately a small chimney dropped one between the boulders, leading out the bottom of the rappel. We continued our wandering down the canyon, and as the canyon widened, more water began to spring up, and with it increasing foliage. Before we knew it we arrived in a large sandy opening at the confluence of Buckskin and Paria canyons.
We chatted with a few backpackers headed for Lee's Ferry, checked our water, and headed back up the Paria River, homebound. Paria canyon is a broad canyon, surrounded by shear red cliffs and a moist sandy floor. The river soon disappeared and we were running up a damp (no flowing water) stream bed. All of a sudden Charles commented, that he'd found quick sand, and we saw the firm surface sand give way and him begin to sink. Charles, Ben, Chris, and I were completely fascinated by this, poking, stomping, and searching for any quicksand we could find. Contrary to the cartoons it does not swallow you instantly, but as you move you sink into the wet sand/water that is covered by a dry harder layer. Half way up Paria we split into 3 groups, as Steph, Ben, and Peter took off ahead in search of beer, Charles, Chris, and I in the middle playing amongst the sand and rocks, and Tressa and Ray strolling along behind us.
As we ascended Paria canyon the walls began to peel back and the shade was now hard to come by, and the sun was baking us with its full force. The river had returned from its underground lair, flowing ankle to calf deep down the canyon. While the slot canyons had long disappeared, unique rock formations surrounded us on all sides. Caves that looked like honey comb, red, pink, and orange striped towers, water runnels that looked liked natural water slides, and a few Ibis feeding in the river. At last we rounded a bend and the White House appeared on our left, we were home! In the distance we could see Steph, Peter, and Ben waving us in, beers already in hand. We jogged up to them, took off our packs and sat down in the cool waters of the Paria to relax and enjoy the afternoon.
We basked in the sun, cooked up a massive dinner, and enjoyed a late night campfire. As usual I wandered off to take some photos of the surrounding area as the sun slowly dipped behind the rocks. A beautiful ending to a truly amazing trip, one that I will happily do again. The canyons are truly a wonderful place, full of beauty, solitude, and a sense of how truly small we are within this world. For those interested in the hike, one day is a long push for most, but a multi-day backpacking trip is easily within most people's capabilities. Reliable water is hard to find in the canyon, so one should refer to guide books for the location of springs (all below the confluence). If interested in a shorter dayhike the upper portion of Buckskin is an amazingly accessible area, and even if you only cover 4-5miles down canyon you'll see some of the amazing narrows it has to offer. Thank you for reading my trip report.