Buckskin Gulch is the longest slot canyon in the world and it is an epic backpacking journey full of amazing scenery and unique desert wildlife. This article is all about our personal adventure of backpacking Buckskin Gulch. If you want more details about the logistics for planning your own trip check out our Guide to Buckskin Gulch.
Our journey through Buckskin Gulch started with a night in the quiet and secluded White House Campground. It is important to get here relatively early in the day to acquire one of the few first-come, first-served campsites. The campground seemingly fills up overnight during the hiking season. After acquiring our site we hiked the Toadstool Trail located about 3 miles away.
We awoke early the next morning just before sunrise and moved our rig from the campground to the trail parking lot. As we locked things up our Paria Outpost & Outfitters shuttle arrived right on time and we hopped in for our journey to the Wire Pass trailhead. After a nice informative drive that added much to our future to-do list, we disembarked from the shuttle, stretched out, and put on our extremely heavy packs. The water inside the canyon is unreliable and the season had been a dry one so we took no chances and traveled with a day and a half worth of water (6 liters per person).
Wire Pass Trail
Heavy packs on we set off on the Wire Pass trail which almost immediately entered the dry creek bed and headed east. The Wire Pass part of the trail is a short 1.7 miles, most of which is a wide-open wash. There are a few side trails along the way leading off into the desert. Stay in the dry creek bed until you reach the Wire Pass slot canyon.
Wire Pass Slot Canyon
The Wire Pass slot canyon is one of the narrowest parts of the journey when backpacking Buckskin Gulch. The towering vertical walls tighten to about two feet in width. With a backpack on it is a tight squeeze to get through the most claustrophobic part of the canyon. Once entering into the canyon the path ahead very quickly comes to the first challenge, an 8’ vertical drop. My recommendation is to enter into the canyon, lower your heavy bags down with a rope and then hike back out of the canyon and take the bypass over the hillside to the south of the main trail.
The 8′ Drop Bypass
The bypass is found on the right side of the creek bed as you approach the slot canyon (left as you hike back after dropping your bag) and is fairly easy to spot. The trail itself is sandy and somewhat steep so the lack of your heavy backpacks makes it easier. Alternatively, you could attempt to lower yourself down the 8’ ledge by shimming your way down the walls but you are definitely risking unnecessary injury.
Wire Pass & Buckskin Gulch Intersection
Beyond the 8’ cliff the slot canyon flattens out and the flat trail becomes a great indicator of the journey ahead. Before long the Wire Pass canyon widens and intersects with Buckskin Gulch. Here on the right side of the path are some petroglyphs of bighorn sheep.
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Taking a right into Buckskin Gulch the canyon feels wide at first, especially compared with the tight Wire Pass slot canyon. That doesn’t last long. Before you know it the walls tower above you on both sides mere feet apart, blocking out all but a sliver of the blue sky above.
A Mysterious Slot Canyon Pathway
The next few miles are a simple journey of following the trail through the narrow slot canyon. The adventure might be mundane in its repetitive views if it weren’t so absolutely stunning and amazing in its surreal beauty. One of the coolest things about the canyon throughout is walking along and seeing towering walls ahead that seemingly block the path. You then arrive at the vertical cliff face to find that the creek bed does a 90-degree. The path then continues its narrow journey through the hidden desert terrain.
The Middle Trail Escape
Distance is nearly impossible to gauge inside Buckskin Gulch. GPS is useless as there isn’t a line of sight to the sky and therefore the satellite signal doesn’t reach into the depths of the canyon. However, if you are able to gauge the distance there is an emergency exit about 5 miles down the canyon from the Buckskin/Wire Pass intersection, known as the Middle Trail Escape. If you can spot this “trail” you will be able to gauge your progress but the trail is a rough one to spot. The sand bar on the left side of the creek bed is really the best indicator of the trail. There aren’t many sand bars inside of Buckskin Gulch so that makes it slightly easier.
Signs of Mud
Beyond the escape route, the trail narrows to the tightest section within Buckskin Gulch. It is also the muddiest section of the journey. Along the way, through the canyon, we had seen signs of how muddy this trail could be but thus far we had been fortunate enough to be able to avoid the mud. Throughout the canyon, the mud dries and fractures into pottery-like shards on either side of the well-trodden path. There are also deep footprints in the dried earth that harken to a time when fellow explorers were forced to travel the muddy terrain.
Into the Muddy Unknown
We hiked Buckskin Gulch in mid-September which can often be one of the muddiest seasons. Lucky for us, the monsoon hadn’t materialized and the land was parched. This was a blessing but even in this extremely dry time the deepest part of the gulch still had waist-deep water with a soft muddy bottom. As we ventured into the murky, muddy water the hiking sticks that we had thus far barely used became essential tools for determining the best footing ahead. Each footstep into the unknown squished deep into the mud. With each step, the accompanying thought of, “Is there firm ground beneath?” followed. These sections aren’t for the faint of heart as the water feels more like quicksand than water. Luckily, the dry conditions made for only four relatively consecutive crossings. The first of which was by far the deepest and at about 15’ long, it was also the longest.
A Reminder of the Dangers Here
Beyond the challenging muddy section, the trail once again became dry terra-firma and we were able to resume a fairly quick pace through the scenic wonderland. The miles beyond resemble much of the prior gulch. The narrow stretch of land deep in the earth continued to reveal astonishing and beautiful rock walls. It was in this section while immersed in the beauty we were shocked back into the reality of the danger that lurks here. It was the sound of a rattle going off in an alarming pitch echoing off the tight walls that alerted us to the danger. Here in the middle of this long and seemingly lifeless slot canyon was a highly venomous rattlesnake. We heeded the snakes warning and gave it a wide berth. Luckily, we came across this native in an area of the canyon where we could actually give him some space.
Boulders in the Gulch
Nearing the 12 mile mark the last true obstacle begins. The canyon at first widens slightly and large boulders cluster on the canyon floor. The first set of boulders are easy to traverse with a clear path leading ahead. As the canyon begins to once again narrow the boulders become clustered and the trail ahead is obscured. This section is notoriously difficult to decipher and is known as the boulder equation. It was difficult for us to determine the way ahead in dry conditions, I can only imagine how difficult it would be had there been a substantial amount of water in the gulch.
The Boulder Equation
Arriving at the boulder equation the path ahead immediately splits to the left and the right. The right is the correct path climbing up and over the uneven terrain. It then drops down a sandy slope about 20′ to the canyon floor. The terrain is sandy and loose but isn’t overly complicated.
Once on the canyon floor between the boulders (just to the left of where Jennifer stands in the photo), the trail ahead is obscured. There is a path that climbs up the steep sandy slope on the left (north) side of the canyon to a ledge. This path concludes with a 20’ drop with a knotted rope tied off to help you in your descent. If the water is high this might be the only way ahead and it requires you to trust that weathered rope with your life. The water was low for us so we looked around and found an easier path.
The Hidden Way Forward
When you are on the canyon floor don’t go up the steep sandy slope but instead, climb up a smaller boulder just below the ledge that the sandy path leads to. Once at the top of the smaller boulder you will round a much larger boulder (that obscures this path from view) and slide down another slab of rock. This rockslide will drop into a dark hole that could have water in it (it didn’t when we were there).
Once in the hole, the path ahead is completed by crouching underneath the edge of the much larger boulder that has been blocking the path and is a part of the sandy path’s 20’ drop. Once on the other side, you will find the rope drop to the left which you are now at the base of. To finish the boulder area the path ahead requires sliding between a few more tight boulders but nothing overly difficult.
Hiking with the Locals
Beyond the boulder equation, the trail resumes a flat traverse through Buckskin Gulch. As the gulch nears the confluence camping area the floor began to have a small stream of water in it. The creek bed consists of small rocks and sand so it never became overly muddy. As we arrived in this area we were joined by the local inhabitants looking for their dinner. Bats zoomed through the tight canyon walls picking off the few insects that reside in the gulch. They were not only unafraid of our presence but welcomed it as they tended to fly in circles around us as we proceeded forward. If you are afraid of these flying mammals this could be nerve-racking but we found the experience to be an exhilarating experience and a highlight of the journey.
The Confluence Camping Area
The confluence refers to the area where Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon meet. The confluence camping area isn’t at the actual confluence of the two canyons but rather in a wider part of the canyon just before reaching the confluence. There is a high sandy hillside on the left side of the trail that the creek bed traverses around. Once the trail rounds the hill there is another smaller hill of sand on the right side as well. Both mounds of sand have some established camping areas on top of them but there is no signage. The vertical cliffsides of the canyon rise up on both sides of the gulch.
The Confluence Ecosystem
The Buckskin Gulch Confluence is a magical place to camp. With the small spring water emerging into the canyon it is an oasis hidden deep in the earth. Bats, birds, and insects of all kinds make this a surprisingly noisy campsite. During the day’s hike with the exception of the rattlesnake, we found the gulch to be still and very quiet with no signs of life. This oasis campsite was a surprisingly stark contrast to the rest of Buckskin Gulch.
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch – Day 2
The next morning we awoke early before the sun rose to get a start on the journey to the White House Trailhead. Paria Canyon on a whole is much wider which exposes the creek bed to a lot of sun and heat. Our second day was forecasted to be a hot one. We packed up in the dark and set out on our hike in the early twilight. From the confluence campground, it is a relatively short hike to the actual confluence of the two canyons. Buckskin Gulch is wider through this area with the spring water creating a small extremely shallow creek all year round. We had to cross over it several times as it zigged and zagged from wall to wall on the way towards Paria Canyon.
The Actual Confluence
As Buckskin Gulch begins to once again narrow it reaches the confluence. Paria Canyon is about as wide and deep as Buckskin Gulch at the confluence. Someone had placed a rock arrow on the floor of the canyon pointing the way towards White House (left). Again, GPS doesn’t work this deep in the canyon so know what you are looking for. We turned left at the juncture and headed up the narrow canyon.
Narrow Paria Canyon
For the first few miles, Paria Canyon resembles Buckskin Gulch. It remains about fifteen to twenty feet wide as it meanders through the desert. We enjoyed the high tight walls but kept up a steady pace because the heat was supposed to approach 100 degrees and we knew those walls would spread apart exposing us to the harsh heat long before we reached White House.
A Dead Raptor
On our way through the canyon, we found an adolescent eagle (we think) face down dead in the sand. It is hard to imagine how such a majestic creature could come to such a fate. As tragic as it was we stopped to stare at the raptor’s long talons. It isn’t every day you get to see those close up. You never know what you will find on a backpacking journey.
Wider Paria Canyon
Before long Paria Canyon did widen up and we found ourselves sprinting through the sunlight from shady spot to shady spot along the canyon walls. To add to the heat the terrain becomes very sandy making the progress much slower. We pushed on through the heat passing fellow hikers headed into the canyon. Inside Buckskin Gulch we only ever saw fellow travelers at the Confluence Campground. On the way out we passed by at least a dozen day hikers, backpackers, and horse riders. Still, on a whole, this desert trail has a lot of solitude.
Spotting White House Rock
About the time that the canyon widened out so much that it no longer resembled a canyon at all, we saw the familiar sign of the White House rock formation. As it was just past noon and the mercury undoubtedly passing well beyond 90 degrees we were elated. The trail out of the creek bed and up to the campground/parking lot can be a bit tricky to locate. There is a small brown flag (a stick) with an arrow on it showing the way but the actual trail was located about 20’ to the left and then turned back towards the flag. This would be very easy to miss so make sure you have your eyes peeled when approaching White House rock.
Arriving at White House
The final push is short but in deep sand. It isn’t the most enjoyable way to conclude such an amazing journey. We made it back to the truck with having lived yet another truly unique and amazing experience of backpacking Buckskin Gulch, the world’s longest slot canyon.
Final Thoughts about Backpacking Buckskin Gulch
Years before we took on backpacking Buckskin Gulch we had backpacked The Narrows in Zion National Park. I had thought that this journey would be similar and in many ways that is true, but these two journeys are also very different. The way the canyon walls light up with all the nooks and crannies of thousands of years of being polished by wind and water is stunning and similar. While Buckskin Gulch is much tighter and extremely secluded the true difference is in the lack of water. This stands in stark contrast to the ever-present Virgin River in The Narrows. The nightlife in Buckskin Gulch overwhelms the stillness of this desert place. The nightlife might have also been in The Narrows but the flow of the Virgin River drowns it out.