There is a surreal irony to hiking Buckskin Gulch—the world’s longest slot canyon. This magical place that was carved by water has very little water in it for most of the year. This is not a bad thing as it is so narrow that any water it does get quickly pools and can become very dangerous, very quickly. This isn’t to say there isn’t any water in Buckskin Gulch. On the contrary, even after months of drought muddy pools of water remain in some of the tightest sections of the traverse. There is also a trickling spring near the confluence with Paria Canyon that creates an oasis in this otherwise seemingly lifeless desert canyon.
A journey into Buckskin Gulch in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument isn’t for the faint of heart or claustrophobic. The canyon is typically no wider than ten feet and gets as narrow as two feet. It is fraught with potential deadly threats from dehydration, venomous snakes, challenging terrain, no GPS or cell service, rockslides, and the ever-present real danger of flash floods. However, for those who take on the world’s longest slot canyon otherworldly beauty awaits around every turn and there are a lot of turns. Apply for your permit when they become available, come prepared for the adventure and you will exit this long curvy canyon with memories that will last a lifetime.
Where is Buckskin Gulch?
Buckskin Gulch is located in the southwestern part of Utah very close to the Arizona border. It is a part of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument which spans Utah and Arizona. It is jointly managed by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument which is why backpackers pick up their permits at the Grand Staircase visitor center in Kanab, Utah.
How to Explore Buckskin Gulch – Backpack or Day Hike?
There are basically four ways to go about exploring Buckskin Gulch with two potential starting points and two potential endpoints. Buckskin Gulch is best explored as a multi-day backpacking trip but a permit is needed and the process is very competitive. Buckskin Gulch can also be taken on as a long day hike or as an out-n-back though you will have to determine when is best to turn back. While backpacking the canyon requires acquiring a permit well in advance of your trip, day hiking only requires filling out a day-use permit and a small cash fee ($6 as of 2020) at one of the two trailheads and placing it in your vehicle.
The Wire Pass Trailhead is usually chosen as the starting point rather than the actual Buckskin Gulch trailhead. It shaves off 2.8-miles of what is inevitably a very long day. The only place to camp inside Buckskin Gulch is at the confluence with Paria Canyon (and by permit-only). According to the park’s service, this is 13.2 miles from Wire Pass so the first day is a long one. The canyon is very deep and narrow so GPS devices are almost completely useless and actual distance can’t be measured reliably. I am going with the park service’s distances although the canyon feels longer.
The endpoint for the Buckskin Gulch trail is typically the White House Trailhead & Campground. It is located at the mouth of Paria Canyon, 7.5-miles upstream (dry for much of the year as well) from the confluence. Alternatively, you could extend this amazing journey by hiking the majority of Paria Canyon downstream and ending where the Paria Canyon meets the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry. However, taking that route makes the entire journey 47.5 miles in length.
Middle Trail Escape
About 5 miles after the Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch intersection there is a sand bar on the left side of the canyon with a rather intimidating 100’ accent up the slightly slanted wall. This is an escape route known as the “Middle Trail Escape.” It is meant to be used in the case of inclement weather suddenly pushing in. If your life depends on it, then by all means, go for it but it looks shady, to say the least. My suggestion is don’t enter the canyon in the first place if there is even a slight chance of inclement weather. Click here for a more detailed guide for the Middle Trail Escape.
Access to Buckskin Gulch
The Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass Trailheads are accessed via the House Rock Valley Road which can be a rough dirt and gravel road. It is recommended to have a high-clearance vehicle to reach either of the two trailheads but most of the time any vehicle can make the journey. However, after inclement weather, the road can be impassable even to 4×4 vehicles.
Likewise, the White House Trailhead Road can also be impassable after inclement weather. Although, most of the time it is traversable by a 2 wheel drive vehicle. On a whole, this road is a less rough road but the washboarding can be rough.
The Lees’ Ferry Road is paved so there are no concerns getting to this trailhead if you opt for the longer multi-day backpacking journey.
Buckskin Gulch Permits
Anyone entering the Buckskin Gulch is required to have a permit. Day-hikers can purchase a day-use permit at any of the trailheads for a small cash fee ($6 as of 2020). Backpacking permits are required for overnighting at any of the campsites along the Paria Canyon corridor. While the campsite known as the Confluence is actually in Buckskin Gulch it is only barely and is considered a part of the Paria Canyon permit system. The confluence is the only place in Buckskin Gulch to camp and it is about 13.5 miles from the Wire Pass Trailhead. There are additional sites inside Paria Canyon but they require a few more miles of hiking on the first day.
Acquiring a Backpacking Permit
There are 20 backpacking permits issued per day in the Paria Canyon Overnight Permit system for all the Paria Canyon Campsites and they are all issued in advance. There are no permits held for walk-ins. The overnight permits are released on a monthly rolling window which becomes available at Noon (MDT) on the 1st day of each month three months ahead of time. This means that the entire month of permits for April for instance becomes available on January 1st at noon (MDT). If you want to backpack the Buckskin Gulch, I suggest being online at the exact moment the permits become available as they can go quickly. Don’t forget to pick up your backpacking permit at the Grand Staircase visitor center in Kanab, Utah before heading to any of the trailheads.
Trail Stats for Hiking Buckskin Gulch
Wire Pass: 4,875’
Buckskin Gulch: 4,855′
White House: 4,312’
Lee’s Ferry: 3,100’
Confluence Elevation: Approximately 4,200’
Technical Canyoneering: No (A 25′ rope is helpful for lowering bags)
Wire Pass TH – White House TH
Distance: 21.2 miles
Recommended Time: 2 days, 1 night
Buckskin Gulch TH – White House TH
Distance: 24 miles
Recommended Time: 2 days, 1 night
Buckskin Gulch TH – Lees Ferry
Distance: 55 miles
Recommended Time: 4 days, 3 nights
Wire Pass TH – Lees Ferry
Distance: 52.2 miles
Recommended Time: 4 days, 3 nights
Buckskin Gulch Hiking Season
Buckskin Gulch is a part of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and is open year-round. However, the summer months can be deadly hot and are not recommended. August and early September are especially dangerous due to the monsoon and risk of flash flooding in the canyon. Late February to Late May & Late September to Early December are the best times to explore the canyon with milder temperatures. The springtime can also bring dangerous flooding based on winter snow. Check with the Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, UT for the most up-to-date conditions before heading to any of the trailheads.
There is a trickle of water from a natural spring near the Confluence Campsites (13.2 miles from the Wirepass Trailhead) but it can be hard to filter so little water. We decided to play it safe and carry the 6 liters per person of water needed for our day and a half adventure into the desert. This is a lot of water weight to start with and although it is the safest way to do the journey I might have banked more on the spring water if I had to do it again. It is a tough decision that everyone hiking Buckskin Gulch must make.
Buckskin Gulch Toilets
Buckskin Gulch has no toilets. There is a pit toilet at White House Campground as well as the Wire Pass Trailhead but the hiking trail has no facilities in it. For this reason, you should take care of your business before you go. In case you need to go while inside the canyon the park’s service is kind enough to supply a wag bag to all backpackers when you arrive to pick up your permit. A wag bag is specifically designed for capturing and securely transporting human waste. Because of flash floods digging a cathole isn’t a viable solution and the canyon is a sensitive ecosystem so use the wag bag in your time of need.
Regardless of which through-hike, you decide to take you will need to either drop a vehicle at one trailhead or arrange a shuttle transport to get you from one side to the other. We used Paria Outpost & Outfitters because they were the most cost-efficient. The office is very close to the turnoff to the White House campground. The driver was on time and very professional with loads of recommendations for exploring more of the area. I highly recommend this provider. Arrange the shuttle to pick you up at your endpoint and drop you at your starting point so that you aren’t trying to meet up at the end of the journey.
Hiking Buckskin Gulch is a truly amazing journey and one that I highly recommend to anyone prepared for the challenges and dangers of this epic adventure. If you aren’t certain you are up to this challenge yet, I would recommend doing either a day hike or a backpack through The Narrows in Zion National Park first to determine your ability for such a journey.