With our fix of rocky mountain high, we bid LVR goodbye and loaded into Michael’s Jetta for 12 more hours on the road. That evening, we rolled into the Wire Pass campground of Paria Canyon Wilderness Area in Utah. The Clausings had already staked out a spot for us. We made pasta on our camp stove – our last hot meal, as we had decided to go stoveless in the canyon. That night was the only one of the trip spent in a tent. Biting gnats deterred us from even considering sleeping out. Sara, Michael and I fit cozily into our two-person tent while the Clausings split up between a tent and their van. They were up bright and early the next morning while we slept in and laid around like bums. Once we dragged ourselves out of the tent, it was time for the adventure to begin.
Buckskin Gulch is difficult to describe. It’s a story told much better by photographs than words. We hiked through the narrows in the first couple days. It felt like we were in another world, hemmed in on each side by towering walls of red rock. The character of the rock is constantly changing. The red mixes with black, gray and white. In some areas, the sheer walls are completely smooth. Round a bend, and the corridor is transformed into undulating waves of rock. Near the beginning, we squeezed through a passage so tight that our backpacks got caught. Occasionally the passageway would open into a broad room with daylight streaming from the exposed sky above. Brilliant patterns of light and shadow provided a constant wow factor.
It’s hard to place yourself on a topographical map when you’re completely enclosed in rock. One of the draws of backpacking is getting away from it all – people, cars, phones, computers. In Buckskin Gulch we felt truly cut off when we couldn’t even figure out where we were. There was no reliable way to gauge how far we’d hiked with few discernible landmarks. Our goal was 10 miles a day, but it was tough to tell. We stopped when we found a good place to camp.
We spent some time searching for Middle Trail. According to Jon’s research, Middle Trail is the only access in and out of the canyon without hiking the entire length. We found two potential “Middle Trails.” Neither were particularly trail-like. Sara opted to stay at the bottom when we dropped our packs and attempted to climb up. Climbing was definitely more accurate than hiking. Jon, Michael and I all made it out of the canyon on the first “Middle Trail,” but not before my heart got racing as I started remembering what it feels like to fall off a cliff. I tried a different way up than the guys took (partly on accident) and found myself thinking, “I probably won’t slip on this, but if I do, it’s a long way down with nothing to break my fall.” I called up to the guys and they showed me the slightly less adrenaline-inducing route. The reward for our efforts was nothing too spectacular: just the desert. Back down we went. Michael and Sara both rested at the bottom when Jon and I tried to conquer the second “Middle Trail.”As I watched Jon struggling to wedge himself up a crack, I pondered the wisdom of doing anything Jon considered difficult. He didn’t make it easy, and his feats are legendary. We made it up to a fairly high ledge, where we identified two possible routes to get out. “Eh, I don’t really want to go up there,” Jon said. I didn’t either. It was hot out there. The canyon was way cooler (literally and figuratively) than the desert. Strangely, it’s the first time I remember seeing Jon turn down something that was a challenge. Maybe he’s mellowing. Maybe he just knew the slot was the best thing we were going to see.
Thanks to bear resistant food containers, no tents and no stove, we didn’t have much work to do once we decided to stop for the day. We threw out our tarp on the flattest area above the riverbed, set up our kitchen a reasonable distance away, and wriggled our tired toes in the sand. Bats swooped over us each night. I thanked them for their part in keeping the bugs at bay. The biting gnats of the first night didn’t bother us at all in the canyon.
All-cold meals turned out better than I expected. I was in charge of menu planning for the trip, though Michael had veto and addition power when we went shopping. I relied on the trusty Internet to get ideas for what to eat without heat. Backpacking blogs are chock full of good ideas. One I was really excited to try was instant hummus. Apparently you can buy it dry and just rehydrate it with water. I thought hummus, pouch chicken and tortillas would make a great dinner. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t find the stuff in the two stores we went to. The employees we asked had never heard of it. Luckily, thanks to the blogs I had a backup idea: instant potatoes. Sara contributed the advice that we should get a flavored variety. Let me tell you, it was delicious. We used half the amount of water recommended, making a hearty potato mixture that we spread on tortillas and added pouch chicken. We poured the excess chicken juice into the potatoes as well (Jon called it gravy to make it sound yummier). It was my favorite meal of the trip. Other than that, it was business as usual. Tuna or summer sausage and squeeze cheese on tortillas, peanut butter and jelly on bagel thins, homemade granola and dried milk, dried fruits, almonds, Cliff bars and Nutrigrain bars. Everything tastes good when you’re backpacking. Except Vienna Sausages. They never taste good. Summer sausage is also bad if you eat too much, especially in the heat.
The narrows pretty much opened up into a wide canyon when we got to the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River. Most hikers go upstream on the Paria for a shorter trip. Naturally, we went downstream. You don’t drive 31 hours for a 2 day hike. The Paria River is extremely chalky. It’s full of dissolved minerals, dirt, and whatever the cows upstream put in it. The second half of our trip was spent following this river, much of the time hiking in it or constantly crossing from one side to the other. It kept us cool in the heat, but I’m glad it never got deep enough to immerse us. After hiking through it, our legs dried with a white film/crust. Rocks on the river bank appeared to be covered in frost because of the white deposits left by the water.
Though the slot part was over, the Paria Canyon was plenty majestic. The sandstone is full of caves and little holes. We came upon several natural amphitheaters where concave rock towered high above us. Clear springs bubbled up from the ground or trickled down from above. We took a day hike up Wrather Canyon to see a large arch. We were surprised at the vegetation. After nothing but sparse trees in Paria Canyon, the lower portion of Wrather Canyon seemed out of place with its forest. The arch was not disappointing, but the orientation made it hard to capture a good photograph.
Our last day was mostly trudging through the sand on a route that kept us above the river. We no longer had springs to filter from; water access was whatever we could carry. Though hotter and somewhat less pleasant, it was much easier terrain and we were able to do about double time. This was good, because the day before we misread the map to think we were much closer to the end than we really were. The map showed large sand dunes about 8 miles from the end. What it didn’t show was the first dune we saw, apparently farther back. We still made it out in plenty of time.
We knew we were approaching our destination of Lee’s Ferry when we started finding old western artifacts. We came upon an old wooden outhouse and an abandoned corral. Then we came upon a trail log where we were able to record our names and the dates of our trip. Just before the end was a cemetery from the 1800s. Jon and I stared through the fence at names and dates on grave stones. One family had a bad summer: father, mother and two children died one by one between the months of May and August in the same year. We wondered what life had been like back then trying to ranch in the desert. What was their demise?
As we approached the trailhead, we wondered where to head next. The original plan was to meet Anita and the kids at the campground, which was a good ways up a road. Jon had mentioned to Anita that she might take the kids to the boat launch. It was in the other direction on the road. Of course, we had no way of guessing a time to tell her to expect us. We had nothing to worry about though; ten minutes before we got to the trailhead, Anita and the kids showed up there. We were greeted with excited calls as the kids ran toward us. So energetic. So clean. We were done.