Buckskin Gulch is easily among my top 3 favorite hikes in all of Utah. Located in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument near the Utah/Arizona border, Buckskin Gulch is widely considered to be the “longest slot canyon in the world.” After hiking through almost 15 miles of continuous, long and deep narrows in Buckskin, I’d say that statement is highly likely. It most certainly is the longest in the United States, and for that reason alone, Buckskin Gulch should be on every hiker’s bucket list.
There are several ways to navigate through Buckskin Gulch , but the way I did it (and the most common way) is a 21-mile overnight trip from the Wire Pass trailhead to the White House trailhead. This route allows hikers to fully experience most of Buckskin Gulch while also spending the night beneath 500-foot cliffs at the Buckskin/Paria River confluence. On day two, hikers follow the Paria River upstream to White House.
From Wire Pass, the hike begins in a sandy wash. The trail follows this wash for about a mile until it enters the Wire Pass slot canyon. This is your first taste of what’s to come as a small drop-off, followed by a fairly tight canyon, is a good primer for the main event. Almost two miles from the trailhead, Wire Pass intersects Buckskin Gulch.
At this intersection, be sure to check out the ancient Indian petroglyphs chiseled into the rock wall beside a large overhang. There are a few panels depicting various desert animals, especially desert bighorn sheep. When you reach Buckskin Gulch proper, go right and marvel at the wide and deep canyon walls. Take in the open sky, because from here everything gets tight and narrow.
For the next several miles, Buckskin Gulch will amaze you with classic Utah slot canyon features. Tight narrows, cathedrals of overhanging rock, and evidence of powerful flash floods will keep your eyes entertained. The hiking is pretty easy as a flat, sandy bottom runs through the canyon with the occasional boulder-scrambling section. Depending on the time of year, you may encounter pools of water that you’ll have to wade through.
Around 7 miles in, you’ll reach a section where the canyon walls are much lower. This is Middle Trail and is your last chance to escape if you’re afraid of flash flooding. There is a scramble that takes you to the north rim. Also keep your eyes peeled for more petroglyphs here.
Beyond Middle Trail, the canyon closes in again and you enter the most challenging part of the hike. The first obstacle is the “cess pools.” Numerous shallow, dirty pools of muddy, standing water must be crossed. During the height of summer they may be dry, but any other time of year you can almost guarantee you’ll be getting wet. When we went through the water came up crotch deep at the most. This section is also the darkest and coldest part of the canyon, so after you get wet, you’re in for a shiver session. Keep moving to generate body heat.
The nest obstacle, about 3 miles from Middle Trail, is the “rock jam.” It’s a collection of boulders that require a rope to down climb. Sometimes you can find a hole under the rocks to climb through, but it is often clogged with flood debris. Otherwise, use a 40-foot rope to lower packs and yourself.
After the rock jam, the canyon becomes flat and easy for a mile to the Paria River confluence. Choose a campsite here among the maple trees that grow in the sand on either side of the canyon, and be blown away by the location. This is easily one of the most spectacular camping sites I’ve ever slept in.
On day 2, go a few-hundred yards from the campsite down Buckskin, then turn left at the Paria Canyon intersection. Follow the river upstream through even more spectacular narrows. The canyon eventually lowers as you hike the 7 miles to the White House trailhead where you left a shuttle vehicle.
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch requires some planning.
- Overnight permits are required. You can obtain one here. Day hikes in the Paria Canyon system require a $5 permit that you can pay at the trailheads.
- All human waste must be packed out. The BLM will issue you “wag bags” when you pick up your permit at the office near the White House trailhead.
- Bring rope. A 40-foot rope is needed to descend the rock jam. Sometimes ropes are left behind but you can’t guarantee there will be a fixed rope the day of your hike.
- Flash floods are a huge concern and are not survivable in Buckskin Gulch. Always check the weather forecast before entering the canyon. If any rain is possible, change your plans.
- Be mindful of rattlesnakes. They live in the canyon, so look before placing your hand on any rocks.
You will need two vehicles to shuttle. From Kanab, drive east on Highway 89 for 44 miles to the Paria Canyon turnoff to White House. Turn right and travel down a dirt road 2 miles to the White House campground. Leave a shuttle car here.
From White House, go back to Highway 89 and drive west back toward Kanab for 5 miles. Turn left at the signed turnoff for Wire Pass and continue 8.5 miles to the Wire Pass trailhead where you will begin your hike.
To get a true sense of what it’s like to hike in Buckskin Gulch, watch this TV segment I put together for KSL Outdoors.