20+ Miles in Buckskin Gulch

In recent years, the month of May has become “Utah Adventure Season” for me. The Sierras are still too full of snow for long-distance backcountry trips, but the weather in Utah is perfect. Later in the summer Utah becomes less attractive for adventure as temperatures soar, and the threat of thunderstorms increases. One of my favorite trips in past years to this area was The Grand Circle.

This year, I ran across a slot canyon in Utah called Buckskin Gulch while researching my next adventure. Allegedly, at 23 miles long, it is the longest slot canyon in the US. I talked my friend Manny into going and we set a date. We followed each other on the six-hour drive just past the town of Kanab, left his car at White House Campground (our destination), and took my car to the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead (our starting point). I was lucky enough to get an overnight permit since I thought it might be a bit long for a day hike. There was waist-deep water in parts of the canyon, and I wasn’t sure how long it would take us. An overnight seemed like the best option.

Failure at Buckskin Gulch

I did a lot of hard weightlifting that week, no stretching, and a lot of sitting at my desk. Add to that, six hours of driving followed by a poor night’s sleep on the thin sleeping pad. In retrospect, the outcome was predictable. I got out of my sleeping bag, bent over to tighten my boots, and threw my back out. It’s an injury I’ve had since I was 16. I felt that horrible electric shock from my low back down my leg. It was bad. I could barely move for 10 minutes. Our trip was over.

I felt that horrible electric shock from my low back down my leg. It was bad. I could barely move for 10 minutes. Our trip was over.

For some reason, once I could stand up straight, I found that I could walk with only minor pain. Manny and I had come all this way to see this magical place and now we were here. I couldn’t just walk back to the car and go home. I decided to take four Advil, drop my pack, and walk into the canyon five more miles. I was in pain, but the place was so beautiful and awe-inspiring, I almost forgot the discomfort.

We hiked as far as the first “scrambling” section, which was pretty easy, but not something I could attempt that day. It was a long painful drive home, but in the following days I disciplined myself to stretch and recover. Fortunately, my body responded well, and recovery was swift. Within a week, I was feeling myself again. Thank God!

The Irresistible Draw of Adventure

I took a picture on my cell phone of Manny about four miles into the hike as he walked ahead of me (below). When I showed it to my wife Bec, my daughter Courtney, and her husband Rudy, they all wanted to go. The photo below says it all. It gives you this sense of how big this place is and how small it makes you feel. My first reaction was, “OK we’ll plan something for next year.” Then I thought, “Why not go next week? What’s stopping us?” The weather was still good, so with my newly recovered back, I did the trip to Buckskin Gulch all over again – this time with the whole family. Rudy’s brother, Christian, also came along at the last minute.

Buckskin Gulch
Manny is dwarfed by the massive canyon walls

Let’s Try Buckskin Gulch Again!

After my first attempt with Manny, I realized that this hike could be done in a (long) day, so that’s what we did. There is also no permit required for day hikes which makes logistics a lot easier. We drove up on a Monday and planned to be on the trail at 7:00 am on Tuesday with only daypacks, snacks, four liters of water, and headlamps. That plan almost didn’t happen when I get stuck in deep sand at our campground just as we were about to leave. Fortunately, I was able to pull through it, drive offroad, and get a running start back up the hill. Disaster averted!

Buckskin Gulch
Our approach through open desert at dawn
Buckskin Gulch
Entering the slot canyon

Within three miles, we entered the magical world of the slot canyon, with walls rising 100 to 500 feet overhead. I started snapping photos with my cellphone. I caught the picture below as the rays of the sun began to enter the slot at late morning. It was surreal. Pictures and video don’t do it justice. You have to be there yourself.

Buckskin Gulch
Surreal sunbeams filter through the canyon
Buckskin Gulch
Feeling small in a bigger than life world
Buckskin Gulch
The trail constantly presents unique rock formations for the entire 20+ miles
Buckskin Gulch
Buckskin Gulch
Christian hiking out of the shade of the canyon
Buckskin Gulch
Becky and Courtney

Water!

According to the trip reports I had studied, the slot fills with water that can get neck deep in the spring. Fortunately for us, the water was never deeper than waist high. We had all feared this a little because we didn’t know how much of the trail would be submerged. When we got to the water, as muddy and cold as it was, it was quite refreshing. There were 16 pools that were 100 to 200 feet long in the span of a mile. The next time I come I will definitely bring water shoes for this portion of the hike. Walking in waterlogged boots for the last seven miles wasn’t the best idea I’ve had.

Buckskin Gulch
Hiking through the cold muddy water

Fatigue and Vomiting

By lunch time we had covered 12 miles and my group was starting to show fatigue from trudging through the deep fine sand of the canyon floor. While there was no elevation gain, the sand had a draining effect on everyone’s energy. A few miles from the Paria River there was a section of cold, waist-deep muddy puddles. None of us were looking forward to it, but it was actually a lot of fun – giving us all a much-needed energy boost. Some of my group took a 5-Hour Energy, hoping to perk up with a little caffeine and vitamin B. Unfortunately, that didn’t settle well. By the time we reached the Paria River confluence, there was vomiting happening for some. We still had seven long miles to go.

By the time we reached the Paria River confluence, there was vomiting happening for some in the group.

Buckskin Gulch
Taking a break
Buckskin Gulch
Starting the last 7-mile segment of the hike past the Paria River confluence
Buckskin Gulch
More unique rock formations

We arrived at camp 14 hours from when we started, in the dark, under the lights of our headlamps. It was a long day, but incredible. Aside from myself, no one in our group had hiked 23 miles in a day. For some, it had pushed their physical limits. Even so, every one of us wanted to do this hike again.

For some, it had pushed their physical limits. Even so, every one of us wanted to do this hike again.

Yes, it was a long slog in a single day, but Buckskin Gulch was so “mind-blowingly” magical, it was worth it. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors in some incredible places and I can honestly say that this was my favorite day hike of all time. I’ll be coming back for sure. I definitely owe it to Manny to come back here so he can do the whole thing.

Trail Wisdom for Would-be Adventurers

This hike makes for a long day, but it is well within reach of someone with an average fitness level. If you are thinking about going, the video below walks you through some of the details that you might find important if you are planning this hike.

Trail Map

Buckskin Gulch Trailhead (Our Starting Point)

About 23-miles to White House Campground from here.

Wire Pass Trailhead (Alternate Starting Point)

About 20-miles to White House Campground from here.

White House Campground (Our Destination)

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