Buckskin Gulch: Miles of Slots and River Canyon to the Colorado

I had some time off work to burn before the new year. I would normally go to the alpine, but it was already pretty cold at normal elevations. Let alone above 10,000ft with limited daylight. So I did some brief research and found that a sought after slot canyon backpacking trip in the desert had plenty of permits this time of year: Buckskin Gulch.

There are a few ways to do Buckskin Gulch, but the way I did it was a 44mi trip from Wire Pass to Lee’s Ferry (GPX) with no elevation gain besides when you choose to get out of the river and go over a bank. The first third is through a near continuous, close slot canyon with 200 ft walls. The second third through a wider carved river canyon with many hundred feet walls that kinda felt like The Narrows with how much time I spent in the river. The last third had some boulder sections and became more like a silt bottomed river through a more open desert and I spent much less time in the river. Surprise to me, I think I liked the middle section the best as it was a more dynamic landscape even though the first third is probably the most unique.

For Buckskin Gulch, conditions are everything. I went under really good conditions in early Nov. 2023: i.e. no water in the Buckskin Gulch slot. The Pariah River was mostly ankle to shin deep and started from the confluence. The water was quite cold and the neoprene socks were definitely required.

However, from research it seems that the Pariah can be much lower or absent in the summer when you might more appreciate its coolness. Also, depending on the prior few months, the slotty section of Buckskin Gulch could have pools requiring swimming.

Beforehand, I kinda got the gist of what the canyon was about and then tried to not do any research so I could be more surprised in the moment about what the experience would be like. I found the route to have very few obstacles, very little navigation (you go down a canyon and follow a river) and only a little route finding around a handful of boulder sections. There was one mandatory down climb which had some very poor condition fixed ropes. In general, I’d say this is an easy backpacking trip and a great first multi-day trip for newer backpackers (conditions dependent). The route was easy enough that once I realized the pace I was going, I pushed my three day trip into two 22 mile days.

Day 1: Slots and the Confluence

I had parked at Lee’s Ferry and paid for an expensive ($250) shuttle (Option One, Option Two) to pick me up at 5am and deposit me two hours later to Wire Pass. I enjoyed the guide stories and accident report info on the drive. He emphasized it was 25 degrees out when he dropped me off. I put every layer on, signed the entry log and got hiking to warm up. I probably should have had an extra layer, but I brought my zero degree sleeping bag if I got desperate. I almost never bring gloves if there isn’t snow… I’m glad I brought them.

Starting on trail

I was expecting to go over a rise and then drop into the canyon but really it was just an easy wash walk to a marked bypass around a slot (that I assume had a decent drop) and then I was in Buckskin Gulch. The entry was about shoulder width tight, shadowed and I got a little menacing vibes for some reason. “Well this is it”, I said and marched ahead to start the trip.

The start of the slot

I was told repeatedly it was “dry all the way through” and it was. Not even much wet mud to walk through. I could almost always find dry, hardened mud which gave good traction and I mostly avoided hiking in sand. I made really good progress and recognized how cool it was to be such a consistent slot for miles. I don’t know if it was just me getting used to the solo experience, the incessant chatter in my head or that it was hard to get perspective with the walls typically close…but I kinda felt this section got monotonous. Even though it’s easily the most unique aspect of the route.

There was one boulder blockage I spent ten seconds finding a way around and one mandatory 10-20 ft hand-line assisted down climb. In this hand-line part, all ropes and webbing failed inspection in one way or another but it didn’t look like anything would instantly fail from body weight so I eased down it. I really hoped the chipped rock steps were there from native peoples past.

I was happy to get to the confluence, but less happy when I realized “dry all the way through” and “you’ll have to cross the river a lot afterwards” meant, “you will be walking mostly in a freezing river.” I put another layer on, my neoprene socks got wet and warmed up and I quickly got used to it. I didn’t do much research otherwise I would have known this. If it was not for my neoprene socks, I would have been having a bad time.

I got to Big Spring and enjoyed how productive this spring was. It was really pouring water out of the wall and even bubbling through the sand in places. It gave me good reference on recognizing the springs (which were my water source as the river was to be avoided for drinking) for the rest of the trek.

Big Spring

I tried to push it to the first “low impacted” campsites and grabbed a great spot on a ledge above the river that had no prior human evidence. I was sore and tired after 22 miles. I hadn’t been sleeping well and got a full 12 hours in as the sun set.

Day 2: River Canyon to Boulder Valley

I woke up and popped in my favorite playlist on repeat. I often have a hard time being in my head alone on these solo trips and yesterday was a little rough. Either from the caffeine or the music, I was in much higher spirits and continued to really enjoy the river canyon with its steep walls, unique features and typically firm bottom for traction.

The canyon started having more vegetation with 8ft high reeds and trees changing into fall colors. I really enjoy the color changing in sandstone environments. It reminded me of canyoneering in Zion around this time in the past.

Then the soft banks gave way to short rocky-bank sections and the river bottom got more sucking so I spent more time out of the river. I was in the river at least 50% of the time previously for the middle section.

I passed Old Reliable Spring (the last drinkable one as the ones further down have arsenic) and went for the full send to complete the route. I actually didn’t find Old Reliable Spring. I didn’t look super hard, but it was the only spring not clearly evident. The walls had widened and I now had bouldery mounds for sides and walls in the distance. I encountered several sections of boulders in the river which required me to get out and work around them.

I was spending most of my time hiking on banks at this point and was pushing it to reach Lee’s Ferry by sunset. I was pretty stiff, with sore feet, as I reached my car after another 22 mile day. With 5 bars LTE, I called my partner and chatted about the trip before I drove to Kanab for a fantastic meal at the Rocking V and fell asleep at a dispersed campsite.

Closing Thoughts

Solo trips are a great opportunity to go whatever pace you want. Be responsible for your own decisions. Build confidence in your own abilities since every choice is your own. Assert your sense of individuality and self-sufficiency. I often struggle mentally on them with the “what is the point of this, its arbitrary” mindset when I am alone with constant chatter and flashbacks and incessant reflection on things that don’t need to be reflected on.

The first day was hard mentally, but the second day redeeming and I ended in a good mindset. I wish the trip was a little more difficult so I could have had the “I can do hard stuff all on my own” accomplishment, but really it was quite easy. Everything was non technical and downhill. Maybe its the Eastern Sierra mindset where its hard to be proud of anything because whatever I do, someone I know or a connection away would have been able to solo it, run it, do it in less than half the time, etc.

In the end, however, the only person you really need validation from is yourself. As my harshest critic, I felt my performance was adequate, maybe impressive to non-Eastside people. However, I am proud of going out and making this trip happen. It’s not always easy to sign up for a solo trip when you know they are hard for you and I did that. Which takes commitment and grit and belief in ones ability to do hard things. Whether they be mentally, physically, emotionally or all of the above.