Sometimes it is easy to overlook the magnificence of the area we call home. When we get the itch to travel, we typically see ourselves going to grand, exotic locations in the far-flung corners of the world. You don’t need to travel very far, however, to have what, to many, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Buckskin Gulch is one of those places. Located in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, it is among the most incredible places I have ever been. It is a 15-mile-long slot canyon that contains magisterial views ranging from wide, open sections between towering cliffs to dark, narrow portions with billowing waves of sandstone on both sides. There are many ways to explore this canyon requiring various levels of skill and commitment. I recommend doing a day hike into the canyon and back via Wire Pass, a tributary canyon which is amazing on its own.
To get to the Wire Pass trailhead, follow highway 89 from Kanab, Utah, toward Page, Arizona. Make a right turn onto House Rock Valley Road which will take you directly to the trailhead in 8.4 miles. The area is very remote with no cell service. While there are typically visitors, it is best to plan for the worst, in the event you end up stranded. The road is not well maintained and can become impassable when wet. Be mindful of the weather. This is no place to be during a rainstorm. Bring plenty of water and salty snacks to replace electrolytes. The summer months can be brutally hot.
Follow the trail eastward through a wash toward Wire Pass. It is almost 2 miles from the trailhead to the confluence of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch. Upon entering Wire Pass you will find a deep and narrow slot canyon that completely envelops you. If you are visiting during the low season, the stillness inside the canyon is breathtaking. The Canyon is so narrow in spots that you find yourself having to shimmy through. It is much darker and pleasantly cool in the summer months. As you travel through the canyon, you will come to a point where there is a choke stone and a small drop that is reasonably easy to scale. For some, the drop may not be so easy. If that is the case, travel back to the mouth of the canyon and follow the trail up the south side and around the slot canyon. This will drop you back into wire pass and the confluence with Buckskin Gulch.
Viewing the confluence from inside Wire Pass is magnificent! The shadowy blueish hue of the sandstone creates a stunning contrast to the open, sunbathed, golden orange walls of Buckskin Gulch. The light emanates from Buckskin Gulch and intermingles with the shadows in Wire Pass. It is reminiscent of a Saharan or Arabian landscape at first but quickly distinguishes itself as uniquely American. There is a wonderful alcove feature on the right side of the confluence. The walls are sheer and tall. As you approach the main canyon there are petroglyphs off to the right. Depending on the time of day, they can be hard to see. When the light hits them just right, a shadow is cast bringing them into relief. The petroglyphs look as if they served as directions to hunting patterns, showing what looks to be a map of the canyon and indications that animals have been seen there.
At this point, you can continue to hike through the canyon either north or south. We chose to travel southward. The canyon narrows and widens many times throughout the course of the hike. In the wide portions, it is bathed in both the direct and reflected sunlight. The light splatters off everything it touches as if it had some density to it. There are stands of trees beneath the towering canyon walls that offer a paradisiacal perch to observe the light and colors. The contrast between the cliffs and the sky is stunning. The sky somehow seems bluer down there.
The narrower portions of the canyon are ecstatically fun to traverse. They become almost eerily still. Even the smallest disturbance of a rock echoes loudly off the canyon walls uninterrupted by the barrage of noise above, relatively speaking. High above certain portions of the slot canyons, 20 to 30 feet high, are clusters of logs and debris that were lodged in flash floods. The realization that water fills the canyon to those heights is unnerving and immediately sends your mind into a frenzy thinking about what it must look like. There are areas of moss where tiny seeps leak from the sides, carpeting the canyon wall in a green blanket. In some areas, the light blasts through in streams to spotlight the canyon floor. You can look above and watch as waves of sand gently ripple through and cascade upon the canyon walls. If you look closely, high on the canyon walls, you will see various dwellings for animals. At one point I spotted an active beehive clinging to the cliffside, with the combs jutting out like mushrooms on a log.
This canyon is a huge sensory overload. It transports you to a completely different realm, connecting you to a more primal state of existence. Every care for the outside world melted away as I stumbled, awestruck and dumbfounded, through this natural cathedral. It is a spiritual experience.
You can travel as far as you would like, but be aware that you will have to travel back as far as you came. There are ways to travel the length of the canyon, but it requires backpacking though ice cold water and an overnight stay, which requires a permit. I hope to do it some time, at which point, I will report back.