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26-plus miles of mud, boudlers and deep pools of water proves to be a taxing hike to tackle alone

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Southern Utah's Buckskin Gulch is considered to be the longest slot canyon in the world. The 15-mile long canyon, which empties into the Paria River in Northern Arizona, is ranked as one of the top hikes in the United States by both Backpacker Magazine and the National Geographic. The hike is filled with beautiful scenery, boulders, mud and stagnant pools of water.

Some people go on vacation to rest.

Others wait to rest when they get back to work at the end of a vacation.

I fall into the second camp.

My wife and I recently spent two weeks on vacation in the Southwest.

Karlene ran in the Las Vegas Rock and Roll half marathon, placing sixth in her age group of the 13.1 mile race, finishing in just under two hours.

I'm pretty proud of her. Running a half marathon under two hours is a pretty good accomplishment for anyone, especially someone in their 60s.

Once she finished her race, Karlene stayed in Las Vegas, resting, while I took my turn at physical activity.

Months earlier, I applied for a permit to hike in a portion of Grand Staircase Escalente National Monument, which has limited entry, with just 20 individuals allowed hiking passes each day.

I requested and was granted a three-day pass to hike Buckskin Gulch.

On paper, that doesn't sound like too bad of a hike.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Although most of Buckskin Gulch is narrow, often so narrow that you can touch both sides at the same time, the canyon occasionally opens up allowing for both vegetation and sunshine.Buckskin Gulch is generally considered to be the longest slot canyon in the world, running for 15 miles, starting in Southern Utah and traveling into Northern Utah, where it drains into the Paria River.

Most hikers walk downstream in Buckskin Gulch, then hike up the Paria River to exit, using a second car or a shuttle.

In hindsight, that probably would have been a good idea.

The trouble is, I was hiking by myself, and I'm too cheap to pay the $150 for a commercial shuttle.

That's actually a pretty good price if you have three or four people hiking, but that seemed like a lot of money just for me, so I decided to make the hike an out and back hike.

To save distance, I elected to enter Buckskin Gulch part way down the canyon where a narrow slot canyon called Wire Pass runs into the canyon.

Monday morning, I picked up my permit at the BLM office in Kanab, Utah.

As they handed me my permit, they told me that the pools of water in Buckskin Gulch were only knee to mid-thigh in depth, and that I would be the only person hiking as everyone else had canceled their permits due to unseasonably cold weather.

They then went over all the rules with me: No fires, bring in all your own water, no camping in the canyon above the intersection with the Paria River except for in emergencies, and then only on the occasional raised sand bars, and carry out your waste. And they mean all your waste. They give you a chemically treated bag for all human waste.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A pool of water sits in the shade in lower Buckskin Gulch, while further down the canyon glows with reflected light.They also made sure that I was aware that none of the water in Buckskin Gulch is suitable for drinking, even with a filter, so to make sure that I carried plenty of water.

I spent the rest of the day checking out the parking area at the trailhead, looking at some of the surrounding terrain, and looking for a camping spot for the night.

Camp sites near the trailhead were hard to find, so I made the brilliant decision to camp by the side of the road in my SUV. The logic of that was I would only have a two-mile drive to the trailhead in the morning, and I would have my backpack completely packed and ready to go. No breaking camp early in the morning.

I woke early Tuesday morning freezing, so I started my car, which immediately told me the outside temperature was a brisk 14 degrees.

Although it was not yet daylight, I went ahead and drove to the trailhead, once my car was defrosted and filled out the parking permit, then sat in my car waiting for daylight. As dawn approached, I donned my chest waders and warm clothing.

Then as the sun began to rise, I headed into Wire Pass. Forty-five minutes later, I hit the first major obstacle of the hike, a boulder that was wedged into the sides of the canyon and had an eight-foot drop off on the downhill side.

After some difficulty, I was able to scramble down into the hole while still carrying my camera and 65-pound backpack.

Once in the bottom of Wire Pass, the only difficulty was that part of the canyon was no wider than my shoulders.

Less than two miles down the drainage, the canyon opened up as I entered Buckskin Gulch itself.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The author stands in the shadows of one of the taller portions of the canyon. Buckskin Gulch is considered to be the longest slot canyon in the world. It was now nearly 8 a.m., and according to the maps, I had approximately 12.5 miles to go before hitting the Paria River.

To begin with, Buckskin Gulch was fairly easy walking.

The canyon floor was largely sand, with occasional small rocks, but as I headed downstream, the hike became more difficult.

By 11 a.m., I was wading in thigh-deep water, slogging through mud and walking on a series of bowling-ball size boulders covered in mud.

Occasionally, there would be 20-yard stretches of small rocks that were nearly round and slippery like greased ball bearings.

Although the hike has just 750 feet of elevation change over the entire 15 miles of canyon, it had become a difficult hike.

Shortly before 1 p.m. I stepped wrong on some mud and fell on my back, covering my camera and backpack with mud.

The first suitable spot I could find, I stopped to eat lunch and to clean some of the mud off.

Shortly after that, I encountered the only two people I saw until near the end of my three-day hike, a pair of day hikers who headed another mile or so downstream before returning to get out of the canyon before dark.

I continued cleaning my camera and then resumed hiking, meeting the next major obstacle, a large boulder pile with about a 10-foot climb to get to the top and then maybe 20 feet down the other side.

Permits for day hikes are not restricted and can be picked up at the trailhead.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Boulders on the canyon floor are just one of the obstacles that make hiking difficultAbout 2 p.m., I met the day hikers again as they were returning up the canyon.

By this point in time, the canyon had narrowed significantly. In most places, I could touch both sides of the canyon, and occasionally it narrowed so much that I needed a head lamp even in midday as the floor of the canyon was in near total darkness.

The canyon walls got progressively steeper, eventually topping out at nearly 500 feet in height.

Eight plus miles into the hike came the only exit in the entire lower canyon. A steep scramble out of the canyon that is recommended only for emergencies.

By 4 p.m., the water was getting deeper, much deeper than I had been told at the BLM office.

The area in question is called the cess pools on the maps, and the reason is readily apparent. The pools of water are stagnant, smelly water. The first two pools were nearly three-foot deep. By the third pool, the water had risen above my waist.

Unfortunately, I had taken the word of the BLM officials that the water would not get above mid-thigh. That was a critical mistake.

Although I had dry bags for all of my camping gear, I had chosen to not put my sleeping pad or change of clothes into a dry bag as the water level was low enough that they wouldn't get wet, or so I thought.

As the water in the third cess pool got deeper and deeper, it came dangerously close to my backpack, eventually getting the bottom six inches or so wet, soaking my change of clothes and the sleeping pat.

I wasted some time trying to dry them out, then when it became obvious that wasn't going to happen, I continued on downstream, finally stopping about 6:30 p.m.

I probably should have continued walking, but it had been dark for nearly an hour by then.

Fortunately, I located a relatively high sand bar and set up camp for the evening.

In case you didn't know, sleeping without a sleeping pad in below freezing weather isn't comfortable, and neither is sleeping on a wet sleeping pad.

Eventually, I wrapped the sleeping pad in the space blanket that Karlene was given at the conclusion of her race. That seemed to work fairly well, but it crinkled every time I moved.

I set my shoes outside the tent so that they wouldn't get anything in the tent muddy. In retrospect that was probably another mistake.

During the night, my shoes froze solid.

The next morning, I tried to put my shoes on for nearly an hour before I finally succeeded.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A series of pools midway through the canyon named the cesspools contain stagnant, sometimes deep water, just one of many obstacles in the canyon.By the time I got them on, the feet in my chest waders were so wadded up that they eventually damaged my toes. I'm going to lose at least two toenails in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully that's all.

Anyway, after the next wade, my shoes had thawed enough to take them off and fix my chest waders, but it was too late, the damage had already been done.

Anyway, I continued to walk downstream until 1 p.m., failing to ever reach the confluence with the Paria River.

For those who are wondering, that's 15.5 to 16 hours of hiking, and yet I failed to make it 13.5 miles.

Had I chosen to pay for a shuttle, my hike would have now been 2/3 over. Instead, I still had somewhere near 13 miles to go, so I reluctantly turned around and started back upstream.

That's when my real problems started.

Somehow, I got a leak in my largest water container. By the end of the day, it had gone completely dry, drenching my backpack, and leaving me short of water for the remainder of the hike.

The rest of the day, I carefully rationed water.

That night, I camped on top of the canyon at the middle exit.

I{obj:35107}t was a struggle getting to the top at twilight, but it was better than being stuck in the canyon floor in the middle of the cess pools, which is where I would have been at dark otherwise.

With the shortage of water, I elected not to cook dinner, instead opting for energy bars.

Thursday morning, I crawled back into the canyon and resumed my trip upstream, finally reaching the mouth of Buckskin Gulch about 3 p.m. By then I was starting to get pretty thirsty, but at least I still had water in my car.

Fortunately, there were a couple of day hikers in the canyon, because they helped me get my gear up the 8-foot obstacle near the end of Wire Pass.

I trudged the rest of the way out of the canyon and headed to Kanab to call Karlene to make sure that she knew I was safe.

I had planned on camping one more night, but I ended up paying for a motel, if for no other reason than to get rid of all the mud.

I had mud on my backpack, mud on my chest waders, mud inside my chest waders, and mud on my camera. You name it, mud even made it impossible to completely collapse my tripod. To put it simply, if it wasn't inside my backpack, it was muddy. If it was inside the backpack, it was probably wet from the spilt water.

That night, I spend hours cleaning my camera and tripod.

Then the next day, I started back toward Las Vegas to meet up with Karlene to finish the rest of our vacation.

Here's what I can tell you about Buckskin Gulch.

Both Backpacker Magazine and National Geographic name it as one of the top 10 hikes in the United States.

National Geographic also names it as one of the most dangerous hikes in the country. They are concerned with the possibility of flash floods with no way out of the canyon. And to be fair, there probably is some danger. Several places in the canyon have logs stuck on the canyon walls as high as 75 or 80 feet above the canyon floor.

That would be a tough flood to survive. However, the BLM doesn't issue passes if it has been raining or rain is in the forecast, so that danger is minimal unless you just don't pay attention to the weather.



Buckskin GulchHowever, the hike itself is tough, really tough. I have been hiking for most of my life, and this is far and away the toughest hike I have ever taken.

It is also one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on. Sadly because of the footing, you have to spend most of your time looking down at your feet instead of looking up at the view. Still, it's one beautiful beast of a hike.

I would go back in a heartbeat, but next time I would cough up the money for a shuttle.

Also, if you are crazy enough to attempt the hike, do it with someone else. It's such an amazing hike that it's a shame not to have someone to share it with.

I might add that the person who helped me out of the canyon said that he had done the hike when he was 25, with a shuttle, and that he would never do it again — just too tough, even with a shuttle.

He questioned my sanity for making it an out-and-back hike, and said that although he has lived in Southern Utah most of his life, he doesn't know anyone who managed to do the entire hike by themselves.

When I checked in at the BLM office to tell them that the water was higher than they said, they also expressed surprise that I had more or less finished the hike by myself and said that they had considered refusing to give me the permit, but that they had no grounds to do so.

Personally, I don't think I'm that tough, just a little bit crazy and a little bit stubborn.

That's all it really takes to do a tough hike. Bring plenty of food and water, watch your footing, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I'm still recovering from vacation, but I figure that two or three more weeks of work, and I should be just fine. Now to plan the next big adventure.

Lon Austin is the sports editor for the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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