The Quicksand Chronicles: Backpacking Paria Canyon
By Michael Lanza
Walls of searing, orange-red sandstone shoot up for hundreds of feet, so close together in places that I could cross from one side of this chasm to the other in a dozen strides. On the floor of Paria Canyon, a shallow river slides lazily forward like very thin, melted milk chocolate. The early-spring sunshine only occasionally finds us in here, even at midday; instead, it ignites the upper walls and sends warm light bouncing downward in a cascade of reflected glow, painting every wave of rock in a subtly different hue.
Hypnotized, I fall a short distance behind the group, pointing my camera and clicking away. Moments later, I round a bend in the canyon to see my friend, Vince, mired hip-deep in quicksand and struggling mightily.
It’s the first day of our two-family, five-day, 38-mile backpacking trip down Paria Canyon, which straddles the border of Utah and Arizona and joins the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, the gateway to the Grand Canyon. We’d already had our first run-in with quicksand earlier, just an hour into our hike. At the first pool of it that we happened upon, the five kids, age 12 to 15, stood hurling rocks into the muck, erupting in fits of laughter at the baritone “bloop” each made and the sight of it disappearing almost instantly.
But now, the laugh train has left the station, and four stunned young people stare, wide-eyed and quiet, at Vince.
I drop my pack on a small island of dry ground and join Vince’s wife, Cat, at the edge of the quicksand pool. Vince passes us his backpack, but we can’t get quite close enough to grab a hand and pull him out. Fortunately, he’s not sinking any deeper. Quicksand occurs in Southwest canyons when the fine sand in a river bottom, usually outside the river’s current, contains just the right amount of water so that it neither flows downstream nor dries to solid earth (although it can appear solid); and it rarely seems to get very deep.
Still, it feels bottomless and as thick as cold molasses when you’re mired in it—as most of us will discover this week.
So all we can do is offer advice and watch Vince helplessly as he twists, pushes off the nearby canyon wall with his hands, and struggles to extract his legs from this pool of nature’s wet cement. After several minutes, he manages to wriggle close enough to the quicksand’s edge for Cat and I to each grab a hand and haul him out. Panting, he stands encased in a wet mold of dripping, brown goop from the waist down.
The sight will become a visual metaphor for this adventure. Paria—and its 15-mile-long tributary slot canyon, Buckskin Gulch, which gets so tight in some stretches that you have to take off your pack and squeeze through sideways—can feel at times like you were served an entire rhinoceros when you only ordered a hamburger.
Quicksand appears frequently and sometimes without warning—looking no different than the innocuous, standard-issue mud that carpets most of the canyon floor. Finding water for drinking and cooking is a daily challenge: Over its entire length, typically walked in five days, Paria has just three reliable springs, and Buckskin has no drinkable water. And the heavily silted river—too thick to drink, to thin to plant, as locals like to describe it—quickly chokes a water filter to death.
With a narrows section that stretches for 10 miles or more, Paria poses a real flash-flood hazard; you only embark down it with a forecast of clear weather for at least three days. Buckskin’s far tighter and longer narrows, besides morphing into a sandstone coffin during a flash flood, receives little direct sunlight and dries out very slowly in spring. In fact, I’d obtained a permit for us to start in Buckskin, but we opted to bypass it and begin at White House campground, at the top of Paria Canyon, when we got reports of Buckskin being filled wall-to-wall with waist-deep ice water for miles, runoff from a recent snowstorm at higher elevations upstream.
But Paria alone or combined with Buckskin also comprises one of the most continually stunning, multi-day canyon hikes in the Southwest. Having backpacked overnight down Buckskin and up just the upper several miles of Paria two decades ago with my wife, Penny, I was eager to return and walk its entire length, showing our kids and our good friends the Serio family one of the Southwest’s premier cracks in the Earth.
It would turn out to be even more scenic than I remembered—and a bigger adventure than anyone anticipated.
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch sit within the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, between Kanab, Utah, and Page, Arizona. Buckskin is known as one of the longest, if not the longest continuous slot canyon in the Southwest, while Paria has become famous among backpackers for its towering walls painted wildly with desert varnish, massive red rock amphitheaters and arches, hanging gardens where the few springs in the canyon gush from rock, and sandy benches for camping, shaded by cottonwood trees.
There’s no trail; you just hike down the canyon, crossing the Paria River scores of times a day, and walking right in the river when it spans the canyon narrows from wall to wall, as it does for long stretches during the first three days, in Paria’s narrows. For the most part, the river’s ankle- to calf-deep, occasionally rising to thighs or waists.
And now, in late March, it’s numbingly cold. We came prepared with neoprene socks on everyone—which make a huge difference in keeping our feet reasonably warm; everyone adapts quickly to the feeling of our feet being wet for hours. Although the kids braced themselves for the first river crossings, early on day one, I overheard Sofi Serio tell my son, Nate, “It’s kind of fun, actually.”
Plus, we’ve drawn all aces for weather, with a forecast for sunshine every day, with highs in the 60s and lows in the high 30s the first two days, then 70s and 40s.
Throughout our first day in Paria, we walk between walls that rise higher the farther we go, and are pockmarked with “windows,” or alcoves ranging in size from big enough for a bird to big enough for all five kids to clamber inside for a photo, and sometimes so numerous they actually resemble rows of windows in a multi-story building. The walls are painted haphazardly in dark streaks of black and ochre, creamy white, and innumerable variations on red and orange that look like a melting sherbet rainbow.
As our first evening drips slowly into the canyon, we stop to camp on a sandy bench on river left. I’d hoped we might reach a campsite near the confluence with Buckskin Gulch on our first night, but we haven’t seen it yet, and the group is tired and hungry. Nate and I drop our packs in camp and hike 20 minutes farther downstream just to see how far we are from Buckskin, but we never reach it. I figure our group hiked maybe six miles down canyon in six hours, including breaks, on this first day. Walking in water is slow, but we’ve also just been enjoying the scenery.
Lying in our bags inside our tents after dark, listening to the river gurgle past, we hear the hoots of an owl echoing off the canyon walls.
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Playing in Quicksand
Nate, my daughter, Alex, and Sofi and Lili Serio stand around a small puddle of quicksand that one of them had stepped into a minute ago. Seeing that it’s no more than ankle deep, they all begin stomping around in it, laughing and shrieking. Sofi gets her boots stuck, and although she could probably extricate herself, the other three circle the wagons around her in a mock rescue drill, pulling her out by the arms—prompting even louder fits of hilarity.
On just our second day, less than 24 hours after we watched Vince wallow nearly to his belt buckle in the stuff, quicksand no longer frightens our kids. Peril has become a punch line, and quicksand merely a sandbox.
Early this morning, before our families were awake, Vince and I spent 90 minutes filtering enough water for nine of us to drink today, from river water that we’d let sit overnight in pots and every available water vessel to let the silt settle to the bottom (to keep it from clogging the filter). That gave us enough water to hike to the next spring, about six miles downriver.
Now deep in Paria’s narrows, we walk in the shade of close canyon walls that make humans look tiny. The desert Southwest harbors many canyons of wildly varying proportions—length, width, and depth—as well as shapes and characters. And a handful stand out as the cream of the crop of multi-day canyon hikes, like Zion’s Narrows, Coyote Gulch in the Escalante, Capitol Reef’s Chimney Rock and Spring canyons, and certainly just about any hike in the Grand Canyon (my favorite so far has been the Royal Arch Loop).
But few compare with Paria Canyon for length, variety, and sustained beauty. For so many miles that we lose track of a sense of distance or time, we splash downriver, rounding one bend and twist in the canyon after another to a new, jaw-dropping sight of a sheer, multi-colored wall, or a huge, arch-like formation eroding into a cliff, or parallel, vertical cracks that give a wall the appearance of giant organ pipes.
By mid-afternoon on day two, we reach Big Spring, where water gushes from cracks at the base of a red rock wall, spawning a lush hanging garden of mosses and plants that looks very out of place in this barren desert of rock and sand. Although we’ve walked just six miles today, given the distribution of the three springs along this 38-mile route, we’ll stop for the night here, pitching our tents across the river from Big Spring, on a sandy bench covered with tamarisk, flash-flood debris, and a few sturdy cottonwood trees, so that we have an unlimited supply of water for today, tonight’s dinner, breakfast in the morning, and then tomorrow’s 9.8-mile trek to the next reliable water source, Shower Spring.
After rounds of hot cocoa and soup, the kids—including the Serios’ 15-year-old German exchange student, Tabea—sit around making predictions about who among them will be first to marry, have children, buy a house. They imagine getting together again 20 years from this day and wonder whether they will remember this exact conversation. As I listen discreetly nearby, Alex calls to me, “Dad, stay friends with the Serios forever.” Then they head down to the chocolate-milky Paria, inches deep at this oxbow bend, to play games with nothing available but what occurs naturally in a Southwestern river canyon. Their shouts, screams, and laughter echo off the sandstone amphitheater encircling our campsite.
Cat comes up to me and says, “Isn’t that a great sound?” She adds, “That’s why we’re out here.”
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Lower Paria Canyon
I plop down on a flat rock beside Alex, in the warm sunshine raining onto one side of a wide bend in Paria Canyon. It’s lunchtime on our third day, and we’ve stopped in an empty campsite across the river from a small spring seeping from a canyon wall. In the time that I spend taking a few bites of my pita bread slathered with peanut butter, Alex slams hers down and asks, “Can I have another one?” Penny tells her, “I only packed enough for each of us to have one for lunch every day.” A firm believer that any trip goes better if I’m hungry instead of my kids—both of whom have the body fat of a stalk of corn—I hand mine over to Alex. She kills it before I have time to rethink giving up most of my lunch.
Over the course of our third day, hiking 9.8 miles from Big Spring to Shower Spring, Paria Canyon gradually undergoes a transformation from the dramatic, cool narrows of the upper canyon to a much broader and more open canyon. There’s more vegetation—though it’s still very much a desert—but less shade, so it’s also hotter. At nearly 5 p.m, almost eight hours after we left our second campsite at Big Spring, we reach Shower Spring, which is set back in thick brush on river left. We wade through knee-deep water to find the spring dripping from rock.
On our third evening, camped on a broad, sandy bench across the river from Shower Spring, a couple strolls up to say hi—the first people we’ve seen since shortly after leaving White House Trailhead three days ago. For the most part, backpacking Paria Canyon can feel like you’re the only people for miles, thanks to the limited number of permits issued daily.
They tell us they hiked all the way from the Buckskin Gulch confluence today—15 miles, a distance we spread out over two days. They started in Buckskin yesterday and waded through frigid, waist-deep water for miles. “I was wearing my puffy jacket and two hats and I was freezing,” the woman says—affirming our decision to skip Buckskin.
By our fourth morning, our food supply is running low. Both sets of parents didn’t pack quite enough; it’s hard to anticipate how much kids will eat, especially growing teens and tweeners. For our last two days, I’ll hand over food to hungry kids. I hadn’t realized that backpacking Paria Canyon would deliver the added benefit of a weight-loss plan.
Now, in the wider, lower canyon, we follow rock cairns and a faint footpath at times where the route leaves the riverbed to short-cut long meanders or avoid spots where the river is choked with boulders. It’s hot and the primitive trail is surprisingly rugged and tiring for having only small elevation changes.
Still, the canyon is gorgeous, and the change in character from the narrower, upper canyon shows off one of Paria’s unique qualities: its visual diversity.
A Solid Family Adventure
Our last morning, we eat a quick, dry breakfast without cooking and start hiking at 7:30 a.m. to beat the heat that will rise by mid-morning. It’s nice and cool and everyone’s in good spirits, if a bit hungry: We’re subsisting on the last of our Pop-Tarts, chocolate, and chocolate-covered almonds and other snacks for the six-mile hike to the trailhead at Lees Ferry, where our cars are waiting.
Between the scarcity of water for cooking and drinking, our self-imposed food shortage, and the ruggedness of the hike, Paria proved more challenging than we had expected. But we simply planned water according to its availability and carried enough to get us through the long stretches between springs, and our kids rose to the challenge.
I’ve always thought long and hard about what outdoor adventures my kids were ready for at any given age. Maturity, physical ability, and their previous experience all factor into decisions about where to take them and which trip has to wait until they’re older. I’ve seen how badly things can go wrong in the backcountry, and that has made me hyper-conscious of safety with my kids and other families that join us.
But I also I want my kids to see the outdoors and wilderness trips as sources of inspiration and rejuvenation, and to learn to manage challenges rather than fear them.
To my mind, running low on food is something of a gift to these kids. They will discover that their bodies have deeper stores of energy than they thought—that they can actually walk pretty far when they’re hungry. They will learn that they are physically strong and mentally tough enough for this challenge, which gives young people a powerful sense of self-confidence, and helps them deal with the stresses and problems they will inevitably encounter in their lives.
I’d rather challenge them outdoors than keep them “safer” at home, where kids tend to lose themselves in their electronic screens.
By midday, we reach our cars with water to spare in our bottles and backpack bladders, a shared sense of accomplishment—and some healthy appetites.
See all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah and these stories:
“10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You”
“My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips”
“Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself”
“10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR intermediate and expert backpackers with experience backpacking desert canyons with limited water, who have the skills, clothing, and equipment to stay warm in continuously wet, possibly cold conditions, and who are capable of following an overland trail—where it leaves the river bottom numerous times—that’s not always marked and can be faint.
Make It Happen
Season Spring and fall are the prime seasons for backpacking Paria Canyon. Mid- to late spring may improve your chances of having drier conditions in Buckskin Gulch, but the later in spring that you go, the hotter it will be hiking down lower Paria Canyon, which is less shaded than the upper canyon.
The Itinerary Plan five days for backpacking Paria Canyon top to bottom (White House Trailhead to Lees Ferry), or from Wire Pass Trailhead or Buckskin Gulch Trailhead to Lees Ferry. Camp across the Paria River from Big Spring and Shower Spring for water (see Concerns, below), and otherwise on sandy benches at least a few feet above the river level in Paria’s narrows (in the upper canyon), and in the much broader, more-open lower canyon. The distances are:
• White House Trailhead to Lees Ferry—38 miles.
• Wire Pass Trailhead to Lees Ferry—44 miles.
• Buckskin Gulch Trailhead to Lees Ferry—47 miles.
Getting There A vehicle shuttle is needed to backpack Paria Canyon, regardless of which trailhead you begin from. Leave a vehicle at the hike’s finish, Lees Ferry, which is 130 miles from the turnoff to the BLM Contact Station and White House Campground via Kanab, Utah, and US Alt 89, or 69 miles from the turnoff to the BLM Contact Station and White House Campground via Page, Arizona, and US 89 and Alt 89.
The three trailheads where you can begin a backpacking trip in Paria Canyon are:
• White House Trailhead—From US 89, 30 miles west of Page, Arizona, or 43 miles east of Kanab, Utah, turn south onto a dirt road at a sign for the BLM Contact Station, which is just off the highway. Follow that road, which is sandy and rough in spots but passable for cars, for two miles to the White House Campground and Trailhead.
• Buckskin Gulch Trailhead—From US 89, 34 miles west of Page, Arizona, or 38 miles east of Kanab, Utah, turn south onto the dirt House Rock Valley Road and continue 4.5 miles to the trailhead.
• Wire Pass Trailhead—From US 89, 34 miles west of Page, Arizona, or 38 miles east of Kanab, Utah, turn south onto the dirt House Rock Valley Road and continue 8.3 miles to the trailhead.
Camping White House Campground, at 4,300 feet above sea level, one of the starting points for backpacking Paria Canyon (the White House Trailhead), has pit toilets, walk-in tent sites with picnic tables, and no water; a $5/night fee is charged. Stateline Campground, at 5,040 feet, is on House Rock Valley Road, a mile south of Wire Pass Trailhead. Primitive camping, with pit toilets but no water, is available at Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch trailheads.
• We used Betty Price at End of the Trail Shuttles, (928) 355-2252.
• Grand Circle Tours, (928) 691-0166, vermilioncliffs.net.
• Grand Staircase Discovery Tours, (928) 614-4099, grandstaircasediscoverytours.com.
• Paria Outpost, (928) 691-1047, paria.com.
Permit Required for backpacking, permits are issued to only 20 people per day, and group size is limited to 10 people. This is a popular hike, so apply for a permit reservation as soon as they become available, which is after 12 p.m. on the first of the month, four months in advance, for example, on Jan. 1 for a trip anytime in April. There’s a fee of $5/person/day. Pick up your permit at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument office in St. George, Utah, or at the BLM office in Kanab, Utah (see Contact, below). Find more information at blm.gov/az/st/en/arolrsmain/paria/permits.html.
Map Get the custom, waterproof Paria Canyon map, $35, mytopo.com/products/bpm.cfm?sku=BPM_AUG12_14.
• Water for drinking and cooking is available in just three reliable springs in Paria Canyon (and a few other small, seasonal springs): Big Spring, 5.2 miles downstream from the Paria-Busckskin confluence, Shower Spring 9.8 miles downstream from Big Spring, and one last reliable spring, three miles downriver from Shower Spring. There’s no good water in Buckskin Gulch. You have to carry all the water you need between those springs, or settle water in pots and bottles, which takes at least a few hours, before filtering it. The Paria River is so heavily silted that it will clog a filter if not settled out first.
• Weather can be variable in spring. Be prepared for chilly mornings, hot afternoons, and cold nights. Wear water shoes and neoprene socks for hiking in the cold water of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch, especially in spring.
• Flash Floods occur several times a year in Buckskin Gulch and in Paria’s narrows, which stretch for 10 miles or more from above the confluence with Buckskin to below Big Spring. Enter them only with a long-term forecast of sunshine. Flash floods are most common during the monsoon season, from July into early September. Visit the Paria Contact Station, located just off US 89 on the road to the White House Trailhead and Campground, right before your trip to get information about current conditions in the canyons.
• Human Waste Human-waste disposal bags are required and can be obtained at the Paria Contact Station, at the Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah, and at the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument Office in St. George, Utah.
Contact Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Kanab Visitor Center, (435) 644-1300, blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/grand_staircase-escalante/Recreation/visitor_centers/Kanab.html. Vermillion Cliffs National Monument/Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Arizona Strip District Office, St. George, Utah, (435) 688-3200, blm.gov/az/st/en/fo/arizona_strip_field.html.
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