Paria Canyon Hikes
The wild and twisting canyons of the Paria River and its tributaries offer a memorable experience for experienced hikers. Silt-laden waters have sculpted the colorful canyon walls, revealing 200 million years of geologic history. Paria means "muddy water" in the Paiute language.
You enter the 2,000-foot-deep gorge of the Paria in southern Utah, then hike 37 miles downstream to Lee's Ferry in Arizona, where the Paria empties into the Colorado River. A handful of shorter but rugged day hikes lead to superb scenery and geologic curiosities.
Ancient petroglyphs and campsites show that Pueblo Indians traveled the Paria more than 700 years ago. They hunted mule deer and bighorn sheep while using the broad, lower end of the canyon to grow corn, beans, and squash. The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition stopped at the mouth of the Paria in 1776, and these were the first white men to see the river.
John D. Lee and three companions traveled through the canyon in 1871 to bring a herd of cattle from the Pahreah settlement to Lee's Ferry. After Lee began a Colorado River ferry service in 1872, he and others farmed the lower Paria Canyon. Prospectors came here to search for gold, uranium, and other minerals, but much of the canyon remained unexplored.
In the late 1960s, the BLM organized a small expedition whose research led to protection of the canyon as a primitive area. The Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984 designated Paria Canyon a wilderness, along with parts of the Paria Plateau and Vermilion Cliffs. In 2000, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument was created. For more information, check out the website at www.az.blm.gov/vermilion/vermilion.htm.
The BLM Paria Canyon Ranger Station is in Utah, 43 miles east of Kanab on U.S. 89 near Milepost 21. It's on the south side of the highway, just east of the Paria River. Permits are required for hiking in the Paria Canyon and to visit other sites in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
Allow 4-6 days to hike Paria Canyon because of the many river crossings and because you'll want to make side trips up some of the tributary canyons. The hike is considered moderately difficult. Hikers should have enough backpacking experience to be self-sufficient, because help may be days away. Flash floods can race through the canyon, especially July-September. Rangers close the Paria if they think a danger exists. Because the upper end has the narrowest passages (between miles 4.2 and 9.0), rangers require that all hikers start here in order to have up-to-date weather information.
The actual trailhead is two miles south of the ranger station on a dirt road near a campground and old homestead site called White House Ruins. The exit trailhead is in Arizona at Lonely Dell Ranch of Lee's Ferry, 44 miles southwest of Page via U.S. 89 and 89A (or 98 miles southeast of Kanab on U.S. 89A).
You must register at a trailhead or the Kanab BLM office (318 North 100 East, Kanab, 435/644-2672, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. year-round). Permits to hike the canyon are $5 per day per person; backpackers should get a permit at the ranger station, but day hikers can just register and pay the fee at the trailhead. The visitor center and the office both provide weather forecasts and brochures with a map and hiking information. The visitor center always has the weather forecast posted at an outdoor information kiosk.
The hike requires a 150-mile round-trip car shuttle. For a list of shuttle services, check the BLM website or ask at the Paria Contact Station or Kanab Field Office. Expect to pay about $100 for this service.
All visitors need to take special care to minimize their impact on this beautiful canyon. Check the BLM Visitor Use Regulations for the Paria before you go. Regulations include no campfires in the Paria and its tributaries, a pack-in/pack-out policy, and a requirement that latrines be made at least 100 feet away from river and campsite locations. Also, remember to take some plastic bags to carry out toilet paper; the stuff lasts years and years in this desert climate. You don't want to haunt future hikers with TP flowers!
The Paria ranger recommends a group size maximum of six; regulations specify a 10-person limit. No more than 20 people per day can enter the canyon for overnight trips. The best times to travel along the Paria are about mid-March-June and October-November. May, especially Memorial Day weekend, tends to be crowded. Winter hikers often complain of painfully cold feet.
Wear (or bring) shoes suitable for frequent wading. You can get good drinking water from springs along the way (see the BLM hiking brochure for locations); it's best not to use the river water because of possible chemical pollution from farms and ranches upstream. Normally the river's only ankle-deep, but in spring or after rainy spells, it can become waist-deep.
During thunderstorms, water levels can rise to more than 20 feet in the Paria Narrows, so heed weather warnings! Quicksand, which is most prevalent after flooding, is more a nuisance than a danger—usually it's just knee-deep. Many hikers carry a walking stick to probe the opaque waters for good crossing places.
Wrather Canyon Arch
One of Arizona's largest natural arches lies about one mile up this side canyon of the Paria. The massive structure has a 200-foot span. Turn right (southwest) at mile 20.6 on the Paria hike. (The mouth of Wrather Canyon and other points along the Paria are unsigned; follow your map.)
Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass
Buckskin Pass is an amazing tributary of the Paria, with convoluted walls reaching hundreds of feet high, though the canyon narrows to as little as four feet in width. In places the walls block out so much light that it's like walking in a cave. Be very careful to avoid times of flash-flood danger. Hiking this 20-mile-long gulch can be strenuous, with rough terrain, deep pools of water, and logjams and rock jams that may require the use of ropes. Conditions vary considerably from one year to the next.
Day hikers can get a taste of this incredible canyon country by driving to Wire Pass Trailhead, 8.5 bumpy miles down BLM Road 700 (also called Rock House Valley Rd.), between Mileposts 25 and 26, about 37 miles east of Kanab. From the trailhead, a relatively easy trail leads into Wire Pass, a narrow side canyon that joins Buckskin Gulch. The 3.5-mile in-and-out round-trip travels the length of Wire Pass to its confluence with Buckskin Gulch. From here, you can explore this exceptionally narrow canyon or follow Buckskin Gulch to its appointment with Paria Canyon (12.5 miles).
For the full experience of Buckskin Gulch, long-distance hikers can begin at Buckskin Gulch Trailhead, 4.5 miles south of U.S. 89 off BLM Road 700. From here, it's 16.3 miles (one-way) to Paria Canyon. Hikers can continue down the Paria or turn upstream and hike six miles to exit at the White House trailhead near the ranger station. Hiking this gulch can be strenuous, with rough terrain, deep pools of water, and logjams and rock jams that may require the use of ropes. Conditions vary considerably from one year to the next. Regulations mandate packing your waste out of this area.
Hiking permits are $5 per day per person; backpackers should get a permit at the ranger station, but day hikers can just register and pay the fee at the trailhead.
You've probably seen photos of these dramatic rock formations: towering sand dunes frozen into rock. These much-photographed buttes are located on the Paria Plateau, just south of Wire Pass. Access is strictly controlled, and you can only enter the area with advance reservations and by permit. The number of people allowed into the area is also strictly limited; however, the permit process, fees, and restrictions are exactly the same as for Paria Canyon. See the Vermilion Cliffs Monument website for information (www.az.blm.gov/vermilion/vermilion.htm).
The BLM has divided the area into Coyote North and Coyote South, with a limit of 10 people per day in each. No dogs are allowed. The Wave—the most photographed of the buttes—is in Coyote North, so this region is the most popular (and easiest to reach from Wire Pass Trailhead; see previous listing); BLM staff will give you a map and directions when you get your permit. After the trailhead, you're on your own, as the wilderness lacks signs. Permits are more difficult to obtain in spring and autumn—the best times to visit—and on weekends. The fragile sandstone can break if climbed on, so it's important to stay on existing hiking routes and wear soft-soled footwear.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition