Utah's Buckskin Gulch: The Deadliest Hike In America?
Try this one on for size. Close your eyes and imagine backpacking twenty plus miles through a canyon less than two feet wide at its narrowest and fifteen feet at its widest, filled with pools of water cold enough to cause you to gasp and deep enough at times to require a swim, where if it rains within forty miles the ensuing flash flood and its roaring wall of debris will swallow you whole. Next, you have the minor inconveniences to contend with such as quicksand, titanic boulders, zero potable water, diamondback rattlesnakes and tarantulas. And finally, once you're in the slot canyon you're in for a while. With only one bailout point over those twenty some miles, a twisted ankle, snake bite or approaching storm can quickly turn into a nightmare Wes Craven couldn't have conjured up. This guide details an overnight backpack beginning at the Wire Pass Trailhead and exiting at Whitehouse Trailhead and Campground.
In March 2023, a flash flood in Buckskin Gulch took the lives of three backpackers. In May 2023, a flash flood in Buckskin Gulch took the lives of two more backpackers. Please do not enter the canyon if there is even a remote chance of rain.
Day 1: Wire Pass to Camp
Your adventure begins inside the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area in Southern Utah near the Arizona Border. From the Wire Pass Trailhead follow the shadeless wash 1.7 miles before reaching an eight foot vertical drop where a perfectly positioned log is there to assist with the climb down. Continue down the slender sandy confines of the slot before emerging into a grotto of cottonwoods, ancient petroglyphs and the gateway to Buckskin Gulch. Making a right into Buckskin, the canyon walls quickly grow to more than two hundred feet. The floor turns from soft sand to a rock strewn madhouse and the fun begins.
For the next fourteen or so miles the canyon twists and turns through narrow, undulating passageways; its walls changing in color from cool greys and purples to warm reds and oranges at every turn. Logs are found suspended between the walls high above, testimony to the power of flash floods. Desert varnish coats the Navajo sandstone. It's beautiful.
The canyon provides a sacred element to the outdoor experience, one that has grown increasingly hard to find in recent years - solitude. Past the first two miles in Buckskin encountering another living soul is rare. You're more likely to find the carcass of a lost coyote or goat in its murky waters than another human.
With all of that solitude it's easy for the mind to wander. Hiking mile after mile it's nearly impossible at one point or another not to think, "What if the forecast was wrong? What if it rains?" It can be a terrifying thought.
Other than the sketchy bailout point midway through, the canyon walls are insurmountable. Rain forty miles away can fill the canyon within hours creating a hundred foot wall of water with boulders and trees thundering towards you at nine feet per second. The mind can be a cynical thing. But Buckskin is drop dead gorgeous. That can't be debated. Next to Antelope Canyon it's likely the most beautiful slot canyon in the world and surely the most challenging.
One of the more tortuous challenges inside Buckskin are the infamous cesspools, pools of stagnant putrid water, chin deep at times and what feels like a degree above freezing. Wading through these are both mentally and physically demanding. To further complicate the cesspools is their ankle deep sludge firmly gripping your feet at the bottom. Exiting the cesspool with both shoes on and a dry pack feels like a minor victory.
The cesspools turn to puddles usually by the halfway point to the Paria River Confluence. Middle Route, a near vertical rock scramble and only possible escape route in the event of a flash flood, can be found around this point, roughly 6.7 miles in, to your left as well.
Roughly 5 more rocky miles brings you to the most challenging obstacle in the canyon, the boulder jam. Navigating this behemoth changes with every flash flood when boulders are tossed around like ragdolls, repositioned to their newest resting spot. The route used this season may be gone next. One fairly constant however, is the rope and Moki steps route reached by scrambling up the left side of the boulder jam and using the rope to sturdy yourself as you lower down the indentations in the left canyon wall. Those with a fear of heights will likely find this route an issue.
A less frequently available option is the Rabbit Hole route which in a nutshell is a gap in the bottom of the boulder jam that allows hikers to pass under the entirety of the jam. This is a much easier option but often clogged with smaller boulders and debris from recent flash floods. One way or another you're going to have to find a way through the boulder jam and every time through it's a bit different from the last.
Past the boulder jam, the canyon sinks deeper. Its walls, now towering more than four hundred feet, show the scars left throughout time by the forces of nature. The views are stunning. You feel small. A short distance later the walls narrow once more and the canyon darkens. A stream begins to form. A quarter mile later the canyon reopens to lush greenery - a small grove of maple and box elder grow from the sandy banks to your left, moss on the canyon walls to your right. Finally, camp. The bank provides refuge in an otherwise unwelcoming landscape.
Nights in Buckskin are exceptional. On a clear night with a new moon the millions of stars surrounded by the silhouette of the canyon walls is borderline spiritual.
Day 2: Camp to White House
A quarter mile from camp the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River emerges where you turn left and head upriver. The canyon walls begin to shrink and the river widens slightly. The next five or so miles you'll crisscross the Paria and its ankle to calf deep water countless times.
Nearly five miles from the confluence, Picturesque Windows and Slide Rock Arch appear to the right. These are the last two notable features before White House Trailhead and Campground. After this the hike becomes less attractive and eventually turns into a walk along a dry, shadeless riverbank. White House Trailhead and Campground will be on your right marked with a small brown pole. It's tough to miss if you're paying attention.
Mileage is dependent upon the quality of the GPS signal that you receive in the slot which is usually poor at best. Because of this you'll read varying lengths for this trail online. The first time we backpacked this route we recorded 20.7 miles. The last time was 22.1. The true mileage is likely somewhere in between. The route accumulates more than 2,000' of elevation gain and losses more than 2,700', but it's so gradual that it goes unnoticed. The map below details the trail's most notable waypoints.
The mileage below can be used as a rough idea on where things are located in the slot canyon. Again, this will vary based on what app/equipment you're using and strength of GPS signal. All mileage is from the Wire Pass Trailhead.
1.7 miles - Wire Pass Slot Canyon/Buckskin Gulch trail junction
6.7 miles - Middle Route bailout
11.6 miles - Boulder Jam
13.1 miles - Camp
13.4 miles - Paria River Confluence
18.1 miles - Picturesque Windows & Slide Rock Arch
20.7 miles - White House Campground
Permits & Logistics
Paria Canyon Overnight permit is required and can be applied for on recreation.gov. Permits are limited to twenty per day, are non-transferable, non-refundable and highly competitive. If you're able to land a permit it can be picked up in person with photo ID at the Kanab Field Office, Paria Contact Station, or the Arizona Strip District Office and Public Lands Information Center within ten days of your backpack. The addresses and contact info for these facilities can be found on the Bureau of Land Management's website. Upon picking up your permit you will be given a wag bag for each person in your group. These must be used to carry all human waste out of the canyon.
This is a point-to-point hike so you'll need either two vehicles or a shuttle to get back to your vehicle when you reach the end of your backpack. Shuttle companies come and go every year, so a quick web search for Buckskin Gulch shuttles will give you the current options. If you have only one vehicle, drive to the Wire Pass Trailhead, backpack to White House Campground and shuttle back to your car with your prearranged shuttle service. If you have two vehicles and are not in need of a shuttle, leave one at the White House Trailhead and Campground, drive to the Wire Pass Trailhead and backpack to your vehicle at White House. Both Wire Pass and White House have dispersed camping, are first come, first served, have vault toilets and are located along the dirt and gravel House Rock Valley Rd. They fill up quick so getting there at a decent time is recommended. No showers, water or electricity.
The best time of year to backpack this is May and June when the chances of rain are low and the temperatures are comfortable. We can't recommend hiking this from mid-July through September due to it being the area's monsoon season when flash floods are more common. Under no circumstance should you backpack this with even the most remote chance of rain. We cannot stress this enough. Campfires are prohibited throughout. The last time we backpacked this was early June when we counted forty-seven cesspools, almost all knee deep, seven chest deep, three chin deep and one that required a short swim. The number of cesspools you'll encounter varies from season to season and the facility where you pick up your permit should have a general idea of what to expect. We also encountered a dead goat and coyote in shallow cesspools within the first two miles of the Wire Pass/Buckskin Gulch junction.
If you're backpacking Buckskin you should already understand the basics, so we won't waste your time with all that. The following however should make your experience more enjoyable.
Put everything that's going into your pack in a heavy duty contractor garbage bag found at every hardware store in America. There's no way around your pack getting wet, but this will help keep its contents dry, especially if you have to swim through a cesspool.
A 50' rope in case the rope at the Moki steps is damaged or gone. Hiking all the way to the boulder jam and having to turn back because the rope is toast would suck.
A change of lightweight clothes for camp. Your clothes will smell like hell from the cesspools and no one wants to sleep in that.
Hiking poles for cesspools. The bottoms of the cesspools are sludge-like and you'll often lose your balance while trekking through them. We're not fans of hiking poles, but having them was a godsend.
In terms of footwear, hiking boots and thick socks are decent at preventing rocks from getting in your shoes, but will weigh you down with all the water, sand and mud they'll accumulate. Water shoes similar to Tevas and thick socks will allow water, sand and mud to escape, but you'll be taking off your shoes to shake out rocks much more often. Your call. We prefer the latter. Just know that if you wear hiking boots it'll likely be the last time you wear them.
Moisture wicking clothing is highly recommended. Cotton is a nightmare on this one.
A hammock is a great way to reduce your pack size and weight, and an even better option to sleep in at camp just before the Paria. Great for looking at the stars at night.
4-5 liters of water per person is plenty for a day and a half of drinking and cooking at camp. The water in Buckskin is not potable. The water in the Paria is slightly better, but still not recommended. Keep in mind that horses are brought through Paria Canyon and have to relieve themselves along the way, so if you're OK filtering that water have at it. We highly recommend carrying in all of your water.
Backpacking Buckskin Gulch isn't easy on the body. Your hips, knees and ankles will throb at the end of your first day. You'll be uncomfortable. But, the journey through the longest, deepest slot canyon in the world is guaranteed to leave you with a lifetime of memories and a story you'll want to share with everyone. Have a blast and most of all be safe!
Check out Jerry Arizona's awesome YouTube video for more helpful tips on backpacking Buckskin Gulch.