Five of us backpacked from Wire Pass, down the Buckskin, then down the Paria to Lee’s Ferry. We did it over four days, entering Wire Pass about 7:00 on May 10th, 2005. Perhaps my son, Ryan, said it the best: awesomely brutal and awesomely beautiful. If we had known just a few things the hike would have certainly been less brutal, allowing us to even take in more of the beauty. It seems the BLM didn’t want to give specific advice in case it didn’t work out. We’ll just be bold. I suppose someone could sue the BLM for bad advice. Don’t sue us. We don’t have deep pockets. We have no pockets. So here is our frank, bold advice. Do with it what you want.We are five reasonably fit people. We have varied backpack experience, including five Grand Canyon Hikes, the Guadalupe’s and many alpine trips. But the Paria hit us with some things we had never experienced before.
1. WATER: Walking in it. This spring was a very wet one for southern Utah. We were concerned about the depth of water in the Buckskin. It was, at deepest, between crotch and waist deep, depending on our height. And cold. But we should have been more concerned about the amount of water. Where some guidebooks describe no water for five miles, then some pools after that, we were in watery mud or muddy water throughout the Buckskin. What the guidebooks say is a 6 ½ to 7 ½ hour hike took us a long 12 hours. Down the Paria you will cross through the river time after time, less the further you go. But your feet will never be dry.
So, what about footwear? Wear low or medium height hiking shoes with socks. Water-proof or not water-proof didn’t matter much. The water-proof ones hold the water and those wearing them kind of liked the cool on the hot days down the Paria. Water squished out of the not water-proof ones making them lighter which was nice for those wearing them. Tennis shoes were a disaster. Insufficient tread made them too slippery. The thin soles gave too little support and protection from rocks in the trail. After a couple of days those of us who wore them were in a lot of pain from sore feet and ankles. Water socks or sandals would be even worse.
Do pack a pair of very light shoes or sandals for camp. It feels so good to put your feet in dry, light socks and shoes at the end of the day!
At least walking in water didn’t produce blisters. We didn’t have trouble with them until the last leg, going into Lee’s Ferry where the river crossings were few.
At least one walking stick in the group is essential to test the depth of pools in the Buckskin before you plunge into them. Some pools are much deeper on one edge than another.
Because of the cold water and the darkness of the Buckskin, we were quite cold with several layers–t-shirt, shirt and fleece on top, shorts on bottom. It was often windy, too, with the wind changing direction all of the time.
The water, perhaps especially in the Paria, contains a lot of salt. As the muddy film begins to dry on your legs at the end of the day it burns, getting progressively worse as day adds to day, feeling like a bad sun burn. By all means try to wash it off with drinking water at the end of the day. A hiker we came across on and off during our hike didn’t wear shorts but kept long, light-weight pants on through the water. He claimed to be having less of a problem than we did. The thin mud collected more on the material than the skin. (It is now six days since I left the Paria and my legs are itching, itching, itching.)
(By the way, this year the “cesspool” was not distinguishable from any of the others except for depth. It must have been washed clean to the same thin mud as all the others. Thankfully the mud does not smell bad or cling like gumbo to boots.)
2. WATER: Drinking it. We had some real problems in this category. There is no drinking water in the Buckskin. Carry enough for the day. There are no good springs at the confluence. There are seeps at sand level and we planned on pumping that water through our filters. One of the filters clogged immediately and was useless. The second, a reverse osmosis filter that I have used for ten years in all kinds of conditions, was good for about three quarts and then clogged. It must be the salt that clogs the principal filter as the prefilters took out the visible stuff. We boiled some water and let it settle all night and used it for cereal. Believe me, it didn’t look very good but it tasted OK. The silt is so fine it stirs up as soon as you try to dip water out. Cloth or coffee filters don’t touch it.
A gentleman we stumbled into had a ceramic filter that could be scrubbed clean over and over on site. Perhaps that one would have been useful but slow.
The first spring south of the confluence is a mile or so – further than a person would want to walk after a hike down the Buckskin.
The solution? I don’t know what you will do. Boiling the flowing water in the gulch and river is OK for re-hydrating meals, cereal and coffee. It is tough for just drinking. Perhaps carry a little more than you would need in to last until the first spring south of the confluence which you would get to by the middle of the second morning. By all means, have some iodine tablets for emergencies.
After you enter the Paria there are many springs to drink from. The water is great. We drank from many of them without filtering or boiling. Some come straight out of the rocks. A few filter in under quick sand and are a little hard to dip from but they were good, too.
When you reach Bush Head Canyon fill up with enough water for the ten miles to Lee’s Ferry. That’s the last good water. There is water at Wilson Ranch but it flows through soil and where it collects it is sitting out in the sun. We passed Bush Head Canyon without recognizing it because of poor maps and realized it further along than we wanted to turn back. So we boiled the water at Wilson Ranch. It looked like farm pond stew. Thankfully our new-found friend came along with his ceramic filter and pumped a gallon for us, enough to get us out. It was still quite brown but very much appreciated. Thank you, Robert from Pittsburgh.
3. Maps and guidebooks. We relied exclusively on Michael Kelsey’s Hiking And Exploring The Paria River. Now this is a fascinating book but Kelsey must be a wild man. His hiking times are far faster than anything we could do. Much of the space in the book is spent describing side trips which you are not likely to have time for.
And his maps are very large in scale and (note this) the scale varies from map to map! He also has the eccentric habit of measuring in kilometers and then referring to BLM map river miles. Don’t rely on his maps. By all means buy the flip map available at the ranger station!
Kelsey does include some neat history and gives lots of advice but check another guide book. Keep in mind that hikes down the Paria will be very different from week to week and season to season depending on the amount of water in the Buckskin, the Paria and the temperature.
4. Quick Sand. We came across two kinds of quick sand. Quivery mud the consistency of custard was never a problem. We could just step out of it, getting calf deep. Quick sand under the flowing Paria can get you. It seems that as you stand still on it the current washes the sand away causing a person to sink surprisingly quickly. You will learn to keep moving in the Paria to avoid it.
5. Rattlesnakes We found some great rattlesnakes on the high ground across Wire Pass wash near the trail head. You might want to avoid them, you might want to look for them.
6. Days to travel. If you only have four days we would suggest you enter at the White House trailhead, exploring the Buckskin a little by going up the confluence. We would recommend at least five days for the hike we did, using the extra day to explore up the Paria at little, then a more leisurely walk down the Paria.
A girl’s school was taking six days for Lee’s Ferry to the White House. The Sierra Club also takes six days, yet from White House to Lee’s Ferry. There is some exploring to do that we didn’t have enough time for. Wraither Canyon is fabulous, well worth the hike up to and under the arch. I wish we had gone into Bush Head Canyon. A person could easily spend more time looking at the petroglyphs.
The National Geographic Explore magazine (May, 2005) listed the Buckskin as one of its ten best treks in the world, one of only two in the continental U.S. They said three to four days just to do the Buckskin then north on the Paria to White House trailhead. I don’t really know what a person would do with all that time.
So that’s our advice. Take it for what it’s worth. I wish someone had given it to us.