Buckskin Gulch: Hiking And Backpacking Guide

by Oct 15, 2019Arizona, Slot Canyons, Utah

Thinking about hiking or backpacking in Buckskin Gulch? Here’s a guide to prepare you for a trip into the longest slot canyon in the world. Buckskin Gulch is one of the best slot canyons in both Utah and Arizona and offers several trip itineraries for hikers and backpackers of all experience. In fact, the first few miles of both the Wirepass and Buckskin Gulch trails are mellow enough that you will see hikers with dogs. Here are some of the options for those interested in Buckskin Gulch:

 



 

What you should know about Buckskin Gulch:

Huge Open Hallway Within Buckskin Gulch

Sometimes you need to move quick in Buckskin Gulch!

 

Buckskin Gulch is the longest slot canyon in the world with over 46 miles of twists, turns, and narrow passageways. If you are looking for a the ultimate slot canyon experience– Buckskin Gulch is it. Buckskin Gulch is located in the Paria Canyon Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area (also known as Paria Canyon) on the border of Utah and Arizona near the cities of Big Water, Utah and Page, Arizona. It is a prime location for individuals wanting to day hike, backpack, test out new backpacking gear, or get some scenic photos of this curving slot canyon.

 

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Summarizing Buckskin Gulch:

There are several ways to enter Buckskin Gulch but they are basically broken into:

  • The Paria Canyon side
  • Lee’s Ferry side

 

Paria Canyon Side

Day hiking permit required: Yes, $6 per person at a self-service pay station at the trailhead. Cash only.
Overnight permit required: Yes, $5 per person per day. Permits are issued online using the BLM’s online calendar system.
Dogs allowed: Yes, $6 per dog for day hiking, $5 per dog per day for overnight.

 

 

Lee’s Ferry Side

Day hiking permit required: Yes, $30 per vehicle (or free with a National Parks pass) at the entrance to Lee’s Ferry. Credit card only.
Overnight permit required: Yes, $5 per person per day. Permits are issued online using the BLM’s online calendar system.
Dogs allowed: Yes, free for day hiking, $5 per dog per day for overnight issued through the BLM’s online calendar system.

 

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Day hikes into Buckskin Gulch:

  • Wire Pass trailhead to the entrance of Buckskin
  • White House trailhead to the Paria River confluence
  • Buckskin Gulch to the end of the Wire Pass trail
  • Lee’s Ferry into Buckskin Gulch

 

 

Backpacking trips into Buckskin Gulch:

  • Wire Pass trailhead to the Paria River confluence and to the White House trailhead
  • White House trailhead to the Paria River confluence to the Wire Pass trailhead
  • Wire Pass trailhead through the entire Buckskin Gulch and ending at Lee’s Ferry




 

What Buckskin Gulch is like:

If you’re coming in from the Paria Canyon side, from either Wire Pass or the Buckskin Gulch’s trailhead, expect a desert-like hike for the first mile or so before you actually enter into the slot canyon proper. From there, expect miles and miles of twists, turns, and narrow passageways in the slot canyon. The width of Buckskin Gulch varies from two feet at its narrowest and 15 feet at its widest. Most of the 46 miles of this slot canyon consist of flat hiking and wading through shallow water pools with two major exceptions: the “Cesspools” and the rock jam (discussed later on).

 

Hiking in the Cesspools at Buckskin Gulch

Hiking through the dreaded (and cold) “Cesspools.”

 

What we love about Buckskin Gulch:

Buckskin Gulch is one of our favorite slot canyons in Utah or Arizona, and for a number of reasons:

  • Miles and miles of spooky, remote, and colorful slot canyon
  • Warmer temperatures mean that Buckskin Gulch can be a fall or early winter hiking or backpacking destination
  • Only 20 permits for backpacking are issued per day– expect to have the place to yourself after the initial first few miles
  • Relatively easy terrain (with the exception of the “Cesspools” and rock-jam)
  • Lots of opportunities of dynamic and striking photos

 

What we don’t love about Buckskin Gulch:

There are a few drawbacks to Buckskin Gulch:

  • Flash floods are a very serious threat– especially during monsoon season
  • The “Cesspools” and other deep pools of water you have to wade
  • There are cattle, scorpions, and rattlesnakes that live in the area
  • Obtaining overnight backpacking permits can be challenging
  • One small rock jam at the entrance to Buckskin and one right before the Paria River confluence
  • No water outside of the Paria River confluence

 

Your day hiking options in Buckskin Gulch:

#1 Wire Pass trailhead to the entrance of Buckskin

Wire Pass Slot Canyon Hike in Utah and Arizona

 

A short and sweet canyon hike for those who only have a little time to explore Buckskin Gulch. Starting at the Wire Pass trailhead, you will weave through the desert, and enter a small section of canyon- which is Wire Pass canyon. You’ll continue further until the walls begin to rise steeply above you and the canyon becomes more narrow. The canyon ends at a large intersection with Buckskin Gulch (where you can choose to continue hiking further in either direction). At this point to your right there is a giant arch in the wall, as well as some ancient Petroglyphs to check out. If you turn around here and return to the trailhead, the distance is about 3.5 miles.

Distance: 3.5 miles round trip

Estimated time needed: 2 hours

What we love about it: A great way to experience slot canyons in Utah and a way to see Buckskin Gulch first hand.



#2 White House trailhead to the Paria River confluence

Buckskin Gulch from the White House Campground

 

For those looking for some water time in the middle of the spring or early summer, doing this hike into Buckskin Gulch is a perfect way to spend a long day. Starting at the nearby White House Campground, you’ll follow the Paria River south pretty much the whole way. The trail starts off in the desert as you navigate through small scrubs, river rocks, and sand. You’ll be next to the Paria River pretty fast. The further you hike on this trail the more the the canyon walls begin to close in and the more you will have to actually trek through the Paria River. This is technically called the Paria Narrows. With another three miles to go, at this point you will be trekking through the Paria River almost 100% of the time.

The trail ends at the confluence (intersection) of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch on your left and right. Most people will turn around right there but if you’re adventurous, (or if you have more time) you can actually head right into Buckskin Gulch to explore the canyon more.

Distance: 14.9 miles round trip

Estimated time needed: 7 hours

What we love about it: The trail is beautiful and easy to navigate and trekking through the water is refreshing during hot spring and early summer days.




#3 Buckskin Gulch to the end of the Wire Pass trail

Hiking Buckskin Gulch from Wire Pass Trailhead

 

This trail is basically a reversal of the Wire Pass trailhead but with adding a few extra miles of Buckskin Gulch. Unlike the previous Wire Pass day hike, this hike involves starting at the actual Buckskin Gulch trailhead a few miles prior to the Wire Pass trailhead. The approach is a little different than the previous hikes, you’ll just into Buckskin Gulch almost immediately- within half a mile from your car.

The route goes through Buckskin Gulch proper which consists of a true slot canyon experience. Expect the normal twists, turns, tall and narrow passageways with dim and dynamic lighting. After close to four miles, you’ll reach an opening with a right turn and a large arch, this is Wire Pass Canyon and where you’ll make a right to end the hike out at the Wire Pass trailhead. This hike does require you to stage a car at both the Buckskin Gulch trailhead and the Wire Pass trailhead- unless you’re ok with hiking the 4+ miles back to your car after a long slot canyon hike! For those with less time on their hands, consider hiking from the main Buckskin Gulch trailhead and turning around when you want and hiking out the same way you came in.

Distance: 5.5-6.5 miles

Estimated time needed: 7 hours

What we love about it: Much more time in Buckskin Gulch proper. This route takes you into Buckskin Gulch right away so you can experience all of the features of a slot canyon experience without having to dedicate miles and miles to get it.



 

#4 Lee’s Ferry into Buckskin Gulch

Hiking Buckskin Gulch from Lee's Ferry

 

Definitely a hike off the beaten-path! This hike starts at Lee’s Ferry and goes into Buckskin Gulch for a totally different experience altogether. This area is more open and exposed to the sun than the other day hikes on our list. Begin at Lee’s Ferry at the Paria River confluence and hike northwest into the wide-open canyon mouth. Hike as long as you feel like and turn around at will. You will not experience the slot canyons of Buckskin Gulch unfortunately (it’s just too far away). But this day hike for those looking for a place to chat, hike, and wander around.

Expect views and features of a large open canyon with lots of scrambling, trees, and views of the neighboring canyons and mesas of Lee’s Ferry and the Vermilion Cliffs.

Distance: As long as you want

Estimated time needed: As long as you want

What we love about it: Very different views and topography than the other day hikes- much more of an open-canyon feel. You can hike and stay out as long as you want.



 

Your backpacking options in Buckskin Gulch:

#1 Wire Pass – Paria River confluence – White House trailhead

 

Paria River Confluence with Hiker at Buckskin Gulch

For those looking to backpack in Buckskin Gulch, this route is the most common way to do it. This 1-night trip allows you to backpack most of Buckskin Gulch (or at least the fun parts) in a single weekend. The trek starts out at the Wire Pass trail and goes all the way to the Paria River confluence on the first day. You’ll camp at the confluence the first night then leave camp in the morning heading north towards the White House trailhead. A word a caution, this route will go through the dreaded “Cesspools” and the major rock jam. Make sure that you pack water shoes and are mentally prepared to cross the many pools of water with your packs in Buckskin Gulch and Paria River and navigate down the rock jam. In addition, water is unavailable until you hit the Paria River confluence so plan accordingly.

For those looking for more time to explore the area, consider spending an extra day at the confluence so you can explore the Paria River to the east.

Regardless of whether you spend a single night or two nights at the confluence, make sure you stage a car at both the Wire Pass trailhead and the White House trailhead.

Distance: 21-23 miles

Estimated time needed: 2 days, 1 night

What we love about it: The best way to experience Buckskin Gulch. Allows you to hit all of the slot canyon and its features while backpacking.



#2 White House trailhead – Paria River confluence – Wire Pass

 

Buckskin Gulch Slot Canyon Off of Wire Pass Trailhead

 

Basically a reversal of the previous itinerary. On the first day, start at the White House trailhead  hike to the Paria River confluence where you’ll camp overnight. Leave camp early in the morning and hike Buckskin Gulch to the west until you come out at the Wire Pass trailhead.

This route is much less common to do because the second day of backpacking is much longer in distance than the first. The benefits of doing the standard route in reverse is that you will probably only see people during your time camping at the confluence. There will not be people hiking out of the confluence back to the White House trailhead on your first day and the second day, the day hikers won’t be in Buckskin Gulch by the time you get to the areas where day hikers venture to.

Distance: 21-23 miles

Estimated time needed: 2 days, 1 night

What we love about it: Similar to the previous itinerary but with the added bonus of this route being much quieter since you’ll miss most of the other backpackers and day hikers when you’re in Buckskin Gulch.

 




 

#3 Wire Pass trailhead through the entire Buckskin Gulch and ending at Lee’s Ferry

 

Buckskin Gulch Arch From the Wire Pass Trailhead

 

The ultimate Microadventure in Buckskin Gulch: the whole thing. For those crazy enough and looking to check out backpacking the longest slot canyon in the world, this is the way to do it. Start at the Wire Pass trailhead and backpack through the entire Buckskin Gulch area on the first day, camping at the Paria River confluence (like the other itineraries). Technically you’ll be in Paria Canyon as soon as you leave camp at the confluence.

The next 2-4 days, slowly make your way east through the rest of the slot canyon towards Lee’s Ferry. The canyon does open up within the first 8ish miles of Paria Canyon and you’ll be more exposed to the sun and heat. Camping after the confluence is abundant- find a good spot when you’re tired and pitch your tent. Your backpacking trip will end with you walking into Lee’s Ferry.

The whole trek is long and challenging- not because of the hike itself but the sheer distance. You’ll cover over 45+ miles in 3-5 days. Make sure you’re prepared for that fact!

Remember, there is no quick escape out of Buckskin Gulch.

Distance: 45-48 miles

Estimated time needed: At least 4 days and 3 nights; 5 days and 4 nights is preferred

What we love about it: The ultimate way to test your backpacking endurance and to see all aspect of Buckskin Gulch. This is a backpacking trip for those looking for bragging rights at the bar!



 

Things to consider:

Flash floods

 

 

With Buckskin Gulch, backpacking or even just day hiking, it is imperative that you check the weather for rain both for the Page, Arizona and Big Water, Utah areas as well as upstream of the Paria River. Since the Paria River feeds Buckskin Gulch, rain and thunderstorms in central Utah can flow into the slot canyons downstream within a few hours of the rain.

Before you go, check the weather in:

  • Page, Arizona
  • Big Water, Utah
  • Escalante, Utah
  • Boulder, Utah
  • St. George, Utah

If you are seeing rain in the forecast, reconsider going to Buckskin Gulch entirely!

Flash floods are common in Buckskin Gulch and they can kill!



 

Spotty cell service

Something that I have personally dealt with is the complete lack of cell service. This can be particularly problematic if you are going to rely on your phone for a GPS map, hike tracking, or even an emergency call or text. If you are considering doing a long day hike or backpacking in Buckskin Gulch, we highly recommend getting a paper map of the area and carry a Spot 2-Way Satellite GPS unit or other emergency GPS unit.

 

There is no quick way out

Once you are in Buckskin Gulch, you’re in for a while. It is very important to mention that there is no quick escape- you either turn around and retrace your steps or continue hiking until you exit the slot canyon entirely. A twisted ankle, running out of water, or an approaching storm can turn a fun hike into a nightmare very quickly. Plan ahead and be extremely careful in Buckskin Gulch.

 

When to go:

In our opinion, the best time to hike or backpack in Buckskin Gulch is during spring and fall. Summers can be extremely hot in the canyon- with daytime temperatures reaching 100 degrees in direct sun. Winters and the monsoon season in Arizona (late June to early August) can flood Buckskin Gulch with water.

The best time to go:

  • Early March to early May
  • Late September to mid-November

 

Wrapping up:

Located at the edge of Utah and Arizona, Buckskin Gulch is the longest slot canyon in the world and is a great destination for both day hiking and backpacking alike. You can spend as little as a few hours or as long as six days exploring the twists and turns found within the canyon’s walls. For anyone looking to get a taste of slot canyons in Utah or Arizona, look no further than Buckskin Gulch. With a little preparation, a solid plan, and thirst for adventure, Buckskin Gulch will bring memories for years to come.

 

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Nick The Rambling Man

Nick The Rambling Man

Nick is the owner and regular content writer for Southwest Microadventures. When he's not writing, you can find him rock climbing, peak bagging, mountain biking, backpacking, or drinking strong coffee.

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