Buckskin Gulch via Wire Pass Canyon
Date: April 23, 2017
Miles: about 11
Elevation Gain: about 1,500 ft
Start Time: 8:30 am
Duration: 4:07 hours
Since this was a slot canyon our GPS data can’t be relied on for elevation change and mileage so I have estimated them above.
Buckskin Gulch was our plan B consolation prize after not getting permits for the Wave. If you don’t know what the Wave is then Google it and view the images. Buckskin Gulch actually shares the same trailhead with the wave. In fact they are the same trail for the first mile. This trailhead is found after travelling about 10 miles down a dirt road that progressively deteriorates. It was clear that from the conditions of this road that the sign at it’s entrance was correct in stating that the road is impassable during a rain storm. The petrified mud that we were driving obviously turns to a viscus messy mud based on the scars carved into the road. You would need a pretty beefy four wheel drive rather than our all wheel drive SUV to make a go of it in the rain.
We arrived relatively early but there were already several vehicles at the trailhead parking lot. Undoubtedly, most of them were Wave lottery winners. Shortly after getting out of the vehicle a very nice ranger walked up and asked me if we were going into the Wave. I told him what our plans were Buckskin Gulch and places east and he was quite helpful with information. It was clear that if you are thinking about sneaking into the Wave without a permit you are going to get caught.
After using the outhouse, paying our fee and donning our day packs we noticed that none of the people who were already in the parking area when we arrived were still strewing about. We would have been so anxious to get in there by ourselves in low light that we would have left at dawn if not sooner. I don’t understand people.
The first mile or so of the hike was in a wash. The sand was fairly hard packed so it wasn’t a bad surface. Soon we passed the trail junction to the right that led to the Wave and so we of course to a moment to curse those unworthy people going that way. The wash then began to make its way through some mini slot areas.
Soon we entered the Wire Pass slot canyon. This was a relatively short canyon that led into the confluence of Buckskin Gulch canyon. The first few moments in a slot canyon are always the best. The walls are all wavy sandstone as if sculpted by and artist rather than flash floods.
Not too long after entering the canyon we arrived at a bolder blocking the way followed by a ten foot drop off. I had learned of this from researching the hike but I was surprised with how blind we were from any footholds on the other side. We relied on the fact that many have scaled this drop off that there would be something to step on that would prevent a ten foot fall. I went first and while hugging the bolder my feet were able to find a log that had been jammed sideways below the bolder. Eventually I felt my way down step by step over the layers of debris below me to the bottom. This was not a graceful decent. From below I was able to let Sandy know where to put her feet.
The Wire Pass slot canyon was quite narrow and in places we had to push through while scraping on both sides. While this might appear to be problematic it actually made the experience even cooler than I thought it would be. Wire Pass lasted a little longer than I thought it would but it eventually opened up into the confluence of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch canyons. Immediately to our right as we walked out of the slot there was a large arch. We were now at the confluence of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch which was a fairly wide open area. We went south down the main Buckskin Gulch slot canyon leaving the north for later in the day.
The first mile of so through the slot canyon was fairly narrow but not quite as narrow as the Wire Pass slot. We walked under gnarled log jam that was about 20 feet up. It had obviously been up there a long time and we were astonished with how large some of the logs were that were jammed in there. Once the canyon turned west there was more direct sunlight hitting the canyon floor. That made for some interesting photo opportunities.
After about a mile the canyon opened up. The river bed cut arches in the side of the cliff wherever there was a turn in the canyon. This continued for another mile or so and then continued on into another narrow slot canyon. Just as we were entering the slot area we could hear voices coming up behind us for the first time which gave us a greater appreciation for how alone we’d been to that point.
We had planned to turn around at 11:30 which coincided nicely for when the group of backpackers behind us caught up. On the way back out we passed about five more groups of day hikers and backpackers heading into the canyon. We made much better time heading out since we weren’t stopping to take photos as often.
After passing through the confluence again we entered the eastern section of Buckskin Gulch. The canyon was more shallow and increasingly less dramatic than the main canyon although we did come up on a rock formation that looked amazingly like an elephant staring us down.
After about a mile or so the slot canyon ended and we could now see the rock formation to our right that we wanted to explore. What I hadn’t counted on was the barbed wire fence that was in the rock preventing us from accessing the area. We continued down the wash for about a half mile before we found a gap in the fence but not after stopping to empty the sand our of our shoes.
I expected to see a trail leading through the sage brush but there were only cow trails. The sage emptied onto a large sand dune that we needed to cross to get to where we could start climbing the rock. Once on the rock it was clear that we would need to find a route that wasn’t too steep to follow. I wanted to explore the area because from what I could see from Google Earth was that, although not as dramatic as the Wave, it was at least similar in form. After climbing for a while I spotted a rock formation that was called, “The Brains” based on what I saw on the internet. We walked up and over the brains which was very cool.
From the brains we couldn’t see a route that went up from there. The next level was quite steep and had thin, fragile fins of rock jutting out from it. We headed along the base of that level and eventually found a route that we could climb. There were very interesting honeycomb like rocks strewn across the rock as we ascended up through a narrow trough. It led to a lookout over the southern side. Since we didn’t really have a specific destination in mind this seemed like the perfect place to turn around since it was now 2 pm. The trip back down the rock went much quicker because we knew the route we came up.
On the way back through Buckskin Gulch east we ran into a gentleman that we talked to earlier in the morning near where we turned around in Buckskin Gulch. He was talking with a young couple trying to convince them to go down the main Buckskin Gulch canyon and after our brief description of where we came from they turned around and joined us. We left the young couple at the confluence and headed back up through Wire Pass slot canyon with the man we met earlier.
There were two men at the confluence who came in behind us which was unfortunate. Although there was now more light coming into the slot canyon I was hoping to take my time and get a few more photos. As it turns out, Wire Pass was the gem of the entire hike due to how narrow it was. Now we were going through it feeling rushed with the echos of conversations reverberating through the canyon walls from behind. Since there were no passing lanes our only option was to forge ahead. It did occur to me, however, that there was a benefit to having three men following closely behind us as we approached the rock blocking the canyon. I admit that I had visions of a Winnie the Pooh like scene with three strong men pushing up on my backside while I proclaimed, “Oh dear”.
When the rock came into view there were two people standing on top who immediately started firing off questions regarding where we were, how did we get down, is this really the trail, etc… While answering their questions I could visualize the combinations of footholds in the tangle of debris and sidewalls that would take me over the boulder. The climb up involved a bear hugging maneuver with the rock and inching my feet up logs and then each side of the cliff walls. It actually went much more smoothly than I thought it would…although it did match the level of gracefulness that I had anticipated.
For the remainder of the hike out to the trailhead we were accompanied by the same gentleman that we ran into in the canyon. He also does a lot of hiking and we swapped several stories. He shared with us some of the other hikes that he’d done in the Paria Canyon area as well as Grand Canyon which was nice to learn. Buckskin Gulch was a great adventure and I highly recommend it. However, there would be no physical way for me to go on this hike had I not lost a substantial amount of weight.
Here’s a YouTube video of our hike: