Glen Hikes Buckskin Gulch
By: Glen Van Peski
This blog is the second in a two-part series. You can check out the first post on preparing for a backpacking trip in Bucksin Gulch here.
We were finally on the road, cruising north on the 15 in the Friday pre-dawn darkness. You can always spot a southern Californian because they refer to interstate highways by just their number, I-15 becomes 'the 15'! The final week had been crazy, having been out of town for the weekend, and having had a busy work week including night meetings. So packing for the trip had been crammed into the tired evenings. Packing had been much more stressful than usual because of packing for Francie. In the end I hadn't even weighed the final packs, which is ALWAYS of interest to me! Probably just as well, I'm sure my pack was the heaviest of any two-day trip I've taken in the last decade. It was also the first trip I've taken a pack other than a Murmur/Whisper/G5 for 15 years or more. I was carrying a Mariposa for this particular adventure.
Logistics can be interesting for this trip, since it involves leaving a vehicle at the White House trailhead, and then driving everyone to the Wire Pass trailhead. So you need two vehicles (or sets of vehicles, depending on party size), each capable of carrying all the parties and their gear. Since both our family cars are Mini Coopers, our personal automobile quiver is not helpful. The roster changed in the final week, with Ivars bowing out due to foot issues, and Brian's friend Ravi making last-minute reservations to St. George from Denver. Luckily Diane had just bought a big SUV, so Francie and I were driving from San Diego with her. Brian, Jenna and Ravi were all flying in to St. George, where they would rent a vehicle that could carry 5 (6 in a pinch).
We arrived in St. George shortly after noon, and met up for lunch with Jenna, Brian and Ravi at the local Café Rio which has become a tradition. Everyone got to chat and start to get to know each other over lunch. The Portland/Denver contingent had already rented a car, so after fueling up, we hit the road for Kanab. This was the first time that the Bureau of Land Management had actually mailed me the permit so we didn't need to stop for that, but we did stop at the ranger station for free Waste Alleviation and Gelling (WAG) bags. Since you're in canyons, all solid waste must be carried out. For people not accustomed to this, the added WAG bag factor contributes to the adventure. I've found these things are so well designed, it's practically easier than digging a cat hole with a Deuce of Spades. Then we were on to the White House trailhead, about 45 minutes east of Kanab (another sign of a southern Californian – road distances are always given in terms of time, because on the freeways, time is more relevant than actual mileage). We busied ourselves with making sure all our 'travel bags' with clean clothes for the exit were in one car, and all our gear we were going to take was in the other. Then with some daylight to burn, we did a short hike to tour some toadstool hoodoos. It's amazing, like walking into the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Then we drove the 45 minutes to the Wire Pass trailhead.
I like to camp in the brush by the side of the road at the trailhead, to make for a quick start in the morning, and maximize the time to traverse Buckskin Gulch. It's so beautiful, you don't want to have to hurry. I'm a little jumpy now at Wire Pass, because on two out of three of the previous trips, I've been nailed by storms while camped at this location. The sky looked clear, but we set up tarps just in case. I got Francie and Diane ensconced in their tent (a venerable Squall Classic), and finally rolled out my groundsheet and wriggled into my sleeping bag. I had a hard time falling asleep worrying about if it would rain and if Francie would have fun. Within 3 minutes of lying down, I heard Francie snoring, so clearly SHE was not lying awake! I slept fitfully, but it never did rain.
The next morning we were packed up and walking pretty much at first light. Walking into Buckskin Gulch is always a treat. You walk down this wash, and suddenly the rocks rise up, and you're in a slot canyon. Things get rearranged in the annual storms, so it's a different experience every time. I never get tired of the light playing on the sculpted walls towering above the canyon floor. But the most fun is showing it off to new people.
The first time I went into the canyon was a couple of years ago. Jules Lambert, president of PROBAR, suggested the hike. Since he was busy, I did the research for the trip and got the permits. Jules ended up getting injured and not being able to go, and so started the tradition of getting permits first and filling the trip spots later. It's great to invite people who don't know each other, and have a trip where they can enjoy a wonderful new outdoor adventure and meet some new people.
I noticed a few changes this time around; the log was gone from the first drop off that you have to hop down, the rope was missing from the rockfall, and there were boulders with more room to get under them than I remember from last time.
In Buckskin Gulch, dips in the bottom of the canyon hold water that is slow to evaporate because it never sees the sun. These are filled with silty water so you can't see the water. They could be ankle deep, or they could be chest deep, you never know until you are in them. We were lucky, and never got wet past our knees (well, my knees anyway). Even so, the water was so cold that it gave us more than one brain freeze. There is such variety in the canyon walls, and in the bottom itself. We didn't see a lot of wildlife on this passage – I've seen cold mice, baby rattlesnakes and the like in previous trips, presumably that fall in from the top. The spring season is particularly vibrant, because in the few locations where sand islands have built up on the insides of curves, trees have grown, and their spring leaves appear as a particularly vibrant green, because of the contrast to the surrounding expanse of red rock walls, and how that juxtaposition is interpreted by the rods and cones in your eyes.
Water is always a challenge. The available water is so silty that it quickly clogs filters unless it's left to settle overnight. My usual strategy is to hike down the Paria from the confluence with the Buckskin until I hit a spring coming out of the canyon wall. I drink this water without any treatment. This trip however, it had been a long day, and people were dragging a bit. We walked a couple of miles downstream from the confluence, but didn't find an active spring. It could
Everyone seemed to sleep better this evening. I was awakened in the early dark hours by a gnawing sound. I turned on my light and saw a tiny mouse with long tail and huge eyes trying to get the lid off the cheesecake. Even with the light shining on him, he kept working away at it for a full minute before scampering off. If I had known he was going to stick around so long, I would have gotten a photo! We got an early start, because we had to hike out to White House, drive back around to get the other car, then drive back to San Diego. I had some trepidation about the hike out, because the last time out we ended up having to swim a short stretch with our packs on, in 30-degree water. We ended up not getting wet above our ankles; and while I felt like I might have under-delivered on adventure, nobody seemed unhappy about that aspect. Walking out the Paria is in some ways the opposite of walking in Buckskin. You're walking along the river, beneath towering cliffs, and gradually the cliffs get lower, and then suddenly it seems you're just walking out onto a plain.
At the White House trailhead we shook the mud and silt that we could manage out of our gear, changed into our travel clothes, and went back to Wire Pass to pick up the other car. The San Diego crew pointed wheels west for the long ride home, and the Portland/Denver group headed back to St. George to return the rental car prior to flights leaving on Monday morning. Soon the red rocks of Buckskin – Paria were just a memory… until the next time.
Francie said she had an enjoyable trip, and was proud she had kept up the other women, one of whom was a thru-hiker almost half her age, the other of which was an ultramarathoner, considering she doesn't exercise at all. She agreed the scenery was just amazing, and was glad she had gotten to experience it. So we'll have to see what trips she will join me for in the future!
Glen Van Peski is the Founder of Gossamer Gear and a leading proponent of lightweight backpacking.