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BUCKSKIN GULCH UTAH
An Adventure to Remember!

By William & Christine Dean

The first time I recall mention of Buckskin Gulch was from a coworker that had recently completed a backpacking journey through it. In his descriptions of the journey, he recalled seeing horses at a place called Wire Pass which was his entry point into Buckskin Gulch. After viewing some of his photos my curiosity was raised and so began our search for information on riding horses in Buckskin Gulch.

 

I mentioned this to Christine, and we began searching through the government land agency sites, social media, and other places such as YouTube for info. We found a great deal of information on many of the sites, but the best information was from HTCAA and its members.

We discovered that Buckskin Gulch is considered the longest slot canyon in the world, but the entire slot portion of the canyon cannot be ridden through on horseback. That means as horseback riders we have two separate Buckskin Gulch rides available to us, each from either end of the slot and from separate trailheads. The more popular upper Buckskin Gulch Trail is reached from House Rock Valley Road and the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead.

 

The Lower Buckskin Gulch is only reached after riding 7 miles of the Paria River and the Paria River Narrows first. That trail is accessed from the White House Rock campground which lies just south of the Paria Contact Station on US89.

Christine and I began making plans to visit southern Utah on horseback with a ride in upper Buckskin Gulch as the primary goal. This finally came together in the fall of 2019 when we were able to arrange the time off and campground reservations at the Paria River Ranch, which is in the heart of southern Utah’s spectacular sandstone country. Our first trip was just the two of us but on our second trip in the fall of 2020, we were accompanied by our daughter Cheyenne, her husband Andrew, and our one-year-old granddaughter Caitlin. The photos are intermingled from both trips.

 

We arrived at Paria River Ranch and were greeted by the campground hosts who lined us out on pens for the horses and our spot to set up the living quarters' horse trailer. For our first ride, we decided on Long Valley as a warmup slot canyon ride and it certainly didn’t disappoint with its gentle sandy bottom and gradually narrowing canyon walls. Long Valley dead-ends in a rather impressive pour-off box canyon, featuring towering walls of red sandstone.

The next day weather forecast was clear, with bright sunny skies and no rain for hundreds of miles, perfect for riding a slot canyon.

 

A word of warning is in order about slot canyons and flash flooding: ALWAYS check the forecast for the surrounding area, particularly all the upstream area of the canyon drainage, and if rain is likely, choose another day to ride. Once in the slot, you cannot escape a flash flood and no ride is worth that risk. There are places in Buckskin Gulch where trees and limbs are wedged in the canyon walls well over 50 feet above your head! Not survivable and not worth it. Fortunately, southern Utah has an abundance of good weather days. Checking the forecast and using sound judgment is a must!

We left Paria River Ranch just as it was light enough to see, as we wanted an early start on the day. We traveled US89 towards Kanab for a short distance to the intersection of House Rock Valley Road. House Rock Valley Road is known to be impassable with inclement weather, but one would be foolhardy to ride a slot canyon in poor weather. We made the bumpy ride to the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead in good time where we paid the day permit fee for ourselves and one dog. Interestingly there is no fee for horses!

 

We were saddled up with our feet in the stirrups just as the sun was breaking over The Dive. The Dive is an escarpment that forms the western edge of West Clark Bench and curves to the east forming the northern edge as well. The Buckskin Gulch slot canyon lies just west of, and curves to the east under the cliffs of West Clark Bench, eventually reaching the Paria River nearly 13 miles downstream.

Buckskin Gulch Trail (upper) starts with wonderful scenery in a nice wide valley holding shoulders of brilliant red and tan sandstone in an infinite variety of spires, turrets, and buttes. It’s an out and back 4.8-mile ride (9.6 total) to Wire Pass where most of the hikers enter the gulch.

 

Wire Pass isn’t passable on horseback, nor is Buckskin Gulch below this point. For the first 3 miles, the trail meanders in and out of the sandy gulch bottom eventually entering the slot canyon portion of the ride near a place called Edmaiers Secret.

Google “Edmaires Secret” if you want to know more about it and the strangely eroded sandstone features. As we rode into the narrowing slot, it was reminiscent of entering a place of reverence, as the clip-clop of hooves reverberated from the ancient canyon walls in the darkening shadows. The slot deepens sufficiently to keep the sandy bottom dark even in the hours of high sun.

 

Once we reached Wire Pass, we were greeted by several groups of hikers and one family whose kids had never touched a horse. They marveled at how soft the horse’s noses were as they nuzzled for the carrot treats that we snuck the kids to give them.

After lunch at Wire Pass, we headed back towards the truck enjoying the slot canyon from the opposite perspective.

On the way in it is very easy to miss a formation in the canyon wall known as the “Elephant”, but nearly impossible to miss it on the way out! It is a good place for photos…

We reached the trailhead by early afternoon and enjoyed a nice dinner back at camp where we began to plan next year’s Buckskin Gulch adventure.

 

Forwarding to the fall of 2020, we found ourselves camped once again at Paria River Ranch. We repeated our 2019 ride, this time with Cheyenne, Andrew, and Caitlin, in Long Valley and upper Buckskin Gulch the first two days.

 

The third day found us riding what turned out to be one of the most memorable rides we’ve experienced, as we rode the Paria River to lower Buckskin Gulch... Our intent was to ride the Paria until Caitlin was tiring out then turn around, but just like her mother Cheyenne, she never seems to tire of being on a horse and everyone was good for the entire 17.5-mile ride.

Our ride began at the White House Campground, where most of the backpackers into Buckskin Gulch exit, having entered the gulch at Wire Pass. The trail meanders in and out of the Paria River and can change due to water flow. Most of the time you will encounter water in the Paria, and at times of runoff or thunderstorms, it can be excessively deep.

 

On our October ride, we were blessed with some of the driest conditions in years. The first seven miles of the ride are all in the Paria River Canyon and pass through the Paria River Narrows, then past Slide Rock.

Three-tenths of a mile past Slide Rock you will find the mouth of Buckskin Gulch on your right. We had no water at all until 200 yards before the mouth of Buckskin and it was shallow. During times of high water, quicksand can be encountered so be wary.

 

The Utah-Arizona border is only 100 yards past the mouth of Buckskin gulch on the Paria, and that’s where we stopped for lunch.

Once done with lunch we rode the 1.5 miles up Buckskin Gulch until we were stopped by rockfall choking the canyon. So, you have to ride 14 miles of the Paria just to ride three miles of lower Buckskin Gulch. On paper that might not seem worth it but...

 

OH HOW SPECTACULAR that three miles is!

 

The slot was damp sand when we were there, which gave good footing for the horses. The canyon walls rival such places as Antelope Canyon in my opinion but much, much higher. The green trees of the sandbar areas where the backpackers camp, contrast beautifully with the red canyon walls. In places, it's just wide enough to safely fit a horse and rider, and the light filtering down changes with the sun angle by the minute. 

We have experienced many spectacular places on the back of a horse, but the ride into lower Buckskin Gulch was special. Special for so many reasons. Special for loved ones we shared it with. Special horses, which are amongst God's most magnificent creatures, and carry us to such places. But, perhaps the most special of all is the privilege to share this with you on the pages of The Trail Journal. 

 

Happy Riding,
Bill & Christine

*

William (Bill) and Christine Dean are current HTCAA Foundation members. They live and work in the heart of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, employed by Telluride’s Town of Mountain Village, working on the Telluride Gondola. They ride most every week, where they enjoy nearby red rock desert trails in the winter and Colorado’s magnificent high country during the summer. In the past 7 years, they’ve ridden into 23 wilderness areas to date, covering ground from South Dakota to Arizona. They also were blessed to ride horses in Israel with HTCAA in February of 2020. Bill and Christine are blessed with a passion to share the glory of God’s creation with others through their horseback adventures.

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