Paria Canyon

Wire Pass to Lee's Ferry

October 7-11, 2012

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason L. Hummel

Day One: Wire Pass to Paria Canyon Mile 9

A thousand crossings

The sun dived beneath the horizon on the border of Utah and Arizona. Our gruff shuttle driver who had driven us from the storied Colorado River to Wire Pass had called it the ‘Pumpkin Hour’. Oddly, I’d never heard the phrase before, but it made sense to me now as I watched the days last breaths expire on cliff faces and boulders. Those moments shouted at me in exuberance; I was in the desert, far from Washington State’s autumn rains. Ahead of me was nearly a week of adventure with my father and brother, Kurt and Josh. Our objective was to hike the 41.5 mile-long Paria Canyon, which is within the Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area on the northwest fringes of Arizona.

That first night was spent next to a dusty dirt road. Nearby feature the wave is widely popular among photographers, so several campers were nearby preparing for an early rise, but many were doing as we were and would be hiking Paria Canyon. Only a handful of people are permitted in either area any given day, so there wouldn’t be a crowd.

Before the sun rose, we passed over that dusty dirt road into the sandy wash. Early rays of light broke over the hillsides chasing away the cold air that had settled into the rock and sand. In 1.7 miles we reached Buckskin Gulch, which is often touted as the longest slot canyon in the world. Already we were blown away. I’m sure there are many more spectacular canyons, but measures are hard to judge among beautiful things. We are more familiar with the tops of mountains than the depths of canyons, so we were easily satisfied.

It is 11.3 miles to the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River. While the distance is short, the sand and rock added to the difficulty. The time it takes to travel from point ‘A’ to ‘B’ quickly becomes exasperating. We walked only half the speed we would on a trail. There was no hurry though. We had nowhere that we needed to be, except at camp before dusk. For each step until then, every corner welcomed a picture and a pause. These views each carried a rosy brilliance that was difficult to pass up. From high cliffs, to narrowing walls, to wide amphitheaters we were thrown into a world apart, into a void of wonders so different from the fare we have become accustomed too. Willow, rabbit brush and sage filled the rarified open spaces. Tiny lizards walked the walls. And at one point petroglyphs thousands of years old hinted at earlier visitors to the canyons. The sense of awe was best enjoyed by taking it all in, one time-haltered step-at-a-time.

Further into the depths of Buckskin Canyon was mud with the occasional cesspool. The stench of rotting vegetation and the necessity of having to submerge yourself into the frigid waters wasn’t ideal. Worse yet was the real likelihood of slipping and further submersing yourself into the vile smelling liquids. Josh was our first casualty. The crack of him smacking the ground followed by a loud grunt was enough to forewarn my dad and I to be more sure-footed.

The confluence of the Paria and Buckskin canyons was reached and we were glad to catch sight of it’s murky waters. They lollygagged around the lazy bend where we washed the muck off before trudging wearily downriver for another twenty minutes. Our camp was pitched among stubby trees. Not too much later we turned in for the night. Before falling asleep I saw through the tent mesh a strip of stars. They could be seen over the hundreds of feet of blackened cliff faces. For the first time I felt locked in, secluded from the sky.

On day two we hiked 4 miles to Big Spring. With so much to look at, even 4 miles was feet splashing and squishing through the mud. For more than 3 hours we trudged. Views entangled our progress as they had the day prior. Our feet were magnetized. The vibrancy of so much texture filling the visual spectrum was intoxicating.

Not long after we set camp, it was time for sightseeing. Down canyon was the obvious bearing. In the course of less than an hour we very much regretted camping so early. Neck twisting cliffs appeared to curve down, as if too heavy to support their immeasurable mass. My camera in hand I spent more time glaring up than minding my own two feet. In one such moment of inattention, as I was crowding the canyon wall near an eddy, I felt my entire body freed from gravity in a tailspin downward. Had I stepped off a sandbar? No. As mud gurgled up past my chest to near my armpits, realized that I was in quicksand. Nearby my dad came over and caught my camera that I managed to keep held over my head. Just then, he also ended up in the slurry. Laughs aside, we were both happy to get out. For me, I felt like I had mucked out a pig pen.

My brother arrived as my dad and I returned upstream. Looking at the canyon that had kept us confined, we decided to climb out and see beyond our boundaries. After a short scramble we arrived in a sub-canyon. There we found a sun-bleached sheep skull, fields of vivacious flowers and pristine high desert. Feeling the heat radiating off the rock stranded me with crazy feelings. I considered those bygone Indians who had come before me, who had walked near those same sun-warmed walls. It occurred to me, however obviously, that while so much has changed, so little really has changed. It is the voyage that matters; the destination is the same for all of us past, present and future. In that same thread, it was a thrill to entwine my present with that of others.

Sand skiing was enjoyed on the return trip and was quit thrilling, especially as my twin brother and I rocketed down to the stream bed between sage brush and thorny cacti. Bloody toes and spine removal commenced before returning to river level.

Near dusk back at camp, instead of a sunrise, I was looking up hundreds of feet of arching sandstone walls. A sliver of sky was all there was to see. This was so different from the big desert skies, but the contrast was appreciated. Eventually darkness arrived. Forgotten were the slumbering clouds of the night before. Shy stars were no longer bashful once they were revealed from behind raven-black cliffs.

We awoke to the murmur of the river and were soon in its grasp once more. Over and again we crossed to one side of the river and then back again. My love grew for the cool water . The constant motion downriver was practiced. No one thought as to where, why and how, just directional - forward. My universe was cornered into this canyon. There was no escaping the barrage of sights above, below and ahead – right at my feet.

Josh and I took a detour while my dad continued downstream. We decide to venture 600-ft up to the Wrather Arch. Up a dry wash, we followed two other hikers. The 200 foot span of the arch wasn’t as nice as others I’ve seen further north, but it was a satisfying workout and an equally interesting perch from which to take in the surrounding countryside. It passed in a hurry on the way back. We ran its entirety, except for a short break under a particularly fascinating colossal Cottonwood tree.

With our sightseeing done, once back in the Paria canyon, Josh and I found ourselves walking beyond all the good camps. In our rush to catch our dad, we had overlooked what the map calls the ‘Last reliable spring’, even once we overtook him.

The night was spent camping at the head of the Chinle Formation. There the river tightens up considerably. For an impromptu camp, it was quite pleasant. So much sight seeing and rock hopping and sludging through mush; it was something else and it was exhausting. I swear the one day 45 mile run I did a few weeks later was less tiresome. I guess that’s what I get for carrying 4 lenses and every other piece of camera gear I own.

As the last vestiges of light receded, we submitted to dark again. On a huge boulder I sat with my dad, wrote in my journal and watched the river waters roll by. To be easily contented is among the best of natures rewards.

Morning came late on day four. As we awaited the warm sun to grace us with her presence, we packed our gear. The sun comes out late in the canyons. Once feet were in motion, a bend later, the sun opened up her arms-of-sunrays and we were thrilled to be within her clutch, walking the sun-shadow lines as long as we could before the next bend threw us back into cool darkened confines. Even in the shadows, how spoiled we’ve become to the temperate desert. I wouldn’t wear anything but shorts and a light coat throughout the entire trip. Sadly I brought enough cloths for October in the northwest!

Eventually we arrived at the high water route, an un-maintained trail above the river. Even so, at times we stayed in the water and at times we took the trail. Eventually we surrendered to leaving the river altogether. Because of extra time, we pulled up after a few miles. Our goal was to not rush, so we stopped instead of hiking out the remainder of the canyon. Being in a hurry gets you nowhere when you don’t have anywhere to be but where you are at. Instead you end up further away. Eventually your mind is drawn back and you regret leaving. It’s a catch 22.

Camp on our last night was made next to a lone tree. Home for millions of ants happened to be in the same proximity of this [occupied] tree. For some reason I found it particularly fascinating to watch these industrious ants. They don’t ever stop. Place a rock or leaf in their way and they move it with practiced precision. Giving up on ant herding, I decided to wander. For an hour or more I chased shadow lines across the desert and searched out the coolest rocks and plants I could find.

Eventually back at camp, I found my old man with the last of the liquor in hand. Somehow I managed to drink most of it. The night suddenly took on an air of excitement. Dehydration and lack of food makes me a very cheap date indeed. While the food part was soon remedied, the buzzed part couldn’t last as our supplies were exhausted. It was a sad moment for all of us.

The end of an adventure always arrives far too fast. On our final day, morning was greeted with clouds. It appeared as if rain would be keeping us company at the onset of our walking for the day. But it quickly cleared up long enough for us to check out the wonderful petroglyphs at Paria-Mile 31.5. We again crossed the creek, at times just sticking to the water. I found myself losing the others while I perused one side of the river or the other. At one point I wondered how many times I had crossed? A hundred? A thousand? Of certainly was only that we had all crossed many, many times.

As much as I love the desert, I love the water. That is why it was so hard to leave it for good. As the canyon opened up, we moved further and further from the water. While I thought this portion of the hike would be boring, it was far from being so. The high cliffs continued, but the lushness of the higher canyons had given way to the desert fauna of the plains.

Lonely Dell is a homestead near the very end of the canyon. The old trucks and weather ed headstones were a sign of humans mark on the area. There were other less sightly marks, too. For a period of time Uranium mines filled the valley. None operate today since much of the region is now within the Paria and Vermillion Cliffs wilderness.

On the last 200 yards to the car, rain pelted down on us. It became torrential, slithering off exposed skin and cloths alike, soon sinking through our layers. We raced to the car to escape it. Yet, being so muddy from days grappling with the river, being wet wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to us. My shoes felt like there was more sand than rubber under my toes and taking them off and walking around the wet pavement was a blessing as well as spraying off at the fish cleaning station. How appropriate, really?

And like that(!) – 44.5 miles were done. It was all in the past. All the Cottonwood trees rubbing shoulders with red walled canyons, lizards sprawled on rocks underneath bright sunlight, cactus assaulting feet with their spiny bodies, grain sized ants infiltrating every undefended item, sand finding refuge in every minute opening and high canyon walls keeping their eyes on the Paria River and her voyaging passerby’s. All of it now past. All except the ‘Pumpkin hour’. I’ll remember that wherever the desert rock greets the slumbering sun, just as I did later that day. Arizona was left behind in our rear view mirror, but most certainly not the memories.


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Jason Hummel