Buckskin Gulch, a Slot Canyon in Utah

If you like the outdoors and have ever seen pictures of a slot canyon, then you know why my wife and I wanted to see one for ourselves. A slot canyon is a unique experience, almost the opposite of our most familiar outdoors scenes-looking down at the Grand Canyon or up at the cliffs of Zion. A slot canyon’s name is appropriate-it’s narrow. A slot canyon brings the walls up close. You don’t need a zoom lens to capture the detail. As you’ll see, a slot canyon combines light and shadow with the colors and shapes of water-worn stone.

Many slot canyons are, for the average person, hard to get to. Many are in out-of-the-way places, and others require rock-climbing and backpacking skills. Buckskin Gulch, however, is a snap for anyone with even a little sense of adventure. Our Mazda3 made it easily to the parking area, and the walk to the canyon was level. (If you don’t want to work at all and don’t mind the expense, go to Antelope Canyon in Arizona: you pay to go in, pay more to take a required tour, and pay even more to photograph the place, and your time is limited.)

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Buckskin Gulch is in Utah, just over the Arizona-Utah border, the turn-off near mile-marker 26 on Highway 89. We checked with the BLM office nearby to make sure that there were no flash floods or bad weather predicted-slot canyons are narrow, and you can pretty much kiss life goodbye if you get caught during a flash flood. We also wore old gym shoes, not our regular hiking boots, because we had read to expect some low areas that might require wading.

Getting to the canyon requires driving down a slightly bumpy dirt road for about eight miles after the turn-off. These colorful hills lined the dirt road.

Still, when we arrived, about 15 cars were already there, from about 10 different states. I guess people just appear.

The hike to the canyon takes about 20 or 30 minutes. Here’s the entrance. Right away you get a sense of the narrowness you are about to encounter. Right away you see the color and the rock worn by flowing water. This is only the beginning.

Once in the canyon, a person can walk a long way (it extends some 13 miles), even backpack and camp overnight (permit required for camping), to get the full experience. As it turned out we walked into the canyon for only an hour (and then returned). But what a great experience!

Pictures do a far better job than words of showing why they’re called “slot canyons.” Narrowness is one of the dominant features. How many times do you get to work your way through something this narrow? We kept thinking, “What if a flood came surging through here? What would we do?” Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing dangerous about this slot canyon, as long as there’s no flash flood. It was just the thought that intrigued us.

The canyons offer variations of red and rust colors, darker and lighter, the light from above, and the angles of the walls, occasionally open to the sky, sometimes almost like a cave, towering over you.

Sometimes, the light concentrates on the floor, giving the walls at the base an almost golden look, while the other walls vary from lighter to darker reds. Like the Grand Canyon, a slot canyon is always changing, depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun.

The canyon walk was mostly flat, certainly no uphill trudging. We didn’t have to do much climbing either-climbing up about five feet of rocks was the worst of it, and maybe the only serious change in “altitude” we negotiated.

One other point-outside the canyon the temperature was in the mid-90’s when we were there (late June), but the canyon itself was cool, so it was comfortable walking, a great way to break the heat of the day while getting in a good walk.

We encountered an open area or two between the narrow sections of the slot canyon. This expanse allowed us to step back gain perspective. Look at the size of this red, streaked rock.

We, human explorers, have inserted ourselves into a slim area between massive amounts of stone. This opening helped us understand what really surrounded us as we walked through the canyon. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Strange and unexpected formations-always different in color and texture-are above and around every bend. Do I want to look up? Do I want to look ahead? Behind? All of these, obviously.

Near the point where we turned around, we caught up with the only people we saw during our time there, some retirees from Phoenix, a hiking club. Were the other people, whose cars we had seen, further ahead, or had they taken another trail? No idea. We had expected water in some low-lying areas, but encountered it only here, where we caught up with the hiking club. The club leader tested it-it was knee-deep-and the club waded through and continued on. We decided that, hey, we could keep going, but it was time to move on. Wouldn’t you know it-just when we got our opportunity to get our feet wet, we turned around.

Even the area around Buckskin Gulch was colorful-the dirt and hills-and the rock formations were impressive. Like this one, slabs piled on slabs.

I’ll let you know now that my wife commented that this was one of the best hikes we’ve taken. Have I built it up enough?

Slot canyons are different, and they give us-the explorer, the hiker, the vacationer-a different experience of the natural world around us. Different from all of the other options out there. Slot canyons can be a little out-of-the-way, but not excessively so. They have visitors, but not so many as to make them seem overrun with humanity. Seeing one takes a little work, but it’s so worth it.

The BLM website for this area is at www.blm.gov/az/asfo/paria/. The closest BLM office is at mile marker 21 on Highway 89, in Utah, just north of the Arizona border and Page, AZ. The telephone number (which we didn’t test) is 435-688-3246. The turn-off to Buckskin Gulch is between mile markers 25 and 26 on US Highway 89. The turn-off is to the south, but is unmarked. The cost is $5 per person, payable at the Wire Pass trailhead, which is 8 miles down the road. The BLM website includes a map and extensive information. There are also many references to Buckskin Gulch on the internet.

Biography: Michael Walsh is a retired computer consultant. He lived and worked for most of his life in Chicago, but he and his wife are now in Las Cruces, NM. Some of his pictures can be seen at walshtravels1.shutterfly.com.

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