I have had this trip on my radar screen for several years. When @chumley
posted detailed triplogs, photos, and route information from their adventure last March (thank you!), I could resist no longer.
So, with my three teenagers (17, 14, and 13) heading into Spring Break, I targeted the permit timeline and put in for a trip down what is touted as the longest slot canyon in the world, and then beyond.
My wife was a little hesitant to sign on, but when I told her: (1) there would be no way to escape a flash flood for miles--making this one of Backpacker Magazine's 10 most dangerous hikes in the U.S.; (2) there would be freezing cold pools of water to wade through (and perhaps--
--swim through); (3) there would be quicksand to navigate; and (4) everyone would have to use "wag bags" and carry around their poop for four days--she was ALL IN!!
A couple of notes.
Overnight entry is limited to 20 people per day (no limit on day hiking, which involves a self-pay permit at the TH). You can apply for overnight permit 3 months in advance via the BLM's on line permit system (e.g., permits for March are available on Dec. 1). The glitch we had with the permit system was that they make you pick them up in person. They say this is so that: (a) they can give you your wag bags (which come with the cost of the permit) [a crappy reason--pun intended], and (b) so they can size you up and see if you are really prepared for this kind of adventure [perhaps a better reason, but still a pain in the rear for someone coming from out of Arizona]. Normally, people like me can get around this by picking up the permit on the way to the trailhead at the Paria Contact Station just off of Highway 89. That wasn't an option for us, since the station is closed in the winter months and doesn't open till around March 15.
After a few phone calls and emails with the BLM ranger, including sending him confirmation that we had purchased our own wag bags and sending him a detailed trip itinerary, he agreed to mail me my permit.
In addition to the great triplog resources of HAZ, I took @Chumley's advice to search hashtags on social media in an effort to get the most current conditions. This was surprisingly successful, as I was able to get feedback from several folks who had been in the slot in the couple of weeks prior to our trip.
Day 0--Friday March 10: Lee's Ferry Campground
Traveled to Lee's Ferry Campground after the kids got out of their 1/2 day of school. Earlier that morning, I got a call from our shuttle driver, wondering where we were. Confused, I told/reminded him that our shuttle was for tomorrow morning. He had written down the wrong date. Oops!
We arrived at the campground in the early evening, set up camp and then went down and enjoyed the moonrise to the sound of the Paria Riffle on the "beach" just down stream from the boat launch. The full moon was scheduled for Sunday, so we were in for some bright evenings in the canyon.
Day 1--Saturday, March 11: Wire Pass to just shy of Buckskin/Paria Confluence (14 mi.)
We awoke early and packed up for the shuttle to Wire Pass TH, where we would start our adventure. We went with Grand Staircase Discovery Tours ($175 for 4 people; an extra $50 for each person beyond that). Our shuttle driver, Jim, was good company on the drive. He indicated that most people had been scared off of starting at Wire Pass, due to the number and depth of the freezing cold pools in Buckskin. He applauded our chutzpah for tackling it anyway. Most recent intelligence on trail conditions was from the BLM Ranger, who emailed me after hiking from Middle Route exit back to Wire Pass TH the Wednesday before our trip:
"There are quite a few pools of very cold water for a few miles before middle route that were waste deep on me and I am about 6'2". The main problem I ran into was the slippery mud surrounding and within these puddles. I highly recommend bringing trekking poles to help keep you balance, and to test water depth. I believe that the longest pool was about 100 ft long but I am not very good at judging distance when I am that cold. The temperature of the canyon was actually pretty pleasant with a light jacket on, just be careful not to slip into the pools. The temperature of the pools was enough to make my legs go numb for a while."
Back to the shuttle: Instead of going around through Page, Jim took us up from the south side on House Rock Valley Road, which peels off to the right, just as you hit the base of the climb up to Jacob's Lake on 89A. The road was dry but heavily rutted, indicating it would be a real pain to drive this road after a solid rain. On the drive in, we stopped at the Condor Release site, saw a group of 8 pronghorns, passed by the State Line campground, and arrived at the Whitehouse TH about 8:15 a.m.
After strapping on our packs and hitting bathroom for the last time before wag-bagging it kicked in, we were off. The weather turned out to be perfect. It was unseasonably warm outside the canyon (low 70s) with nothing but sunshine in the forecast for the area, all the way up to Bryce Canyon (where the drainage to Buckskin begins).
Shortly after entering the slot (about 1.4 miles into the hike), we hit the "chock" which involves a 8-10 ft drop. Jim had told us there is an alternate way around the chock, which is accessed via a side path to the right, just before you enter the slot, which then goes up and over/past the chock and drops back into the slot. We did it both ways just for fun. The side route is a little easier to navigate, but still involves a somewhat slippery descent back into the slot.
From that point on, it was a lot of photos and oogling at the amazing slot. We took our time; stopped at the petroglyph panel at the confluence with Buckskin and then headed down. We hit our first unavoidable pools about 3 miles or so in, but there were just a couple and they were very short. Finally, about a mile or two before Middle Route Exit we began the real pool-hopping. My kids kept track of the numbers. In all we crossed through 32 pools before hitting Middle Route. They were--as advertised--freezing cold! The 100-ft estimate from the BLM ranger proved a bit exaggerated. Only about 3-4 were more than 30 feet long (longest maybe 40-45 ft.) and only one or two were waist-deep. Despite the nice temperatures above on the rim, we could see our breath in the slot. For footwear, we wore retired running shoes and thick wool socks. They did a great job of insulating and we were happy with that choice.
At Middle Route exit, we dropped our packs, scrambled up to the petroglyph panel and tested how difficult it would be to scramble out. Not too bad, if the rock is dry and without a pack. With a backpack on, it would be a definite challenge.
After a short break, we moved on. We didn't expect to have to cross through any more pools, so we were surprised when there turned out to be 4 more required wadings. All were short though.
At the Rockfall, the Rabbit Hole was open, but had been washed out, leaving a fairly significant drop 6-8 feet into a decent-sized pool of water. At a minimum, it did not present a better option than the other two routes. We ended up using the "middle" route down, lowering our packs by rope (which we brought) and then awkwardly scrambling down, using some mule tape. The drop is not all that far, but the angles of the rock make the descent difficult and truly awkward. Traversing this obstacle took us a lot more time than I was anticipating.
Given our time at the Rock Fall and our generally leisurely pace, we ended up not getting to our campsite, 1/2 mi. upstream from the Buckskin/Paria Confluence until after dark, and we hiked the last mile with headlamps. Despite that, only one other group was at the camping area, and we ended up with a great spot. We were beat and at that point were happy that we carried enough water in that we did not have to go filter in the dark. The evening was cool, but not bad. Everyone was in bed before 9 p.m. Total hiking time: 10 hours 30 minutes.
Day 2--Sunday, March 12: Paria Confluence to 3/4 mi. past Judd Hollow (14 mi.)
We awoke on Sunday, cleaned up camp and headed down to the confluence, which was basically, "around the corner." We dropped our packs and marched the 0.6 mi. up the Paria to check out Slide Rock Arch. We were surprised how cold the Paria was. We had read it would be warmer, and it did feel warmer later in the day--perhaps it was because the ambient temperature had not warmed up as much.
After Slide Rock Arch, we returned to the confluence, strapped on our packs and soldiered on. Going down the Paria seemed a lot more like hiking the Narrows at Zion--generally a bit wider that the slot of Buckskin, but with towering, sheer cliffs on both sides. This continued for day 3 as well.
Along the way, we stopped for lunch and took the side trip around the abandoned meander at Oxbow. At Big Spring, we ran into a group of 8 college students who were also on their way to Lee's Ferry, but were spreading it out over 5-6 days, so were not on nearly as aggressive a schedule as we were. They were the last humans we saw for the rest of the trip, until just before we arrived at Lee's Ferry.
We experienced quicksand all along the way. It is more fascinating than dangerous. As long as you step quickly after getting sucked in, it's usually not a problem to avoid getting stuck. But is kind of amazing to step on what you thought was solid and all of a sudden sink down to mid calf or knee--especially if the person in front of you "primed" the spot with his/her stepping on it.
Navigation is of course not too hard, and on day 2 it was generally easy to know where you should cross or which side of the river to travel on. That got a little less clear on days 3 and 4.
The biggest question/risk, was often whether to try "cutting off" a big bend in the river by going overland. I say risk because, some of the overland routes end up being choked with dense foliage--just ask my calves and my broken hiking pole ...
We saw some petroglyphs and passed the pump at Judd Hollow and arrived at the prime camping spot where @Chumley and @John9L
stayed. What a great location. The spring just up river was great. Total hiking time: 8.5 hours.
Day 3--Monday, March 13: Judd Hollow to 1/2 mi. before high and dry route (12.5 mi.)
At exactly 4:18 a.m., we were awoken by the sound of rock sloughing off the canyon wall and crashing down into the base of the canyon. When we got up in the morning, we could see where the rock had broken off about .25 mi. upstream and about 100 feet or so up on the canyon wall, with signs of the rock leaving scrape marks on the walls as it dropped to the floor of the canyon. It was a cool reminder of the "living" and ever-changing nature of the canyon.
We headed down stream to Wrather Canyon, where we dropped our packs and hiked up to Wrather Arch. This side canyon had a great spring/stream and is a very lush, riparian area. The final climb to the arch in the sun was a little warm, but well worth it. Because of the angle of approach, you can't actually see the arch until you are almost right under it. What an impressive feature!
After oohing and aahing and taking a bunch of pictures, we headed back, ate lunch and then continued on our way. We saw more petroglyphs around what Chumley dubbed the "rocky rapids" area; tanked up on water at the "last reliable spring," and were glad we did, as there wasn't much to filter at Bush Head Canyon, another mile down.
In the last part of day 3, it became a little more challenging to figure out the best path down the canyon (which side to be on; where to cross; etc.) No big deal, though. In our group, we often all went a little different routes.
Arrived at our final camp, which was a great little spot about 3/4 mi. shy of the beginning of the high and dry route. There was some grass, trees and some good rocks/logs for makeshift chairs.
We watched the moon rise on what was now an ever-widening canyon, and then hit the hay for the last time on our trip.
Day 4, Tuesday, March 14--to Lee's Ferry (11 mi.)
At the end of Day 2, I had develop shin splints, especially on my left leg. I had never experience this before. It was a pain and I was worried about my ability to make it the last 25 miles. My 17 year old daughter was nursing a couple of rolled ankles and my 13 year old daughter had had some feet issues as well. Ultimately, we all just powered through and still managed to enjoy the rest of the trip (though my leg/foot remains sore several days after ....).
Shortly after starting the high/dry route, we came to the somewhat sketchy traverse. My wife opted out and just dropped down to the bottom of the wash and hiked past the traverse to where she could connect back up. Frankly, in hindsight, that's probably the best option and really not any slower than carefully managing the traverse.
The canyon really opens up on the last day, and it got pretty warm. Although still beautiful, it was hard not to feel that the scenery was a bit more monotonous. For diversion, our hiking was broken up by a pair of paragliders coming down into the canyon off the nearby cliffs. At first, we wondered whether they were planning to just hike out, but then we heard and then saw the helicopter fly in and pick them up. Wonder how much that cost?
We stopped for lunch at the Willis Ranch ruins. Nothing more than a seep of water there, and then continued out the rest of the trip. Took some photos at Lonely Dell Ranch and then finished off the hike.
I found it interesting that one of the most beautiful backpacking trips I have ever done ends with a 1/2 mi. hike on the paved road back to the parking lot ...
We stopped at the Marble Canyon Lodge for hot showers ($2.50 in quarters), then headed to Flag for dinner and on to the Valley that evening.
What a fantastic place and a wonderful trip. Glad to have enjoyed some quality "unplugged" time with my family. Great memories.
I think I literally took 1,000 photos. When I pare them down a bit, I'll post them.