Beginning in the serpentine sanctuary of the longest slot canyon in the world, the route opens to a winding river filled with flooded sandbars surrounded by 3,000-foot Navajo Sandstone cliffs, hanging gardens and soaring arches and eventually ending at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River.
In November, 2017, with the Trump administration threatening – and ultimately following through – greatly reducing the size and scope of one of the most beautiful places in the world, Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument, I knew I needed to get there and see what was at stake and might be lost forever.
I attended a wedding in Houston and then flew out for a little over a week to Utah, permit in hand for five days backpacking and exploring the Paria Canyon. As the season was dry, I decided to risk the approach through Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world. At fifteen miles, the narrow passage is often blocked by brush or freezing muddy pools carved by roiling water gushing through at dangerous speeds.
Quiet and church-like on that crystal November day, a glance above to the thin opening hundreds of feet away, I could make out logs jammed by fast-moving water high above. It was not a hard walk, except for one large drop at a rock fall. I was grateful for the knotted webbing left by some helpful soul to get me down the 25-foot drop.
Once out of the slot, it’s a trip down the staircase of rock layers, beginning with Navajo Sandstone of towering cliffs, 3000 feet high and a trail of a thousand of river crossings from one silty bank to the next. The water was white and opaque; I feared for quicksand and only came upon two places, sinking just a foot or two, but fast. The alkali water sucked every bit of moisture from my skin, leaving it cracked and itching for days. I dared not drink it and waited for the numerous fresh springs tumbling down to meet the Paria.
Wrather Canyon was one such riparian habitat, green and luxurious against the stark red background. One of the largest arches on the Colorado Plateau rewards those willing to hike up the canyon. My favorite campsite was Bush Head where a family of pronghorn greeted me.
The next day, I awakened to falling stars. In fall, the Paria puts on a show of bright yellow poplar and fading grasses, the temperatures freezing at night, but perfect hiking weather in the day, also perfect in leaving me quite alone the entire time. This was helpful as on the Paria, you have to poop into a bag. And carry it all out with you.
My, how heavy our waste is!