With each step the foul, frigid water was climbing a little further up my legs. I was with my sons Dominic and Mario, and at this point each of us was numb from about mid-thigh down. Over the past several hours we’d waded through dozens of these shallow, stagnant pools, and they were progressively getting longer and deeper.
I was bringing up the rear, and the boys were around the corner and out of sight. But when I heard their high-pitched whooping I knew what was happening.
This pool was the deepest one yet — sensitive body parts were slowly being immersed in the ice-cold water. We had reached the infamous and aptly named Cesspool.
It was mid-October and we were deep in the bowels of Buckskin Gulch, an amazing slot canyon in southern Utah. With narrows that stretch for 12 miles and sheer cliffs that rise up to 500 feet overhead, Buckskin is recognized as the longest and deepest slot canyon in the world.
Rarely more than 10 feet wide, it has many places where you can reach out and touch both walls of this constricted sandstone corridor.
Our adventure started with a pre-dawn breakfast and a bouncy 30-minute truck ride up a gravel road to the trailhead. It was going to be a full day. Counting the hike into and out of the narrows our march would cover a total of 21 miles.
While many people choose to do this hike as an overnight backpacking trip, our plan was to travel light and get it all done in one long day.
Backpacker Magazine lists Buckskin Gulch as one of America’s most dangerous hikes. Rains from as far as 50 miles away converge at this bottleneck, and every summer during the monsoon season an average of eight flash floods scour its depths.
Adding to the danger is the fact that once you enter Buckskin, its vertical walls do not allow any escape for many miles. Over its entire 12-mile length, there is only one place where you can scramble up and get off the canyon floor.
Fortunately for us we were well clear of the summer monsoon season. In fact, the pools of water we were navigating were the remains of a flood in late July. There had been no significant rains since then.
But the specter of just how dangerous this place can be was ever present. We constantly saw logs wedged between the canyon walls that had been deposited in previous floods, some of them well over 40 feet overhead!
Obviously, getting your timing right is critical on this hike. Immediately after a flood the gulch can be pure misery — a nearly impassable quagmire of mud and debris that requires swimming through the deepest holes.
While we had lots of wading and slick ankle-deep mud to deal with, most of the streambed was dry and made for relatively easy traveling.
What we weren’t prepared for was the cold. The combination of crisp fall nights and a canyon so deep and narrow that sunlight fails to reach its floor made for some icy water.
At this point, you might be wondering why any sane person would subject themselves to such an ordeal. All I can say is there is no way that words or photographs can adequately convey the beauty of this other-worldly landscape.
The immense, multi-hued sandstone walls soar straight overhead, stretched and twisted like ribbons of taffy. Some polished, some pitted, and often coated with a dark layer of desert varnish, the effect is stunning.
What little light enters the canyon bounces off one wall and illuminates another. Eerie dark corridors give way to shafts of sunlight that accent this kaleidoscope of colors and textures.
And Buckskin’s geology is so varied that over its entire 12-mile course it never seems like you’re seeing the same thing twice.
Having all this mind-blowing scenery straight overhead is actually one of the Gulch’s unheralded dangers. I woke up the next day suffering from a stiff neck!
As we waded through the last stretch of the Cesspool a welcome sight came into view — sunshine! We hadn’t felt its warm rays since entering the narrow chasm more than four hours earlier.
Thankfully, we’d reached the one spot where the canyon walls were a bit lower and the Gulch a little wider.
This was the location of the Middle Trail, a near-vertical crack in the sandstone that allows you to scramble out and escape the Gulch if you absolutely have to.
We stopped at this sunny little oasis, dried off a little, and once our teeth stopped chattering we downed our lunches.
We were also able to locate a number of Native American petroglyphs in this area. It was obvious that this escape route had been in use for a very long time.
After this short break, we resumed our trek down the canyon. Almost immediately, the walls rose up several hundred feet in front of us and the streambed necked down to just a few feet wide.
It appeared we were entering a lightless doorway into the underworld.
While dark and narrow, thankfully, the next several miles were dry, and there were only a couple of obstacles impeding our way.
The first was a small mountain of brush and debris that had been deposited by the last flood. While it looked imposing it was relatively easy to scramble over.
Next up was a 15-feet down climb over a chock stone known as the Rock Jam. This was a piece of cake for my son Mario who is an avid boulder climber, but Dominic and I were grateful that some kind soul had affixed a rope and left it there to aid our descent.
It was here that we stopped and had a brief conversation with a lone hiker who was coming up the narrows from the bottom. He was the only other person we crossed paths with the entire time we were in the Gulch.
As we entered the lower reaches of the canyon, we were once again walking through water. But unlike the unpleasantness of the stagnant pools in the upper section, here it was flowing from seeps in the Gulch’s walls and only a few inches deep.
This rivulet eventually brought us to the end of Buckskin Gulch, where it meets up with the Paria River. Here at the confluence, vertical walls of red and gold climbed above us like skyscrapers, as the two deep canyons merged into one.
Our voices echoed within this narrow Y-shaped chamber as we lamented our cameras’ inability to adequately capture our surroundings.
The cliffs were just too high and confining for any panoramic lens. All we could do was scan with our eyes, process with our minds, and hope to stitch together an image we could commit to memory.
The final leg of our journey was a seven-mile hike up the shallow Paria River to where we’d left a second vehicle. This involved many ankle-deep crossings, but this water was markedly warmer than what we’d experienced in Buckskin.
While initially impressive in its own right, the Paria Canyon got progressively shallower and wider with each passing mile.
As we trudged along under the lengthening late afternoon shadows, I expected to hear some grumbling. After a long, hard day, those last few nondescript miles are always the toughest.
But everyone remained upbeat. I think we realized that this had been a truly epic day, and we had seen a very special place.
The challenge, the beauty, the solitude, very few people get to enjoy adventures like this, and we were grateful that we got to experience it together.