I’ve always considered The Radavist a resource for inspiring people to get outdoors. While we primarily cover cycling, my interests don’t stop there. Many of my favorite springtime activities surround the Colorado Plateau’s canyons and rivers; two places you cannot take a bike, or rather, including a bike in those activities seems unnecessary. I love bikerafting and incorporating a bicycle in lieu of a car for shuttling, but sometimes nothing beats a bipedal venture into those wild and vast places.
Walking in canyons is my detox from the sometimes stressful job of talking about, photographing, living, breathing, and eating bikes. It’s a tangential experience, but when you do enough, you quickly realize the best places in the American West, particularly Canyon Country, are only accessible by foot.
Last week Cari and I brought along our friends Jay and Carrie on a backpacking trip down the Paria River Canyon. Jay and Carrie had never been to the Colorado Plateau, much less in a canyon, and had never backpacked in the desert. Widening our friends’ perspectives has been a real joy being closer to these places living in Santa Fe, and the trip provided equal parts beauty, tough terrain, and ideal weather.
Wild and Vast Places by Foot
While bicycle touring and bikepacking require thousands of dollars of gear, backpacking is an arguably more accessible activity, particularly with the abundance of second-hand gear stores. Due to the proliferation of backpacks and equipment, you can easily get everything you need for a three- or four-day trek for well under $1000. For this reason, backpacking is a wildly popular activity with a lower barrier to entry than bike touring. There’s no bike to maintain, just your feet and an adequately packed kit.
The same equipment I use on these trips is what I bring on my bike tours: my tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, and food are all lightweight, and my apparel is comfortable yet ideal for multiple back-to-back 12-hour days: trail runners instead of hiking boots, lightweight UV hoodies over jerseys, and running shorts over riding shorts. Add trekking poles for stability when crossing rivers and scrambling on slickrock escarpments, and you’ve got a great kit to meander along the map.
On this and every trip in Canyon Country, we had to pack our human waste with wag bags. Don’t go to Canyon Country if you don’t want to use wag bags. Leave no trace principles differ in these parts, and federal law often requires it on many hikes.
What is most important to me with backpacking is the rate at which you travel. Fifteen miles is a big day in rugged terrain. Throughout those miles, you form an intimate experience with flora and fauna, taking in vistas, spotting petroglyphs on the cliffs, and identifying flowers, cacti, lizards, and geologic shifts. Most canyon hikes follow a river, and as such, you lose elevation, taking a literal carved path through geologic layers, exposing the rich history of sedimentary layers like a sliced cake.
My favorite part about walking wild places is your connection with the landscape. I’ve written about colonization and how we describe the land before and throughout many of our canyon treks over the years; ancestral sites are very present with cliff houses, story panels, and the like scattered throughout the landscape as evidence of human civilization.
What these places and drawings mean isn’t as important to me as the fact that they are still here for us to behold.
In 1984 Congress created the Paria Canyon–Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness to keep these lands forever protected for all to enjoy. When permits open yearly, we scramble to get our hands on multi-day hikes in canyons. We’ve completed several trips over the years, but Paria has been on our list for some time. We finally nabbed four permits this year between the runoff and monsoon season and crossed our fingers for ideal weather. This hike traverses the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area and follows the Paria River. There are three entry points via Buckskin, Wire Pass, or White House. Due to rain, quicksand, and our time window, we opted for White House to be our entry into the canyon.
Paria Canyon’s overpowering scenery, diverse and lively desert wildlife, and geologic wonders are just a few reasons this hike is in high demand. The hike cuts through 112,500 acres with some of the deepest slot canyons in the United States.
Geologically speaking, Paria Canyon is part of the Grand Staircase and moves through Navajo Sandstone, the Kayenta formation, Moenave formation, and Chinle formations. It is a strike valley aligned with the Echo Cliffs monocline. This northwest-trending monocline has over a mile of abrupt uplift, rising from the Paria River, a perennial stream. The river starts in Bryce Canyon and eventually dumps into the Colorado River at Lees Ferry.
Knowing that a few people died on this hike a few months ago and a dozen were air-evacuated, our eyes were peeled on the weather. (The weekend we published this story, two more people died) When it rains on the Paria Plateau, water rushes to the canyons creating flash floods, and if you’re in one of those canyons, it is perilous.
Evidence of these flashes abounds as cottonwood trees are jammed into the sides of cliffs 50′ above you, with river rocks lining sandstone pockets well up the canyon walls and water lines towering above your head. As such, paying attention to the weather is paramount, as is asking the rangers about any potential flash flooding risk and listening to your gut. If it looks like a storm is coming, seek higher ground. Don’t wait for the water to come rushing…
We’ve spent a lot of time in the desert canyons and have followed some simple principles:
- Never camp in a wash or low-lying areas.
- Try to camp in designated spots, at least 200′ away from water or on solid surfaces like rock escarpments. In canyons, this isn’t easy, but be mindful.
- Pack out human waste in wag bags.
- Bring a Garmin InReach with the ability to receive a daily weather report. Ping the weather each night.
- Filter all drinking water.
- Read the ranger station literature, as many springs are contaminated with uranium.
- Always bring enough food for an extra day or two.
- Don’t camp directly on water sources, as canyon animals drink from them too.
- Test surfaces before stepping on them. Quicksand, rock crumbles, and mud can lead to injuries. Airlifts are expensive!
Beginning in White House, we made it to the Paria Canyon mid-day and set up camp just around the corner from Big Spring. Camping close to springs makes everything easier. “But you’re right by a river; why do you need a spring?” The thing about the Paria River is it rarely is clear enough to filter. Silt will clog filters, so it’s best to bring a waterproof bag or even a bear box to fill and let the silt settle before filtering. Or, in this case, look for springs…
Springs can be found by looking for plants growing from the canyon walls. The water typically runs down the rock face and pools along the wall. Sometimes, these pools are big enough to filter from, and other times, you have to make a little trough and line it with rocks to make a pool so you can filter. Also, be wary of quicksand as it typically surrounds these freshwater springs. Luckily, from mile ten through mile twenty-five, freshwater springs are abundant and are also marked on most maps. Some are big enough to wade into for filtering.
When we encountered people who don’t typically hike in these dry and arid places, they seemed overwhelmed with the “lack of water”–this is not the case. If there are cottonwood trees or willows, there is water to be had. One spring we used was deep enough to wade through to filter from the source directly. On this trip, we carried up to 6L of water when it got scarce towards the end, just to be sure. For the days when it was in abundance, 3L sufficed.
We encountered several Desert Spiny Lizards, numerous Whiptails, Collared Lizards, and Leopard Lizards. Cold-blooded friends were in abundance on this trip. I only saw one snake, a Striped Racer, and only a few birds of prey; a Peregrine falcon and Red-Tailed Hawks. Remember, though; this is Cougar country! Keep your wits about you. Cari and I encountered one years ago in Wire Pass, where it had jammed the carcass of a Big Horn into the canyon walls…
Geologically speaking, you are in for quite the surprise as you move down the various sedimentary layers of sandstone and petrified swamp beds. The orange-hued Paria River starkly contrasts the lush, green shores and red cliffs towering above.
We all wore trail runners for footwear as sandals would get ripped from feet in quicksand and mud. You’re also walking over baby head rocks all day, so your feet take on a lot of abuse. I’m really glad I wore cushioned trail runners. Lightweight or lightly-cushioned shoes would have destroyed my feet. Carrie had good luck with neoprene socks, but I opted for tall wool socks. We crossed the river some 300-odd times, so be prepared to be wet!
Definitely take a camera. I stored mine in a waterproof hip bag I wore on my front, over my backpack’s hip belt. A full-frame body with both wide and portrait primes or a 24-70 zoom works best. Leave the telephoto at home as there aren’t many open vistas until the last day. I wish I had taken my medium format camera like I typically do, but the abundance of digital shots was a nice change.
We did three full days coming in at:
- Day 01 – 16 miles
- Day 02 – 10 miles
- Day 03 – 16 miles
Unfortunately, the rain was coming that weekend, so we had to leave the canyon by Friday, hence the full days.
Follow along in the Gallery with captions; this isn’t our usual content, so if you have questions, concerns, or feedback, let me know in the comments!
See more on the Paria Canyon at the Bureau of Land Management.