The wild and twisting canyons of the Paria River and its tributaries offer a memorable adventure for experienced hikers. Silt-laden waters have sculpted the colorful canyon walls, revealing 200 million years of geologic history. You enter the 2,000-foot-deep gorge of the Paria in southern Utah, then hike 38 miles downstream to Lees Ferry in Arizona, where the Paria empties into the Colorado River. Besides the canyons, this 110,000-acre wilderness area protects colorful cliffs, giant natural amphitheaters, sandstone arches, and parts of the Paria Plateau. On top of the plateau, wonderful swirling patterns in sandstone hills, known as the Coyote Buttes, enthrall visitors. The 2,000-foot-high, rosy-hued Vermilion Cliffs meet the mouth of Paria Canyon at Lees Ferry. The river's name, sometimes spelled Pahreah, is Paiute for "muddy water."
Ancient petroglyphs and campsites indicate that ancestral Puebloan people traveled the Paria more than 700 years ago. They hunted mule deer and bighorn sheep while using the broad lower end of the canyon to grow corn, beans, and squash.
The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition, the first white people to see the Paria, stopped at its mouth in 1776. After John Lee began his Colorado River ferry service in 1872, he and others farmed the lower Paria Canyon. Though outlaws used it and prospectors came in search of gold, uranium, and other minerals, much of the Paria Canyon remained little visited.
The Arizona Wilderness Act in 1984 designated Paria Canyon a wilderness together with parts of the Paria Plateau and Vermilion Cliffs. In 2000, the Arizona portion of the wilderness and surrounding lands became the 294,000-acre Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
You can hike Paria Canyon in four days, though it's better to have five or six because there are many river crossings, and you'll want to take side trips up some of the tributary canyons. The trip is considered moderately difficult. Hikers should have enough backpacking experience to be self-sufficient, as help may lie days away. Flash floods can race through the canyon, especially from July to September. Rangers will advise if they think danger exists, but they no longer close the canyon when storms threaten. The upper end contains narrow passages, particularly between Miles 4.2 and 9.0. Rangers suggest all hikers obtain up-to-date weather information. For safety in case of flood, one should register at White House, Buckskin, Wire Pass, or Lees Ferry Trailheads when entering or leaving the canyons.
All visitors need to take special care to minimize impact on this beautiful canyon. Check the BLM "Visitor Use Regulations" before you go. Rules include no campfires or dogs in the Paria and its tributaries, a pack-in/pack-out policy (including toilet paper!), and a latrine location at least 200 feet away from river and campsites when not in the Narrows. Ask about disposable waste bags to keep the Paria Narrows even cleaner. Hiking parties may not exceed 10 people.
The best times to travel along the Paria are mid-March to June and late September to November. May, especially Memorial Day weekend, is the most popular time. Winter hikers often complain of painfully cold feet. Wear shoes suitable for frequent wading; light fabric and leather boots or jungle boots work better than heavy leather hiking boots.
You can draw good drinking water from springs along the way—see the BLM's book noted below. It's best not to use river water because of the high silt content and contamination. Normally the river flows only ankle deep, but can rise to waist-deep levels in the spring or after rainy spells. During thunderstorms, water can roar up to 20 feet deep in the Paria Narrows and Buckskin and Wire Pass Canyons, so heed weather warnings. Floods usually subside within 12 hours. Quicksand, most prevalent after flooding, is more a nuisance than a danger—rarely more than knee deep. Many hikers carry a walking stick for probing the opaque waters before crossing. Conditions can change dramatically after a flood, especially in the narrow sections of Paria, Buckskin, and Wire Pass canyons, so it's best to get the latest advice from BLM staff.
Permits and Information
Backpackers need to apply in advance for a permit that costs $5/person per day. Day-hikers simply pay $5/person at any of the trailheads for a pass that's good for all three canyons—Paria, Buckskin, and Wire Pass. Backpacking permits, Coyote Buttes permits, weather forecasts, and up-to-date information are available from BLM staff at the Paria Contact Station in Utah, 30 miles northwest of Page on US 89 near Milepost 21, on the south side of the highway just east of the Paria River. The station is open 8:30 a.m.–4:15p.m. daily (Daylight Saving Time!) about mid-March to mid-November. Hikers can get drinking water at a faucet in front and see the current weather forecast. You can check Paria and Coyote Buttes dates by phone and obtain permits by mail by contacting the Arizona Strip Interpretive Association (345 E. Riverside Dr., St. George, UT 84790, 435/688-3246). Information and off-season permits are available from the Kanab Field Office (318 N. 100 East, Kanab, Utah 84741, 435/644-4600, 7:45 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri.). The interactive website https://www.blm.gov/az/paria/ issues permits. The BLM's Hiker's Guide to Paria Canyon book ($8) has detailed maps and information.
Trailheads and Shuttle Services
Most hikers start from White House Trailhead, which lies two miles south of Paria Contact Station on a dirt road near an old homestead site called White House Ruins, of which only rubble remains. You can camp here (pit toilets and picnic tables) for a $5 fee. The exit trailhead is at Lonely Dell Ranch near Lees Ferry, 44 miles southwest of Page via US 89 and 89A; vehicles can be left at the 14-day parking area.
The hike requires a 150-mile roundtrip car shuttle. You can make arrangements for others to do it for you, using either your car or theirs. For a list of shuttle services, check the website or ask at the Arizona Strip Interpretive Association, Paria Contact Station, or Kanab Field Office.
Paria Canyon Adventure Ranch (928/660-2674, www.pariacampground.com) offers camping ($10/person) and hostel beds year-round; rates include showers, which are available to the public for a small fee. Two-hour trail rides to nearby canyons run April–October. The turnoff is between Mileposts 21 and 22, just 0.6 mile west across the Paria River from the Paria Contact Station; on the way you'll pass a restaurant that serves dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.
Wrather Canyon Arch
One of Arizona's largest natural arches lies about one mile up this side canyon off Paria Canyon. The massive structure has a 200-foot span. Veer right (southwest) at Mile 20.6 on the Paria hike. The mouth of Wrather Canyon, which is easily missed, and other points along the Paria are unsigned; you need to follow your map. No camping is allowed in this canyon.
This amazing Paria tributary—said to be the world's longest slot canyon—features convoluted walls hundreds of feet high, yet narrows to as little as four feet in width. In some places the walls block out so much light that it feels as if you're walking in a cave. Be very careful to avoid times of flash floods. Hiking can be strenuous, with rough terrain, deep pools of water, and log and rock jams that sometimes require the use of ropes.
You can descend into Buckskin from two trailheads, Buckskin and Wire Pass, both approached by a dirt road passable for cars in dry weather. The hike from Buckskin trailhead to the Paria River is 16.3 miles one-way and takes six to eight or more hours. From Wire Pass Trailhead it's 1.7 miles to Buckskin Gulch, then 11.8 miles to the Paria. You can climb out to a safe camping place on a hazardous route—extremely hazardous if you're not an experienced climber—about halfway down Buckskin Gulch; this way out should not be counted on as an escape route. Carry enough water to last until you reach the mouth of Buckskin Gulch.
Wire Pass and upper Buckskin Canyons make a great day-hike loop—you can follow Buckskin 4.5 miles from its trailhead to the confluence of Wire Pass Canyon, then turn 1.7 miles up Wire Pass; you could then walk, do a car shuttle, or hitch the four miles by road back to Buckskin Trailhead. The Buckskin narrows begin 3.5 miles down, and you may wish to continue below the confluence to see more of this enchanting canyon. Wire Pass Canyon, which is even narrower in spots than Buckskin, may have some difficult spots. Look for petroglyphs on the right at the lower end of Wire Pass Canyon.
To reach these trailheads, go five miles west on US 89 from Paria Contact Station to the unsigned House Rock Valley Road (#700) between Mileposts 25 and 26, then turn south 4.5 miles to Buckskin or another 4 miles for Wire Pass. The Arizona border is just 1.2 miles farther, where you'll find the north end of the Arizona Trail and a tiny campground (no water) at Stateline Trailhead. House Rock Valley Road, signed in Arizona as Road 1065, continues 20 miles south to US 89A between Mileposts 565 and 566, near where the highway begins its climb to the Kaibab Plateau. At a pullout 2.9 miles before US 89A, you can look up to the condor release site atop the Vermilion Cliffs, clearly marked by white deposits of condor poop.
The secret is out on this colorful swirling sandstone atop the Paria Plateau! You've probably seen photos of these wonderful features, but not directions on how to reach them. The buttes lie mostly in Arizona south of Wire Pass Canyon and have been divided into Coyote Buttes North and Coyote Buttes South. The famous "Wave" is in the north, so this region is the most popular. Once you get the required permit, BLM staff will give you a map and directions to the Wave. You may find cairns marking part of the way, but no signs. Even if you get permits by mail, it's worth dropping by the Paria Contact Station for directions. The Wave is about six miles roundtrip and takes half a day, though there's more to see in the area. Photographers will find a wide-angle lens handy to take in the sweep of the curved rock. Both north and south areas have countless beauty spots to discover, so it's worth making a full day of it and carrying food and lots of water.
The BLM issues the required permits for Coyote Buttes, which are day-use only; there's a $7/person and per dog fee, and permit procedures are the same as for the Paria River. Permits sell out far ahead in spring and autumn—the best times to visit. If you don't have a permit but your schedule is flexible, try for a next-day walk-in permit—check the procedure with BLM staff. In summer you can often get a walk-in permit, though a crack-of-dawn departure will be needed to get in and out before the temperatures hit 100ºF or so.
Only a few people may visit each area per day because the Navajo Sandstone rock here is so fragile. It can break if climbed on—causing damage to both the scenery and hikers' bones—so it's important to stay on existing hiking routes and use soft-soled footwear. Hikers need to carry water and keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. Lightning storms occur most often in late summer but can appear at any time of year.
Trailhead access is off House Rock Valley Road. You can reach Coyote Buttes North from Wire Pass Trailhead or the more difficult Notch Access, about two miles south of Wire Pass Trailhead. Coyote Buttes South requires 4WD for Paw Hole Access, 2.6 miles in, and Cottonwood Cove Access farther back; deep sand may make these areas impassable during summer. You could walk in to Paw Hole but it would be a tough slog. BLM staff can advise on road conditions.
An easy hike of about a mile roundtrip leads to these fanciful rock formations. From the Paria Contact Station, drive east 1.5 miles on US 89 and look for the unsigned parking on the north side where power lines turn away from the highway between Mileposts 19 and 20. Go through the pedestrian gate and follow footprints up the valley to red and white balanced rocks; more can be seen if you continue around to the left. No permits or fees are needed.
On to Northeastern Arizona