At 14 miles, Buckskin Gulch is the longest continuous slot canyon in the world. Time to check “hike a slot canyon” off Sheri’s wish list, and you cannot pick “take a tour of Antelope.”
Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks in 2019 was an epic adventure. We were new-ish to RV’ing and we did it in Betty (our first go at RV’ing in a 35 foot Class A hand-me-down … thanks B&E!), with the Comos as ground transportation. Eric drove Betty to places she had no business to be, but we caught the See America fever and have been honing our adventure skills ever since.
Back in the area, on the Utah-Arizona border, 89/89A is a 2-3 hour circular perimeter featuring the architecture of the Utah Big Five in a less formal but also less accessible way. There is plenty of eye popping spectacular just driving around, but you have to work for the big payoffs. National Parks are made for crowds. The Arizona/Utah strip is not. Things like White Pocket, Buckskin Gulch and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon take effort, coordination and gear or a big enough budget for the do-it-for-me way with rides and guides.
There are more than 1,000 slot canyons in the deserts of Utah making it the densest collection of slot canyons in the world. USA! USA! One of the best is Buckskin Gulch which was 15 miles from our White Pocket overnight. The breakfast bar opened at Red Rock Resort at 5 am. We ordered hot coffee and a yogurt with fruit and granola, then got our butts out of the tent to make it. The wind gave us a break and allowed us to properly pack the tent as the sun came up. With some caffeine to counteract the elements, we continued our 4WD excursion down House Rock Valley Road to the Wire Pass trailhead where we could hike 2 miles in to join Buckskin five miles from its head.
Being Memorial Day weekend we expected a parking lot full of cars when we arrived at 9am. Wrong. There were just 10 of us, plus a ranger making sure everybody had paid up. Buckskin Gulch is not a lottery (yet) but it is a $6 per person pay-to-play hike. Packing everything for 48 hours in the wilderness except a backpack, Eric slung a plastic gallon jug of water over his shoulder with a makeshift rope strap. Sheri emptied the portable office satchel and stuffed in fruit and a notebook. We looked like amateurs but sometimes you have to MacGyver with what you’ve got in the truck.
Neither of us have been in a slot canyon in our lives. The closest we came was the desire to hike the Narrows at Zion but the water was too high and the trail was closed. The minute we entered the first slot at Wire Pass it felt like we were standing in a photograph. It could not be real. First you look up and feel dwarfed by the dizzying height of the walls surrounding you. Then you run your hand across the terra cotta colored sandstone and try to comprehend how it got that way. Then you hope it does not rain. At times the slot is just wide enough for an old fat guy to slip through. Yesterday’s wind had returned causing pink sand from the plateau above to fall into the slot like a fine dry rain. A photographer more talented than us caught the sand shower with a massive lens and related a funny story of how the tourists in Antelope Canyon shoot this same shot, except guides throw sand in the air to instagram the moment.
Wire Pass joins Buckskin in a dramatic shear cliff hundreds of feet high. The red stone walls combine cubism, abstract, and bas-relief to maximum effect in the Canyon Cathedral. You can wander up and down Buckskin contemplating how powerful rushing water could be to create these hidden halls. In some sense each turn is more of the same, much like it must be to see vault after vault of gold brick at Fort Knox. If you see one more will it change anything? Is it just one more passing image on the retina in a world of too many images?
We find that writing things down forces you to contemplate how they affect you, if at all. We pulled up two comfy boulders and captured our thoughts using the portable office hanging off of Sheri’s shoulder. Passing hikers asked us if we needed assistance. It occurred to us that visitors did not stop in the canyon. For some reason it was most important that you be moving through it. Stopped, we took in the sights and sounds. Children complaining that they could not take another step. Two dogs off-leash had wandered too far ahead of their humans and angrily confronted each other. An amateur comedian asked us if we were looking for the Starbucks. The juxtaposition of the painfully mundane with the achingly timeless was hard to reconcile.
We soaked in the vibe, good and bad, for about an hour until we heard the call of leftover chicken chili in the Yeti cooler. Hiking out, large crowds of people were hiking in. Adventuring tip – start your day early. Strong winds deposited sand in our hair and eyes as walls of blowing grains flew down the wash. When we finally got to the truck we ate the chili cold. Sitting in the front seats with the windows closed we were too tired, hungry and dirty to do anything but hide from the whirlwind. There are no easy days in the Vermillion Cliffs. Mother nature still owns it and she does not care about you.
Glen Canyon was easy. Stow Roxie in a resort on Lake Powell and go see stuff. Go to the library in Page to post blogs, get supplies at Walmart, watch the Survivor finale on park Wi-Fi. To go off the beaten path, drive 89A to Jacob Lake. Park Roxie in dry camp. Hook up solar. Forget to bring full water tanks, but sneak half a tank from the faucet labeled not for RVs. Anything with an electrical plug is useless. Limit total water usage to 45 gallons over 5 days. The average American uses 17 gallons for one 8 minute shower. Try really hard to do better than that if you to have more than one shower. No dump station so use vault toilets. Be grateful that they have vault toilets. Try to figure out what to wear on days that range from snow showers to triple digits. Live in endless dirt, sand, and dust. And love every minute of it.
Up at 8500 feet in Jacob Lake, the sun was setting and the temperatures were dropping. Nightime lows would dip below freezing and snow flurries would come through in waves. We sat in the comfort of four hard walls with battery keeping the LED lights on for reading. The ambience was so perfect that hundreds of Pandora moths awakened to enjoy it with us. Someone, and we are not mentioning any names like Eric, had left a window open a crack, and the friendly moths that occupied the Ponderosa pines by the billions had found their way into Roxie by the hundreds over the two days we had been gone. They camouflage themselves until night, then wait for you to turn on the reading light. They don’t sting or bite, which is a comforting thought to hold onto when they get tangled in your hair. If the hudden cameras were rolling, we are sure it would have been more humorous than grim watching the two of us leap around an RV swatting frantically at darting moths.
A little research the morning after the moth-pocolpyse, we discovered that the Jacob Lake region is in the grips of a moth explosion. It happens every twenty years. We felt good knowing we had done our part to reduce the population. Fighting every bug-hating instinct to pack our swatters and go, we decided to do our best to seal up Roxie and practice our pickelball forehand with the swatter when that doesn’t work. We also learned that the Pandora moth was a food source for native peoples. Anyone for moth stew?