The Quicksand Chronicles: Backpacking Paria Canyon

By Michael Lanza

Walls of searing, orange-red sandstone shoot up for hundreds of feet, so close together in places that I could cross from one side of this chasm to the other in a dozen strides. On the floor of Paria Canyon, a shallow river slides lazily forward like very thin, melted milk chocolate. The early-spring sunshine only occasionally finds us in here, even at midday; instead, it ignites the upper walls and sends warm light bouncing downward in a cascade of reflected glow, painting every wave of rock in a subtly different hue.

Hypnotized, I fall a short distance behind the group, pointing my camera and clicking away. Moments later, I round a bend in the canyon to see my friend, Vince, mired hip-deep in quicksand and struggling mightily.

It’s the first day of our two-family, five-day, 38-mile backpacking trip down Paria Canyon, which straddles the border of Utah and Arizona and joins the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, the gateway to the Grand Canyon. We’d already had our first run-in with quicksand earlier, just an hour into our hike. At the first pool of it that we happened upon, the five kids, age 12 to 15, stood hurling rocks into the muck, erupting in fits of laughter at the baritone “bloop” each made and the sight of it disappearing almost instantly.

But now, the laugh train has left the station, and four stunned young people stare, wide-eyed and quiet, at Vince.

In the narrows of Paria Canyon.
In the narrows of Paria Canyon.

I drop my pack on a small island of dry ground and join Vince’s wife, Cat, at the edge of the quicksand pool. Vince passes us his backpack, but we can’t get quite close enough to grab a hand and pull him out. Fortunately, he’s not sinking any deeper. Quicksand occurs in Southwest canyons when the fine sand in a river bottom, usually outside the river’s current, contains just the right amount of water so that it neither flows downstream nor dries to solid earth (although it can appear solid); and it rarely seems to get very deep.

Still, it feels bottomless and as thick as cold molasses when you’re mired in it—as most of us will discover this week.

So all we can do is offer advice and watch Vince helplessly as he twists, pushes off the nearby canyon wall with his hands, and struggles to extract his legs from this pool of nature’s wet cement. After several minutes, he manages to wriggle close enough to the quicksand’s edge for Cat and I to each grab a hand and haul him out. Panting, he stands encased in a wet mold of dripping, brown goop from the waist down.

The sight will become a visual metaphor for this adventure. Paria—and its 15-mile-long tributary slot canyon, Buckskin Gulch, which gets so tight in some stretches that you have to take off your pack and squeeze through sideways—can feel at times like you were served an entire rhinoceros when you only ordered a hamburger.

Quicksand appears frequently and sometimes without warning—looking no different than the innocuous, standard-issue mud that carpets most of the canyon floor. Finding water for drinking and cooking is a daily challenge: Over its entire length, typically walked in five days, Paria has just three reliable springs, and Buckskin has no drinkable water. And the heavily silted river—too thick to drink, to thin to plant, as locals like to describe it—quickly chokes a water filter to death.

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With a narrows section that stretches for 10 miles or more, Paria poses a real flash-flood hazard; you only embark down it with a forecast of clear weather for at least three days. Buckskin’s far tighter and longer narrows, besides morphing into a sandstone coffin during a flash flood, receives little direct sunlight and dries out very slowly in spring. In fact, I’d obtained a permit for us to start in Buckskin, but we opted to bypass it and begin at White House campground, at the top of Paria Canyon, when we got reports of Buckskin being filled wall-to-wall with waist-deep ice water for miles, runoff from a recent snowstorm at higher elevations upstream.

But Paria alone or combined with Buckskin also comprises one of the most continually stunning, multi-day canyon hikes in the Southwest. Having backpacked overnight down Buckskin and up just the upper several miles of Paria two decades ago with my wife, Penny, I was eager to return and walk its entire length, showing our kids and our good friends the Serio family one of the Southwest’s premier cracks in the Earth.

It would turn out to be even more scenic than I remembered—and a bigger adventure than anyone anticipated.

After Paria Canyon, hike the other nine of “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”


Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness

Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch sit within the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, between Kanab, Utah, and Page, Arizona. Buckskin is known as one of the longest, if not the longest continuous slot canyon in the Southwest, while Paria has become famous among backpackers for its towering walls painted wildly with desert varnish, massive red rock amphitheaters and arches, hanging gardens where the few springs in the canyon gush from rock, and sandy benches for camping, shaded by cottonwood trees.

There’s no trail; you just hike down the canyon, crossing the Paria River scores of times a day, and walking right in the river when it spans the canyon narrows from wall to wall, as it does for long stretches during the first three days, in Paria’s narrows. For the most part, the river’s ankle- to calf-deep, occasionally rising to thighs or waists.

And now, in late March, it’s numbingly cold. We came prepared with neoprene socks on everyone—which make a huge difference in keeping our feet reasonably warm; everyone adapts quickly to the feeling of our feet being wet for hours. Although the kids braced themselves for the first river crossings, early on day one, I overheard Sofi Serio tell my son, Nate, “It’s kind of fun, actually.”

Plus, we’ve drawn all aces for weather, with a forecast for sunshine every day, with highs in the 60s and lows in the high 30s the first two days, then 70s and 40s.

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My son, Nate, on day two in Paria Canyon.
My son, Nate, on day two in Paria Canyon.

Throughout our first day in Paria, we walk between walls that rise higher the farther we go, and are pockmarked with “windows,” or alcoves ranging in size from big enough for a bird to big enough for all five kids to clamber inside for a photo, and sometimes so numerous they actually resemble rows of windows in a multi-story building. The walls are painted haphazardly in dark streaks of black and ochre, creamy white, and innumerable variations on red and orange that look like a melting sherbet rainbow.

As our first evening drips slowly into the canyon, we stop to camp on a sandy bench on river left. I’d hoped we might reach a campsite near the confluence with Buckskin Gulch on our first night, but we haven’t seen it yet, and the group is tired and hungry. Nate and I drop our packs in camp and hike 20 minutes farther downstream just to see how far we are from Buckskin, but we never reach it. I figure our group hiked maybe six miles down canyon in six hours, including breaks, on this first day. Walking in water is slow, but we’ve also just been enjoying the scenery.

Lying in our bags inside our tents after dark, listening to the river gurgle past, we hear the hoots of an owl echoing off the canyon walls.

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Playing in Quicksand

Nate, my daughter, Alex, and Sofi and Lili Serio stand around a small puddle of quicksand that one of them had stepped into a minute ago. Seeing that it’s no more than ankle deep, they all begin stomping around in it, laughing and shrieking. Sofi gets her boots stuck, and although she could probably extricate herself, the other three circle the wagons around her in a mock rescue drill, pulling her out by the arms—prompting even louder fits of hilarity.

On just our second day, less than 24 hours after we watched Vince wallow nearly to his belt buckle in the stuff, quicksand no longer frightens our kids. Peril has become a punch line, and quicksand merely a sandbox.

Early this morning, before our families were awake, Vince and I spent 90 minutes filtering enough water for nine of us to drink today, from river water that we’d let sit overnight in pots and every available water vessel to let the silt settle to the bottom (to keep it from clogging the filter). That gave us enough water to hike to the next spring, about six miles downriver.

Now deep in Paria’s narrows, we walk in the shade of close canyon walls that make humans look tiny. The desert Southwest harbors many canyons of wildly varying proportions—length, width, and depth—as well as shapes and characters. And a handful stand out as the cream of the crop of multi-day canyon hikes, like Zion’s Narrows, Coyote Gulch in the Escalante, Capitol Reef’s Chimney Rock and Spring canyons, and certainly just about any hike in the Grand Canyon (my favorite so far has been the Royal Arch Loop).

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In the narrows of Paria Canyon on day two.
In the narrows of Paria Canyon on day two.

But few compare with Paria Canyon for length, variety, and sustained beauty. For so many miles that we lose track of a sense of distance or time, we splash downriver, rounding one bend and twist in the canyon after another to a new, jaw-dropping sight of a sheer, multi-colored wall, or a huge, arch-like formation eroding into a cliff, or parallel, vertical cracks that give a wall the appearance of giant organ pipes.


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