Paria Canyon Backpacking Guide
In April, I spent four days backpacking through the crazy impressive and winding Paria River Canyon. Located on the Utah/Arizona border in the Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, backpacking Paria Canyon involves 38 miles of hiking down the meandering riverbed in between two enormous walls of Navajo sandstone. The landscape and hiking is much like the Zion Narrows, but what makes this hike different is how remote and isolated it is out there. Over the course of 4 days, we only saw one other pair of hikers going the opposite direction, meaning that the BLM’s permit process is working well to keep this place wild. Last week, I posted all of my Paria Canyon pictures, and in this Paria Canyon Backpacking Guide I share everything you need to know to plan your own backpacking trip.
Paria Canyon Basics
While there are three different starting trailheads for Paria Canyon, most people choose to do a one-way hike from the White House Trailhead near the Paria Contact Station to Lee’s Ferry. This route is 38 miles long and gradually loses 1,130 feet in elevation over the course of the trip. The trail is very easy to follow, as a majority of the hiking is done in the riverbed.
We did it in 4 days/3 nights and found the pace to be just right. We had plenty of time to chill at camp and even got to sleep in a bit, but we still covered enough distance each day that it was challenging and we were tired at night. The ranger told us that some people hike it in 3 days/2 nights. If that is all the time you have, then it is doable, but be prepared for long days. Hiking in the river is surprisingly slow, especially if water levels are high.
You can see from the map below that there are two alternative trailheads – Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass – both narrow slot canyons. In fact, Buckskin Gulch is considered to be one of the longest slot canyons in the world, and I’ve heard nothing but awesome things about hiking it. But for this trip, I chose the White House Trailhead because:
- Starting from Buckskin or Wire Pass adds significant distance to the first day, and there is nowhere to camp until you reach the Paria River.
- Both Wire Pass and Buckskin are very narrow slot canyons with obstacles and often have deeper water than the Paria Narrows. Traveling through here with a big backpack makes the first day significantly more cumbersome.
- From the Whitehouse Trailhead, you still get to travel through the Paria Narrows which you bypass with the other trailheads. While not as constricted as Buckskin Gulch, the walls of the Paria Narrows close in to about 6 feet across at some points, meaning you still get to experience some deep slot canyon hiking.
For these reasons, I decided that Buckskin Gulch will have to wait until next time when I can travel light with just a daypack. If you are set on traveling through Buckskin Gulch, starting at Wire Pass provides a slightly shorter route. Alternatively, you can hike from the White House Trailhead, set up camp just below the confluence, and then go on a shorter day hike up Buckskin Gulch from the bottom without your pack.
Click on the map below for a larger version.
Best Time to Hike Paria Canyon
The air temperatures in late spring and early fall are going to be the most comfortable. These are also the most popular times, so you need to plan far in advance to make sure you get a permit through the lottery system. The risk of flash floods is the highest in July, August, and early September. Flash floods in Paria Canyon, particularly in the Narrows, can be very dangerous since there is no high ground in the Narrows. In the days leading up to your trip, be sure to check Paria Canyon weather and if there is a chance of rain, call the Rangers station to seek their advice about whether or not it is safe to hike.
Paria Canyon Permits
Permits are required for both day hiking and overnight trips in Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch. Walk-up permits are available for day hiking at the trailheads, but overnight permits must be obtained through the Paria Canyon online permit application system. Overnight permits can also be obtained in person the day of your hike, IF there are any permits available.
The BLM only allows a total of 20 people per day to enter the canyon on overnight permits, and that is across all of the trailheads. An overnight permit is $5 per person per day. Dogs are also allowed for an extra fee of $5 per dog per day.
For overnight permits, the reservation system opens up at 12pm Mountain Time on the 1st of every month, 4 months before the month of your hike. Refer to the BLM’s chart below to determine when you need to apply.
On the permit website, the Paria Canyon permit availability calendar shows you when there is availability. If a date is green, it means there are permits available to enter the canyon on that day, and the number shown indicates the number of spaces (one space = one person) that are available. Red dates mean there are no permits available to start on that day. For the best chance of getting a permit for the busiest spring and fall months, you should plan on being on the website right at noon on the day that permits become available.
Paria Canyon Campsites
Campsites are spread throughout Paria Canyon and tend to be on sandy benches above the river. The BLM asks that you choose existing campsites that appear to be worn and avoid creating new sites. It was pretty obvious where most of these campsites were, and you can see the three campsites I stayed at marked on the map above. The main thing to take into consideration when camping is the location of the fresh water springs, since the springs are the easiest places to obtain water. Campfires are not allowed at any of the sites.
Our campsites were:
- Night 1: Just below the confluence of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch (mile 8)
- Night 2: Across the river from Wrather Canyon (mile 20.5)
- Night 3: The next obvious campsite past Bush Head Canyon on the right side of the river, shown below (mile 30)
Water Availability in Paria Canyon
Water availability is something to take into account when you are planning your Paria Canyon backpacking itinerary, which might seem strange considering you are hiking down a river. However, the Paria River gets very silty, and a lot of water filters simply can’t handle the grit. Also due to animals that live upstream, it is recommended that if you are going to drink water out of the river that you both filter and purify it to get rid of bacteria and viruses. That means carrying both a filter, such as the Platypus GravityWorks filter, which I have reviewed here, AND a SteriPen or purification tablets.
Luckily there are a couple of reliable fresh water springs that provide a source of clean drinking water. These are seeps where the water flows right out of the cracks in the sides of the canyon walls. Some people will drink straight from these springs, but we since we had a SteriPen, we decided to zap it just to be safe.
Many of the springs are easy to miss, so it’s important to be on the close look out. Lush vegetation growing out of the canyon walls is a sign that a spring might be present.
The most reliable springs are marked on the map above and are located at:
- Mile 12 – Big Springs – on the right side of the river across from a large campsite
- Mile 22 – Shower Spring – hidden behind some vegetation on the left side across from a large campsite
- Mile 25 – Last Reliable Spring – on the left side, somewhat hidden among a series of large boulders, across from a large campsite
Camping at sites near these springs is convenient because it means you don’t have to carry water for your meals. You just fill up when you arrive at camp and before you leave in the morning. We chose not to camp at the springs because of how they were spaced out. Instead, when we passed the springs, I filled up with enough water for me to drink, as well as to cook with. It made for a heavy load, but for us, this made the most sense. If you camp at the last reliable spring at mile 25, for example, this means you have to hike 13 miles on the last day…something we didn’t want to do.
If you do end up having to filter water from the river, you will likely need to let the silt settle in some sort of container before running the water through your filter. Otherwise, there’s a good chance it might get clogged. We did end up filtering from the river on our last night since we camped past the last reliable spring, and my Platypus GravityWorks filter performed well.
It should be noted that you should fill up all of your water bottles at the Last Reliable Springs. Beyond that, the trail has virtually no shade and can be very hot.
Gear for Paria Canyon
I’m in the process of updating some of my backpacking gear and will soon release my 2015 Summer Backpacking Gear Guide. In the meantime, check out my John Muir Trail Gear list for a complete list of all of my backpacking gear. In addition to your normal backpacking essentials, there are a few extra gear considerations for Paria Canyon.
The Paria River is cold and full of pebbles. For that reason, I would not recommend water sandals. Instead, you want something with a closed-toe and closed-heel. An old pair of comfortable sneakers should do the trick. Then you should pair your shoes with some neoprene socks to keep your footsies warm. I was skeptical about neoprene socks but decided to purchase these NRS Hydroskin neoprene socks before my hike. I found them to be true to size, and they ended up being far superior to soggy cotton or wool socks.
On my trip the water was never more than knee-deep, but the river can be waist deep after periods of heavy rain. In order to keep you essentials dry, you have a couple of options. First, you can invest in a few lightweight dry bags, such as these Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sacks. They come in a variety of sizes, and you pack your sleeping bag, clothing, and electronics inside. Or for a cheaper solution, you could line the inside of your pack with a garbage disposal bag and then pack all of your gear inside of that.
While most of this hike is flat, trekking poles can help stabilize your footing when crossing the river. I use these ultralight, collapsible carbon fiber trekking poles from REI.
Water Filtration System and Bottles
I am a huge fan of the Platypus GravityWorks filter system. All you do is fill up the bag and hang it from a tree and let the water flow down through the filter….no pumping required. The filter worked perfectly since the dirty water bag provides a place to hold the water while the silt is settling to the bottom. If the water has a ton of sediment, then I’d recommend pre-filtering it using a bandana so you don’t muck up your filter.
There are a couple of options for purification. The cheapest, lightest, and easiest are purification tablets. These get the job done, and they’ve also come a long way in regards to taste. Another more expensive option is the SteriPen. Just swirl the tip of the pen around in your water bottle for a minute, and it kills any viruses that might be present. The only thing about the SteriPen is it works best with wide-mouth water bottles, like a Nalgene, and it also runs on a rechargeable battery. This means you need to charge it up before you leave the house or bring along a small solar panel to charge it in the field.
I would recommend carrying a 3-L hydration reservoir, as well as a few extra water bottles. Having the capacity to carry extra water will provide you more flexibility in where you can camp. For the reservoir, I recommend this 3-liter Platypus bladder. Just make sure the lid is on tight and test it before you put it in your bag. For the extra bottles, I like the Platypus 1-liter Soft Bottles. I brought along three of these. They weigh practically nothing and can be rolled up when not in use. The only thing about these is you plan to use a SteriPen, it won’t fit through the mouthpiece.
Because this is a one-way hike, you will need to do a car shuttle so you aren’t stranded when you reach the end. My friend and I met in Page, Arizona, and then I followed him to the trail’s end at Lee’s Ferry to drop his car. Then we stayed the night at a motel in Page and the next morning drove to the White House Trailhead. The White House Trailhead is located two miles down a decent dirt road from the Paria Contact Station where you will pick up your permit. There is fresh drinking water available at the contact station, so make sure to fill up before you head down to the trailhead parking area.
When you pick up your permit, it will come with a parking tag. Make sure to leave this on the dashboard of your car at the White House parking lot. If you prefer to camp the night before you hike, there is also a first-come, first-served campground at the White House Trailhead with a pit toilet, picnic tables, and fire rings. Sites are $5 each.
Here are driving directions from the White House Trailhead to Lee’s Ferry.
Other things to know
- The Paria Contact station will provide each hiker with a wag bag. If you end up having to go #2 on your first day in the Paria Narrows, you will have to pack it out. Once you are past the Narrows, regulations allow you to bury it. If you choose to bring a dog, you must also pack out their waste. Please follow Leave No Trace principles to keep this area clean.
- At mile 20.5, there is an optional 25-minute side trail up Wrather Canyon that leads to Wrather Arch. We didn’t do this, but I’ve heard it’s quite impressive. No camping is allowed up Wrather Canyon.
Paria Canyon was my favorite desert backpacking trip to date, and with the colorful scenery and lack of crowds, Paria Canyon will not disappoint.