We made the decision to deviate from the Hayduke Trail to add a twist of our own. Instead of immediately following the Arizona Trail across the Kaibab Plateau, we had procured the permits necessary to travel down the Lower Paria Gorge through the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument to the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry. It was a section the Hayduke creators Joe Mitchell and Mike Coronella had done during their reconnaisance hikes across the plateau. This route was so incredible that we felt that we needed to add it to our trip as well.
The narrows started right away, and the morning light was radiant on the upper walls, reflecting a tapestry of colors - golden orange, vermillion red, violet. Stray beams of light sometimes penetrated the overhung ceiling of stone. Large logs spanned the gap, stuck 30-40 feet above the canyon floor, silent reminders of the ferocity of water in the desert. In some places, floods had left their muddy silouettes along the wall. Splashes and liquid throes were captured in action as the silt-ladden highwater marks of past floods. There are few places to run in a narrow slot like Buckskin Gulch.
We saw several small groups of dayhikers, including a few big Mormon families. What a place to take a child. A slot canyon is a unique interactive tactile environment, and active learning experience for a kid. We were passed by a large group of shuttled hikers, speed hiking to the confluence and up the Paria to White House trailhead, almost 19 miles in a single day. The people were practially running through one of the most incredible slot canyons around, shooting pictures on the fly, grinding hard to get to the shuttle at the parking lot. Not quite the way I'd want to experience this place. I got to chatting with a dayhiking couple from Kauai, Rob and Elle, who were back home visiting family in the 4-corners region. They were curious when they found out about the HDT, and I found it refreshing to talk to real people who were genuinely interested in our trip. Rob was a cartographer and made his own maps of the islands. It was cool running into them in a place like this.
|Lower Paria Gorge|
We crossed into Arizona at the deeply cut Confluence with the Paria. The river was barely a trickle. Nearly all the flow had disappeared into the sandy floodplain below the Box at the Cockscomb. The canyon opened up into a wide gorge of smooth Navajo caught in an entrenched meander, forcing the river into a winding series of bends and S-curves. Sheer walls sloped down to the river, glazed with a sheen of dark desert varnish. Willows and tamarisks lined the sandbars, and shady campsites appeared beneath tall cottonwoods. It was incredible how quickly the atmosphere changed below the junction with Buckskin.
Parallel cracks opened into the drainage, where wafts of cool air drifted down from the shady recesses. The base of the fins were worn thin by scouring floods, seemingly balanced on narrow footed pedestals. In one of the cracks, we were astonished to find dozens of brown morels growing in a heap of damp detritus. Mushrooms in the desert! Back in the river, walk was pleasant in the water warmed by the desert sun. Numerous flowing springs leaked from cracks in the walls, lush with mosses and delicate ferns. We passed several abandoned meanders where the river channel had cut a new passage, leaving the old bed suspended high above the canyon floor.
We stopped for lunch at Big Spring, a gushing flow of cold water straight from the wall. We arrived at the same time as a group of 10 volunteers and folks from Grand Canyon Trust doing vegetation surveys in the gorge. The GCT is a non-proft organization that works on numerous conservation projects across the Colorado Plateau. Specifically, they were surveying the impact of invasive Russian olive and tamarisk along the Paria riverway, and were getting ready to start mechanical removal throughout the corridor. After chatting a bit, we realized we had several overlapping mutual connections. It was cool hanging out with a fun group of folks out doing important restoration work. And what a place for a field site. They wished us luck on our trip and we each headed on our way.
Further down canyon, we entered the Goosebends, a series of switchbacking bends that carved out towering 1000ft overhung walls. It was fantastic walking. My neck was constantly craned in all directions to take it all in. Massive stone ampitheaters, narrow shoulders of stone, streaked walls, and pocked surfaces. We found some great swimming holes where the river had scoured deep bathtubs behind lodged boulders, where small minnows would come up and nibble us in the pools. On the dry rocky benches, we saw some flowering agaves prominently displaying their 10-foot stalks like exploding phalluses. After storing up years of energy, they invest it all in a major effort to reproduce, an incredible feat of plant biology.
At one point, the river slowed and deepened to a thigh deep pool. Beavers had dammed the Paria and were hard at work building their lodge. The dam itself was about 20ft wide, built out of a dense weave of willow cuttings. It was cool to see they were thriving, but they will definitely have their work cut out for them once the monsoons hit and the Paria flashes it out. Below the dam, we dropped packs and explored the side drainage of Wrather Canyon. The draw was full of old cottonwood trees and dense box elders. We followed a trail up the canyon to the impressive Wrather Arch. It was an eroded alcove about 150ft high that left the archway suspended on a single support leg.
|Lower Paria Gorge|
The river cut down through lower formations to the top of the erodable Chinle where the canyon really opened up wide and began to drop in plunges. Large boulders choked the riverway, creating pools and small falls. While hiking, we saw Great Blue Heron, Golden Eagles, and even Peregrine falcon. Cottonwoods began to disappear from the banks, and with them, their valuable shade. Rabbitbrush and tamarisk grew up on the sandy terraces, as well as spiny agave and prickly pear cactus. Massive sand dunes eroded at the base of the 2000ft walls, as the river fell away below.
We followed the river down to Lonely Dell Ranch at the historic Lee's Ferry, part of the Glen Canyon NRA. The formidable Vermillion Cliffs rose an incredible 3000ft from the bottom of the gorge. We had travelled the entire Paria drainage from its headwaters in Bryce, down through its major tributaries and canyons, to where it emptied its load into the Colorado. The confluence of the two rivers was Mile Zero and the official start of the Grand Canyon. The last time I had seen the Colorado was back at Hite. I had managed to walk completely around with out actually seeing the tepid waters of Lake Powell. From Lee's Ferry, we were headed west for the Kaibab to begin our approach into the gorge of all gorges - the Grand Canyon.
Section mileage: ~45 miles