In 1984, Congress created the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness to protect the area’s outstanding scenery, desert wildlife and colorful history. These 112,500 acres of fantabulous on the northern border of Arizona and into Utah beckons adventurers who yearn for solitude, scenic splendor, and the chance to explore one of the longest and deepest slot canyons in the world – Buckskin Gulch.

This article applies to the 38-mile stretch from White House Ruins to Lee’s Ferry and the 14-mile stretch from Wire Pass to the Paria River Confluence. But before you venture to this amazing landscape, there are some things you should know.

1. You need a permit if you are planning on staying overnight

The Bureau of Land Management manages Paria Canton and only disperses 20 permits per day (that’s 20 people per day) to enter the area. Permits cost $5/person/day and need to be reserved online 4 months in advance. Your pooch can go as well, but she needs a permit too – $5/pooch/day.

2. When hiking Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, don’t expect to see the Wave

The Wave is a very popular and highly regulated part of the Paria Wilderness area and requires a separate permit that can only be obtained by lottery. While so worth the effort, this easy day hike takes about half a day to see some of the most unique geology in the world, some people will spend years before successfully obtaining a permit.

3. You’ve gotta carry out your poop!

No burying in catholes allowed in much of the area. Sounds gross (and it kind of is), but there are products to help you with this. Carrying feces out is not new in many wilderness places – Mount Whitney and Mount Rainier both require the use of a “wag bag.” For Paria Canyon, this does not include the entire 38 mile stretch – just Buckskin Gulch and the Paria Narrows. Once you are out of the Narrows, you are home free!

4. Be part of a 2,000-year-old human history

Ancient pictographs and petroglyphs, granaries, and campsites indicate that ancestral Puebloan people utilized this wilderness between AD 200 and AD 1200. They hunted mule deer and bighorn sheep and grew corn, beans, and squash in the lower end of the canyon. Paiute people later occupied and traveled much of the area before Europeans arrived. They most likely used the canyon as a travel route instead of a place to set up residence. Paria is a Paiute word meaning “muddy water.”

5. You will get wet!

Hiking Paria Canyon is a wet hike – hiking in the river, crossing the river and hiking in the usually wet Buckskin Gulch. How much water you have to tread through depends on the time of year and the amount of precipitation that may have occurred north of the area may have received over the winter months or even days before.

This means water levels can be as low as ankle deep to as high as waist deep. We even encountered an 8-foot impassible pool in the river that was created by a flash flood about a week prior to our trip.

You will want to wear water shoes with full foot coverage (nothing with big holes that rocks can get in) that have good drainage and foot support. You will also want trekking poles to help with balance and keep you from getting stuck in quick sand – yes there is quick sand! Not the Indiana Jones type of quick sand, but enough to suck off your shoe with one step!

6. There is a good season and a bad season to hike Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness 

You may get on Paria’s permit site and say, “Hey! July is wide open for permits! Let’s go!” Hold up, sport. You do not want to go in July. In fact, it is best to avoid the area all together late June through mid-September (during the heaviest part of the monsoon season).

When I mentioned in tip 5 that flash floods can dig 8-foot holes into a river bed, that means these things are powerful. Add heavy precipitation up river with a narrow canyon and you are in serious trouble. Plan your trip March through mid-June and then again late September through November, bearing in mind that those spring and fall shoulder months will be cold. December through February is very cold, and there are no fires allowed in Paria.

7. While there is a lot of water, there is not a lot of water

What the heck does that mean? It means that Paria River is usually very silty and the water is tough to drink, even with a good water filter. There are springs at a few places along the trail, so research where those are ahead of your trip. But, some tips to get water from a silty river:

  • Put water in a bucket so it can sit for several hours before you try to filter. The sediment should eventually settle to the bottom of the bucket, saving your filter from clogs and breakage.
  • Use alum. A small amount of alum will bind with the silt and pull it to the bottom of your bucket faster. You will need to experiment a little with this as there is a balance with how much you need based on the amount of silt and the not so great taste that alum will add to your water.
  • Use a pre-filter for your pre-filter. Tie a coffee filter or bandana around your pre-filter nozzle (the end you put in the dirty water) so you keep as much silt out of your filter as possible so it doesn’t clog.