Monday, March 6, 2017

Plan B(uckskin Gulch)

Having failed to win a Wave permit, I set off for the Buckskin Gulch trailhead.  Actually, even if I had gotten a Wave permit, it wouldn't have been valid for another day, so I still would've been heading the the BGTH.  Buckskin is the longest, possibly most bonkers, slot canyon in the US.  The canyon  trail is about 21 miles long, with 15 of that within narrows.  Claustrophobic, deep seated, sun blocking narrows.  If you're unfamiliar with slot canyons, here's a photo of the far less bonkers Little Wild Horse slot canyon within the San Rafael Swell:

I have a better picture somewhere, but I can't remember where.

The above pictured slot is dry, but Buckskin Gulch is actually quite wet, with some areas having waist-high pooling.  There's even a section of foul standing water called The Cesspool, where you can wade through waist to chest high standing water full of rat carcasses and other rotting garbage.  I wasn't going to be doing any swimming today, though.  I just wanted to get a peek at what BG had to offer.

In regards to wetness in slots, standing water is the least of your worries.  If you think getting wedged in a crack and having to cut your own arm off with a dull pocket knife is bad, imagine being at the bottom of that slot when heavy rain starts.  The only good part about a flash flood in a slot canyon is that there would be no suffering.  You would be knocked unconscious almost instantly as you're thrown against the rock walls by fast moving flood water, drowning peacefully without struggle.

With storm clouds in the distance, I took off from Kanab and headed east on US-89.  After almost 40 miles, I reached the turnoff for House Rock Valley Rd.  This is the dirt road that would take me south to either the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead or to the Wire Pass Trailhead, the recommended shortcut to the BG narrows.  Taking a look at the clouds above me and the dirt road in front of me, I decided to park my car at turnout just below the highway.  The Silverado only had front wheel drive, and the trailer on the back didn't help its handling in rough terrain.  Rather than risk getting stuck if it started to rain, I opted to ditch the truck in favor of my bicycle.  From the turnout, it was only 4.5 miles to BGTH or 8.3 to the WPTH, both of which were very ridable distances.

After less than a mile of riding, I was happy with the decision I'd made.  While rocky and uncomfortable on a bicycle, I passed a series of washes that cut perpendicularly through the road, making the drive impassable by car if rain started to fall.  I'd rather be uncomfortable and mobile and comfy and stuck.

By the time I reached the BGTH, my arms and ass were worn out from all the steel frame vibrations.  Riding 4.4 miles on that crappy, bouncy road was all I had in me.  Also, I didn't want to go to much further in case I needed to make a hasty exit.  The sky was looking a tad ominous in the distance:

Possibly not the best pre-slot weather.
I found a post to lock my bike to at the trailhead, put anything I didn't want getting wet into my pannier, and headed up to some high ground for a better view.  I couldn't see slots, but I could see canyons.  That was good enough for me, so I signed the visitor's log, paid my $7 permit fee, and headed in.

Look how blue the skies were heading away from me!

From the trailhead, there were a few miles of sandy wash heading into the canyon, making for a good amount of time spent cooking in the sun in open desert.  There is no way to build up speed in that terrain.  Once I reached the narrows, everything would be alright.  They'd be nice and shady with not nearly as much sand.  Until then, sunblock was king.

A few miles in, I got distracted.  I'd been thinking about slots ever since I'd left Kanab, with my focus being as narrow as their pathways.  I hadn't even given thought to what other desert formations I'd be walking through.  Specifically, the desert formations that were only a handful of miles away from the famous Wave.  I'm not sure why it hadn't occurred to me prior that Wave-like formations would probably be in the Gulch too, so when I saw them, I had no choice but to abandon my original goal of reaching the narrows as quickly as possible (before the bad weather reached me).

Siren song...

How could I not turn in there?  Do you see those striations?  How about the swirling, layered rocks?  Who could possibly stay on a sandy canyon trail rather than hike up on those rocks?  Not this guy.  So I explored.

Up here...
Along here...

These sandstone formations had a grittiness I wasn't used to, giving me traction to easily walk on some of the steepest inclines.  Angles that I wouldn't even imagine in the Canyonlands, especially since the worst thing that could happen here was a tumble down the side of a rock into some cacti, and not the splattering effect of a 100' drop off of a pour over.  Aside from the funs swirls and handy traction, there were a few formations I'd never seen so dramatically before, one of which being sandstone boxwork:

A good reason to get distracted.

Boxwork is probably not the proper word, but it's the only thing I can think of that's similar.  Anyhow, I ended up spending a lot of time running around on those rocks and making fun discoveries (I'm using running in the literal sense, as the surefooted ness of the gritty rocks made it possible to be fairly carefree).  So much so that before I realized it, the bad weather had caught up.  I was standing up high on a rock face when I was almost blown over by a strong gust of wind, reminding me that I was supposed to be getting to the slots before the bad weather came.  Too late for that, now.

Climbing down the rocks, over a wire fence, and back onto the canyon floor as quickly as possible, I headed back to the trailhead.  Not wanting to drag my bike through running washes, I double-timed it back to the main road.  By the time I reached my bike, the sky had opened up, and I had wet, windy ride back to the truck, making me happy I didn't tack on the extra miles to Wire Pass.  I didn't get to see the narrows, but I didn't feel like I missed out on anything.  I got plenty of play time in the desert and that was all that mattered.

Writing this now, I pulled up Google Maps to figure out some distances.  This was when I made the discovery that I was probably around half a mile from the narrows when I turned around due to the weather.  Dang.  Just going to have to go back, I guess.  Maybe I'll start at Wire Pass next time.

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