Southern Utah News Articles
Slot canyon discovery
The first time I visited what is now the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, was with an engineering school classmate, in 1984. Back then it was called the Paria Wilderness Area. I worked at the Air Force base in Albuquerque and my friend, Charley, worked for the Bureau of Reclamation in Cortez. We met in Cortez and put our camping and hiking gear in Charley’s late 1970s Volkswagen camper van and headed to Utah.
Back then, the speed limit was only 55 mph, but we didn’t have to worry about speeding anyway. Despite the Porsche engine, the van slowed down for most hills. It seemed to take a long time to get to the trailhead. I suppose that was for the best since the engine was in back and the front of the van had little more than a sheet of steel to protect us from a front end collision!
After fueling up in Page, we stopped at the small trailer that was the Paria Ranger Station and chatted with “Paria Skip,” who was the only ranger. When I found out that Skip had a degree in geology, I said to myself how lucky he was to work in a place like this and hoped that somehow I could too. We drove down House Rock Valley Road and stopped at Wirepass Trailhead. There wasn’t much of a parking area and there were no restrooms. We had the canyon all to ourselves and didn’t see another soul the entire weekend. This was the first time I’d ever seen a slot canyon and was instantly smitten by its beauty. I marveled at the logs that were wedged between the walls of the canyon, hinting at the depth of a flash flood that put the logs there.
That day, the sky was clear and sunny and Charley calmed my fears by assuring me that we wouldn’t need to worry about any floods. We walked down Wirepass Canyon, mesmerized by the graceful curves in the slickrock that eons of flash flooding had carved. Most of the hike was basically an easy walk except for a small obstacle, a drop-off where a boulder had wedged itself between the canyon walls and created a waterfall when the canyon flooded. Back then the drop-off was only about three or four feet high and was fairly easy to negotiate. After climbing down the chokestone, we kept going.
When we arrived at the confluence of Wirepass and Buckskin Gulch, I was amazed at the pattern of desert varnish, a mixture of iron and manganese oxide that highlights most of the sandstone in southern Utah. Water dissolves the oxides and they are deposited on the slickrock as the water dries. Countless centuries of deposits caused fascinating patterns to form. At the confluence the vertical pattern of the desert varnish and the horizontal pattern of the various floods gave the cliff face a sort of Scottish plaid appearance. We stared at the pattern for a few moments in admiration before moving on into the even deeper slot canyon of Buckskin Gulch. The marvels continued to unfold.
With no one around, the canyon was so quiet that I could hear the wing flaps of a raven flying below the rim of the canyon. Light cascades of sand grains fell from the top of the canyon and glistened in the midday light. Plants grew in the cracks of rock above us, giving us pause as to how they got there in the first place, a testament to the tenacity of life in the desert. We found ourselves whispering as the canyon walls made us think of being in a cathedral, our voices echoing off the canyon walls.
Occasionally we would encounter a pool of water that hadn’t quite dried up after the last flash flood. At the edges of the pool, the mud had dried, cracked and curled, resembling chocolate. The pond was muddy and stepping in it was slippery. I hated to disturb the natural beauty by stepping in the mud or breaking the ‘chocolate.’ Sometimes we could walk around the water. Other times we just walked through it without worrying about our tennis shoes getting wet since the desert heat would dry them out once we got into camp. Heading down canyon we went as far as time would allow before turning around and heading back to the van.
As the shadows got longer, the light on the cliffs nearby became more beautiful and we shot a few photos with our 35mm single lens reflex cameras before the light was gone. Kodachrome slide film was the ideal film for red rock country with its rich red, orange and yellow tones.
We found a place to camp just off the road among the juniper trees. The van had a built-in propane stove so we didn’t need to build a fire. Besides, it wasn’t cold and we knew a fire would mar the beauty of the landscape. I made dinner of sautéed veggies, meat and potatoes, sprinkled with Swiss cheese, while Charley set up the tent and lawn chairs. The crescent moon came up as we finished dinner.
Savoring an after-hike drink, we talked about how beautiful it was today and looked forward to new discoveries tomorrow when we’d explore more of the wilderness. I was thankful that Charley shared his love of southern Utah with me. He showed me his copy of Desert Solitaire, which he said was a must-read.
I had fallen in love with the red rock canyon country, as had Edward Abbey before us, and knew that I would return many times to explore the vast expanse of wild land in southern Utah. Sleep came quickly with dreams of being a raven, effortlessly flying through the canyons.