Backpacking Paria Canyon: A Week of Visual Surprises, Arizona and Utah

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14039A, Backpack


  • Hike the Southwest's premier slot canyon
  • Admire and photograph colorful rock sculptures
  • Explore or relax during free time


  • Tasty and hearty lightweight meals
  • Leader who knows many secrets of the Paria
  • All required permits


DatesApr 25–May 1, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffShelly Eberly

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Trip Overview

The Trip

A backpack trip down the Paria River Canyon should be on everyone's list of things to do. The Paria is not a vast canyon like the Grand Canyon, but instead is intimate and has a gentle subtlety in its beauty. The tall deep-red sandstone walls, finely sculpted by the ages, offer visual displays unlike any most have ever encountered. Travelling for a week down this canyon is an experience to savor for a long time.

The Paria Canyon Wilderness begins in southern Utah and follows the Paria River for 38 miles to its confluence with the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona. In those 38 miles, we will see the canyon begin shallow and wide. Then it will narrow, with its walls rising hundreds of feet over the river. At its narrowest, the Paria River converges with Buckskin Gulch, which is considered to be one of the Colorado Plateau's most famous and beautiful slot canyons. Toward the end of the trip, the canyon will widen again although it will remain deep, unlike the beginning. During our week’s backpack, we will view ancient petroglyphs and beautiful geological forms, drink from natural springs that seemingly appear from nowhere, and explore a large natural arch on a layover day.

Spring is a great time of year for this backpacking journey. The days are warm and the nights are cool. We should see spring colors and a variety of wildflowers.


The following itinerary is subject to the conditions of the Paria Canyon. In particular, if water levels are high, we may move more slowly and may even have to stall to allow water levels to decline.

Day 1: We will meet at Marble Canyon Lodge at 7:00 a.m., where the leaders will stay the night before the trip. We will caravan to set up a vehicle shuttle, leaving some cars at Lee’s Ferry, our exit point, and then drive to our beginning point at White House. After a brief trailhead talk, we will load the group commissary bags into our backpacks and begin our hike down the Paria. Today we hope to cover 10 miles so that the next day can be a full layover day for exploring Buckskin Gulch and the narrowest section of the Paria. We will start the day in white layers of Carmel Formation and then quickly descend into the rich reds of Navajo Sandstone.  Passing by or under Slide Rock Arch will be one of the many highlights of the day.

Day 2: During our layover day, we will amble back upstream to admire and photograph the tall Navajo Sandstone walls of the Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch, as far as the Boulder Jam, which is a wall of boulders about 1.5 miles up Buckskin from its confluence with the Paria. Past participants have taken hundreds of photographs in this section alone.

Day 3: Today is another backpacking day, during which we will again cover approximately 10 miles. Covering such distance will allow us a full layover day on the following day. During our travels this day, we will explore abandoned meanders, a delicate water-formed cave, and remnants from a past time when ranchers hoped to graze cattle in the area.

Day 4: This layover day has much in store! We will first climb to Wrather Arch, an arch spanning nearly 200 feet and having the claim of being one of the most inaccessible arches in the U.S. Seeing this arch alone is a treat for one day, but those interested will investigate some remote petroglyphs.

Day 5: Today we backpack downstream, passing a cacophony of signing frogs at Shower Spring, an enormous sand pile, and numerous panels of petroglyphs, not to mention the beautiful Paria Canyon itself. Halfway through the day, we begin to see new geological layers, including the Kayenta, Moenave, and Chinle Formations. We will cover about seven miles with backpacks.

Day 6: We continue our way downstream, passing petroglyphs in places and orientations one would never expect. Our hiking day covers just seven miles, but we will take most of the day due to the distractions along the way. In camp, we likely will be entertained by the collared lizards.

Day 7: We have just four miles to backpack to the end of the Paria where it meets with the Mighty Colorado at Lee’s Ferry. In these four miles, we will see the Moenkopi Formation rise, the Paria Canyon widen, and the Echo Cliffs beckon us to our end point. We will probably be out before noon and then retrieve our cars from our starting point.



Getting There

The nearest major airports are Las Vegas, Nevada (295 miles); Phoenix, Arizona (290 miles); and Salt Lake City, Utah (400 miles). There is a small regional airport in Page, Arizona, but flights may be subject to cancellation. The trip officially starts at the White House trailhead and ends at the trailhead at Lee’s Ferry. Participants are responsible for making their own travel arrangements to/from these trailheads. Carpooling is encouraged and the leaders will provide participants with rosters so they may contact each other to arrange ride-sharing. 

Accommodations and Food

All meals are included from lunch on the first day of the outing through lunch on the last day of the outing. Responsibility for cooking and clean-up will be shared by trip participants. Meals include hearty, healthy, and varying breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. These meals are vegetarian with some optional meat available occasionally. The leaders will work hard to make the weight of the food as light as possible to lessen the loads in our packs. Participants should bring their favorite snacks to supplement between meals. We can easily accommodate vegetarians.  

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated as a level 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. Based just on mileage (38 miles in total) and negligible elevation change (decrease of 1,200 feet in total), one might expect this trip to be rated at a lower level. However, travel down the Paria presents a few challenges. Our trip will generally be in the river bed and therefore not on maintained trails. We'll follow the Paria River, crossing often and frequently hiking in the river itself. The water is seldom more than knee-deep and avoiding quicksand is a skill quickly acquired. Your feet likely will be wet for most of the trip. Since we hike in the river bed, we will be doing some boulder-hopping. On optional exploratory hikes, especially the one to Wrather Arch, we will be hiking in side canyons that may be steep and rocky in places.

Depending on recent rains, the river could be deeper and faster than expected. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will close the canyon if flash floods are in progress or imminent. Should this happen, we will adjust our itinerary in a way appropriate for the conditions.

Typical temperatures should be mid 80s by day and mid 50s by night, although temperatures actually experienced can always be hotter or colder.

Equipment and Clothing

The Sierra Club provides the cooking gear, food, water purification, and a first-aid kit to be used for emergencies only. You are responsible for everything else that you want/need. We divvy up the gear and food provided by the Club, which generally equates to approximately 11-12 pounds each at the start of the trip. Your backpack needs to have enough capacity for this extra gear, which will be the size of approximately two one-gallon milk cartons.

The leader will provide an extensive list of gear to each of the participants well in advance of the outing. The list will include those items that are essential, such as backpack, shelter, sleeping pad, sleeping bag rated to 30 degrees F, boots, containers to carry water, and your personal medications. The list will also include optional items such as camera, camp chair, and reading material. Footwear is important on this outing and your leaders will provide guidance on suitable options. Lightweight hiking boots make for a good choice.



  • For a brochure tailored specifically to the Paria and Buckskin Gulch, the "Hiker's Guide to Paria Canyon" brochure and map is ideal. It is available from the White House trailhead ranger station, BLM's Kanab Office, or online at (under Bookstore/Maps/Arizona Maps -- second page of items listed).
  • For detailed coverage, the U.S.G.S. 7.5-minute topographical maps have all the detail. These are not required, but are perfect for the map enthusiast. Our route will be along 5 quadrangles: West Clark Bench, Bridger Point (Utah-Arizona), Water Pockets, Wrather Arch, Ferry Swale, and Lee’s Ferry (Arizona). The leader will bring a complete set of these, which she will gladly share with the group during the outing.


  • Adkison, Ron, Hiking the Grand Staircase: Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region. This excellent hiking guide is available at REI,, and many local book and outdoor stores.
  • Kelsey, Michael R., Hiking and Exploring the Paria River. This is also an excellent hiking guide, and is available at REI,, and many local book and outdoor stores.


The real purpose of Sierra Club Outings, which began in 1901, is to follow John Muir's example of bringing more people into the fold of protecting the earth's ecology. Muir wrote, "If people could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish."

During our week in the wilds, we will discuss and practice minimal impact techniques and take on minor tasks to erase the signs left behind by less knowledgeable campers.

Our trip will predominantly be in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. We will discuss what wilderness protection means and reasons for protecting more land as wilderness. We'll also discuss the importance of your involvement and how to relay your concerns about the protection of wild lands. Additionally, we will discuss two current issues especially relevant in the Paria Canyon: removal of invasive species (Russian olive and Tamarisk) to restore riparian habitat and the need for sediment to freely move through river systems. You are encouraged to introduce and present topics of interest to you, too.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Bureau of Land Management, Kanab Field Office.



Shelly Eberly has loved hiking and backpacking since being old enough to walk, and she has finally balanced work and play enough to have time to share that passion with others. She has led backpacking trips in the ecologically rich Appalachians of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, and in the deserts of Utah and Arizona. Regardless of where she is backpacking, Shelly looks forward to sharing the rejuvenating power of the natural world with you. She is a certified Wilderness First Responder.

Assistant Leader:

Marybeth Dingledy grew up on the east coast, then migrated west to Seattle in 1995. After picking up a hiking book in a used book store, she discovered the joy of the outdoors. She has backpacked extensively throughout the western United States, climbed locally and internationally, and kayaked in Alaska and Washington. The San Juans are a sacred place for Marybeth, and she has explored them in depth over the years. Marybeth has been leading trips for the Sierra Club in Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, and the Northwest since 2008. When not on the trail, she enjoys cooking, gardening, and playing soccer.

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