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Backpacking America's Backcountry: Paria Canyon

Words: Lucy Connors

Five days and fifty miles backpacking through the desert. I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d gotten myself into, but after years of dreaming about Utah’s otherworldly National Parks, I knew it was going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Visitors to these parks increased 25% in 2021 after Covid caused their shutdown, and this bounce back is despite many popular spots introducing permit requirements to limit the number of people there at once. These permits are both to protect the environment from the cruelty of human invasion and to protect us, both from sickness and from the hazards that emerge when treacherous trails are mixed with overcrowding.

'The canyon systems breathe. As the wind shifts direction, it flows in and out along the canyon walls adding to the feeling that the desert is not as barren as one might expect'.

Paria Canyon, part of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, has a limit of only twenty overnight permits at any one time within the 112,500-acre backcountry. They’re virtually impossible to procure for personal use. Thus, I opted to travel as part of a group with Wildland Trekking, who are able to access permits and take away the logistical struggle of trying to experience these phenomenal places. The benefits of travelling with a company extended far beyond just permits; they provided all the hiking gear needed – no small benefit as I was out studying in America with one suitcase to contain my worldly possessions and those didn’t include a tent – they also provide transport to the trailhead, food, navigation, and founts of knowledge.

The canyon systems breathe. As the wind shifts direction, it flows in and out along the canyon walls adding to the feeling that the desert is not as barren as one might expect. Paria Canyon has the Paria River running through its trenches and sustaining an abundance of vegetation. The desert was so much greener than I had anticipated it being. There was life everywhere you looked, not only in the natural world, but also in the historical. On our very first day of hiking, we reached a panel of petroglyphs that had been carved into the canyon walls thousands of years ago by Native Americans. These petroglyphs depicted bighorn sheep, spirals, people with lightning rods coming out of their heads, and there is almost no knowledge of what any of it meant. Whether they were communicating with others that used the canyons as a passage through the desert, alerting them to the direction of migration or the direction of food sources, or whether the symbols were just art – a symbol of life, enjoyment, and the human desire to be remembered.

It felt utterly surreal to be following in the footsteps of thousands of years of history, first those of the Native Americans and then those of the Pioneers. We came across an old pump system abandoned at the bottom of the canyon. The pump had been created by a farmer during years of drought in order to bring water up the canyon walls from the river and save his cattle, but the very moment he finished it, the rain came back. This pump followed a similar pattern across three different owners – each one finally procuring it just as the drought eased up – providing a reflection not just of the innovation and determination it took to live in such a harsh area, but of the cruelty of nature and timing. The pump remains in the canyon unused to this day.

'When you thought the views couldn’t get any better, they always did, and I could almost ignore the pain'.

You could have told me I was on another planet during this trip, and I would have believed you. I had previously seen the Grand Canyon and Death Valley but walking through the bottom of the Paria was the most magic and beautiful experience I have ever had. An early morning hike through Buckskin Gulch – the longest slot canyon in the United States - allowed us to witness how the colours of the walls shifted from orange to red to golden as the sunrise slowly filtered in from above us. If I have just spent a year searching for the heart of America and the true riches of this country, then here is where I will find it: in the natural wonder and untouched history of these canyons.

The camping was completely wild, following the Leave No Trace principles, and this allowed us to set up our tents in the most unbelievable spots down in the canyons. We would stop where the river meandered and the canyons opened out into caverns, our tents in the middle of 800ft sandstone walls that glowed as the sun began to set. We also fortified our filtered water supplies with the natural springs that both erupted from the canyon floor and had been filtering through the walls for thousands of years. The parabolic solar oven that the canyon creates in the day, shifts into a channel for cool air during the night, so sleeping became a problem of being too cold rather than too warm.

This was particularly acute due to the ‘cold front’ that hit during the start of our hike – it was only 30 degrees during the day rather than the 40 degrees that hit us in the final days. The weather was almost entirely bearable, it was only when both the temperature and the time we spent away from the river increased that you were really hit by the fact that you were in the desert. One benefit as the nights warmed up was the ability to venture into ‘cowboy camping’ and take the rain fly off my tent, leaving just the netting and allowing some midnight stargazing. I have never seen the stars either so magnified or magnificent and was entirely disoriented by the new size of the constellations that it was much more difficult to identify them. I did, however, manage to identify two shooting stars which was just more icing on the cake of how magic this trip felt.

I can’t say it was all this magic and awe inspiring; carrying a third of my body weight was never going to be easy, and I was betrayed by my shoes on the second day, with them rubbing through two blister plasters and four layers of tape to cut my feet open - while averaging twelve-mile days and having no respite. But, at every turn when you thought the views couldn’t get any better, they always did, and I could almost ignore the pain.

Photo credits: Jack Brauer


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