By: John Vitz
Ever heard of the Paria River? Chances are that if you have now, you hadn't two years ago. But the word is leaking out on this stream whose headwaters are at Bryce Canyon and mouth at Lee's Ferry. The amazing thing is that it has taken so long. Haven and I are always looking for new areas in the slickrock country, so after reading about the Paria in Westways and Slickrock we decided to make a springtime traverse of the lower 38 miles of the river.
We rounded up a group of questionable characters - Larry (El Finko de Mayo) Fink, Chuck (Puff) McQuillan, Billy (Blackheart) Reichert, and Jimy (the Wimp) Gibson - to assist us on our trip into the unknown. We were to leave LA on a Tuesday night. The preceding week, whilst drinking lunch, Bill (the Wop) Priore asked me about the plans and it came up that I had not called the Wimp to make sure that he was coming. And I said that Jerry might forget, Puff might get lost, and Billy might do anything, but Jimmy could be trusted.
Obviously Jimmy didn't show up Tuesday night and he could not be reached at his home in Berkeley. Finally we gave up and left for Kanab, Utah in Larry's Toyota (55 top speed except downhill) Land Cruiser. At those amazing speeds - blowing VW busses off the road - it takes all night to reach Kanab. It was somewhat stormy but we were determined not to repeat the preceding fall's fiasco on the Escalante where Jimmy had driven from Berkeley to Escalante to meet us. We had, however, decided that the roads would be closed and returned to LA leaving him alone. About four in the morning the snow caught us. After breakfast I called Jim to tell him not to fly to LA to meet us. Since there was four inches of fresh snow on the ground, he was glad to be home. Not for long, however.
We drove east from Fredonia to where the Paria crosses the highway. It was as dry as Les' supply of Vitz sayings. There was no snow and it was only sprinkling slightly. While Jerry and Larry ran a car shuttle to Lee's Ferry we sat at the roadhead and contemplated the BLM's sign and the nasty clouds downstream. The sign says that below this point there are five miles of narrows with no exits and no campsites - and not to enter in threatening weather. It was so we didn't.
It wasn't raining hard enough to cancel, so we found a semi-sheltered spot to camp. About three in the morning we heard a weird sound. Seems that someone upstream had opened the faucet and the river was flowing. Our water problem was solved at the expense of wet feet. After our usual one and one-half hours to get started we made the first of many river crossings.
The upper reaches of the canyon are pretty but not spectacular. The walls, brightly colored in red and white Navajo sandstone, slope gently away from the stream bottom. We passed many wide benches covered with cottonwoods and willows trying to decide how the BLM could say that there were no campsites let alone no escapes. After a few miles we had the nagging feeling that we had been ripped off. If this were the most exciting part of the canyon, why continue? Every once in a while we would see a corner and think that the narrows were beginning. But they never did. The stream was growing constantly more foam-covered and finally we passed the front of it. You've all crossed rivers, but how many of you have ever passed one? We no longer had a wading problem, but we might have to drink sand later on.
After about five miles we entered the narrows. Apparently, the BLM means that the narrows are downstream but they neglect to mention how far. It was not too narrow - 25 to 50 feet - or deep - 300 to 500 feet - but an improvement nevertheless. Then a little narrower and higher and then some tanks with clear though not fresh water and finally a trickle between the tanks as the walls rose to 800 feet. And then the Buckskin. It is the one and only major tributary to the Paria. In the heart of 800 feet of sandstone two clear trickles come together to form the Paria. Both water and walls were a luminescent gold in the reflected light.
We had time to go up the Buckskin for an hour each way. The BLM pamphlet says that there are no recorded ascents of the Buckskin. There are tanks, falls, and quicksand to be traversed. A short distance up the Buckskin there is a gigantic sweeping corner where the canyon widens. A cottonwood covered bench makes one of the finest campsites imaginable. And then the canyon gets serious. Narrowing down to three feet in spots with fantastically sculptured walls rising vertically for 800 feet; it is impossible in some spots to see the sky at all. The bottom is sandy and pockmarked with tanks, some of which are wall to wall and many yards in length. Luckily none were more than waist deep.
Canyon euphoria struck the whole group and it was with much regret that we turned back as scheduled but already planning to return in the fall. After rejoining the Paria the narrows continued for a few miles before a campsite could be found. The next morning we entered the esses, a series of meanders lasting about five miles. While the narrows and the Buckskin were spectacular, the esses are that and more awesome and beautiful. The southwest wall rises unbroken for 1200 feet, and each corner contains a gigantic alcove covered with the finest tapestries found anywhere. On the inside of each corner would be a cottonwood covered bench, each a fine campsite. The canyon is wider in this stretch; the sun shines into it making the water sparkle below the bright green willows. The white sand, red walls, and blue sky complete the picture.
After the esses the canyon changes again. The walls fall back; still vertical, but much farther apart; the river straightens; the banks become heavily overgrown with sage and willows; and springs flow into the river in many spots. As the stream breaks through into the harder Kayenta and Moenave formations, the interest is focused more on the stream itself. The purple Kayenta is carved into intricate passages and craters. Small waterfalls become more common, boulders fill the canyon bottom, and hiking becomes more difficult. The last eight miles to Lee's Ferry are still a different type of canyon. The walls are now a mile apart and are basically part of the Vermillion Cliffs which run for miles through Northern Arizona. The river speeds in almost a straight line down the sandy bottom to its intersection with the Colorado.
It took us three and a half days to make this trip, but a week would seem to be a better length of time. There are many minor side canyons to explore - some of which require hardware to enter. More and more people are making this trip yearly and we suggest that you do it soon. We have been down Kanab Creek, the Escalante River, and the Zion Narrows. The Paria is the best.
On reaching the summit: "It was the high point of the trip".
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