Canyon lands guard well their secrets. Canyons themselves are not difficult to find – they form where water would run – but entrances and exits are more difficult to come by. And once inside a canyon, the world changes.
This canyon is hard to notice at first, cut into the base of some otherwise unremarkable sandstone ridges. It seems a small thing, a few feet wide – but it grows, draining into Buckskin Gulch, then the Paria River, after which it reaches the Colorado River, and some hundreds of miles later, the Pacific Ocean. This narrow chasm holds more secrets than a glance from the surface might suggest.
Descending this canyon, one travels back in time. The water has carved a route through some of the oldest parts of the Grand Staircase. The surface rocks are Navajo sandstone, only early Jurassic in age, but the canyon quickly cuts down through the Hermit Shale, Coconino Sandstone, Toroweap Formation, and Kaibab Limestone – rocks more than 270 million years old, rocks formed in shallow seas and tidal flats, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
These layers of history are evident when navigating the canyon’s depths. The walls are often separated by a distance no wider than than my outspread arms, with the surface visible hundreds of feet up, if visible at all. Descending into this stratigraphic history, I felt very young.
Only a dim and diffuse light reaches the canyon bottom. On this day the surface saw sunny weather with air temperatures near 90 °F – nearly thirty degrees warmer than the canyon bottom at mid-day.
In this darkness there remain stagnant pools of water, protected from evaporation. Mud and sand line the canyon bottom. An occasional plant or bird can be found, but the primary users of this water seem to be flies and other insects.
The presence of water is a reminder of the canyon’s origin, and the dramatic processes that have shaped its formation. Buckskin Gulch drains a watershed more than thirty miles long, in many places capped by largely impermeable rocks. A storm dozens of miles away can cause a flash flood here. There is ample evidence of such flooding in the logjams and debris piles emplaced in improbable locations.
Debris piles and rockfalls make for a tight squeeze in some cases – and on this sunny day, also build a healthy respect for clouds. I saw several logs jammed across the canyon wall more than a hundred feet overhead. The Buckskin Gulch – Paria Canyon system is some thirty-eight miles long – and aside from the top and bottom, there is only one other exit.
The canyon’s history is not limited to ancient geology and recent flash flooding. As it attracted me, it has also attracted other people. A few of the smoother walls are inscribed with petroglyphs, telling a story I am not prepared to interpret. Yet, exploring in this place, it is clear that it is a special place, a closely-kept secret in the spare landscapes of the west.
For the curious, more information about the geology of the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument region can be found in this Bureau of Land Management report.