Disclaimer: This article is not a source of definitive advice. You are responsible for your own safety when making decisions about whether to enter any slot canyon, including Buckskin Gulch.
Buckskin Gulch is often considered the grandmother of all slot canyons: no surprise, given Buckskin’s approximately 14 miles of uninterrupted narrows and walls that reach nearly 500 feet in height. Also named one of the most dangerous hikes in America, sadly, Buckskin Gulch lived up to its name in early 2023 with four flood-related hiker fatalities within a few short weeks.
What makes Buckskin Gulch so dangerous?
Buckskin Gulch is a hotspot for life-threatening incidents because of a combination of three factors: the length and inescapability of its narrows; the accessibility of Buckskin Gulch’s main trailheads, which enables scores of frequently under-informed visitors to venture into the canyon without a full understanding of the risks involved; and the complexity of assessing flood risk in the canyon.
The length and inescapability of Buckskin’s narrows
The narrows section of Buckskin Gulch runs continuously for about 14 miles; estimates range from 12 to 16 miles, depending on which map and which GPS reading you decide to trust (side note: GPS is notoriously unreliable in canyons and, as far as we know, nobody has ever attempted to take a measuring wheel through Buckskin Gulch). In dry conditions this means that you can spend hours or days marveling at the beauty of the canyon while enjoying the earth’s natural air conditioning and protection from the summer sun. In flood conditions, though, the very factors that draw you in – the long narrow slot, the high vaulted walls – can suddenly trap you in 14 miles of canyon with no option for escape.
When surprised by a flash flood, your only route to safety is to seek higher ground – immediately. All you need for a flash flood to turn deadly is to find yourself in a stretch of a few dozen yards that doesn’t offer a route to higher ground. In Buckskin, there are corridor stretches that run for many miles without any ledges or berms that would allow you to clamber beyond the danger zone.
The danger zone, by the way, easily extends 30-40ft above the canyon floor. Debris left behind by previous floods is a powerful indicator of just how deep those floods run: don’t fool yourself thinking that in a pinch you’d be able to climb out of harm’s way; in most spots, not even the most competent climber would be able to scale those canyon walls.
What about the Middle Route, you may ask? Yes, the Middle Route is a possible way out of Buckskin Gulch – but it is a strategic exit point and not an acute escape. A flash flood can catch you anywhere in the narrows section; the fact that there is one single (technical and scary!) way out of Buckskin Gulch halfway through the canyon should not factor into your flash flood risk management plan. Think of it like this: the existence of the Middle Route will only help you if you get caught by a flash flood, well, right at the Middle Route.
The accessibility of Buckskin Gulch’s main trailheads
The second factor that makes Buckskin Gulch a likely hotspot for flash flood-related accidents is the accessibility of its main trailheads. When road conditions are good, Buckskin Gulch is easily accessed by regular passenger vehicles via an 8-mile stretch of dirt road halfway between the towns of Kanab and Page. Day hiking in Buckskin Gulch only requires a self-serve parking permit, and the easy 1.7 mile stroll from the Wire Pass Trailhead to Buckskin Gulch draws scores of casual hikers – many of whom may not be aware that, where flash flood potential is involved, there is no safety in numbers: many under-informed visitors may decide to access the canyon at unsafe times without even understanding the risks they are accepting. Other, slightly more informed visitors may look at the steady procession of hikers into Buckskin Gulch and decide that their own trepidation about accessing Buckskin must be unfounded. Be advised: it is not. The simplicity of the hike belies the danger of going into Buckskin Gulch. Hiking Buckskin Gulch should be a carefully planned and researched endeavor, not a “this looks like a cool hike” spontaneous decision. If the thought of Buckskin Gulch is alluring to you, but the care that has to go into the planning and research is not, hire a guide.
Note that there are no trail closures at Wire Pass or Buckskin Gulch: each hiker is responsible for their own safety, and besides the permanently installed flash flood warning signs at the trailhead there is no mechanism to keep hikers from accessing Buckskin Gulch during times of potential flooding.
One additional comment regarding permits: while day-hiking permits are unlimited and easy to obtain on the spot, overnight permits to Buckskin Gulch are scarce, and only available in advance. The difficulty of obtaining overnight permits may incentivize many permit holders to make risky decisions when faced with go/no-go decisions on the basis of marginal weather. If this statement holds true for you, remember that the canyon has been around for about 5 million years and is likely to be around for a few more million years in the future. It is not worth dying for. There are a plethora of incredible adventures to be had in the Kanab area that do not involve the risk of dying in a flash flood (and many don’t even involve permits). If you are looking for ideas, here is a great list to start for one-day adventures, and you may also enjoy drawing inspiration from our lineup of amazing regional backpacking destinations.
The complexity of assessing flood risk in Buckskin Gulch
This brings us to the biggest topic – why is it so complex to assess flood risk in Buckskin Gulch? In theory, things are simple: if it rains upstream of the narrows, there is a risk of flooding. In practice though, assessing flood risk in Buckskin Gulch is more nuanced. How much rain is needed to produce flooding? What exactly does “upstream” mean? Where does the rain have to fall in order to pose a flood risk? The answer to “how much rain is needed” is a difficult one and, truthfully, not one that I want to tackle in this blog post. Here is why: if you are trying to analyze amounts of likely rainfall upstream to make your go or no-go decision, you are already pushing well beyond a reasonable margin of safety. If rain is in the forecast, do not go into Buckskin Gulch.
Where to check the weather
On to the next question: where does rain have to fall in order to pose a flood risk? This is the question that many novice hikers get wrong. “Upstream from the narrows” doesn’t just mean a few miles upstream (which, by the way, in Buckskin’s case is west and north of the popular Buckskin Gulch & Wire Pass trailheads); it means anywhere within the catchment basin of the canyon, which essentially means that you have to follow a topographical map uphill from the canyon until you find the watershed – the closest highpoint from which, once you cross it, water drains in the opposite direction. Meaningful rain anywhere in the catchment basin poses the risk of flooding in the canyon. Buckskin Gulch is located in one of the lower steps of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which means that the relevant watershed is located many miles upstream from the canyon. A thunderstorm 50 miles north of Buckskin Gulch, invisible from any of the trailheads where a hiker would start their Buckskin adventure, could produce a deadly flash flood.
There are many articles on the internet describing this very problem, but few if any of those articles take the next step to equip their readers with the tools needed to translate a general understanding of the risk into an actual forecast area. The map below is an illustration of the catchment basin(s) of Buckskin Gulch. Note that there are two areas which can produce a flood in Buckskin: the large catchment basin to the north of the canyon, and a smaller drainage area on the Kaibab Plateau to the south and west of Wire Pass trailhead. It was a powerful rainstorm on the Kaibab Plateau that produced the deadly flash flood in March 2023.
Since the catchment basin for Buckskin Gulch is large but does not contain major towns for which it is easy to obtain a forecast, it is advisable to use NOAA’s spot forecast service for all of the following areas:
- Wire Pass Trailhead spot forecast
- Bryce Canyon Rim spot forecast
- Grand Staircase White Cliffs spot forecast
- Kaibab Plateau spot forecast
A pristine forecast for all of the above forecast points is a helpful indicator that flood risk in Buckskin Gulch is low (except for the possibility of spring run-off, which is discussed below).
Flash floods can occur year-round, but they are most likely to happen during the summer monsoon which, in the American Southwest, typically runs from late June through early September. During monsoon, powerful localized thunderstorms will produce outsized amounts of precipitation in a short period of time which quickly leads to flash flooding. These storms typically start building in the late morning or mid-day and start to discharge their moisture in the early afternoon. Monsoonal storms are notoriously difficult to forecast: the forecast may correctly identify that there will be monsoon activity (a la “20% chance of thunderstorms starting at 2pm”) but it is nearly impossible to forecast precisely where those monsoon storms will hit. For a canyon like Buckskin Gulch this means that if the forecast shows a monsoonal pattern, spending time in Buckskin Gulch at the wrong time of day is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette. While a 20% chance of rain and thunderstorms may seem low, remember that this forecast means that it will be raining 100% of the time in 20% of the forecast area; and the likelihood of precipitation tells you nothing about the amount of rain that is expected which, during summer monsoon, may easily be a flood-triggering microburst. Don’t chance it!
Be aware that water takes time to travel long distances. Depending on the terrain, flash floods in the Southwest tend to move at somewhere around 4-6 miles per hour (though speeds can reach up to 30 feet per second or 20 miles an hour as in the Big Thompson Canyon flash flood in Colorado in 1976). This is important because a late-evening thunderstorm at the very head of Buckskin Gulch’s catchment basin, 50+ miles upstream from the Buckskin narrows, could mean that floodwaters don’t reach the narrows until 8-12 hours after the storm. In other words: when you are checking the weather for your hike, you need to be keeping track of what is happening the day prior and not just what the forecast is showing for the day of your hike. You can find a 24-hour radar history of Southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau here.
Flooding without rain? Spring run-off!
Flooding can occur in Buckskin Gulch even without rain. Spring run-off that results from melting snowpack in the higher elevations of the Grand Staircase can send floods into Buckskin Gulch. For run-off to be a flood trigger the following elements are needed: snowpack in the higher reaches of the Grand Staircase, and a rapid increase in temperatures at higher elevations triggering snowmelt. Flash floods from rain (particularly summer monsoons) are much more common than floods from spring run-off, but it is important for prospective Buckskin hikers to understand the possibility of spring floods.
Flash floods – how dangerous are they really?
If you are still considering taking your chances in Buckskin Gulch on a day where there is flood potential, know the following: flash flooding is so powerful that it can move not just logs and other debris but also boulders that weigh many tons. Yes, you may die from drowning in a flash flood (strainers will take out even the strongest swimmers) – but it is just as likely that you will die from trauma as you get crushed like a ragdoll between the tree trunks, boulders and other debris that the flood has dislodged. Scared yet? Good: it may save a life. Now pay it forward and talk to your adventurous friends and family about the risks of flash floods.
Conditions in Buckskin Gulch: Wet vs Dry
Say you are preparing for a hike into Buckskin Gulch and, thanks to careful research and thorough monitoring of the weather forecast, you are confident that there is no risk of flash floods for the time window that you are looking at. Even so, you should still talk to a local ranger or guide service to get an understanding of what current conditions in Buckskin Gulch look like. Conditions can vary radically depending on how long it has been since the last flood event in Buckskin Gulch. If there haven’t been any floods for months you may find an easy, beautiful, dry hike through a gorgeous location. (For what it’s worth, the speed record for a run through the entire length of Buckskin Gulch – that’s 23 miles point-to-point – sits at under three hours! You can bet that this record was set during dry conditions.) On the flip side, if there has been a recent flood you can expect to encounter slick mud and deep pools of cold water very early on in your hike.
When is the safest time to hike Buckskin Gulch?
By now you know that you want to avoid summer monsoon and spring run-off when planning your visit to Buckskin Gulch, and ideally you want to catch dry conditions in the canyon for easy progress and enjoyable hiking. Your best odds of finding a window of enjoyable and safe conditions in Buckskin Gulch are in late spring after the snowmelt and prior to monsoon, or in the fall after monsoon has subsided. Typically this would be late April through late June, and again late September through November. Please keep in mind, though, that weather patterns have been changing over the last few years and it is impossible to make accurate long-term predictions of what months will yield safe access to Buckskin Gulch. Always check the weather, and always have a backup plan in case conditions are not favorable for Buckskin Gulch. Remember: no canyon is worth your life.
Can we talk about flash floods in the Paria Canyon?
If you have spent some time researching the area around Buckskin Gulch, you may know that Buckskin is a tributary to the Paria Canyon which is a world-class hiking and backpacking destination itself. The technical elements of assessing flash flood risk in Buckskin Gulch translate directly to the Paria Canyon, with a few caveats:
- Any flash flood that hits Buckskin Gulch will flow into the Paria Canyon; this means that if there is flood risk in Buckskin, there is flood risk in the Paria below the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria Canyon.
- The catchment basin of the Paria Canyon extends further east than that of Buckskin, so there can be flood risk in the Paria even if there is no flooding in Buckskin Gulch.
The reason that this article focuses on flood risk in Buckskin Gulch rather than flooding in the Paria Canyon is that Buckskin Gulch is better known and more easily accessible. In addition, the Paria Canyon narrows are a lot shorter than Buckskin’s narrows; they are also wider, and in general offer more opportunities for reaching higher ground. That is not to say that flooding in the Paria isn’t a serious issue – it is. Yet where Buckskin’s flash flood risk is extreme and likely to impact dozens if not hundreds of visitors on any given day, the Paria Canyon’s flash flood risk is “only” severe-to-moderate (depending on where in the canyon you are) and impacts a much smaller number of visitors.
What about flood risk in other canyons?
There are hundreds if not thousands of canyons tucked away amongst the Colorado Plateau and the desert Southwest in general. For obvious reasons it is impractical to provide a flood risk assessment for each canyon individually. Instead, let’s isolate the most important elements of the Buckskin Gulch flash flood risk assessment and apply them to a different canyon, in the hopes that this will enable you to run your own flood risk assessment for any canyon you may decide to enter.
Let’s take a look at Kanab’s Peekaboo Slot Canyon, a/k/a Red Canyon (not to be confused with Peekaboo and Spooky Canyons near Escalante), a well-loved red rock canyon that can easily be explored as a half-day adventure. Peekaboo is a lot less dangerous than Buckskin Gulch for multiple reasons: the narrows are much shorter; there are multiple escape opportunities and options to gain higher ground; and, most importantly, the closest watershed to Peekaboo is only about eight miles upstream of Peekaboo’s narrows which means that the canyon’s catchment basin is much smaller than that of Buckskin Gulch, and the sky above the catchment basin is visually assessable while en route to the canyon. That is why Kanab-area guide services as such Dreamland Safari Tours run guided tours to Peekaboo Slot Canyon even during monsoon season: it is viable for guides to visually assess the risk of flooding while driving to the mouth of the canyon. The same does not hold true for Buckskin Gulch.
Have questions after reading this article? The easiest way to take the guesswork out of planning your visit to Buckskin Gulch or other area slot canyons is by hiring a guide who provides the local expertise that is so integral to staying safe in slot canyons. Dreamland Safari Tours is the #1-rated Kanab-area guide service on TripAdvisor and offers day hikes as well as overnight backpacking trips in Buckskin Gulch. Dreamland Safari Tours also offers backpacking trips through the Paria Canyon, and 3-hour guided tours to Peekaboo Slot Canyon which is only accessible via a 4-wheel-drive deep sand track.
About the author: Sunny Stroeer co-owns Dreamland Safari Tours, one of Southern Utah’s premier guide services. She has been hiking, running and backpacking Buckskin Gulch for more than a decade and, in addition to countless day hikes in the canyon, has completed around a dozen thru-hikes of Buckskin Gulch. Sunny is a professional endurance athlete and seasoned rock and big-wall climber.