“What time is it in Utah?” Steve, our shuttle driver, asked as he surveyed a small Mormon community along the highway.
“Uh,” I started to say, trying to remember if we were currently on the Arizona or Utah side of the border.
“Fifty years ago,” he answered, chuckling at his own joke.
I found myself staring across the valley at the Vermilion Cliffs, somewhat surprised to be in Steve’s truck again. The landscape around the highway was stunningly beautiful. Any direction that I looked could have been a postcard. As he drove, Steve adjusted the air-conditioning between the high and low settings depending upon what type of high pitched whine emanated from the vents, and was eager to talk about both national and local politics.
Like last year, we hired Steve to shuttle us from the take out point at Lee’s Ferry to the trailhead at the Whitehouse Campground. As Steve drove, I found myself really not wanting to be in a car, but rather stopped somewhere admiring the view; taking a moment of stillness to appreciate the desert. I had been driving since early that morning. Two days earlier, I was in the green forest in the Pacific Northwest. As always, the transition from forest to desert could be a bit jarring.
Steve, with his Edward Abbey quotes and authentic pride in the wild lands that surround his home, was a friendly welcome back to the desert. After about an hour drive, he pointed out another polygamist compound and mentioned that he had one of the wives come speak about that book to a discussion group that he and his wife had formed. Shortly after, he turned off the highway and we rattled for a couple miles down a dusty dirt road.
At the Whitehouse Campground, my Mom crawled out of the backseat and we shook hands with Steve before watching him drive off. We walked up the short path to where we could see our family had pitched tents. My father, my brother, his girlfriend Steph, and Jen had set up our camp while Mom and I shuttled the cars to the other end of the trail. The campground was full – tents rose like bright colored mounds and domes from almost every corner.
That night we decided to hike the two miles along the dirt road back to the small ranger station near the highway to top off our water bottles. Jackrabbits, scared off by the sounds of our voices and footsteps, darted out into the desert as we walked. Above us, the cloudless sky slowly faded from a dark blue to black, and the sky rippled with more stars than I had seen in at least a year.
“Well,” my dad asked quietly, “Are you ready to hike it again?”
Here then, rather obliquely, are some tips that were learned the hard way:
Tip #1 - River Water Is Gross
Even in the best years, the Paria is more of a trickling creek than a river. Droughts or low rain fall can mean that the Paria River doesn’t really start flowing until about 11 or 12 miles south of the Whitehouse campground. I’ve been amazed when I see people filtering water out of muddy, stagnate, or generally foul looking puddles. The warm, shallow waters in the Paria are home to frogs, toads, snakes, mice, tadpoles, a surprisingly large number of animal carcasses, and some stuff that had been clinging to my feet that I washed off that afternoon.
In the Paria, there are enough fresh water springs to fill water bottles around every 11 miles or so - with the exception of the last day and half towards Lee’s Crossing and the entirety of Buckskin Gulch. If you have enough water bottles, I’d recommend planning and scheduling to take filter breaks at the springs (and even then, it's a good idea to filter the spring water, because despite what you may have heard, giardia will never make you popular at social gatherings). Relying as much as possible on the springs will make sure you get good, cold water and it will save lots of time, because filtering from rivers in the desert sucks.
Tip #2 – Filtering From Rivers In the Desert Sucks
That tired ache in your arm? The fact that you’ve been pumping for 20 minutes and have only filled half a Nalgene bottle? The little trickle of water that spurts out of your water filter even though you’re putting in enough energy to crush coal into diamonds? The answer is the sand and the sand is your enemy. Despite the fact that the water in the river might look like it is clear and clean – it isn’t. It’s full of sand.
Even with good planning for only filling water bottles at the springs, everyone ends up filtering out of the Paria at some point. The amazing amounts of sand and sediment in this little desert stream will quickly clog up a water filter. This year we used both ceramic and carbon filter pumps – by the end of the trip the carbon filter was useless and the ceramic filter took a lot of time and energy to pump and clean.
To make water filters last longer:
- Wrap a coffee filter around the end of the intake hose (the end you put in the river) and attach it with a rubber band. This will pre-filter some of the larger sediment.
- Bring a bucket – fill the bucket with water from the river and let it stand for a minute or two so the sediment will settle to the bottom. Filter directly from the bucket. If a bucket is too much trouble, you can do the same trick with a spare nalgene bottle.
- Bring iodine or some sort of water purification tablets. If you use a water filter, you should have these with you as a backup in case your filter clogs and fails. Likewise, we talked with a few hikers who don’t even bother with the filters when they are in the desert and just use the tablets. Personally, I find iodine water barely tastes better than warm puddle water that has been home to several generations of live tadpoles but I hear that some of the new purification tablets are getting better.
Tip #3 – Bring Plenty of Water Bottles
Access to water is usually not a problem in the Paria. However, having enough drinkable water with you at any given time will save long hikes to springs or having to filter stagnate water. I recommend having enough bottles for at least 3 liters per person.
If you are hiking via Wire Pass and the entire length of Buckskin Gulch, you should probably carry even more bottles as there is no source of fresh water in that 16-mile stretch.
Tip #4 – Wear Socks
Normally, remembering to bring socks on a backpacking trip is not a problem (underwear on the other hand…). However, since the Paria involves hiking in water a lot, it’s often preferable to hike in sandals such as Tevas. The same evil sand that likes to clog filters, though, finds its way under the straps of sandals and will rub the skin on innocent feet raw in less than half a day. These raw sore patches are worse than having blisters in a hiking boot and can quickly ruin the trip.
The sand is your enemy. Socks, though, are your friend. Wearing socks with your Teva’s or other sandals will prevent the sand from getting under the straps and rubbing your feet raw. In particular, neoprene socks, such as these sold at the MEC, seemed to work extra well and were popular with the folks that had them in our group this year.
If you have sandals that are extra adjustable (such as Chaco’s) or if your sandals are new, be sure you break them in and have them properly adjusted before the hike starts.
Tip #5 – Bring Shoes or Boots
Depending on the flow level of the Paria, it may end up that you spend a great deal of time not hiking in water. This year, we hiked for almost the first two days before we found any serious water flow. Hiking in a pair of old boots or shoes is a nice change from sandals, which are never the most comfortable after 10 miles with a 45 pound pack.
Tip #6 – Hiking Poles Help The Tired
The Paria River is a great place to use hiking poles and most hikers that we encountered had them. They help test whether or not you’ll sink up to your knees in the patch of mud ahead of you, you can use them to swordfight with your hiking buddies, and best of all, when you get tired towards the last mile of the day and start to stumble, they’ll save you from a really embarrassing fall. Uh, or so I hear.
Tip #7 – It’s the Little Things
A wet handkerchief or bandanna on the back of your neck will feel really good when it’s over 100 degrees out and you have several more miles to go before camp. Life’s too short to not bring good coffee, decent food (I recommend the Pad Thai), and a hat. Electric toothbrushes, however, are optional.
Tip #8 - Take Lots of Pictures
From the desert varnish staining the sides of red canyon walls to the shallow and glittering pools of the Paria to the red sands and green prickly pear, be sure to take lots of photos. Here are my photos from my 2007 Paria hike and from my 2006 Paria Hike (here's also my write-up of the hike from last year).
Tip #9 – Finally, Get a Good Book Written By a Real Expert
Hiking and Exploring the Paria River by Michael R. Kelsey gives a mile by mile history, great tips, advice, and an overview of the canyon and can make the hike more interesting. It’s the book that Steve recommends to people when they are sitting in his truck, admiring the view, and excited to begin the hike.