In 2014, loose talk among my brother-in-law (Russ), nephew (Bart), and myself about “getting together to go hiking sometime” finally coalesced into a successful trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas. Nothing came together in 2015, but this year we planned a “warm-up” backpack for March (to fit into my nephew’s Spring break from teaching high school) and a backpack of the North Lake – South Lake Loop in the Sierra Nevada in August. We’d initially thought about backpacking into the increasingly famous Coyote Gulch feature of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area but were dissuaded by both the number of other backpackers attracted to the gulch plus the 66 miles (round trip) of gravel/washboard/high-clearance road leading to the trailhead. So, as an alternative, we chose the Upper Paria River in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, just south of Cannonville, Utah. We sketched out a loop going down Sheep Creek, up the Paria River, and then cross-country back to the trailhead. This loop is not endowed with many slot canyons (unlike previous backpacks of the Virgin River Narrows and Buckskin Gulch) but does offer classic southwest vistas and towering walls of colorful sandstone.
DAY 1: Sheep Creek Trailhead to Bull Valley Gulch area (6.5 miles)
Reaching the Sheep Creek trailhead requires only 2.8 miles of driving on paved and good (when dry, but impassable if wet) dirt roads and there is parking for 6-8 cars (BLM Brochure). The canyon starts out fairly broad,
but soon begins to narrow as the walls of sandstone climb higher.
The water (and wind) sculpting of the canyon walls to a point well above our heads reminded us of why we wouldn’t want to be doing this if there was even a hint of a flash flood.
Lots of contorted walls kept us company as we descend the canyon, passing the mouth of Willis Creek enroute.
About 5.4 miles down-canyon, we passed where Bull Valley Gorge joins Sheep Creek, which is faintly reminiscent of The Subway over in Zion National Park.
We set up our first camp a little further downstream on a bluff well above the creek. And so our first day ended.
DAY 2: Bull Valley Gorge area to Paria River (7.4 miles)
Next day, we went back up Sheep Creek to do a brief exploration of Bull Valley Gorge, which is more like a true slot canyon.
After that, we continued down Sheep Creek,
to its junction with the very silty Paria River.
We had each brought along extra gallon jugs, which we filled with clear water from Sheep Creek and then treated. Pumping, filtering, or settling and then filtering water from the Paria River didn’t seem practical. So carrying an extra gallon of water worked out fine for so few folks on such a short trip. We’d managed to avoid having to do any wading while descending Sheep Creek but this dryness ended once we reached the Paria. Hiking along it involved going back-and-forth across a not too wide, not too deep, but nonetheless wet, creek.
But we were distracted from our wet feet by the spectacular scenery along the Paria.
After a short hike, we set up camp on a flat about 6 feet above the river (this area would flood if the river really flashed but there seemed a low probability of that – more likely we’d be trampled by a cow).
We then set out to explore further down the Paria,
looking for unusual features,
and a small slot canyon hidden behind a screen of brush along the river. Here Russ is casting his shadow over a section of quicksand that I explored by sinking in to it up to my knees!
We went a little further into this small slot canyon,
before the thought of sinking into quicksand as in some B-grade jungle movie convinced us to turn back.
So we returned to camp and enjoyed the scenery surrounding it.
Then it was lights out on Day 2.
DAY 3: Paria River to Little Dry Valley area (8.4 miles)
On our third day in the backcountry, we retraced our steps back up the Paria,
enjoying, once again, the tingling excitement of wet feet.
But we were distracted from this “exciting” slogging and sloshing by a small side canyon filled with solution pockets,
the appearance of a very narrow slot,
and the mirage of not yet leafed out cottonwoods against the red canyon walls.
The Upper Paria doesn’t get a lot of adulation in the southwestern hiking press (that seems to go to places like Coyote Gulch and Buckskin Gulch) but it really is an amazingly beautiful and majestic place. Plus, we had it all to ourselves (except for 3 cows) for four days!
Just before where Little Dry Valley enters the Paria, the canyon narrows a lot,
and then flares wide-open into the the valley just south of Cannonville and the Cottonwood Road.
A note in the March 2016 issue of Backpacker had alerted us to the popularity of Coyote Gulch and had suggested the Upper Paria as a less crowded alternative. This proved to be true except that Backpacker suggested you to start from the Cottonwood Road. Frankly, we couldn’t find any decent parking spots along that road. Plus the first 2 miles or so from the road to the first narrows along the Paria are open and a little boring. Starting at Sheep Creek – allowed because the road was dry – let us start enjoying a deeper canyon almost immediately. To make a loop to and from Sheep Creek, we climbed out of the Paria just before Little Dry Valley,
and established Camp 3 on a bluff overlooking the river.
This was our coldest night, with partially frozen water bottles greeting us in the morning. Daytime air temperatures were typically in the 50ºFs but night-time temperatures usually dipped just below freezing (mid 20ºFs). Overall, aside from an occasional burst of wind, the weather was very mellow the whole time we were exploring the canyons.
DAY 4: Little Dry Valley area to Sheep Creek Trailhead (3.8 miles)
After warming ourselves, we continued climbing cross-country out of the Paria River valley (with Capitol Reef on the horizon),
to connect with an old ranch road that crosses the plateau between the Paria and Sheep Creek (with Bryce Canyon National Park on the horizon).
An easy hike along this road,
brought us back to the trailhead and our cars in short order.
A moderate (26.1 miles total, ~500 feet of elevation gain) backpack through a very beautiful area. The weather was near perfect and we had the place to ourselves. The tourist season hadn’t yet started and we were lucky that Bart’s Spring Break was a week ahead of those in Utah and Nevada). Although there was plenty of evidence of cows (which can still be grazed in the Monument) we only actually saw three of them – so it would have been a fair fight if the three of us had had to defend our camps from trampling.