It was the third afternoon of my four day backpacking trip through Paria Canyon – a 38 mile sandstone gorge on the Utah/Arizona border. My friend and I had set up camp on a sandy bench above the Paria River, and it was time to relax. I grabbed my sleeping pad and some snacks and found myself a cozy spot overlooking the meandering, boulder-strewn stream. Then I put on some tunes by Fat Freddy’s Drop, a soulful reggae band from New Zealand.
“Lucid dreaming, magic wonder.
Can you see this spell I’m under?
Make it wander with that rhythm.
Feel it moving through your system.”
Those were the lyrics that reverberated from my speaker as I laid back glancing up at the pastel cliffs that surrounded me. It seemed those words were written just for me in that moment. Do you ever get that feeling when you are listening to your favorite songs?
I had first read about Paria Canyon a few years ago when I picked up a guide to southern Utah’s best trails. The author, Kathy Copeland, wrote that the “sheer, soaring canyon walls were the most spectacular sight she’d ever seen.” And upon seeing pictures of this 2,700 foot deep canyon, this trip quickly moved to the top of my list.
When glancing at the trail stats, Paria Canyon doesn’t appear to be that challenging of terrain.
You lose gradually lose 1,130 feet of elevation over 38 miles, and there are only a few small hills to climb. What makes this hike unique however, is that there really is no trail. Instead you are walking down the riverbed the entire time, and depending on the season and water levels, you can be wading through freezing waist-deep water.
The permit lottery for Paria Canyon occurs four months in advance. So way back in January, I applied and was successful for an April permit. When our trip rolled around, we weren’t really sure what we were in for in regards to weather and water levels. I read that neoprene socks were a good idea, so I grabbed a pair of those and also packed some dry sacks to protect my gear in the case that I fell or the water was deeper than expected.
Within 2 hours of being out there, it was clear what we were in for. The sun was shining and the water was only knee-deep max. Lucky us. Hiking was still slow but mostly because I couldn’t put my camera away.
As the bright red canyon walls closed in on us, the landscape had a way of making us feel very small. At some points in the Narrows section, the walls sat a mere six feet apart and rose 700 feet above the sandy river bottom.
Apart from the giant rock amphitheaters and the lush river banks, what made this trip awesome was that we gave ourselves plenty of time to soak it all in. No rushing. No racing. We hung out on the beach, took long lunch breaks, listened to tunes, spent hours stargazing, and even got to sleep in a little in the morning.
Over the course of 4 days we only saw one other pair of hikers, and they were headed the opposite direction on our first day. By lunchtime on day two, it was obvious that we had the canyon all to ourselves, and our chances of running into anyone else was slim. It was liberating to know that we were out there all alone. We never had to worry about our privacy or the campsites being full.
I celebrated our solitude with a full-blown dance party.
As the sun went down on the last night of camp and we were cooking dinner, I flipped through my playlists and settled on some Grateful Dead.
“Say, it might have been a fiddle,
Or it could have been the wind,
But there seems to be a beat now,
I can feel it in my feet now,
Listen here, it comes again”
I couldn’t help but to start swaying my hips to the jams, and eventually I celebrated our solitude with a full-blown dance party. They say to dance like no one is watching…and in this case that was actually true. So why not, right?
On our last day, the canyon opened up with views down towards the Colorado River. We were tired, but our spirits were as high as that vast desert sky. The weather, the beauty, the isolation. We couldn’t have asked for a better time, and Paria Canyon stands out as one of the best backpacking trips I’ve done.
The entrance to Paria Canyon is located halfway between Kanab, Utah and Page, Arizona. For more information on Paria Canyon, be sure to check out Kristen’s detailed Paria Canyon Backpacking Guide at BearfootTheory.com where she shares everything you need to know to plan your own Paria Canyon adventure. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.