Upper Paria River (Utah) 14/17-Mar-2016

Grand Escalante

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 (Big Bend Trip). 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,

Upper Paria River

Sheep Creek just below the trailhead

but soon begins to narrow as the walls of sandstone climb higher.

Upper Paria River

Further down Sheep Creek

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.

Upper Paria River

Water scour in Sheep Creek canyon

Lots of controrted walls kept us company as we descend the canyon, passing the mouth of Willis Creek enroute.

1-imgp5203-l

Continuing down Sheep Creek

Upper Paria River

The walls of Sheep Creek canyon get higher as we descend

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.

Upper Paria River

Mouth of Bull Valley Gorge

We set up our first camp a little further downstream on a bluff well above the creek. And so our first day ended.

Upper Paria River

View from Camp 1

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.

Upper Paria River

Bull Valley Gorge

After that, we continued down Sheep Creek,

Upper Paria River

Continuing down Sheep Creek toward the Paria River

Upper Paria River

The walls of Sheep Creek just before its confluence with the Paria River

to its junction with the very silty Paria River.

Upper Paria River

Mouth of Sheep Creek at the Paria River

Upper Paria River

The silty Paria River flows toward the Colorado

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 and 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.

Upper Paria River

The wading of the Paria River begins

But we were distracted from our wet feet by the spectacular scenery along the Paria.

Upper Paria River

Colorful walls in the Paria River Canyon

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).

Upper Paria River

Camp 2

We then set out to explore further down the Paria,

Upper Paria River

Downstream along the Paria from Camp 2

Upper Paria River

More wading

looking for unusual features,

Upper Paria River

Rock on a pedestal

A small arch high on the canyon wall

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!

Upper Paria River

Yes, it’s quicksand

We went a little further into this small slot canyon,

Upper Paria River

Inviting (except for the quicksand)

before the thought of sinking into quicksand as in some B-grade jungle movie convinced us to turn back.

Upper Paria River

Perhaps more quicksand?

So we returned to camp and enjoyed the scenery surrounding it.

Upper Paria River

View north rom the bluffs above Camp 2

Upper Paria River

View upstream from Camp 2

Then it was lights out on Day 2.

Upper Paria River
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,

Upper Paria River

Early morning along the Paria River

enjoying, once again, the tingling excitment of wet feet.

Upper Paria River

More wading

But we were distracted from this “exciting” slogging and sloshing by a small side canyon filled with solution pockets,

Upper Paria River

Water pockets in the side canyon

the appearance of a very narrow slot,

Upper Paria River

A very narrow slot canyon (arrow)

Upper Paria River

Inside the very narrow slot canyon

and the mirage of not yet leafed out cottonwoods against the red canyon walls.

Upper Paria River

Cottonwoods in the canyon

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!

Upper Paria River

Going north up the Paria

Upper Paria River

The canyon widens…

Upper Paria River

While colorful and intricately carved walls continue…

Just before where Little Dry Valley enters the Paria, the canyon narrows a lot,

Upper Paria River

The last narrows just before Little Dry Creek Valley

and then flares wide-open into the the valley just south of Cannonville and the Cottonwood Road.

Upper Paria River

Looking toward where Little Dry Creek Valley joins with the Paria

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 and 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,

Upper Paria River

Starting our overland hike back to the trailhead

and established Camp 3 on a bluff overlooking the river.

Upper Paria River

Camp 3

This was our coldest night, with partially frozen water bottles greeting us in the morning. Daytime temps were typically in the 50Fs but nighttime temps usually dipped just below freezing (mid 20Fs). Overall, aside from an occassional 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),

Upper Paria River

View to the north the next morning from the bluff above Camp 3

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).

Upper Paria River

The ranch road across the plateau

An easy hike along this road,

Upper Paria River

Further along the ranch road

brought us back to the trailhead and our cars in short order.

Upper Paria River

The ranch road took us back to the Sheep Creek trailhead (arrow)

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.

Upper Paria River

Los Tres Amigos en Utah

Upper Paria River Map

Map 1

Upper Paria River Map

Map 2

Upper Paria River Map

Map 3

Upper Paria River Map

Map 4

HOME