The beginnings of Paria Canyon in the Hat desert of southern Utah, just north of the Arizona border, are deceptively mild. And 37 miles farther on (or maybe 48, depending on your cartographer) this canyon and its small, violent river end quietly enough at Lees Ferry, where they melt into the big Colorado. But in between is a fantastic gorge, negotiable only on fool, whose unspoiled beauty only recently became known to the backpacking fraternity.
Once you enter Paria Canyon, there is no way out except back the way you came, or through to the other end. Its walls, slabs of eroded rock more than 1,000 feet high, are too steep to climb, and the side canyons end without exception in unscalable boxes. Until three years ago fewer than 50 persons had even seen this canyon. Now it is open to hikers, who also have available to them a unique seven-day tour package that includes not only the canyon but parts of the upper Colorado River and glimpses of local Indian lore. More on that later.
You cannot tour Paria Canyon by road—you have to hike—and its pristine ruggedness is now protected as a primitive area and maintained by the Arizona Bureau of Land Management. Although the best times of year to explore it are late spring and early fall, now is the time to begin making arrangements for a trek. Lee and Tony Sparks, father-son concessionaires at Lees Ferry on the Colorado, are the unofficial greeters of Paria Canyon. Their knowledge of the area and the presence of their facilities at the mouth of the gorge make this chancy journey possible. If either man is available to act as your guide, you would do well to have him along.
But as there is no alternate route—if you take a wrong turn you soon find out by running into a blind canyon—no guide through Paria is really necessary. There are a few quicksand holes, easily avoidable, and some places where it would not be advisable to be caught in a sudden storm. A vital preliminary to a trip here is a call to the U.S. Weather Bureau in Cedar City, Utah; showers upstream can raise the river's level by several feet in a matter of moments.
Page, Ariz. is the most accessible air terminus to the canyon, with service by Air West from Salt Lake City and Phoenix. The drive to the jumping-off point for the canyon hike is about 40 miles northwest on U.S. Highway 89. Gear is simple: ankle-high sneakers—an extra pair wouldn't hurt—light, quick-dry clothing, sleeping bags, dehydrated and freeze-dried foods; suntan lotion, a hat, two quart-sized canteens plus chlorine tablets. Figure on three to six days of hiking, depending on your endurance and your curiosity about the rock formations, side canyons and vivid Indian pictographs that decorate some of the cliffs. A party of four or more is recommended for all but the most hardy and experienced.
Every step of the Paria hike is spectacular, beautiful, violently colorful and even intimidating. The best campsites are broad, grassy shelves located well up from the river, but even these havens leave the camper a bit uneasy, in view of the dire descriptions of flash floods heard on all sides.
About halfway through Paria the hiker encounters Wrather Canyon, a 1,000-foot-deep, three-sided box containing the finest natural arch of the trek, in its way as improbable as Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon. This sandstone arch is 200 feet high and is pockmarked with food niches carved out by the Anasazi Indians some 2,000 years ago. The final seven miles of the hike follow a widening, greening valley to the cultivated fields of Lonely Dell, John D. Lee's historic ranch at Lees Ferry, and the comfortable resort complex of the Fort Lee Company run by the Sparks family.
Once at Lees Ferry, the venturer has his choice of plunging back into civilization by returning to Page, and home, or taking a couple of days to unwind and enjoy the sights of this stretch of the Colorado River as the paying guests of the Sparkses. This enterprising pair will put you up overnight at the lodge and give you a day to paddle around on an innertube in the Colorado. Then they put you aboard a neoprene rapids-running boat piloted by an expert riverman for a 63-mile, three-day cruise, if that is what you can call a foam-flecked drop of 3,000 feet through the inner-gorge rapids of the Grand Canyon. At the junction of the Little Colorado, a jet helicopter shuttles you to the rim of the canyon, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle takes you back to Lees Ferry, crossing the remote southwest corner of the Navajo Indian reservation. You are back in Lees Ferry on the evening of the third day.
The entire adventure—Paria Canyon, the time at Lees Ferry, river trip, helicopter ride and return to Page by air-conditioned bus—takes at least a week and costs $295 per person, including everything: guides, food, beverages, even such gear as sleeping bags, air mattresses, ponchos and life preservers. It is not a physically crushing experience, as one 65-year-old who recently took the trip professed.
Dates for the tour run from early May through the third week in October, with special charters for small groups available on off-dates. Information may be obtained from Lee Sparks, Fort Lee Company, P.O. Box 2103, Marble Canyon, Ariz. 86036. The phone number is (602) 645-3111.