By Michael Lanza

Walls of searing, orange-red sandstone shoot up for hundreds of feet, so close together in places that I could cross from one side of this chasm to the other in a dozen strides. On the floor of Paria Canyon, a shallow river slides lazily forward like very thin, melted milk chocolate. The early-spring sunshine only occasionally finds us in here, even at midday; instead, it ignites the upper walls and sends warm light bouncing downward in a cascade of reflected glow, painting every wave of rock in a subtly different hue.

Hypnotized, I fall a short distance behind the group, pointing my camera and clicking away. Moments later, I round a bend in the canyon to see my friend, Vince, mired hip-deep in quicksand and struggling mightily.

It’s the first day of our two-family, five-day, 38-mile backpacking trip down Paria Canyon, which straddles the border of Utah and Arizona and joins the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, the gateway to the Grand Canyon. We’d already had our first run-in with quicksand earlier, just an hour into our hike. At the first pool of it that we happened upon, the five kids, age 12 to 15, stood hurling rocks into the muck, erupting in fits of laughter at the baritone “bloop” each made and the sight of it disappearing almost instantly.

But now, the laugh train has left the station, and four stunned young people stare, wide-eyed and quiet, at Vince.

Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon.
” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ width=”427″ height=”640″ src=”″ alt=”In the narrows of Paria Canyon.” class=”wp-image-18160″ srcset=” 427w, 200w” sizes=”(max-width: 427px) 100vw, 427px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />In the narrows of Paria Canyon.

I drop my pack on a small island of dry ground and join Vince’s wife, Cat, at the edge of the quicksand pool. Vince passes us his backpack, but we can’t get quite close enough to grab a hand and pull him out. Fortunately, he’s not sinking any deeper. Quicksand occurs in Southwest canyons when the fine sand in a river bottom, usually outside the river’s current, contains just the right amount of water so that it neither flows downstream nor dries to solid earth (although it can appear solid); and it rarely seems to get very deep.

Still, it feels bottomless and as thick as cold molasses when you’re mired in it—as most of us will discover this week.

So all we can do is offer advice and watch Vince helplessly as he twists, pushes off the nearby canyon wall with his hands, and struggles to extract his legs from this pool of nature’s wet cement. After several minutes, he manages to wriggle close enough to the quicksand’s edge for Cat and I to each grab a hand and haul him out. Panting, he stands encased in a wet mold of dripping, brown goop from the waist down.

The sight will become a visual metaphor for this adventure. Paria—and its 15-mile-long tributary slot canyon, Buckskin Gulch, which gets so tight in some stretches that you have to take off your pack and squeeze through sideways—can feel at times like you were served an entire rhinoceros when you only ordered a hamburger.

Quicksand appears frequently and sometimes without warning—looking no different than the innocuous, standard-issue mud that carpets most of the canyon floor. Finding water for drinking and cooking is a daily challenge: Over its entire length, typically walked in five days, Paria has just three reliable springs, and Buckskin has no drinkable water. And the heavily silted river—too thick to drink, to thin to plant, as locals like to describe it—quickly chokes a water filter to death.