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Rock on at Paria Canyon

Witness extraordinary geological formations while canyoneering in Utah

Before Europeans "discovered" it, Paria Canyon was part of a route used by the indigenous Paiute people to move between what is now southern Utah and northern Arizona. Archaeological evidence indicates that their ancestors inhabited the region for more than 10,000 years. Paria is actually Paiute for "muddy water", which is something you'll get used to as the canyon narrows, forcing you to wade through the chocolate-coloured river.

As the last ice age came to an end, water runoff from ancient glaciers slowly cut deeper into the soft sandstone, bestowing Paria Canyon with a succession of bizarre and intriguing geological formations. From the swirling patterns of the Wave at Coyote Buttes to the equally spectacular red rock of the Paria amphitheatre, this is Mother Nature at her most sublime and poetic.

As the water wore through the sandstone, the wind stripped the rock back to reveal changes in hue that have mesmerised visitors for millennia. The sun adds a final touch by glazing the shapes, creating the impression that a potter has shaped the whole canyon. Thus, when you canyoneer through Paria, you are bearing witness to 85 million years of outrageous geology.

Typically, canyoneering is a hybrid of mountaineering and caving, requiring an acute route-finding sensibility plus the rope skills to descend and ascend around any obstacles in your way. The beauty of Paria is that anyone with a good level of fitness is capable of negotiating any or all of the 60km route. That said, this is not a place you can take for granted: it's prone to flash floods, which means a happy hike can turn to disaster in an instant.

If you intend to tackle it yourself, make like a cub scout and "be prepared". Paria Canyon may be popular but it's still extremely remote, contains little drinking water and is largely inaccessible – getting rescued from here is not simply a matter of dialling the emergency services on your mobile phone.

The adventure unfolds

Paria Canyon's extraordinary length means it's packed with twists and turns which, while at times, test your physical dexterity, constantly leave you wide-eyed. When you first enter the canyon, it's little more than an unassuming desert streambed. Within a few hundred metres, you're moving through the Navajo sandstone. It's only after about 6km, when you enter the Narrows and are most at risk of getting caught in a flash flood, that suddenly you are moving between sheer walls of brightly coloured wind-streaked rock that stretch 150m straight up towards the deep blue sky. And so it begins.

A hike through Paria is all about the journey. Sure, you can't wait to arrive at star attractions, such as the confluence with Buckskin Gulch or the wide arms of Wrather Arch, but it's the spaces, the moments in between, that carve themselves indelibly into your memory.

In parts you'll be scrambling up and along steep, smooth sections of limestone, so bring "sticky" footwear, such as rubber-soled hiking shoes. Also, carry your own drinking water. Hooking up with an experienced local, or hiking with a guide, is strongly recommended too, as this is the only way you'll discover many of the hidden gems that are all too easy to miss.

At all times only 20 people are allowed to start the hike each day, 10 by prior booking and 10 by lottery chosen 24 hours earlier. During peak season there are thousands of adventurers praying for one of the few hundred golden tickets available. If you really want to experience Paria in the sandstone flesh, you need to apply four months before you actually want to hike.

Making it happen

There are several campsites at the White House trailhead, just off Route 89, from where you can begin your adventure. Permits are required to hike Paria Canyon; get the latest information from the Bureau of Land Management. You must adhere to the "leave no trace" policy, which means picking up any evidence you were there.

Distance: About 60km

Location: Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Utah, United States

Ideal time commitment: Four to six days

Best time of year: Spring or autumn

Essential tip: Bring a waterproof sack for your sleeping bag


Essential Experiences

* Marvelling at a brilliant ray of sun blasting through the Narrows on to the rock, illuminating it like pure gold.

* Walking the Wave at Coyote Buttes.

* Stargazing through the "roof" of the canyon, and dwelling upon the spirits of those who passed here long before.

* Catching a glimpse of a bald eagle or peregrine falcon.

* Giggling at the "miniature" rattlesnakes common in the canyon, then remembering they can kill with one bite.

This is an extract from 'Great Adventures', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). Readers can buy a copy for £25 by going to shop.lonelyplanet.com and using the code INDEPENDENT