Packrafting the Escalante River
A 69.9-mile low-flow packrafting adventure down southern Utah’s Escalante River
May 26-29, 2020
“You’re a little late,” the woman at the Escalante Visitor Center told me over the phone. The Escalante River, a ribbon of green water winding through an immense wilderness canyon system in southern Utah, is a near-mythical destination for packrafters. Boaters return from the Escalante sporting deep river sandal tans and raving ecstatically about a gorgeous stream splashing between overhanging sandstone cliffs, remote canyons and desert arches.
But the Escalante River is notoriously temperamental: most of the year it’s either too shallow to float or prone to flash floods. According to conventional wisdom, would-be boats must aim for an ephemeral window between April and early June when snowmelt from nearby peaks lifts the river to relatively high but steady levels. Hitting this window just right requires either tremendous flexibility or tremendous luck.
This year, the gauge in the town of Escalante showed ideal water levels during the first week of May. By the time our group of five Alaskans boarded planes in Anchorage at the end of that month, the river had dropped to what looked like a heavy trickle. We studied the gauge again and again, entertained all kinds of fantasies (“maybe this heat wave will blast the last snow out of the mountains!”), and raised the subject of alternate ideas. But in the end we went, because everything had already been planned and we’d never really know till we got there. Maybe it’d be terrible.
But then again… maybe not.
Day 0: Flats
We flew into Phoenix, grabbed rental cars, and headed north. After an overnight in Flagstaff visiting friends we continued up the highways into the vast, bone-dry sandy flats and eroded red cliffs of northern Arizona and southern Utah. Coming from Alaska, the sparse and expansive landscape felt both alien and familiar. To borrow a phrase: Alaska and the southwest aren’t the same, but they rhyme.
We passed the small town of Escalante in the late afternoon and turned down Hole in the Rock Road. We’d planned to stage one car at the Egypt Treailhead and another at the 40 Mile Trailhead, both of which are located at the end of spurs off of the main road, but within minutes of the turn-off one vehicle got a flat. It took hours of logistical wrangling and an amazing spur-of-the-moment assist from the Escape Goats shuttle, but by midnight we found ourselves all sitting together at the edge of the canyon at the Egypt Trailhead, cracking beers and laughing our assess off till late into the night.
Day 1: The Escalante River, Fence Canyon, Golden Cathedral, Ringtail Slot Canyon, and Moody Canyon
We woke up with the sun, re-packed our giant bags, and tromped down onto the sun-baked plateau below. There were several routes marked on our maps from the Egypt Trailhead to the Escalante River. We took the northernmost one, which traced the edge of Fence Canyon before switchbacking down a ridge to the lush, wooded canyon floor.
We reached the Escalante River and our moment of truth: and… yep! It was running! It wasn’t a lot of water, but it looked like enough. We unrolled our boats, reapplied sunscreen, and tentatively edged out into the inches-deep current.
Just an hour earlier we’d been lugging big, heavy packs across sun-baked slickrock dotted with cacti. Now, we found ourselves lying in our boats with our feet dangling in the cool clear water, spinning down a gorgeous lazy river oasis framed by tall walls of red sandstone.
After about a mile we pulled out at the Neon Canyon wash and headed up-canyon on foot.
An easy, well-traveled one-mile trail in the floor of the canyon led us to Golden Cathedral, a large grotto with spectacular overhanging walls punctured by several tunnels. It would be impossible for hikers to continue beyond this point, but canyoneers exploring the upper portions of Neon often rappel through the tunnels in the Cathedral roof into a murky pool at the base of the grotto. As luck would have it, a group was dropping into the Cathedral when we arrived.
After watching for a while we turned around and headed back toward the Escalante.
Just down the river we pulled our boats onto a sandbar and set off down an old river channel toward Ringtail Slot Canyon. A short scrambly hike brought us to a towering, wavy slit in the canyon headwall. Exploring Ringtail Slot Canyon, with its smooth narrow corridor and narrow columns of light filtering in from hundreds of feet overhead, was a thrilling and otherworldly experience.
We pushed in what felt like several hundred feet till we reached a small water-filled pool followed by a choke stone. It would have been possible to scramble in deeper with some effort, but we’d gone far enough and there were many more miles of river ahead.
We walked back into the bright sunlight with more energy and excitement than when we’d entered the canyon.
Just after pulling back into the Escalante River we heard crashing and saw a big dark shape racing through the trees. A wild-eyed, muscular black bull burst into view, charged across the river, and disappeared into the trees on the opposite bank. We were equal parts scared and startled.
“I know this is ridiculous,” said Tim, “but at first I thought that was a moose.”
The rest of the day was placid and peaceful. The river swung up against large, striped cliff faces and meandered between overhanging groves of Russian Olive. There were no significant rapids and we rarely had to drag our boats over shallows.
We pulled out for the day at Moody Canyon. Before setting up camp, Tim and I walked about a mile up the Moody Canyon wash. The walking was quick and the canyon was filled with interesting geology, including dotted green and purple rocks and petrified wood. According to USGS’s excellent geologic map of the upper Escalante, both Moody and East Moody canyons are somewhat unique on this stretch of river in that their floors are made of rock from the Chinle Formation, an ancient deposit of sediment from the Upper Triassic.
Back at camp we fired up dinner and set up for the night. Cale, Ben and I put up mesh tents, and Tim and Drew just unrolled sleeping pads on the sand. Sleeping out in the open is a very unusual experience for Alaskans, but both approaches worked just fine for the duration of the trip. We all went to bed to the sound of frogs bellowing and with a view of the stars.
Day 2: The low-flow Escalante
The morning sun hit the walls and the canyon warmed up like a giant brick oven. After breakfast, coffee, and a few random delays we hit the water.
Our group used a grab-bag of Kokopelli and Alpacka packrafts. There was consensus that a high-volume boat (say, Alpacka’s Gnarwhal) would have been better over the shallows, but we all made it down the river just fine. As is often the case, having good-enough equipment, knowing how to use it, and just getting out there is better than obsessing about having the exact right gear all the time.
This was my first “big” trip with my new Alpacka Expedition. Though it doesn’t have the huge flotation of some other packrafts, the Expedition was very well-balanced and the smaller-diameter tubes let me throw the boat up onto edge to squeak between rocks. Weaving through a rock garden was a blast, but just as soon as I started to feel like a spaceship pilot zipping through an asteroid field I’d high-center on a rock and my pride would get appropriately grounded.
After butt-grinding and lining across shallows, it was easy to appreciate why packrafters want to hit peak snowmelt. But snowmelt tends to be cold, and in early May nighttime temps can still dip below freezing. The late May sun we paddled under was awesomely hot and the Escalante River was clear and warm. Anyone who got too far ahead of the group would just find a hole and go swimming. Waiting for others to catch up was just as fun as paddling.
So what about the conventional wisdom that the Escalante is only runnable–or at least only worth running–during a brief period of peak snowmelt? The only “objective” measure of river flows seems to be the gauge at the town of Escalante, which is far upriver of the Fence Canyon put-in and is obviously a crude proxy for water levels lower in the canyon. Online resources variously suggest that, for a successful trip, this gauge should be reading a minimum of 10CFS to 30CFS. One writeup claim that this gauge must be at 50CFS minimum or you’ll be “you’ll find yourself dragging your boat more often than floating.” On the other side of the debate, some contrarians whisper that the Escalante is runnable when the gauge shows levels as low as 2CFS. We knew the gauge was reading somewhere around 2 to 4CFS when we put in, but we were surprised to find, after the trip, that it had dropped as low as .7CFS while we were actually on the water.
If we’d had the option, would we all have preferred more flow in the river? Sure. Grinding to a stop on sandbars and high-centering on rocks gets old. But was this trip still worth it? Heck yes! Our experience suggests that packrafters probably shouldn’t put much faith in the Escalante gauge and don’t need to be as lucky as they imagine to have a blast on the river. A low-flow trip will be different than one that occurs at peak runoff, but different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. In our case it meant a slightly slower pace, a few scuffs on the bottoms of our boats, and a new love for Southwest desert swimming holes. The “low-flow Escalante” may well be one of the better-kept secrets in the packrafting community.
In the early afternoon we came to a massive overhanging wall rippling with desert varnish. Remnants of an illegal fire pit and footprints suggested that this dramatic bend in the river had been a popular campsite for previous groups. We explored the overhung ledges and sunk our toes into the deep warm sand. The Escalante River isn’t lacking for excellent spots to pitch a tent, but it was clear why people would be drawn to this spot.
In mid afternoon we reached a place where the river flowed into a boulder garden, and we pulled out to scout. At higher water the rapids might be a fun technical challenge for a bold paddler (and a portage for everyone else), but at low water the biggest difficulty was just to keep from getting grounded.
Some time in the early evening we hauled our boats out on a fairly nondescript bend in the river. In the tail end of daylight we climbed up a series of hills made of old smooth river rocks and then scrambled up broken sandstone blocks to the headwall. From above, it was easy to see the Escalante River as a lush, hair-thin microclimate winding through an otherwise very rugged landscape.
Day 3: Stevens Arch and Coyote Gulch
The next morning was so bright I wanted to put sunglasses over my sunglasses.
A prominent chimney marks the only truly mandatory portage on the stretch of river that we ran. While tight turns, boulder gardens or log jams could trip a boater up in other locations, in this spot the river funnels through a gap too narrow for a packraft. We pulled out, dragged our boats a few hundred feet, and pressed on.
The weather was perfect and hot, and we could have spent all day dozing, swimming, or spinning down the lazy green river. But one of our members had a commitment back in Alaska and wanted to get all the way back to Phoenix by tomorrow morning. Time pressure is a nearly-inevitable part of outdoor trips, but it does change the dynamic.
Everyone (author included) calls this trip “packrafting the Escalante,” but in my experience, the canyons and features that intersect the Escalante are every bit as much of a destination as the river itself. Climbing up into Golden Cathedral and Ringtail Slot Canyon had been highlights of the last few days. If we’d had more time, I would have spent time exploring Twentyfive Mile Wash, East Moody Canyon, Scorpion Gulch, and many of the other features that, unfortunately, we had to push past to keep on schedule. Like many of the best trips, before this one was even over I was already mentally planning the next.
The last mile before Coyote Gulch was more spectacular than any other. The canyon walls that already felt impossibly tall somehow got taller, the pillars reached higher, and the overhangs became more overhung. This was truly the grand finale of a grand finale.
The immense, stout arc of Stevens Arch marked the end of our float. Its 220-foot span makes Stevens one of the largest natural arches in the world. One travel writer has called it “the single most impressive feature in the West.”
Just after rounding Stevens Arch we reached our takeout at Coyote Gulch. Even though it was rewarding to have successfully finished our float, it was painful to have to get off of the river and pack up. Some people continue down the Escalante into Lake Powell, and either exit at Hole in the Wall or get a pickup from a houseboat. Next time, maybe.
We shook as much sand as possible off of our gear, re-shouldered our giant packrafting packs, and headed up Coyote Gulch on foot.
After a few quick bends, the trail hopped out of the canyon and traversed a slab of fractured overhanging sandstone. Alaskans are used to snow, ice, and scree, but exposed sandstone isn’t really in our repertoire. We went slow and tried to ignore our sweaty palms.
We pushed up Coyote Gulch as fast as we could, racing the light as it slipped off the upper edges of the canyon. A soon as it became dark, we pulled out our headlamps.
Moving quickly up Coyote Gulch under fading headlamp light was a surreal, tricky, and occasionally suspenseful experience. We occasionally lost the trail and ended up in tall grasses or bushwhacking up groves of trees and dry creek channels. At one point we seemed to be walking straight into a canyon wall, only to realize that the trail passed under a large looming arch.
We were aiming for a point about halfway up the canyon, where my map showed a bathroom facility on the canyon floor and a trail climbing a sandstone shoulder before leading to a parking lot at a water tower, where we’d staged a car. But when we arrived at the sandstone shoulder there was no bathroom in sight, and all we found was a nylon rope of unknown provenance dangling down a steep sandstone face. Desert spiders lurked in the handholds. It was not a welcome sight, and a good reminder that maps cannot always be trusted. Rather than pull ourselves up into the darkness on an unknown rope, we called it and set up camp.
Day 4: Coyote Gulch and Hurricane Wash
In the morning, we realized that we had camped at the base of the “Water Tower/Sneaker Route” leading in and out of Coyote Gulch. Hikers and climbers occasionally place ropes down the final pitch into the gulch, which the irritated feds advise against using and apparently cut out with some regularity. I climbed up and down the face without my pack, one hand loosely holding the rope but not relying on it, and found it anchored to a small sandstone arch. While we packed up, several groups went up and down with their full weight on the rope, apparently finding it trustworthy enough.
Tim and I decided to continue up Coyote Gulch and hike out to the road via Hurricane Wash, while the rest of the group went out on the Water Tower/Sneaker Route. To me, the “long way” didn’t look much longer, and I wanted to see the rest of Coyote Gulch.
As it turned out, our campsite had been just a couple bends below the immense and spectacular Jacob Hamlin Arch. This arch spans the width of the canyon and is without a doubt the star attraction of Coyote Gulch.
It was very lucky that we stopped at a small trickle to fill up our bottles before continuing farther up the canyon. Coyote Gulch merged with Hurricane Wash and we soon found ourselves in more or less open desert, walking on a sandy trail through wind-washed bluffs and sandy hills dotted with flowers.
The highlights of the Hurricane Wash trailhead were several narrow corridors that cut straight through sandstone bluffs.
The Hurricane Wash trail was pretty, though the sand made walking slightly frustrating and the the “trail” was occasionally hard to follow. At one point we inadvertently went up a spur and had to reconnect with the main trail by cutting back over a set of rolling sandstone hills. There were many visual cues around to keep us pointed in the right direction, but it made me appreciate how easy it could be to get lost in the desert.
By this point we were tired, hot, and starting to regret not having even more water. Near the trailhead we passed a large group tromping through the sand down into the Wash. A cluster of long-haired kids walked barefoot and looked completely in their element. I’m pretty sure that Tim and I each had two decades of wilderness experience over any of them, but we’re Alaskans and there’s no substitute for local experience.
At last we reached the Hurricane Wash trailhead. We’d expected the rest of the group to beat us here with the car and were a little proud to find they hadn’t made it yet. We dropped our packs in the shade of a truck and waited. And waited. And waited. I walked up the road in either direction to see if I got cell service, and sent a few messages with my satellite messenger. Our water ran low, then ran out. After several hours, the logistical knot–which involved stuck cars, miscommunication, and another party who had a member suffering a medical emergency due to heat–came unstuck and we got our pickup. There were no hard feelings, just relief to be off our feet and out of the sun. As Tim described the trip later, “Great execution but we didn’t stick the landing.”
Back in Escalante, we found that only two restaurants were serving food due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We ate dinner at one and then immediately went to the other for a second dinner. Ben proposed a toast to the “low flow bros.”
After dinners we hopped back in our cars and headed for Phoenix, backpacks full of sand and heads full of plans to return. As the woman at the Escalante visitor’s center had told me before the trip, we’d been a little late to run the river by normal standards. True, it would have been nice to have had more water. But for an unforgettable low-flow mini-epic, we’d been exactly on time.