FLOATING THE ESCALANTE
By Rich Henke
The Escalante River in Southern Utah provides
for a wonderful float trip from the upper Escalante region to Lake
Powell. The problem is that it rarely has enough water. At the occasional
very high flow, rafts run the river but the boat of choice for the
more standard conditions is an inflatable canoe, or kayak that can
function at 100 to 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). The route starts
where Highway 12 crosses the river, between the towns of Escalante
and Boulder, and ends 75 to 100 miles downriver depending upon where
you take-out. We chose to have a motorboat pickup on Lake Powell
but there are ways to exit from side canyons.
After thinking about the trip for years, Howard
Booth and I completed this paddle at very low water levels in May
2006. The Escalante water levels are easily monitored on the web;
they had been low all spring. However, the snowpack on nearby Boulder
Mountain, which feeds Boulder Creek, was above average. Boulder
Creek joins the Escalante just 6-miles below the put-in so we were
confident that if we could manage the shallow water of the initial
segment, we would be fine after Boulder Creek. Once there, we were
fairly certain that water levels would not drop during our 11 nights
on the river, since the snowmelt was just beginning.
Although the Escalante is often run in 5-7 days,
we planned in extra time to hike and explore some of the remote
side canyons more easily reached from the river than on foot. Of
particular interest was to check out portions of the Overland Route
described by Steve Allan in his guidebooks about the Escalante region.
The Escalante Region Map
shows some of the places discussed in this report. The following
is a day-by-day account of our paddling adventure.
On May 7, 2006, we stop at the BLM office in Escalante to get the
latest river information and a free permit to run the river. After
driving to the put-in, it takes almost two hours to pack our 2-person
inflatable canoe, a 14-foot SOAR. My van is left at the trailhead
parking lot. The gauge at the bridge is slightly less than 4.4 but
we don't know how to convert this to cfs. During the 2-mile float
to our first camp at Phipps Wash, we have to get out and push the
SOAR about 4-5 times. Other than getting our feet wet, this causes
us no problems. It is not difficult to get in and out of an inflatable
canoe. A hike to Maverick Bridge would have been nice but it is
The river rises slightly during the night. In the early stages,
the Escalante River is a narrow channel with vegetation on both
sides up to the waters edge making it hard to find landmarks. We
paddle a short distance to Deer Canyon to do a short day hike to
Bowington Arch. It is difficult to find the right landing place,
and the swift current makes it hard to stop the SOAR without grabbing
bushes and branches. Later, we stop again to see a small cabin that
I had visited when I hiked Allan's "Escalante East" route
several years ago and also to fill our water containers. Spring
water is easily obtained throughout the trip and we never have to
settle the muddy Escalante water. The river doubles in volume after
passing Boulder Creek. After several Class 2 rapids, a good camp
is found across from an inaccessible cliff dwelling, high above
Today is the coldest day of the trip! Howard is extra cold since
a low hanging branch knocks him into the water in mid-morning. Lunch
at Ladder Canyon provides an opportunity to warm up, and to hike
to the top of the aluminum ladders at the canyon head. Both The
Gulch and Horse Canyon are passed on the left before camp in a cottonwood
grove just across from the Lower Sand Slide. After an early dinner,
a hike to a high saddle leads to outstanding views and the discovery
of moqui steps (Anasazi route cut out of the rock) leading to the
plateau to the North.
Today is the highpoint of the trip. About one mile before Silver
Falls Canyon, a cougar is spotted on the right bank. The river makes
a hard left and then turns back to the right. We see the cougar
again, this time on the left bank. It crossed the river just in
front of us. For 30 seconds we see the cougar climb ledges in plain
view! This is the first cougar I have ever seen in the wild and
it is only Howard's second. (And Howard has been hiking for a LONG
time!) At Silver Falls Canyon, we talk to some campers who are on
a multi-day trip using llamas to carry their gear. Further downstream,
after passing Choprock and Fence Canyons, we camp on a sandbar close
to the entrance of Neon Canyon. We hike up Neon to photograph the
Golden Cathedral and watch two people rappel down through a gaping
hole in the roof into the pool below. This is one of the most beautiful
places in the Escalante.
After a dayhike above Neon Canyon in the morning, we return to break
camp at 11 am. A short distance downstream, the remains of a freshly
killed rabbit are found in the dark recesses of Ringtail Canyon.
Further along, it is necessary to line the SOAR past a rock and
log that were blocking the river. A sandbar across from 25-Mile
Wash provides a good camp for the night. From camp, we take a short
1-mile walk up the wash to a small granary on the right wall.
Just downstream from camp, I explore one of Allan's exit routes
out of the Escalante (the one by the cottonwood tree), and climb
all the way to the east rim, where I intersect the Overland Route.
This route describes the relatively few places where it is possible
to travel between the higher benches and the Escalante. The river
itself tends to be confined between steep unclimbable walls. Later
more boulders appear in the river and maneuvering is required to
navigate. At Moody Canyon, we notice the absence of Russian olive
trees. An Escalante ranger, Bill Wolverton, has made this his project
in recent years. He organizes volunteer groups who work to eradicate
this non-native menace. Our biggest worry on this trip was to come
around a blind corner and ram into the sharp spines of a Russian
olive. Below Moody, thanks to Bill's labors, all the Russian olives
are gone! After Scorpion Gulch, the river becomes more difficult
and is confined between steep sandstone walls with few opportunities
for escape. This is not the place to have an equipment failure.
Our first portage of the trip is done easily on river right. We
bypass a narrow slot with a 5-foot drop and rocks below. Below the
portage is the longest rapid so far. Later, we land at Georges Camp
Canyon and find a trail to a nice flat camping area above the river.
That night the full moon coming up over the river provides excellent
Behind our camp is an abandoned meander. We hike the northern part
of the loop into the canyon and the southern one on the return.
Both have tedious hiking, with boulders, brush, and poison ivy,
but the southern one is preferable. After hiking for several hours,
we turn around at a point about ½ mile past a junction where
two forks meet. To explore all of Georges Camp Canyon would require
a very long hike. By the time we launch the SOAR it is very hot.
In fact the temperatures for the past few days have been unusually
warm. As we start paddling, our canoe hangs up on rocks several
times in possibly the toughest rapid of the trip. The SOAR is a
good choice for the Class 2 rapids we encounter on the Escalante.
There is never much danger of capsizing. We find a camp at the mouth
of a small canyon that is described in Allan's book. Tomorrow will
be spent finding a route to the rim and exploring Shofar Canyon,
also part of the Overland Route.
The plan is to hike early before the heat kicks in, which requires
us to be hiking by first light. It takes about 45 minutes to reach
the top of the east rim. After a short chimney requiring a low fifth
class move to surmount, we hike south along the rim hundreds of
feet above the Escalante until we reach Shofar Canyon. At one point,
the Kayenta ledge we are on narrows to 5 feet. As we turn east above
the inner gorge of Shofar Canyon, we drop down from the Kayenta
to the Wingate. After descending, it is easy to walk on Wingate
ledges all the way up the canyon. Our goal is to find the "Great
Old Broads for Wilderness Arch" described by Allan. It is still
fairly cool as we reach the arch around 10:30 am. After photographing
each other walking across the arch we start back, stopping in the
shade whenever possible. We also drop into the inner gorge of Shofar
Canyon for a short time but drop-offs keep us from exploring it
very far. The temperatures are probably approaching 100 degrees
F. Back in camp, the remainder of the afternoon is spent in the
shade, reading, writing, eating, and talking to three other groups
who pass by in single-person inflatables. It is curious that the
only three boating groups we see on the entire trip are all on the
A short distance from camp, I navigate another of Allan's routes
to the east rim. We soon reach the "mandatory portage".
The river narrows to about 2 feet as it passes between some huge
boulders. Other portages on the Escalante are a function of water
levels and the conditions, but this portage is always necessary.
It is easily done on river left. Hydra Canyon, lined by beautiful
cottonwood trees and containing a large spring, makes a nice stop.
It is possible to hike up this canyon for quite a long distance
but it is difficult to climb out. Maybe next year. Tonight's camp
is at the mouth of Fool's Canyon where we are thankful for cottonwood
trees shading our camp next to the river.
We pass Stevens Canyon and photograph Stevens Arch from the river.
Coyote Gulch, just below, is one of the more popular backpacking
destinations in the Escalante. We see other hikers and fill up our
water bottles with water flowing from Coyote Gulch. It is also a
place that boaters sometimes use to exit the Escalante to a trailhead
several miles away by foot. Below Coyote Gulch we leave "civilization"
again. Very few people follow the river further south. We are surprised
to find numerous springs flowing into the Escalante. After dumping
the Coyote Creek water, which we would have had to purify, we replace
it with the fresh spring water.
We are not sure what to expect for the next 10
miles. When Lake Powell was at its high point at 3700 feet elevation,
the lake extended north of Coyote Gulch all the way to Stevens Canyon.
Now after several years of drought, the water is about 100 feet
lower. We are surrounded by steep mud walls along the river where
the Escalante has cut a new river channel into the accumulated sediment.
It is difficult to find a campsite since all we see are high mud
cliffs. But after stopping to climb up and look around, a comfortable
flat area is found about 10 feet above the river. After dinner,
we explore a nearby side canyon and climb high above the Escalante.
Tons of old driftwood are found that were left high and dry when
the lake receded. The wood used to surround the lakeshore.
It is surprising how fast the current is flowing this far down the
river. According to our contour map, we have already descended below
the 3600-foot contour, which is about the present level of the lake.
Although the water becomes muddier, there are no problems with falling
mud banks or with remaining in the current. Finally, just one bend
before Explorer Canyon, we arrive at the flat water of Lake Powell.
The channel widens, the current stops, it is very shallow, and it
is difficult to keep from running aground. But after another 1/2
mile or so, the water becomes deeper.
This ends the wilderness portion of the trip.
From this point on we will encounter more people and the heavy boat
traffic on Lake Powell. A small boat called the Trashtracker is
nearby. Volunteers from all over the US help to collect trash along
the shores of Lake Powell for a week in exchange for free accommodation
on a houseboat nearby. They offer us a beer. We spend several hours
hiking in Explorer Canyon to see petroglyphs and Anasazi ruins.
Our final campsite at the mouth of Willow Gulch is not far away.
We have arranged to meet a motorboat tomorrow morning, which will
take us to the Bullfrog Marina.
The boat arrives on time, and 1.5 hours later we are in Bullfrog.
We meet Howard's wife Ursula Wilson, who transports us back to my
van where we started our trip. This is the easiest way to finish
an Escalante trip. A second option is to carry the gear up a trail
through "Crack-in-the-Wall" to a trailhead near Coyote
Gulch. A third way is to carry the gear through the narrow, steep
"Hole-in-the-Rock" route, which is where the "Hole-in-the-Rock-Road"
meets Lake Powell. Both of the hiking options require lots of time
and effort to make several carries with all the gear. Hiring a boat
cost us $350 and would have been the same price if we had 6 people.
DAILY ITINERARY AND CAMPS
||Across from Cliff Dwelling
||Across from Lower Sand Slide
||Near Neon Canyon
||George's Camp Canyon
||North of Shofar Canyon
||North of Shofar Canyon
||Below Rose Canyon
||to Bullfrog and home
River Difficulty - At the low water levels we had, the river
difficulty was never more than Class 2. The SOAR is designed for
whitewater so it was very easy for us. Most people run the river
in smaller single person inflatables, which work fine. White water
kayaks are great but have difficulty carrying enough gear. More
challenging is using an open canoe. Some of the rapids are Class
3 at high water levels. Larry Laba, the person who manufactures
the SOAR canoes, said he encountered a Class 4 in the spring of
2005 when the water was very high.
Camping - There are many camping sites.
It is not always easy to spot places from the river, but it is easy
to scout and check out different areas. We worked hard to find shady
spots because of the unusually high temperatures during the latter
part of the trip.
Solitude/Equipment/Self-Reliance - There
are long stretches of river where you are miles away from the nearest
road. You need to be self-contained and have the necessary emergency
and first aid gear to react to equipment failures or medical problems.
In addition to standard camping equipment and food, it is wise to
take helmets, PFD's, spare paddles, and boat repair gear. Cell phones
do not work in the Escalante canyons. You should have a plan of
how to reach help in case of an emergency.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
(1) Escalante BLM Office 435-826-5499 - Have handout on running
the Escalante and can provide data on water levels.
(2) Bullfrog Resort and Marina 435-684-3062 - Will provide motorboat
for pickups at Willow Gulch (and potentially other meeting places).
(3) Guidebooks - the following guidebooks have the best data for
hiking and exploring the canyons along the river.
Canyoneering 2 - Steve Allan - Describes a series of adventuresome
loop hikes. Two of them are in the Escalante.
Canyoneering 3 - Steve Allan - Comprehensive guidebook for
hiking in the Escalante.
Canyon Hiking on the Colorado Plateau, 5th edition - Michael
Kelsey - Describes the main Escalante hikes.
(4) National Geographic/Trails Illustrated map, Canyons of the
Escalante - covers entire trip.
(5) 7.5 minute topographical maps - Calf Creek, King Bench, Red
Banks, Silver Falls Bench, Egypt, Scorpion Gulch, King Mesa, Stevens
Canyon North, Stevens Canyon South, Davis Gulch - provides detail
if attempting some of Allan's or Kelsey's routes.
(6) See www.soar1.com for other
Escalante trip reports and to learn more about inflatable canoes.
Howard and I carried the 3 guidebooks and all
the above maps on the trip.
There are few places in the country where it is possible to "get
away from civilization" to the degree that you can in the Escalante
region. But the threat of development is ever-present in this area,
even though much of the area has been included in the Grand Staircase
Escalante National Monument proclaimed by President Clinton in 1996.
Several conservation groups are active in this area:
(1) The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
(SUWA) had been leading the pro-wilderness battle in this area
since 1984. The mission of SUWA is the preservation of the outstanding
wilderness at the heart of the Colorado Plateau, and the management
of these lands in their natural state for the benefit of all Americans.
It is in great part due to its leadership that we have not lost
the Escalante, and other wilderness-worthy canyon areas throughout
Southern Utah, to developers. www.suwa.org
(2) Great Old Broads for
Wilderness is now the primary group trying to stop illegal ORV
use in Southern Utah. www.greatoldbroads.org
(3) Another group worthy of support is Western
Resource Advocates. They supply lawyers and legal advice to
other conservation groups and are actively trying to get rid of
cattle grazing in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (GCNRA).
Please consider donating to SUWA or these other environmental organizations
that are helping protect the Escalante and wilderness lands in Utah.