FLOATING THE ESCALANTE
By Rich Henke

SUMMARY

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.

THE FLOAT

Day 1
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 too late.

Day 2
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 us.

Day 3
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.

Day 4
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.

Day 5
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.

Day 6
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 photo opportunities.

Day 7
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.

Day 8
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 same day.

Day 9
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.

Day 10
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.

Day 11
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.

Day 12
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

Day Date River Miles Camp
1 5/7/06 2 Phipps Wash
2 5/8/06 8 Across from Cliff Dwelling
3 5/9/06 24 Across from Lower Sand Slide
4 5/10/06 37 Near Neon Canyon
5 5/11/06 42 25-Mile Wash
6 5/12/06 57 George's Camp Canyon
7 5/13/06 62 North of Shofar Canyon
8 5/14/06 - North of Shofar Canyon
9 5/15/06 68 Fool's Canyon
10 5/16/06 80.5 Below Rose Canyon
11 5/17/06 90 Willow Creek
12 5/18/06 - to Bullfrog and home


LOGISTICS


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.

CONSERVATION

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). www.westernresourceadvocates.org
Please consider donating to SUWA or these other environmental organizations that are helping protect the Escalante and wilderness lands in Utah.

 


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