Thursday, April 17, 2014

Packrafting Guide to Southern Utah

"Mists in Kanab Canyon Utah"
painting by Thomas Moran

The canyon country of Southern Utah is one of the most unique landscapes on earth. Over millions of years tectonic forces have lifted an ancient sea bed of red and orange sedimentary rock that's been sculpted into a colossal labyrinth of canyons, buttes, slots, mesas, pinnacles, washes, hoodoos, domes, fins, reefs, goblins, arches and natural bridges.

Ironically, the element primarily responsible for the complex architecture of this tremendous landscape is scarce. Flowing water is mostly limited to waterways fed by mountains as far away as Wyoming's Wind River Range. On a good snow year, however, the region's own high-country, including the Aquarius Plateau, Markagunt Plateau, Wasatch Plateau and the Escalante Mountains, provides enough spring run-off to paddle some of the desert's smaller watercourses.

Mountain Bikes, Canyoneering Gear, and Packrafts

The possibilities of linking packrafting with desert hikes, canyoneering, and mountain biking are limited only by one's imagination. Below is a guide to some classics, intended to help with logistics, provide useful links, predict stream flows, and inspire you to explore even further. 

Colorado River

As primary artery through the desert this is the river the Colorado Plateau is named after. Fed by the Rocky Mountains, including numerous 14,000 ft. peaks, the Colorado River provides the opportunity to paddle year-round. In addition to long sections of serene flat water appropriate for beginners, expert packrafters can test their skills in turbulent Cataract and West Water canyons.

Canyonlands 8
video by Roman Dial

Canyonlands 8

Hiking: 37 miles, strenuous and difficult
Paddling: 30 miles, Class 2
Season: Year round

One of the best packrafting trips on the Colorado River is in Canyonlands National Park and includes floating a section of the Green River. Known as the Canyonlands 8, it's a fantastic way to explore Indian Creek, The Maze, and Stillwater Canyon. The trip can take as long as 10 days and is appropriate for those new to packrafting yet experienced in navigating Utah's redrock wilderness. In addition to the required backcountry river permit, Canyonlands National Park has developed specific policies for Packraft Trips.

Starting on the Lockhart Basin Road the route descends Indian Creek through a Wilderness Study Area to the Colorado River. Just above the confluence a "jump" must be negotiated by following a ledge system on river left to an oxbow. Twenty-one miles of Class 2 paddling on the Colorado River leads to Spanish Bottom. From Spanish Bottom follow good trails and a 4WD drive road to Chimney Rock, Water Canyon (10 miles), the South Fork of Horse Canyon (18 miles). Descending to the Green River may require trail-less scrambling and in the case of the South Fork of Horse Canyon, expert route finding skills.

A leisurely day of paddling (Class 1) through Stillwater Canyon leads back to the confluence with the Colorado River and Spanish Bottom. To reach Elephants Hill Trailhead follow 9 miles of marked trails and 4WD roads through the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Green River

Opportunities for year-round packrafting can also be found on the Green River, Southern Utah's second largest watercourse. Up-stream of I-70 are the legendary Desolation and Gray Canyons. Containing multiple Class 3 rapids, these popular stretches of the Green River are heavily regulated and permits are awarded through an annual lottery.

Labyrinth Canyon

Hiking: 25 miles, strenuous with moderate difficulty
Paddling: 20 miles, Class 1
Season: Year-round

Down stream of I-70 the Green River peacefully meanders its way through Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons to its confluence with the Colorado River. An enjoyable packrafting trip on this section of the Green River involves linking Keg Spring, Labyrinth, and Horseshoe canyons. A BLM river permit is required.

Starting at an unmarked spur of the Lower San Rafael Road (BLM 1010) travel cross-country to the head of Keg Spring Canyon. If you can find it, an old stock trail provides an easy decent into the canyon's tamarisk filled bottom. From the mouth of Keg Spring Canyon, 20 miles of Class 1 paddling on the Green River leads to Horseshoe Canyon. After trekking 19 miles up Horseshoe Canyon (a non-contiguous part of Canyonlands National Park) an old jeep trail will be encountered. Follow it north and out of the canyon to the Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead.

Dirty Devil River

The Dirty Devil River begins near Hanksville at the confluence of the Fremont River and Muddy Creek, and ends approximately 80 miles (depending on the level of Lake Powell) later at it's confluence with the Colorado near Hite Marina. Traveling through a 2,000 ft deep and remote sandstone canyon, the Dirty Devil wilderness receives relatively few visitors.

The biggest challenge is being there when the Dirty Devil and its tributaries are running. Similar to the region's other seasonal rivers (discussed below) timing descents requires monitoring SNOTEL Sites (there needs to be snow)weather forecasts (several consecutive nights without a freeze) and the Stream Gauges. The Dirty Devil can run anytime between April and June and unexpected diversions for irrigation have the potential to monkey wrench your plans.

Muddy Creek Chute

Hiking: None
Paddling: 15 miles, Class 2
Season: April-June
Minimum Flow: 80cfs

A major tributary of the the Dirty Devil, Muddy Creek contains possibly the best stretch of Class 2 paddling in the world. For 4 miles Muddy Creek flows wall to wall though a box canyon. The 15-mile run starts at Tomisch Butte, which is accessed from the Red Canyon Loop Road (BLM 1019). Paddling to the standard take out at Hidden Splendor Mine is normally completed in a day with a car or mountain bike shuttle. Running Muddy Creek from I-70 to Hanksville involves 72 miles of paddling (Class 3) and takes about 3 days.

Bike-rafting the Dirty Devil
video by Justin Libby

Dirty Devil River

Hiking: 2.5 miles, easy
Paddling: 66 miles, Class 3
Season: April-June
Minimum Flow: 100cfs

For the first 10 miles below Hanksville the Dirty Devil is braided and shallow and is best avoided. The 2-mile Angel Cove Trail offers packrafters a better put in. From Angel Cove the Dirty Devil flows for 66 miles to the take out near HWY 95. Lake Powell formally flooded the lower section of the Dirty Devil below Poison Springs 4WD Road, an alternative put in or take out. Presently there's current all the way to the Colorado River and Hite Marina and due to prolonged drought this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

video by Craig Ball

Escalante River

The Escalante River ranks up there with Thorofare Creek and the South Fork of the Flathead as one the best wilderness packrafting trips in the contiguous 48 states. Packrafts are nimble enough to confidently navigate the Escalante's many rocky and narrow sections and light enough to easily pack out the Crack in the Wall Trail and therefore the ideal craft to navigate this remarkable desert river.

photo by Moe Witschard

HWY 12 to Crack in the Wall

Hiking: 3 miles, strenuous and difficult
Paddling: 70 miles, Class 3
Season: April-June?
Minimum Flow: 40cfs

Like the Dirty Devil, adequate flows depend on spring snowmelt. Historically the river runs from early May into June, if at all. To time your trip monitor SNOTEL Sites (there needs to be snow)weather forecasts (several consecutive nights without a freeze) and Stream Gauges.

Escalante River

The river runs through Grand Staircase-Escalante River National Monument and a permit is required. Car shuttles ($325) can be arranged through Excursions of the Escalante.

Virgin River

Flowing through Zion National Park, the North Fork Virgin River offers expert packrafters a thrilling adventure through a colossal sandstone temple. The elevation of the North Fork is higher than the other rivers described in this guide, the water colder, and the surrounding landscape more montane. Like Southern Utah's other seasonal watercourses, planning a packrafting on the North Fork requires monitoring SNOTEL Sites (there needs to be snow)weather forecasts (several consecutive nights without a freeze) and Stream Gauges.

North Fork Virgin River

Zion Narrows

Hiking: 7 miles, moderate
Paddling: 8 miles Class 3(4)
Season: April-June
Minimum Flow: 140cfs

This is one of the ultimate packrafting adventures. However, those attempting it must possess Class 4 paddling skills and be in excellent physical condition. The river drops 87ft per mile through a remote and committing 1,000ft deep canyon that is often only 30 to 40 feet wide with no easy way in or out. It's a privilege to paddle this fantastic stretch of river--have your shit together and don't blow it!

A packrafting trip through the Zion Narrows typically starts with a shuttle ride ($37) from Springdale to Chamberlain Ranch. From the the trailhead to the confluence with Deep Creek the route follows the river with frequent crossings. At flows greater than 350cfs this stretch (including a Class V drop) can be paddled. Starting at Deep Creek (a major tributary often containing more running water than the North Fork) there exist multiple designated camp sites.

From Deep Creek to the Temple of Sinawava and the visitor center, the North Fork is nearly continuous Class 3 (Class 4 at high flows), often fills the canyon wall to wall, and contains blind corners and possible log jams. At the visitor center a free park shuttle will return you to Springdale.  While it is possible to complete the trip in a day it's more enjoyable and safer to do it in two. The required permit to paddle the Narrows must be obtained the day before you begin.

Packrafting the San Juan River
photo by Andrew Dennis

San Juan River

Starting in the mountains of northwest New Mexico and southwest Colorado, the San Juan River runs for 383 miles to its confluence with the Colorado River in Lake Powell. Flows are significantly effected by the Navajo Dam. Along its lower banks are the ruins of the region's ancestral Puebloan civilization. Rock art and cliff dwellings tell the story of the rise and fall of the Anasazi.

Anasazi Ruin
photo by Climb Utah

San Juan River and Grand Gulch

Hiking: 50 miles, strenuous
Paddling: 43 miles, Class 2(3)
Season: Year round

Paddling the San Juan River can be combined with a 50-mile hike out Grand Gulch to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and HWY 261. Linking a classic desert river run with a trek through an archeological wonderland creates an epic week-long packrafting adventure.

Completing this route requires both a River Permit (San Juan) and Backcountry Permit (Grand Gulch). Reservations for river launch dates are issued through an annual lottery.  Following the lottery, available launches and cancellations may be reserved by calling the river office.

Packrafting the Grand Canyon
video by Gerard Ganey

And There's More...

This guide is by no means comprehensive; there are many more fine desert rivers to be run including the Fremont River, San Rafael River, Dolores River, Paria River, Price River, Ferron Creek, and the daddy of them all--The Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The possibilities for packrafting adventures that link desert trekking, mountain biking, and canyoneering are infinite. Turn off your computer, grab your packraft, and go explore!

video by Jeremiah Barber


In addition to following the American Packrafting Association's Safety Code be knowledgable of the additional hazards inherent to the desert wilderness of Southern Utah that include; flash floodsheat-related illnesses, and poisonous critters. And never underestimate the power of water and become trained in swiftwater rescue--I wish everyone I paddle with would.


Packrafting is intrinsically low-impact and requires travelers to pack light, plan carefully and act responsibly. While packrafting is a traditional use, recent advances in technology and the resulting increase in popularity have created unique management challenges. American Packrafting Association (APA) and American Whitewater (AW) are actively working with land and river managers to develop regulations that allow this low-impact activity while protecting the wild and natural character of rivers and their surrounding landscapes. In addition to joining the APA (it's free) you can support their work by adhering to all river and backcountry regulations and following Leave No Trace principles and practices.
Many of the rivers and creeks in Southern Utah remain unprotected and their future uncertain. Energy development, overgrazing, and off-road vehicles threaten their wild natural character and opportunities to experience it. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has long advocated for the conservation of these iconic wild landscapes. Consider supporting their work and get involved.

Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down ...into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.” ― Edward Abbey


  1. Forrest,

    Thanks for putting together this awesome guide for so. Utah.

  2. Thank you very much for this post.

  3. I'm very grad, it's a spectacular post. This is a big present for the community of the packraft.
    Thank you very much

  4. Awesome! Thanks! What's the lowest discharge at Escalante gauge for it to be runnable?

    1. As mentioned above, I recommend at least 40cfs for an enjoyable run. It has been run at lower flows but it becomes slow and frustrating.

  5. Hey forest, how certain are you about the 80 cfs in muddy creek? Its at 115 cfs now and i am thinking of doing it this weekend. also is that good for the whole stretch or just the chute. The man says 150 min.

    1. I've had fun running it at as low as 80cfs. However there are diversions for irrigation below the gage that can dewater Muddy Creek. Check the flow at the take out before you commit. Just checked the gage it is currently 134cfs so you should be good to go.

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  8. This post is such an informative one and it tackles more about rafting. Thanks to sharing useful tips with us. keep posting.


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    mencoba rafting di sungai
    makasih infonya

  10. Hey Forrest, wanted to let you know that the connection from the Green River to Horse Canyon is incorrectly marked on your map. Your map shows leaving the Green via a small drainage which is at just about Mile 16, I think. Actually, this drainage does NOT go due to 2 large pour-offs. The correct drainage is about 1/2 mile upriver - a slightly larger drainage. This could present a problem if someone passes the correct drainage and paddles down to your drainage, as they will then either have to paddle back upstream, or won't be able to exit the Green on that side until Water Canyon, about 10 miles farther down. Great resource here! Thanks.

    1. Good to know. Sorry about the mistake, hopefully no one has missed the correct drainage.

  11. Thanks so much, Forrest! We recently did a version of the Canyonlands 8 (putting in at Potash and then looping through The Maze and back out Water Canyon) and tried our hand packrafting the Dirty Devil last week. This info was super useful and inspirational. Rock on

  12. Thanks for the great info! Do you think the Supai Adventure Gear packraft would be adequate for a trip on the Dirty Devil river? I'm going to be doing some other very much flatwater trips and lots of hiking, so hoping to keep the weight down as much as possible.