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Packrafting the Canyonlands Figure-8: A Link-up of the Needles, Maze, Green and Colorado


Why Packraft the Canyonlands Figure-8?: The flatwater sections of the Green River's Stillwater Canyon and the Colorado below the confluence offer a unique way to link the Needles and Maze districts of Canyonlands National Park. The overland portion of this loop primarily follows a trail or cairned route that traverses mesa tops and descends through the famous Maze with stunning geology, great canyon hiking and numerous pictograph panels. This route is a great introduction to packrafting for those who are comfortable with backpacking and light scrambling but want a trip that incorporates some river travel in a beautiful desert setting.


The Route: The are a variety of ways to access and complete the figure-8 route depending on the season or the length of trip desired. The map above shows one version of the eight but abbreviated versions are possible, such as descending to the Green via Water Canyon. It is important to note that Spring Canyon is closed between March 15th and September 1st to protect bighorn sheep during lambing season. If you wish to go during this time, you will need to access the Colorado River from an alternative point.


Hike 1: Spring Canyon TH to Colorado River (~5 mi)

The trip starts at the Spring Canyon trailhead and the first section of the route descends through Spring Canyon itself. There is no maintained trail but route finding is simple by following the drainage down canyon. The are a few pour-offs along the way and most can be by-passed, so scout before committing to a downclimb. There is one final pour-off that does require a short downclimb but it typically is fixed with a piece of webbing to aid in the descent. Having a short length of webbing might be useful along this route for a few sections where a hand-line or pack hoist would be helpful.


Paddle 1 (and 2): Colorado To Spanish Bottom: 7 mi (3.5 mi):

From the mouth of Spring Canyon it is a short 3.5-mile paddle to the confluence with the Green River. This is the one section of river where there is a discernible swift-water section at an old rockfall site ("The Slide") that has constricted the river to create a small class I riffle. The next 3.5-mile section below the confluence of the Green and the Colorado is the "belt" of the figure-8 and you will get to enjoy it a second time on your way out. A river left sign warns boaters of the Cataract Canyon section downstream and shortly thereafter the large flat expanse of Spanish Bottom will come into view on river right. There is great camping at the most downstream end of the bottom which is conveniently at the start of the trail to the Dollhouse.


Hike 2: Spanish Bottom>Doll House>Maze>Horse Canyon Exit (~17 mi):

From Spanish Bottom, the trail ascends up a steep set of switchbacks through talus on the way to the Doll House. Once gaining the rim, you are faced with a number of route choices. For those seeking an abbreviated version of the 8, you can branch off on a trail to the northeast that also offers a quick detour to an excellent viewpoint of the Colorado. If you are headed for the full 8, the most direct way is to cruise on the mesa top using four wheel drive roads until reaching Chimney Rock. There you are faced with one more route decision: whether to stay high on Pete's Mesa route or to descend near the head of the Maze to the west. While roughly equivalent distances, we opted for the later given it passed by the well known Harvest Panel of pictographs. While the route doesn't require much navigation, as it generally follows a cairned trail down canyon, eventually Horse Canyon dead-ends at a series of impassable pour-offs. To get down to the Green, one must ascend out of Horse Canyon by way of what rangers refer to as "pre-Horse Canyon". The route is cairned in places but could be easy to miss. There is really just one exit point via a cleft in the rim near the top of pre-horse canyon. Once on the terrace above, the route contours around a prominent point before following the river northwest. Pass the first drainage and find a cairned user trail that descends into the second. Once you hit the Green, there is a 20 ft drop off to river level but you can follow the river upstream a short distance get to the water. The route depicted in the embedded map is a rough overview but both the "pre-Horse" exit and the re-entry to the Green are accurately reflected. Hiking this full section would make for a really big day and we opted to camp in Horse canyon before the "pre-Horse" exit.


Paddle 2: Stillwater Canyon (Green) and Colorado to Lower Red Lake Canyon (20 mi):

The Stillwater section of the Green is a beautiful canyon that often serves as the start of a Cataract Canyon trip or a flatwater canoe trip in its own right. It's quite scenic and, as the name suggests, slow moving. This should give you plenty of time to take in the surroundings during your 16.5 mile float to the confluence with the Colorado. From the confluence, things should look familiar. Paddle the remaining 3.5 miles once again but this time take-out on river left at the mouth of Lower Red Lake Canyon.


Hike 3: Lower Red Lake Canyon>Cyclone Canyon>Spring Canyon TH (10 mi)

The exit from the Colorado is on a well-marked trail that ascends Lower Red Lake Canyon. After topping out, there are a number of ways to connect the dots back to your vehicle. We opted to hike north on the Cyclone Canyon Trail to the junction with the Confluence Overlook Trail. From there it is a 4 mile hike back to the trailhead.


Logistics:

Permits: This trip and any overnight trip in Canyonlands National Park require a permit. Canyonlands has recognized the increased interest from packrafters and now has permits and requirements tailored to accommodate packrafting within the park. When reserving your permit, you will need to book a "packrafting night" anytime you plan to camp within a 1/2 mile or 1,000 vertical feet of the Green or Colorado. A backpacking permit is required for any nights away from the river. Permits can be booked online or you can save yourself the transaction fee and just do it in person at the Needles District Visitor Center on your way to the trailhead.

Required Gear: The National Park maintains a required gear list for packrafters. The park recognizes the difference between rafting and backpacking with your paddling gear and provides some leeway to us weight conscious users (your cook pot can be your fire pan and you water bottle can be your bailer). Packing out your human waste is required when camped by the river so bring wag bags for each "packraft night" you have planned.

Water: Too much or too little water is the paradox of the desert. You shouldn't go thirsty given this route is never too far from the Green or Colorado. That being said, these rivers are very silty and many chose to bring alum to help settle the sediment. Thanks to some spring storms prior to and during our trip, we had no problem locating water in potholes and small streams in mid-March. In summer or early fall, it is possible that most of these early season sources will be dry, so be prepared to settle river water or carry extra if you intend to camp away from the river.


Sample Itinerary from our trip:

Day 1: Hike Spring Canyon, paddle the Colorado to Spanish Bottom (5 mi hike, 3.5 mi paddle)

-Permit Zone: "Packraft: River Night"

Day 2: Hike through Doll House, down the Maze, and camp in Horse Canyon (14 mi hike)

Permit Zone: Maze

Day 3: Horse to Green, paddle Green to Colorado to Lower Red Lake Canyon (3 mi hike, 20 mi paddle)

-Permit Zone: "Packraft: River Night"

Day 4: Hike up Lower Red Lake, through Cyclone Canyon out to Spring Canyon TH (10 mi hike)



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