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Packrafting the Escalante: A low water trip from Neon Canyon to Coyote Gulch

Updated: Aug 22, 2020


Steven's Arch towering over the Escalante.

Why Escalante?: The Escalante is a maze of deep slot canyons, sheer slickrock walls, and dramatic natural arches. The caliber of the scenery is continuous and almost every bend yields another stunning view. While the river travel is excellent, we found that this trip is less of a whitewater experience, and instead, our boats served as a tool that ferried us from one mind-boggling slot to the next. This river is truly a desert classic.


Admiring the Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon.

Why Packraft?: Recently it has been rare for the Escalante to reach levels that would be suitable for a raft or even a kayak.  Most rafting trips would start at the Highway 12 bridge and scrape and bash their way through Russian Olive-lined banks. Much of the Escalante's flow comes from a tributary called Boulder Creek, which is why putting in bellow this confluence at Neon Canyon is to your advantage.  This route allows you to paddle the Escalante at a surprisingly low level. Lastly, packrafting simplifies the logistics on the back end of the trip. Some parties with less wieldy crafts opt for a long and spendy boat shuttle on Lake Powell. The other option is a hot and sandy hike out through Crack-in-the-Wall. While a few groups have hauled their rafting gear or kayaks up the sandy hill and then roped them up the cliff, packrafting makes the hike out much less strenuous.


Typical Escalante flavor at 4 cfs.

Water Level: While American Whitewater recommends a level of 50 cfs or greater, we were surprised to find that the river was still enjoyable and fully packraftable between 4 and 5 cfs (gauge). There has been some confusion in other write-ups as to whether or not packrafters were inadvertently using the foot gauge when citing their water level. It is easy to understand the confusion given that a reading of 2 cfs sounds unpaddleable, but it is in fact on the lowest end of possible. Keep in mind this gauge is at the highway and that Boulder Creek and some other tributaries provide a substantial portion of the flow. More water is better, but given this trip emphasizes scenery over whitewater you don’t need to wait around for a huge run-off year. At 4-5 cfs we were only were forced out of our boats for the standard portages around boulder jumbles. Expect to do a lot of starfishing, scraping, and hunting for the deep channel. Travel will be slow and we enjoyed having five nights to maximize our time in the canyon.



Canyons and Side Hikes:

Don't miss the following stops along the river, marked in the above map.

+Neon Canyon: A short walk from the river brings you to the stunning Golden Cathedral.*

+Ringtail Canyon: A very intimate and dark slot canyon not for the claustrophobic.*

+Fools Canyon: Explore up the canyon or scramble to the balcony downstream for 360 degree views.

+Steven's Arch: Easily viewed from the river or head up Steven's Canyon proper to hike near the base.

*Technical canyoneers should consider bringing gear to drop these two slots from the top.

An impressive 90 degree bend following a tight squeeze in Ringtail Canyon.

Exiting Ringtail Canyon.

Difficulty:

The run typically gets a II-III rating, but at low flows I would call it “slow-motion technical class II”.  You will be on your toes to keep from getting stuck. Since all the whitewater is manageable and forgiving, this run is a great option for a novice paddler at low to medium flows. There are two portages where the river runs beneath boulder piles that are easy to spot and portage at river level.


Character of the most challenging whitewater on the Escalante.

Logistics:

Hike in from the Golden Cathedral Trailhead (aka Egypt TH) off Hole-in-the-Rock road. It is worth checking with a local outfitter about road conditions given that it can be impassible when it is wet, but otherwise it is "Subaru friendly". The trailhead should be stocked with free self-issue permits. There are two primary options for hiking out. The most direct option starts at the mouth of Coyote Gulch before departing to the south via a cairned trail to Crack-in-the-Wall (this is what we did). For a longer and more scenic egress that would add another night of camping, hike the entire length of Coyote Gulch back to Hole-in-the-Rock road (a popular backpacking trip). If you are interested in making this trip an entirely human-powered loop or just have one vehicle, it is quite possible to mountain bike the road, but expect it to be very hot and dusty with no water along the way. There are also multiple outfitters in the nearby town of Escalante that offer shuttles from the endpoint at Coyote-Gulch Access to the Golden Cathedral Trailhead.

STEWARDSHIP: The Escalante has seen a huge uptick in packrafters and backpackers using the river corridor. As a result there are lots of signs of humans from fire rings to poorly buried cat holes. Please practice Leave No Trace Principles and pack out your human waste in wag bags (required) to help maintain access for packrafters.


The hike out through Crack-in-the-Wall.

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