Updated: Aug 22, 2020
The Paria is the ultimate ephemeral desert river. Boatable flows on the Paria are so fickle that some groups have had to hike out after the water dropped on them overnight. While hard to catch, the Paria is easily the most dramatic desert river I have paddled. It will reward any paddler with 20 miles of beautiful slot canyon paddling followed by another 20 miles of class III-IV boulder gardens. This is one of those runs where calling in sick or driving through the night will be worth your time, otherwise you might wait years for your next shot.
Why packraft?: At high flows, this run would be great in a hard shell. There would still be a few boney sections near the beginning and end of the run but in general, it would channelize quite well. The primary upside to packrafting is that it facilitates an easier hike out if you were to wake up to a de-watered river (very possible). For a strong group, you could catch the surge and just paddle the 40+ miles in a day to avoid that possibility. That said, I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to linger in such a jaw-dropping canyon. I appreciated doing my first Paria trip as an overnighter. The only downside of this run is the water quality. If there is water, it will be a thick mud slurry that will be hard on your packraft and stowfly zipper.
Difficulty: The Paria is best for advanced paddlers or intermediates with good guidance and a willingness to walk a number of more consequential rapids. In the first half of the trip, the slot canyon paddling consists of mostly easy wall shots but is full of blind corners with limited places to stop. Wood in the wrong spot would be disastrous. While the paddling in the slot itself never really builds to more than II+, once the walls peel back the gradient picks up. The final 20 miles have lots of continuous class III-IV boulder gardens. You will likely need to scout some of these rapids. Most rapids go just fine there but there are a few that are super sieved out with marginal lines (we ended up portaging twice). Either way, expect to be catching lots of flushy eddies and dashing around some stray pieces of wood.
Water levels: The most challenging part of this run is catching it with enough water. There is a USGS gauge on the Paria at Lees Ferry. This is about 12 hours downstream of the put-in, so keep in mind that flows could be wildly different than what you will be paddling. A heavy rain-on-snow event is most effective at bringing the Paria to a runnable level. We put on with 325 cfs, and the river peaked at 900 cfs that afternoon. We took out the following day with just over 400 cfs after the flow dropped overnight. During a good snowpack year between February and April, keep your eyes on the forecast and just wait at the put-in for the surge. I have heard of people paddling this as low as 150 cfs, but I imagine even in a packraft you would be scraping a lot. 350-500 cfs seems ideal: filled in but not too pushy in the lower section. Expect things to ratchet up in difficulty with highwater in the lower section (IV+).
If you plan to do the Paria as an overnight, you need to obtain a permit which can be done online through the BLM site, over the phone (except on Sundays), or in person at the ranger stations in St. George or Kanab. Camping is possible in a number of small sites after the river exits the first 20 miles of slot canyon paddling. If you are planning to paddle the Paria as a LONG day trip, you only need a self-issue permit. The shuttle from Lees Ferry to the put-in is 1 hour and 20 minutes. You can leave your vehicle in the Grand Canyon overnight parking lot, a short walk from the takeout. I recommend paddling out into the Colorado River to rinse off the mud before walking back on the fishing trail.