Canyons of the Escalante
A boat-access hiking trip
2023 gave us incredible snowpack in the southwest, and I had plans to make the most of it. Unfortunately a few of my April and May were cancelled entirely, but rising from the ashes was an opportunity to join my friends Sam and Jessie on a 10-day trip down the Escalante River. This trip happened a little earlier than I was hoping to run the Escalante, and consequently had low water. But still 10 days is more than enough to boat 80 miles of river with continuous current. This was no lazy trip though, we had significant hiking objectives and ended up exceeding our hopes. We spent roughly 70% of our moving time on foot, stopping at over 20 different locations to explore stunning slots and high ledge routes.
My main focus in post-processing this trip was to make this video, and if you are hoping for a visually pleasing experience look there instead. What I have here is more of a journal than a trip report, written mostly in the field. It's purpose is to capture information from the trip, so that I can remember the experience better and share beta. If that interests you, read on. But first, here are a few nice photos of my trip partners, each in a one of our favoite canyons.
Sam in Ringtail
Daniel in Beryl
Jessie in Choprock
Now, the wall of text. Written each night of the trip, breifly proofread, minorly edited.
Day 1 - Barely making it through intact
We arrive at the visitor at almost 1pm, an hour late due to time change. Sam and Jessie heard from a local expert that the river is way too low above Boulder Creek, enough to consider other routes. We decided to at least look at the bridge and see what it's like. It's immediately clear that it will not be fully navigable, but it's worth trying and better than other options. Especially with our 10 days worth of supplies. At around mile 1 Daniel gets a leak, and it's significant enough we stop and fix it with vinyl tape. Easy.
At around mile 1.5 I get a pretty major leak. I soon discover it's full thickness slice about half an inch. Caused by not paying enough attention to how I packed my hard objects, stupid. Anything hard against the outside of the tubes will cause bad boat damage like this. A good lesson, I readjust my packing a bit and fix the hole with Tyvek tape inside and out. Probably temporary, but it held air almost perfectly until camp.
The rest of the boating to Boulder Creek was more of the same, but we actually enjoyed it and learned how to do it best. Lots of walking while the boats drifted freely. No more leaks, luckily. At mile 6, Boulder Creek adds at least as much water as we already had. I was hoping more, Sam said that Boulder can contribute 80% of the flow at times of high snowmelt. It's okay though, because the boating dramatically improves. The biggest "rapids" are the worst part because some are still unrunnable, but all the calm water boating is deep enough. We stop to look at a nice but super shady camp, and keep going until we find a nice spot at mile 9. Pretty good for a launch at almost 2:30.
It's 6:30 and the sun is still out on the rocks above. We immediately head up a short distance to get dry and warm. That brings me to the weather: perfect. No wind, not hot, but the water feels great even into the evening. I brought my dinner supplies up to the rock so I stayed high longer than the others. Back down at the river, we mostly just talked but also did some chores. I add Seam Grip to the edges of the outside tape, hoping it will help seal the tape on and reduce air seeping through. In bed around 9:40. Beautiful night.
Day 2 - Wandering aimlessly in Spencer Canyon
A chill morning had us on the river a little late. We stopped at Spencer Canyon for a side hike that took a long time. We went up a cool crack/rockfall route with a faint trail, pausing on top to explore some slight slots. Jessie stopped to swim in a huge pool and upon hearing it was warm, I jumped off a 5ft pooroff. Then we continued up through the mostly sandy wash, but occasionally cool narrows to enter the main joint fork. That was pretty cool, walking in a straightline narrows for a long time. On the way back, we descended the main lower slot of Spencer, which was awesome with 2 elevator shaft downclimbs and a short swim in between. That was it, and we were soon back at our boats.
Around 2 we put back in, heading downstream mostly continuously. The boating got better after we passed The Gulch, which added some brown water. With the river brown, it was harder to see sandbars, but we still enjoyed the mostly deep enough paddling. Stopped at a river left canyon around 7. We were a little cold, then got dry and warm, then the wind picked up and it was cool, then it got calm and warm. I added Seam Grip to the inside of the hole, which helped tremendously and made it fully airtight for the rest of the trip. The sunset was beautiful, 9:45 now and in bed.
Day 3 - large slots and stunning water
After breakfast I walked up canyon about 10 minutes, but it was not super narrow. On the water at 9:30, we stopped to walk .5 miles up a canyon to Reclining Arch. A very worthy side hike with some fun little mini slot climbs. We continued down, stopping for lunch and then continuing to Choprock, where we would spend the rest of the day.
We begin walking at a good pace up Choprock, stopping near the mouth to look at an excellent petroglyph panel opposite some Moqui Steps that led to a bench trail to Neon. Continuing upstream, we took the main fork first which had incredible Wingate Narrows sustained for a long time. The water was also beautiful, clear but bluish with suspended clay. I developed a blister on my heel from hiking too much in neoprene socks. We found an amazing 40ft Moqui step ladder that Daniel and I climbed up and down. Further up, we started up the North Fork which was immediately very bouldery. Looking at the map, it seemed the bonus narrows were a bit far and not very long. So at 4 miles from the river, we turned around. Still walking quickly, we made it back to the south fork in good time and we headed up to see the final rappel. It was immediately cool how different it was, with blacker water and lots of trees. But also poison ivy - not cool.
We made it back to the boats around 7 and pondered paddling down to Neon, but decided not to. Had a great dinner and evening of conversation, enjoying the sound of the water, the moonlit rocks, and beautiful temperature.
Day 4 - "best Utah day ever!", (until days 6-9 matched it)
Daniel and I paddled ahead to hike Golden Cathedral while Sam and Jessie stopped to check out a possible fossil in Fence. Golden Cathedral was incredible, exceeded expectations because the entire hike was awesome. We were the first ones up there for the day and all the reflections were amazing. We boated on down to Ringtail.
Ringtail is an incredible tight slot, and this was evident almost immediately. The bottom section is extremely dark and involves walking through cold shin deep water for extended hallways. It was amazing. Higher up, we surmounted many fun upclimbs and probed a few pools for depth, sometimes using partner assists or handlines. Extremely fun. We eventually found ourselves at across a keeper pothole from an insurmountable drop. But wildly, there were Moqui Steps leading directly up to get into a stem, passing high above the pothole. Unfortunately this was very scary, and I couldn't get myself into a stem. If I was more willing to fall in the water (due to being more certain of the depth and having warmer temps), it would have been fun to commit to the steps and use the water as a crashpad. But no. We returned to the river and ate lunch.
After some more boating, mostly annoying in quality, we arrived at 25mile wash. This was a wider Canyon reminiscent of a small Coyote Gulch, with some cool alcoves. The mud was the super slippery kind found in the Paria, but we did see some puma tracks. The hilight was stumbling apon an beautiful masonry structure high above the canyon floor in an inaccessible alcove. We assumed that the soil level used to be about 15ft higher, which would be just barely enough to make climbing into the alcove reasonable. We climbed up to a point opposite the structure to look into it from above and enjoy the view of the canyon. Then, we returned.
After a bit of snacking and mapping we decided not to stop at any of the Little Baker canyons, because they are all guarded by riverfront pouroffs. We paddled to Moody, which was the best section of river yet. The evening light was perfect and the Wingate walls were unbelievable. Arriving at Moody, we had an efficient evening of setup and dinner, with some good conversation. We decided not to hike Moody or East Moody at all, because they are wide. The moonlight is beautiful and we're right at the delta of the canyon, which is finally not a tight mud chute but actually nice gravel. It's cool cowboy camping with the river so close, a little rapid below.
Day 5 - Portage and poison ivy
Woke up with some condensation at Moody Creek. So we had a slow morning, Daniel walked up to a hanging oxbow that sounded cool, I hike up to a point with some wet down gear to dry it in the sun. We eventually boated down to East Moody, which we decided to stop and explore. We walked up to the south fork (?) and it was very choked with boulders. Daniel wanted to walk up but no one else did, so we waited while he checked it out. It soon cliffed out, but was indeed cool above. We walked back to the boats and had lunch.
We boated down to Scorpion Gulch and found a great takeout we thought would likely be camp after the hike. But it turned out that Scorpion was super dank with lots of leaf litter, black water, and poison ivy everywhere. There was a decent trail through it all, but it wasn't worth it to us. Jessie and I turned back first and climbed into a cool abandoned meander where we were able to climb about halfway up the central tower of rock. Sam and Daniel weren't far behind.
We continued boating, and had some fun stuff ahead. The crux section of Scorpion Rapid was indeed wild, but literally unnavigable at this flow. Everything below was fun though, but all of it had rock bumping involved. We passed Georgie's Camp and stopped to look around for a bit, but decided we needed to camp at the base of the Scorpion Horse Route to be able to hike it in the morning. So we pushed on for 10 more minutes, running the 5ft drop which was really just a series of boulder squeezed.
Camping on beautiful moonlight beneath the towering cliffs of tomorrow, we had some great conversation and maybe even debate. I asked Sam and Jessie to expand on their feelings about social media which caused even more of an explosion of passion and strong language than I expected. But it was all very interesting, and I continued provoking them. Jessie was eventually also curious about my opinions and experience, and Daniel chimed in as well, disarming her a little bit by asking "what is your favorite way to keep in touch with people?". It was a good discussion because by the end, I think we could both see the other side more clearly.
Day 6 - Getting high, wildlife, and bouldery pools
We woke up a little early, but mostly just had a fast morning to start hiking up the dune by 7:30 for the Scorpion Horse Route. The dune slog was fine, and then we fussed around a bit trying to find the right Kayenta ledge. But the ledge went quite easily, with a faint trail. Eventually we found ourselves at the back of a canyon and decided to go straight up. With one bypass, it went through the Navajo to the rim! We walked along the rolling petrified dunes for about a mile before dropping back down the main route to close the loop and return for lunch.
It was very hot now and we were glad to be done hiking. The process of packing up in the sun and finding small shade to eat lunch was warm, but a dunk in the river provided beautiful relief. During lunch, I walked over to my stuff to get another item and saw a snake in a nearby bush. "Oooh, snake!" I called out. "Wow, really long. Wait no, 2 snakes. Holy shit there's 3!". The others came over quickly and a natural phenomenon unfolded before us. Two of the snakes were clearly mating, but the third snake had it's jaws locked onto one of them! This asshole was taking jealousy a step too far, but we didn't dare intervene, so after watching them for a while we let them be. By keeping an eye on their situation, we later noticed that the aggressor had released the bite and was slithering away. The mating pair paused while one of them chased the bad guy away, and one (we believe the female) stayed behind. She had a severe bloody wound, unfortunately.
Eventually we left and boated downstream. The boating was pretty fun, often channelized through boulders. We stopped at a nice beach at Fold Canyon. It was really hot so we debated hiking the canyon, which appeared to be full sun. But we decided we should do it, because we have time. So we dunked in the river and started up. It was extremely bouldery. Like huge, house sized boulders that were hard to weave through at times. We shortly found a nice little clear pool surrounded by cottonwoods and Jessie wanted to stay there. Sam and I felt indifferent, but Daniel wanted to see more, so we kept going. After maybe 15 more minutes of bouldering, we stopped for a long time. Sam went back pretty quickly, and Daniel and I just laid ina rock in the breeze. We decided to continue. We pushed through the boulders for a long time, maybe 45 minutes, until we arrived at the top of the Chinle where the canyon narrowed. We were feeling a little tired to continue, but the way there had been very beautiful. A flowing trickle of clear water with lots of clear pools, some deep and long. We sat at our turnaround point for a long time, looking at maps and staring up at the walls. The way back was way more fun! We found amazing flow through the boulders, enjoying being lightly loaded. At the biggest pool, I determined it was clear enough to be deep enough to jump. It was amazing! The water was so refreshing and deep, not even super cold. We continued flowing through the rocks like water, back to camp.
It was a peaceful, early evening, and we ate dinner separately because Jessie wanted to avoid biting flies by being in the tent. There really weren't that many, so Daniel and I were content. A while after dinner, Sam came over and we talked about all kinds of stuff for at least an hour, probably more. A beautiful night, with an ever-growing moon.
Day 7 - Boulders, everywhere
We let Daniel sleep a bit extra and boated away from camp at 10:30, headed to Shofar. The paddling was increasingly fun, and the water increasingly brown. But despite those things, it hadn't actually risen at all on the stick of truth. It was mostly just change in geology; lots of boulders in the channel. The Chinle was the layer of interest for the day - it undercuts the Wingate. More exposed Chinle means wider canyon, and more boulders. Some of these boulder drops were quite fun! The steepest drops were still generally too shallow, but we really enjoyed the narrow channels and abrupt changes in current direction created by boulders.
We bouldered our way up Shofar for as far as we could before reaching a Wingate pouroffs. There was a stick with notches carved in, to be used as a ladder. But from the boulder perch, this climb seemed super sketchy because it relied heavily on some unreliable rock. We sat there for a while, and eventually Daniel moved the log to be a bridge instead. The bridge spanned a gap about 10ft over the top of the shallow pool below. He was able to walk across the bridge and clb the slab of the pouroffs itself. A really cool solution, but the canyon didn't go far above before coming to definitive ends.
We continued boating and really enjoyed it, easily portaging the monstrous sieve. We paused to walk up Hydra. The lowest end where the drainage crossing a large beach was super cool, a trickle of clear flowing water forming beautiful aquarium pools. Very riparian. Then we were in the boulders again. This one could keep going forever, but we weren't determined enough to try to make it to the end of the boulders where the canyon narrows.
We carried on to find a camp across from Fools Canyon. The river travel had been really incredible today, with almost constantly engaging manuveres and incredibly scenic walls around every bend. We had another good night with beautiful weather, under a very bright moon.
Day 8 - High and unlikely places
We decided not to pack up camp and instead just headed up Fools after breakfast. The walking through the lower canyon was good, kind of a little bit of everything we had experienced besides slot. Some narrow Wingate sections, some pools, some boulders, some ledges, some brush, some poison ivy.
We enjoyed that section and headed up a north trib for the exit route. The lower section was a cool steep Wingate halfpipe, then we walked good Kayenta ledges around a point (where we ate lunch) to find the Navajo cliff break. We climbed that, and then pondered what to next. We could see on the map and in person a very uncertain route up to a high point, called 5010. We walked over to the crux section and Jessie led the charge up it. It was really steep slickrock, but doable. The summit was amazing, we had full 360 views including snowcapped Navajo Mountain, yet we were perched right above a very meandering section of river. It was hot, but windy and partly cloudy. We sat up there for a while, and noticed another coop route near our camp. A big dirt pile provided passage through the Wingate, then we could walk out on a thin wall above the river. We retraced our route, got back to the canyon bottom, got wet, and carried on.
After refilling water in the oxbow section of Fools, we ascended the dirt slope back to the top of the Wingate. From there, we walked out onto the thin fin of rock in the middle of a tight river bend. It was indeed incredible, somehow more dramatic and less scary than I even imagined. We stood on it in various places for a while, then descended to camp.
Down there, we passed a ranger camp. Brian from the BLM monument, Steve from GCNRA, on a packrafting patrol trip. Steve was very nice and knowledgeable about the area. He said the route we were on goes on Kayenta ledges all the way to Coyote Gulch. Sam and Jessie had a lot of questions, which he mostly answered excellently. He said that any cows in the river corridor are not only illegal, but feral, which behave like elk. Apparently they are actively trying to remove them but it's difficult. We went on, across the river, to our camp and had another great night. The sky had been acting a little thundery and we worried of rain, but it mellowed out and we didn't set up our tent.
Day 9 - Sneaky canyon routes, epic boating
We were in the river before 10 and enjoyed boating down to Ichabod. We decided to hike up and got through the boulders efficiently, eventually ending up at the confluence of two major arms. We took the south/east arm and immediately were able to bypass two pouroffs with creative roue finding. We got on top of the Wingate and walked out to the point above the confluence. We sat for a while, carelessly burning through time and it was awesome. Eventually we descended.
Boating down to Beryl was super fun, great boulder rapids. We arrived at about 3:15, and after some indecision, allowed ourselves to go up. The steep bouldery section led to a small pouroff, easily bypassed. We walked up through the narrowing Wingate for a while. At some.point Daniel and I were ahead and debated going further. The coolest section was reachable in 15 minutes, so I wanted to go for it. It was indeed incredibly as the Wingate narrowed, and we made it to a small confluence. Both forks had 2 major pouroffs, and only the lower falls in the north fork was remotely climbable, using a tree as a ladder. We took turns stabilizing the ladder for each other and made it up. From there, we were able to walk to the base of the upper pouroffs in the main arm, which was a really cool spot with a big deep pool we could just barely walk around.
We figured Sam and Jessie had decided to just head back because we were pushing our time. But then, Sam called out to us. From our narrow view, we could see him on top of the Wingate on canyon right. We talked for a bit and they told us about an incredible route they had found. We couldn't reach each other here, so we headed back. Daniel and I stopped and waited at the base of what we thought might be the route, but were very doubtful. I thought I had seen them stop and look around in this area, but I was confused. It looked impossible. Then, we heard them coming. We found a perfect perch to watch as they began descending. It was truly incredible. Literally every section looked physically impossible from our vantage point. It was so inspiring take in the scale of the canyon, as we watched peopleove through what looked like sheer cliff. But, as they soon told us, it wasn't even that scary.
Still amazed by the experiences we both had in Beryl, we returned to the boats and headed downstream. Little did we know the most awe-inspiring section of river lay ahead. As the light got better and better, we paddled fun rapids through truly incredible canyon. As the Chinle disappeared, the walls narrowed immensely, which allowed us to truly appreciate their magnificent height. The Wingate formed incredible alcoves under which we paddled. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, Stevens Arch came into view. We had been joking throughout the trip about how arches are overhyped, but Stevens is really on another level. Finally, we pulled up at an inconspicuous confluence of a small clear stream; Coyote Gulch.
We dragged our packrafts through the lower Wingate slot, looking for camp. Suddenly, the group of Wildlanders and affiliates led by Jeanelle were calling out to us, from a beach just upstream. We didn't expect to see them because we thought they were finishing a day later. There was nowhere else to really camp but with them, so we gave in to socialization. As we talked, a string of Starlink satellites passed over just a few minutes before the full moon rose. Crickets sang and the tricky stream eventually lulled us to sleep.
Day 10 - Exit via Crack in the Wall
Went smoothly. Our ride situation had some problems, but we were able to solve them by having some of us hitch a ride with a couple of strangers from the trailhead.