San Juan/Grand Gulch Packraft

In Fall of 2020 while on an anniversary trip on the Upper San Juan river, Joelle and I dreamt up an excellent trip idea together. This would be a traverse of a big section of Utah desert by foot and packraft - our first big packrafting voyage. The concept was to combine the best section of the San Juan with an early exit to complete a thru hike in Grand Gulch. It is difficult to access the lower reaches of Grand Gulch, so entering from the river made a lot of sense. On April 9th 2021, we completed that trip alongside Tyrrell Tapaha. Ben Trumpinski was along for the river section.

Day 1 - Float

We began our trip by floating downstream for 14 miles. I was in my Nirvana, Joelle and Ben in Rogue-Lites, and Tyrrell in the infamous Klymit LWD. We all enjoyed the small riffles throughout the trip and after every decent Class II rapid, craved more.

Day 2 - Float

More floating, this time entirely through the deep canyons of the Honaker Trail Limestone formation. The floating was pleasant yet again, and the weather perfect low 80's. The river flowed just above 500 cfs, a reasonably navigable flow for our small boats.

Day 3 -Float

On the final day of the river, we got to paddle the more exciting Class III Government Rapid. We all scraped rocks but made it through without flipping. As we ate lunch on the beach below, a 14 foot oar raft approached. Such a creature had no hope of making it through, it seemed, but we assumed this was a normal occurrence. Unfortunately, the boat got pinned against a rock mid-river due to no fault of the rower. Our new-formed team of 6 tried everything to get it unstuck, but it didn't budge. A couple hours passed before a group of 4 additional boaters in inflatable kayaks. With their assistance, we freed the boat by a combination of pulley systems and bouncing on the raft while pulling on the flip lines. The raft flipped and scooted through the remainder of the rapid. Our group paddled on, past Slickhorn the river becomes affected by lake sediment and is flat water with many hard to see sandbars. We arrived at the mouth of Grand Gulch at dusk, and camped on the ledge above the river.

Day 4 - Hike

The morning of our first hiking day demanded a different packing style - the backpack. How to fit everything? Was a question pondered heavily. I managed quite well with my 55 liter pack, just putting my enormous packraft on top under the brain. By this point, Ben had decided to float out rather than hike, due to concerns about his knee and being offered a ride all the way home from the Clay Hills by the ducky group. He offered to carry out some things on his raft since the remainder was flatwater. I wanted to carry everything, to get comfortable with the spirit of packrafting. Joelle also wanted to (sort of), mostly because I did. Tyrrell gave Ben only his Klymit raft, but opted to carry his long 2 piece paddle which would prove heinous at times for the bushwacking we would encounter.

Packed, we began hiking. the lowest mile of Grand Gulch is steep and extremely boulder-ridden, and route finding was difficult at times. We were all feeling the weight as well. Roughly 20 minutes up, we came to a 20ft pouroff bypassed on the left by a short traverse. The traverse is a little hard to describe. It was worn in like a trail, but steep enough to require hands on rock, but holds were minimal and the footing was extremely loose. It was certainly a no-fall zone with about 30ft of exposure. Ben and Tyrrell were already across it (Ben having no pack and just out for the day). I moved through it without much hesitation, carrying my pack and talking Joelle through the moves. Long story short, after 30 minutes she still couldn't bring herself to do it, even with no pack.

Joelle had a lot on her mind at that time. Ben's decision to not do the hike obviously affected her, considering she also has a history of knee issues and didn't want those to reawaken. Grand Gulch drops only 2600 feet from the trailhead to the river, over 50 miles, so we expected relatively flat riverbed walking. But the hiking below the pouroff had been anything but that, and she was affected by the challenge of that terrain with a heavy pack. We all agreed that if the entire hike was in that sort of terrain, we would certainly fail. We were confident it wouldn't all be that way, but Joelle had injury on her mind. During this time, Ben had hiked further upcanyon and come back reporting that the terrain did not improve at all in 15 minutes of walking. All this considered plus the fear of the traverse looming, Joelle decided to turn back and float out with Ben.

Logistically it was an easy decision for me to continue with Tyrrell, but my morale was wrecked. The ride that Ben was planning on taking could probably squeeze 2, but definitely not 3 or 4. So we continued with the trip. Within 5 minutes of splitting up the terrain changed dramatically and Tyrrell and I found ourselves for the next 25 minutes walking through the most beautiful place I have ever been in Utah. Hands were still required occasionally, but there were no more boulders. Clear water was not only present, but flowing, and large vibrant cottonwoods had freshly awakened to spend a season drinking it. The perfect orange canyon walls soared above and we walked mostly on slickrock. I couldn't stop thinking, "Joelle would love this." I found myself struggling to enjoy the place like I never had before, and endlessly debating going back to get her and try even harder to convince her to try the traverse and do the trip, with great and honest news of what lie ahead. The longer I waited, the harder it became to go back. Eventually, Tyrrell agreed that I should, so I did.

Leaving my pack with Tyrrell, I flew down the canyon, running. I did the traverse perfectly without hesitation and bounced down the boulders, making it to the river in 20 minutes. Joelle and Ben were there in the shade, having lunch. Luckily, her backpack was still packed and she had only unrolled her raft. Of course, they were very surprised to see me. It was a short conversation to get her to change her mind, but a little more difficult than I expected. I requested that Ben carry out her raft and some gear, which he was able to do reluctantly and that helped ease the decision. I offered to carry her pack back up to Tyrrell (which ended up giving me some sore shoulders) and set a handline through the traverse with a throw rope. We made good time back up to Tyrrell and Joelle did the traverse without hesitation, but still with a lot of trepidation. She was stoked to be in the oasis that revealed itself above.

Reunited, but it was late in the day and we were behind schedule having only come 2 miles. Walking needed to commence, but I hadn't eaten yet so I munched chips while we hiked. In the heat of the afternoon, we stopped frequently to wet our clothes by soaking in the pools. After marching on almost until sunset, we found ourselves at Grand Arch, a magnificent feature in the Gulch surrounded by a perfect section of canyon with a cool oxbow nearby. We had an hour of daylight remaining, and we were still behind on mileage, but it had been a stressful day so we opted to savor the evening in that area and camp nearby.

Day 5 - Hike

A short previous day now boosted our daily mileage goal significantly, so we shouldered our packs fairly early after a quick breakfast. By late-lunchtime, we had come 9 miles to the junction with Collins Canyon, making good time but it was hot. We had begun too see less water, periodically it was available but nothing like the flowing pools of the lower canyon. I filled a bottle in the small pool near the junction, and we waited in the shade until about 3pm.

Getting started again, we walked through more beautiful canyon stretches, turning endlessly. The walking had terrain had become much more consistent since about mile 5 the day before. Still beautiful of course, but not more flowing water and constant, massive cottonwoods. Not much slickrock either, we now walked primarily in the riverbed which was either sand or large pebbles, all very soft which made each step more energy intensive. Occasionally a faint trail would lead out of the wash and walk up on the bank for a while. These would be more brushy and generally seemed only worthwhile if they served to "cutoff" significant distance in a meander of the canyon corridor. Cottonwoods and other riparian trees were still frequent, providing shade and contrasting perfectly with the orange canyon walls.

Soon after lunch we passed the Banister House, a fabulous cliff dwelling and our first native american site. Banister Spring, however, was nowhere to be found. By dusk we had made it 6.5 more miles to Big Pouroff Spring, where no flowing spring was obvious but numerous pools were present. That was logistically refreshing, since we hadn't seen water in a while, but not literally, because they were pretty dark and dank with lots of decomposing leaves. The water we scooped was clear though, and tasted fine once treated. The pouroff itself was a non-issue navigationally, as the canyon was extremely wide there and a trail A good campsite wasn't obvious here, so we chose the flattest spot we could find in the wash bed above the pouroff.

Day 6 - Hike

Another semi-early start for a long day of hiking. We would make 14 miles today to get to the Bullet Canyon junction, thus putting us back ahead of our planned daily average. 14 miles to me feels like a totally reasonable backpacking day, and it was our average last year on the Colorado Trail with more elevation change and we had no issues. But even before entering Grand Gulch, I knew it would be naive to predict 14 mile days feeling "easy".

A few factors made the hiking hard here, besides elevation change. Premier among them was the ground surface. Wash walking can be quite liberating in other places but here almost always took the form of "sand-slogging" as we began calling it. The soft surface really does sap energy and strain foot muscles. When we left the wash to change up the surface, we were often confronted with mild bushwacking, even though we only did this if a faint trail was present. Rarely, debris would block the channel and we had to climb over it. Water carries weren't horrible, but on days 5-7 we carried a full day's supply between reliable sources (camps) since water seemed scarce. This was approximately the right strategy - there were occasional water holes due to the time of year but they seemed unreliable.

Otherwise, a few more factors made the hiking especially hard on me. For one, I had chosen to wear my Teva sandals for the whole trip. This wasn't too bad, but they were pretty worn in already and lacked support/protection from all the large pokey pebbles we walked on. That was certainly made worse by the weight I carried.

I was never unhappy with my decision to carry all my gear out - this was exactly why I wanted to, so I could feel what true packrafting is and learn how to make it feel better if needed. Overall, the trip wasn't crippled by the weight I carried, but it felt unsustainable after the two high mileage days and it was good to find out that I would probably get injured if I continued at that rate, without actually having that happen. My Flash 55 felt consistently maxed out, even towards the end of our food. It was fairly comfortable still, but definitely at the limit.

In the interest of cutting future weight, I pulled aside all the items I might be able to do without in the future and it wasn't a whole lot. The throw rope felt excessive for a class II trip like the San Juan at low water. I brought a bit too much fuel. On the river we had to use wag bags and put them in a hard sided container. This Kirkland jar was the best solution, but Joelle had an even bigger one and we could've shared this one. Most other trips won't need this. The only food I didn't need was a full jar of peanuts, and a large plastic jar of dried veggies we planned on adding to our meals, but they turned out to be seasoned also so we couldn't add very much. I wouldn't bother with those in the future. In total, not a ton of weight, but a decent bit of volume.

The only other big way I could've cut weight is my raft. The Klymit Tyrrell was using weighed 8 pounds less than mine. Now, the only reason he was able to use that was because we put most of his gear in our TiZip rafts. He still wasn't very comfortable in the minimalist, pool-toy boat. My Supai raft is more comfortable and has more gear capacity, but is even less durable than the Klymit and may not have made it with all the rocks. Joelle and Ben had the best boats for the trip. The Rogue Lite is 6 pounds less than mine, plenty durable and comfortable with perhaps even better gear storage. The deck wasn't really necessary, but they were sitting in water often and had to pull over after any decent wave to dump out the boats. Considering I definitely want to do more whitewater-heavy trips than the San Juan, I definitely still want a skirted boat, but could probably save about 4 pounds.

All in all, I could realistically do the trip about 7 pounds lighter. Not huge, but it would have left me in better shape after the hardest hiking days. It's still packrafting though, you pay a price in pack weight in exchange for being able to spend entire days traveling effortlessly. In the future I might try to plan routes that have a bit less intense hiking, or where the hiking days are broken up by floating.

Day 7 - Hike Out

Hiking out Bullet Canyon was an excellent way to end the trip. The legendary archaeology of the Grand Gulch complex was an appealing draw of the area. So far, we had only seen the Bannister House and some small rock art, so we were excited to see the sites in Bullet. Within the first mile, the canyon walls expanded dramatically for the first time and gave us a wide open view. The most popular trip in the complex by far, is to loop from Bullet to Kane Gulch, thus we were now on the first major trail we'd seen. We'll have to come back for that later, since we skipped the most upper section of Grand Gulch. For now, we planned to savor our final day in the desert since we wanted to complete to remaining 7 miles by about noon.

We ended up visiting just one historic site along the way, the Jailhouse. The colonial name of this ruin misinterprets it's purpose. This is a common theme in white colonial storytelling - portraying native people's as more violent than they actually were (through lying or exaggeration) in order to justify genocide against them (which is portrayed as "defense"). So the Jailhouse is really just a large beautifully intact cliff dwelling. It has some elegant open-air windows with sticks spanning them to keep critters out, and is dark and cool inside, giving the appearance of a jail cell.

This is a great opportunity to express how great of a partner Tyrrell was on the trip. Tyrrell is really knowledgeable about native cultures, land, and sites. He was able to share a lot of fun facts about how these places were used, but perhaps more importantly he taught us how to respect the sites. Joelle and I are experienced in traveling landscapes in respectful, low impact ways, but we had not visited any native american structures before. This learning culminated in a decision not to even visit another site in Bullet Canyon, which is the most famous.

We continued on, making good time through the canyon. Towards the end, the head of the canyon steepened dramatically and a faint trail led through the brush and rockfall. Pools of water appeared again, some the largest we had seen. The final stretch of hiking was up steep slickrock. This was all really fun and felt like a great way to end the trip. Upon returning to the trailhead, Tyrrell's car was waiting for us, a sweet bonus. We had planned on delivering it there ourselves in advance, but on the early morning when we left Flagstaff, his alternator failed. We all piled in my car and he requested that his (fairly nearby) parents pick us up from the trailhead at the end of the trip and shuttle us back to Mexican Hat. Instead, they had fixed his car and left it waiting for us. So nice!

Closing Thoughts

This was by far the best trip I have done in Utah yet. The creative route design, well-timed seasonality, and incredible scenery made it a forever special experience. I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did without having Joelle along for the whole time. It was essential for us to have this experience together. We had the idea together, did the planning together, and ultimately made it happen together. I'm so grateful that she decided to go through with it, and she was too. It was a hard route for both of us, but we made it through without any major issues. I really look forward to doing similar packrafting trips in the future, the access provided by the boat is truly incredible. The opportunity for creativity is too. As I do more backcountry trips, I continue to enjoy the planning process, especially when there's no evidence of something having been done before. I later became aware that someone has done this exact route before, but I didn't know that while planning the trip. I get great satisfaction out of learning about a place in every aspect - climate, terrain, resources, history - so that I can travel through it safely, efficiently, respectfully, and elegantly.