Escalante packrafting recce

My latest flawed packrafting plan had been to try my new Yak down the Escalante River in the spectacular and relatively remote GSENM – a place I’d been wanting to visit for years. But after a long trek down to Lake Powell for a quick christening on the Yak) on top of what would probably turn out to be a day’s effort required to position my borrowed vehicle, the forecast for the next few days (top right) was not so promising: rain or possibly snow on top of high winds. I expected things may not work out exactly as planned and didn’t mind as I knew the GSENM and southern Utah in general had plenty of wilderness action off the water.

In the end, I’d have happily settled for a couple of day-runs on the Escalante but park HQ explained the river was all or nothing. I checked out an uninspiring local dam; any natural lakes in the area were high up and all still frozen I was told.
Most put in at Egypt trailhead, aka Fence Canyon (see map) and take out 40 river miles later, either following Coyote Gulch upstream 13 miles to Red Well trailhead close to the main Hole In The Rock track, or up the dune to Crack in the Wall close to Fortymile Ridge trailhead
which was 10 miles or so from the main HitRock track. Or you can head onto Lake Powell and arrange to get picked up by a boat out of Bullfrog Marina, but that’s expensive and unnecessary with packrafts.

However, it’s up to a 1000-foot drop from the trailheads on the bench down to the river and if the Escalante was that easy, many more boaters would be paddling it. I think that’s why it’s become a packrafting classic; they’re the only practical boats to run the Escalante river without getting bogged down with a pick-up off the Lake. So in the end and in the time I had, I settled for a foot recce of the Escalante’s access points, while hoping I wouldn’t get snowed-in in the park before my plane left.

On the bright side, I got lent a GMC Sierra 4×4 truck camper by a guy at a travel show I’d attended in southern Arizona the previous weekend. With heating, a fridge a big bed and a week’s worth of food, staggering back to the van after a day on the trail sure beat windblown tent camping alongside a rental car. And as it was, the bottom-of-the-range rental car I cancelled at the last minute would have struggled to get to places like Egypt trailhead without leaving parts of its undercarriage in the dirt.

I got to Fortymile trailhead overlooking the take-out the same day I’d crawled down to Lake Powell and back from Hole in the Rock (HitR; N37° 15.385′ W110° 54.09′) so was a bit pooped. The last couple of miles’ drive to the trailhead were sandy but a few regular cars were parked there. Getting that heavy Sierra bogged down would have been a headache. From the trailhead car park (N37° 24.227′ W111° 00.533′; 4705 feet) it’s only a couple of miles following faint cairns to Crack in the Wall (N37° 25.152′ S110° 59.108′; 4413 feet) on the Escalante canyon’s rim where you get an impressive view to the northwest (above left and right) over the river below, with Stevens Arch behind and the shrubby dune slope dropping to the river’s edge.

They’re not kidding when they suggest a length of rope to haul your packs over the outside of Crack in the Wall, a slab separated from the cliff by a foot or so and that’s the way down from the rim to the top of the dune slope. Once you drop into it it remains just wide enough to squeeze through if shuffling sideways. Alone coming up might involved more complicated roping.
It was late in the day when I got here, howling and gloomy overhead so I didn’t trek down to the river’s edge far below. Instead, I drove away from the exposed trailhead and camped out of the wind down in Hurricane Wash on the main HitR track. Next day I drove the short distance on to Red Well trailhead (N37° 25.790′ S111°08.776′; 4508 feet), just a couple of miles off the main track.

From here – the most popular hike in the park they say – it’s 13 miles to the Escalante following the increasingly narrow Coyote Gulch, which is the same spot I was looking over the day before. The walk takes a full day or more, especially if coming back up with your gear. I set off towards the river and managed less than half that distance in 3 hours or so, walking through the broader, wooded part of the deepening canyon in and out of the river to about a mile before the point where Hurricane Wash joins Coyote from the south. Later they say it gets more interesting, narrower and much slower as you wade full time through the stream, around waterfalls and past arches.
As a way of getting off the Escalante river, following Coyote upstream has the advantage in that there’s water to drink right around your feet to within a mile or so of the trailhead at Red Well. This itself is only a mile or two from the main track and so a manageable way of getting a lift out back to Egypt trailhead, if you left a car there.

After having clocked the two take-out routes off the river, I drove over to Egypt trailhead, a fun 4WD side track for which you’d need a high-clearance vehicle, and passing a surprisingly different desert environment of pinon trees on limestone? The trailhead is also more impressively located that Forty-mile, right on the rim (N37° 35.581′ W111°13.099′; 5646 feet) where the bench drops over 3.7 miles down via Fence Canyon to the river, 1100 feet below. It took me about 2 hours to get there with a bit of wandering after lost cairns. You have to be vigilant not to lose track of these although the way is fairly obvious: down. 

It’s a fun walk and there’s a bit of room to camp down by the river (N37° 36.744′ W111°10.745′; 4550 feet), though I was surprised how narrow the river was here, just 15 feet wide and moving past at walking pace. A cliff blocked bank access to the south so it wasn’t possible to explore downriver without talking a swim or crawling over the cliff. According to the GPS from the put-in here to the take out is only 17 miles as the crow flies, but of course 40-odd miles along the tightly meandering canyon.
One reads this is an access point to the lovely looking Neon Canyon slot on the far side of the river, a place that would have been fun to explore in warmer weather.

By the time I got back up to the car up on the rim, it had got much colder and as I left Escalante NM for the drive back west to Arizona, Bryce and Zion parks (left) were all under a few inches of snow, with more falling that night at Glendale.

The next day I wanted a scoot down a short section of the Virgin river canyon in Arizona, where I’d stopped late one night a week earlier on the way up from Vegas. The recreational and camping area even had wifi and the Virgin below included a fast narrow chute of a couple hundred yards running at around 15 mph. Surely I could manage that in my slick new boat? I recce’d it all and thought so, but as I approached the chute in the Yak I lost my nerve and scurried for the stony bank a 100 yards or more to where it slowed a bit. Probably a good idea as even though there were no big rapids, at water level it looked rather more intimidating, and if I’d flipped the boat it would have been long gone before I got my bearings.

I put back in after the rush and scooted along a mile or so downstream before I took out in another probably unwarranted panic ahead of some unrecce’d rapids. Unfortunately, the only way out short of grabbing trees and bushes, was the other side of the river from the camp site but no worries, it’s a packraft so I hiked up the hill and upstream with the boat on my head, and did a quick ferry to the camp side where getting out was easier. I drove back north to St George and took the road east back into AZ, past the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to Lees Ferry on the Colorado river.

Never been to the North Rim but it was still closed for the winter, although the drive on past Vermillion Cliffs (below) was well-timed with the dropping sun. Down at Lees Ferry I chatted with some rafting guides loading up for the first tourist run of the season down the Grand Canyon the following morning; two weeks and 220 miles down to Diamond Creek. Their rigs included the biggest raft I’d ever seen, a huge 7 or 8 metre load-carrying pontoon with added side chambers and an outboard, while the clients took off in regular 4m rafts.

So there it is, Escalante packrafting recce for your reading pleasure. Knowing what I do now, I feel more confident about diving in for 3-4 days worth, leaving the car at Red Well, getting a lift somehow back to Egypt and then setting off downriver and coming out via Coyote back to Red.
Although they said the bad weather had come in unseasonably late, these are high altitudes where anything can happen. I reckon up to a month later – mid-May – would have been a good time to try the Escalante, even if it means higher temps and lower levels requiring more portaging. Better to enjoy a slow ride with time for exploration of the side canyons in sunshine and warmth. 

In fact on getting back, the May issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine had a little feature on great rivers in the American West which included the Escalante. It recommended using packboats and mid-May as the best time. I was in the area in early April so took a chance.