||Escalante River: An Amazing Scenic Slickrock Desert Paddle
class II-III; 72-98 miles; 3-8 days
by Rocky Contos
Our trip: June 5-12, 2005 FOR PHOTOS, CLICK HERE; FOR MILE-BY-MILE GUIDE, CLICK HERE
Crew: Rocky Contos, Alex Chong, Tom Diegel, Mike Elovitz, Preston Holmes
Flow: ~200 cfs steady all 8 days on Escalante gauge; ~400 cfs after The Gulch.
To find flow information, go to the USGS website and sum the Escalante, Boulder Cr, Deer Cr, and Pine Creek (use Pine Creek as an approximation of the flow in Sandy Creek), then add 10% more for flow from lesser side streams including The Gulch. An Escalante ranger told me that the river is easily floatable when the Escalante gauge is >50 cfs. To read the gauge, go to the USGS site for Utah: http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ut/nwis/current/?type=flow; you are not likely to experience flows like this for another 20+ years or so. The last time they occurred was 1983 and 1973. Half this flow would still be adequate and enjoyable. See flow discussion later.
Length: 86 miles on our trip to Willow Cr. Typically, 72 to Coyote Gulch, or 98 to Hole-in-the-Rock.
Elevation at put-in: 5200 ft; Lake Powell high water: 3700 ft; our Lake Powell level: 3590 ft
Temps at Moab: early June normal: 90/57 ; for us, June5-12: 84/52, 84/57, 78/48, 82/45, 75/55, 72/52, 71/51, 75/48 [i.e. temps we experienced were 5-15 degrees below normal; however, this didnt seem to affect the snowmelt very much; we had rain on the penultimate day, but it only increased the river level a little]. Note that temps up higher on the Escalante will probably be 5 degrees cooler than the temps at Moab, while down at Lake Powell temps will probably be similar.
Shuttle Logistics: There are generally three alternatives:
1) Boat Shuttle to Bullfrog Marina: This is the most expensive but also the most luxurious, allowing you to see the whole canyon with minimal schlepping of kayaks and reservoir paddling. We arranged such a boat shuttle to pick us up and cart us out to Bullfrog Marina (~50 miles; ~2 hr; cost ~$700 total with car shuttle to Bullfrog). Our driver was Lee Iverson (801-599-3131), a retired fireman from SLC that did a few tow-outs for other groups this year. Although prices might be different based on fuel/etc, we paid him $300 for the ride out and $125 for each of three vehicles to be shuttled from the put-in to Bullfrog marina ($675 total, or $135 each). He is not always available to do this, but at the time was starting a week-long vacation on a houseboat. You might also try Aramark 435-684-3062. Prices will be ~$400 for the boat shuttle.
2) Hike out at Coyote Gulch (mile 72.4): You can take out at Coyote Gulch by hiking up 2.1 miles and 800 ft through Crack-in-the-Wall, arranging your own shuttle or through a local outfitter (see below). This is apparently one of the more popular options, especially since it terminates the trip at the high water line.
3) Hike out Hole-in-the-Rock (mile 98.0; up to 26 miles of lake paddle): With this option you can arrange a shuttle for the end of Hole-In-The-Rock Road, paddling the 15-30 miles of reservoir youre likely to encounter (there are great side canyons along the reservoir to explore, including Cathedral in the Desert up Clear Creek). If you do this route, youll need a high clearance 4WD vehicle to negotiate the last 7 miles of the road.
Shuttles for Escalante:
Rick and Amy Green (in Escalante): 800-839-7567. or 435-684-3062
Escalante Outback Adventures (Drew and Julie; also in Escalante): 435-826-4967
Note that youll generally have to drive your vehicle down to the take-out first and theyll cart you back to the put-in. However, if you have a satellite phone and can call them when youre off the river, you might convince them to pick you up at the take-out point. The prices quoted by each of these outfitters in 2005 were $250 to Coyote Gulch. Only Rick/Amy Green will do a shuttle to Hole-in-the-Rock, and charge $300.
All of us were paddling hardshell kayaks (two Freefalls, an Embudo, Overflow, and Big Gun). Since the river rarely has this much water, the normal paddlecraft is an inflatable kayak (IK), which facilitates hopping out and dragging the kayak over shoals too shallow to float over. However, the amount of water we had was more than sufficient to make floating on the entire river easy without any bumping. Id guess that even with half the water we were on, it would still be easily done without scraping.
Preston drove out from Santa Barbara (~12 hr). Mike flew from Cincinatti to Salt Lake City where Tom picked him up and drove him down (~5 hr drive). Alex and I were just coming off Cataract Canyon (2-3 hr drive), and went straight to the put-in at the Highway 12 bridge near Boulder. The first three launched around noon on Sunday, while Alex and I arrived later and launched around 6 pm. Tomster had left ~5 lb dates and 8 lb oranges for me under his car, which Alex and I packed away. We tried to restock on food between our two trips, but only found a so-so place in Torrey to buy some Dinty Moores, bread, cheesesticks, chips, and cans of beans (in addition to some food we already had). A better place to stock up on food would be the little store in Boulder, which Mike said had a good selection.
The flow at the highway 12 bridge is higher than the Escalante Gauge since Sand Creek adds considerably to the flow, probably about as much as Pine Creek considering they have similar drainages. We had flows of 40-60 cfs on Pine Creek during our trip, so at the put-in we probably had 250 cfs. We also had 135 cfs coming in from Boulder/Deer Creeks, so on most of the river trip we had about 400 cfs. I would guess that from the Escalante gauge you should have about 2-3X as much water for the majority of the river. This relation will not hold up with much lower levels, since Boulder Creek tends to contribute a higher proportion of the flow when the Escalante gauge is low.
Day 1: 6 miles; class III brush to deal with
Camp 1: 6 miles down RL, about 1/3 mile downstream of Boulder Creek
Hike: Around sandstone and Boulder Creek (A)
The put-in area has a registration box to fill out a permit to enter the Escalante and Glen Canyon Recreation Area. I assumed Tom had filled one out for our group, so didnt fill one out myself (turns out he didnt). There were plenty of mosquitoes at the put-in area, moreso near the river. The river is about 100 m from the parking area along a trail. This section of the river, and continuing all the way to Boulder Creek about 5 miles down, there is a lot of brush and trees growing on both banks. Branches block the way at numerous locations, necessitating quick and precise maneuvers to avoid (at least class III skills). The water is extremely silty and very swift at this level. Simply floating, we were going about 3 mph. There are riffles almost constantly, making the water about class II. When the river makes a bend, it generally abuts one of the magnificent sandstone walls lining the entire canyon, and often goes into an overhang. There were some great side hikes to do in these initial few miles (e.g. Phipps Wash and Deer Canyon), but we didnt know how far down the others were camped, and it was late, so we just plowed on through. I was expecting a good flow coming in from Boulder Creek. It carried fairly limpid water, and the 135 cfs (judged from gauges on Boulder Cr and Deer Cr) brought the flow on the river up to 400 cfs. Below Boulder Creek the riverbed was much wider and the brush didnt present nearly as much of an obstruction.
Not far downstream from Boulder Creek, we found our friends at camp. This place had almost no bugs. This day was fairly warm probably around 80 for the high. The night was also fairly warm about 50 for the low. Preston, Tom, and Mike hiked around the region that afternoon, while I did it early the following morning. A strong wind was blowing up higher on the flat sandstone areas, but rarely reached our camp. Scenic views could be taken in up there. Some curious features of this area are the numerous concretions or Moki Balls, small spherical stones from pebble size to baseball size that gather in low-lying pockets of the sandstone and can be gathered up and tossed around. Some believe these to have mystical powers.
Day 2: 14 miles; class II; not that much brush below Boulder Creek
Camp 2: mile 21.2; RR sandy bench by undercut mosquitoes
Hikes: Side Slot (A+), Side Canyon9.6 technical w/pools (A), Grotto15.6 (A)
Soon after we started paddling we came upon an amazing slot on RL. Several of us almost passed it since its tucked away from the river, yet it is easily visible if you look in that direction. Its about 100 ft high, 100 ft long, and 1-4 ft wide. Its as if a huge chunk of the sandstone had been split with a knife. Toward the downstream side it has a point where it abruptly gets a little wider (to 3 ft). Tom stemmed up this part about 30 ft. Out the other side we saw the river again coming around a left bend.
Farther down a couple more miles, I was looking for a side canyon on RR that was mentioned in the Lambrechtse book as a good side trip from the river. Its one of the medium side drainages and not too hard to spot, located in a wide bend where the river doubles back on itself. This one, like most of the larger drainages, had a water inlet from the river that we could enter with a short pull across a sandbar at the river. From there we paddled up a short distance where we landed the kayaks and prepared for the hike. Mike put on some hiking shoes for this, intending to keep them dry. A short tromp up and we came to a slot climb with a pool at the base. We were uncertain whether it would be possible to continue up the slot (Lambrechtse called it impassable) but Tom managed to wade through the pool and climb up, eventually disappearing. Preston also decided to wade through, while Mike, in his dry hiking shoes, tried climbing around, but couldnt make it. He took his shoes off for the wade, putting them back on afterward. Alex waded, while with Mikes help I climbed around. Past this somewhat technical scrambling was required to get through without fully immersing in the pools. At one point I tried to stem across a pool to an area with a pothole-type pool where it widened considerably, and yelped as I realized I couldnt make it all the way, falling in to nearly my waist. To Mikes dismay, there were numerous places where he had to get his feet wet, and eventually decided it wasnt worth all the shoe shuffling, so succumbed to wearing his hiking shoes wet. We all made it through and emerged into a more open part of the drainage with slickrock and sand bottom. Up a bit farther we reached a beautiful deep pool with a large white sand beach on the side something youd expect in a tropical paradise. The water was bone-chilling though, so none of us jumped in. There were several other smaller potholes up here, most filled with water, but one deep and dry. Why would one be dry?, we asked, and still wonder. Two straight side canyons intersect the main canyon past here, suggestive of a fault. This is clearly visible on the topo map as well. Heading back, Mike and I were determined to find another route down, avoiding the awkward moves and pools in the slot, but our reconnaissance didnt reveal the route around to the left. Looking at the Lambrechtse book later, I realized there actually was a way down that side slot, from farther up it.
Several miles downstream we came to the confluence of the Gulch on RL, which had a small flow of water coming in (<50 cfs). We decided to skip a hike up the Gulch, which probably would have involved a lot of swimming, awaiting some smaller drier spots to explore. Not far below the Gulch on RR as you come around a left-hand bend there was some springwater seeps visible just above the river. I was looking to fill water bottles up at a gushing spring around here, as Lambrechtse mentioned this place. All five of us were in the eddy looking around for it, but didnt see any large spring. I got out of my boat to mosey around a little, determined to find the spot. The other guys took off downstream. I got back in my boat and scanned the wet wall again, and found a seep about a foot above the river with a good little stream with which I could quickly fill up my water bottle. While not gushing, it was perfect for water bottle-filling. I chided the other guys when I caught up, and teased them since ALL FOUR missed the spring when it was in front of their faces. About a mile below here we stopped at another interesting-looking side hike on RR. This turned out to be a beautiful amphitheater-like chamber with pool and luxuriant ferns. Disturbing the water a particular way led to intriguing wispy lights reflecting on the wall. Curiously, instead of water, at times we saw sand raining down from above, the winds obviously whipping it up on the slickrock areas above. This place was magical.
We paddled a few more miles that day, passing a couple rincons and Horse Canyon, and were looking for a camping spot. We passed a lot of areas with horsetail-lined banks that appeared they would have small clearings for camps, and checked out several of these. While it would be possible to camp at many, they werent ideal, as much brush would have to be cleared. Even worse, within a minute of getting out, hordes of mosquitoes and other flying nuisances were swarming around us. Even waiting in the kayaks all decked out, the mosquitoes would start swarming. This whole area for many miles seemed prone to the bugs, and each place we checked out was rife with the problem. Eventually we came upon an undercut bank on RR that appeared to have some benches just upstream and downstream of it. The lower looked ideal, with a flat sandy area and few or no bugs, but was small. We decided to camp there in close quarters, which ended up being not bad at all. However, the mosquitoes eventually did track our semiochemicals, and tormented the others through the evening and morning while I enjoyed the protection of my tent (the only one to bring a tent!). They jokingly called me The Boy in the Bubble reminiscing of a similar scene from a trip on the Headwaters of the Kern we did years ago. I also was the butt of jokes for my tan pants and tan buzz off shirt, designed to keep bugs at bay (it did seem to work!). These garments made me look like Ranger Rick. Fortunately I did bring bug repellant that all the others used, and offered the comfort of the tent to Alex that night.
Day 3: 11 miles; class II
Camp 3: mile 32.4; RL below Choprock Canyon
Hikes: SideCanyon 23.6 (B); South and North Choprock (A+)
It was difficult to find good information on the best places to explore from the Escalante River. There were no trip reports on the web, and most of the hiking guidebooks had descriptions of descents from the road. Only the Lambrechtse book described hiking down the river canyon, and even then, he didnt describe most of the side canyons (other than the major ones with easy hikes where he has separate descriptions). Also, none of us had done the river before. Of the few others we knew that had done the trip in the past, all did it at much lower levels and in IKs, at times when simply progressing downstream was the biggest ordeal of each day, having to hop out and drag or portage innumerable times. On those trips there is not as much time for hiking. Besides, most people dont like to hike as far, long, or in as technical places that we do. Thus we were left with limited information on the side hike possibilities. I had gleaned some info off the web on the more popular side canyons to canyoneer down, but it sounded like most of those described required rappel gear and wetsuits/drysuits for lengthy swims. Thus for the most part we were left to explore on our own and figure out which of the side canyons were excellent side excursions and which were duds. Some would say nothing in this region is a dud, and all is certainly beautiful. However, with limited time on a trip like this, I generally want to see most of the highlights. I didnt know when, if ever, Id come back to float the river again. It probably would be 5-10 years before consistent high flows would be encountered again. To help figure out more interesting side canyons to explore, topo maps are quite useful. A couple weeks prior to this I bought the Topo series for Utah, specifically for this and the former trip Alex and I did down the Dolores through Cataract Canyon. From those topos I could see where side canyons were located, and which ones might have interesting features such as narrows.
Armed with some topo knowledge, I suggested that we explore one of the side canyons a few miles down from our camp on RL that looked medium-sized and perhaps quite interesting. We stopped here and started hiking up. It was a pleasant enough hike, but without any particularly stand-out features. We continued up over a mile and eventually were walled out at a dryfall of several hundred feet, in something of a huge punchbowl. Yes, a good hike, but certainly not one of the nicer ones on this trip. I decided to start giving a rating to the hikes we did. This was a B pleasant and beautiful, but typical of the area and not necessarily awe-inspiring. We passed two other side canyons that might or might not be similar. However, I thought we should concentrate efforts in our next excursion that surely would be more interesting.
Choprock Canyon comes in 32 miles down from the put-in on RL and has a typical water inlet you can paddle into. At the time of our trip, this side canyon was filled with lore. Up it were some of the best slot canyons in the region. About a month and a half before our trip, two Brigham Young students in their twenties were canyoneering down South Choprock and perished in one of the deep dark pools that they needed to swim through and climb out of. These guys were quite experienced in canyoneering the region, but apparently made the fatal error of continuing down the canyon too late in the day and only having shorty wetsuits to stay warm. The speculation is that they got to the 10ft-deep, 100m-long pool in a 2 ft wide narrows late in the day, already cold and exhausted, and didnt manage to have the strength to climb out at the lower logjam, probably numbed from the 40-degree air and water. They eventually succumbed to hypothermia and drowned. It is a pity to loose compatriots that enjoy the outdoors as we do, and we mourn them. On our trip, I figured we would hike up the side canyon as far as possible, perhaps getting a glimpse of what sort of obstacles these two were encountering.
As we hiked up Choprock, the deerflies were particularly bothersome. These are flies about the size of a housefly, but with a grayish-yellowish color on part of their back or abdomen. They bite hard and almost always die from a swat when noticed, being dumb in that sense. The bite hurts initially and then itches like a mosquito bite. They usually landed on the backsides of our legs when walking. I noted that when we stopped, they generally wouldnt land on you. I surmised that they must use motion to locate and track their blood-filled targets. Thus we had no problems with them when we sat down to eat lunch. But as soon as we started hiking up the canyon again, they were swarming around us en force. I decided to run to prevent them from latching on. Preston had the clever idea of breaking off a cottonwood branch and using it like a tail to wag back and forth across the legs and prevent them from attacking. At one point it looked quite amusing seeing my four buddies all with their tails moving back and forth behind them. For more info on these flies see http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/2000/2115.html
Going up Choprock after about a half-mile we came to an overhanging camp area with something like a clothesline (possibly for drying out clothes?). Past here and about a mile from the mouth we reached a fork where North and South Choprock Canyons come together. We went up South Choprock first (to the right), and soon came to another beautiful chamber-type area with pool, ferns, and 60+ft dryfall that would require a rappel to descend. We noted a bolt up at the top. This ended our excursion up South Choprock, so we headed back and hoped for better luck getting up North Choprock. To our delight, we could easily hike up this one. This was one of the highlights of the trip, as for nearly two miles we hiked through gorgeous narrows, sometime overhanging and 20 ft wide, other times only 3 ft wide. There was virtually no scrambling or wading on this hike, and the flies were absent. About a half mile from where the narrows end, we came to another split, which I assumed was North Choprock (to the left) and Middle Choprock (to the right). Middle Choprock appeared to be the larger drainage, so we continued up it another half mile. Mike and Preston had already mentioned turning around before, and I agreed it was a good time to head back. I decided to relax and let them get ahead so I could run back (for me, running is often easier than walking since I commonly run 5 miles several days a week, but dont hike a ton). Tomster went up to explore North Choprock farther. We all met at the downstream area of the narrows or at the boats. This was an extremely rewarding, awe-inspiring side hike not requiring aid, and one of the best we did: A+. With aid, descending South Choprock would be A+ as well, but cold!!!
After such a long hike (total of about 10 miles), it was late and we were tired. The flies were a concern for us at the sandy camp areas near the mouth, so we continued downstream and Preston found a great spot half a km downstream on RL, free of bugs.
Day 4: 13 miles; class II
Camp 4: mile 45.3: RL Moody Canyon; 13 miles
Hikes: Neon, Ringtail, Baker
On the map the rangers gave out they denote the river and the major side canyons. There are only two places where other features are noted. One of these is Cathedral in the Desert, the oft-spoke-of Glen Canyon attraction much farther downstream recently revealed again by the receding lake waters, and the other is Golden Cathedral, another spot, just up Neon Canyon. We passed up Fence Canyon and floated down to Neon, only a couple miles downstream of our camp. I knew Neon was another of the great side canyons in the region containing slots and requiring rappels and perhaps swims. We proceeded up, and within a mile reached an awesome chamber with large pool, ferns, and sandstone on three sides. It was over 100 ft high and 200 ft wide. There were two large holes in the sandstone, one of which water tumbles down during flash floods. These create something like skylights in the chamber. A rope dangled from the first hole about halfway down to the pool. Who would trust that rope? Preston asked. We enjoyed the immensity and grandeur for over an hour, seeing it from all angles, skipping stones, conversing, and relaxing. I was sitting on the left edge of the pool watching the sunlight spot from the skylights slowly move over me toward the water. It appeared that in another half-hour or hour it would be directly on the water. I imagined an amazing light show in the chamber with the light reflecting off the rippled water. However, it was 11 am and we already lingered there over an hour, and the other guys wanted to move on, so we walked back. I purified some water in along the way. At the boats I told the guys to move on down to Ringtail while I ran back to up to witness the light show. Unfortunately, although noontime with the light coming down the skylight onto the water, the wind had kicked up and the light show wasnt as impressive as I had imagined, so I quickly returned to the boats and paddled downstream.
Ringtail Canyon was a little over a mile downstream. I told the guys this was another one I had read a little blurb about on the web and definitely should be explored. Although some of them were skeptical, I was glad to see that they did stop. This side-canyon started with a bang, as not far from the river the slot canyon began in almost a full-on cave. Entering, it was very dark and got narrower and narrower. I felt a much colder breeze of air coming from farther in, obviously from cold pools just ahead. I could make out the water in a pool below that seemed to require wading. Wet shoe prints confirmed that my friends had passed this way. Although I stemmed above it at first, I eventually had to plunge my legs in. The shock of the icy cold water was tough, but the ensuing numbness eventually made me feel more accustomed and comfortable. I came to a spot where a pfd and bag were left. Just past here the slot got much narrower, requiring me to proceed sideways (and Im 511, 145 lbs) barely making it through. Looking up, it was a hundred feet high and only a couple feet wide. As I awkwardly squirmed my way farther in, I came to a pothole with pool of unknown depth. A narrow ray of sunlight made it down to this spot here at midday, giving a small spectacular light show on the sandstone wall. How far up could you go? I thought it would end in some difficult maneuver or dryfall, but didnt, and I still couldnt hear anyone, so knew the other guys had continued on quite a bit further. It was spooky. If water came rushing down this place, wed all be goners. There was NOWHERE to go but down and I suppose underwater and drowned. It seemed impossible to get up higher. Did my friends take the plunge to get through this pool? I decided I had to persevere, and took the plunge. Fortunately, it was only mid-thigh deep, and my shorts got only a little wet. Farther on through more narrows and pools, awkwardly moving, the spooky slot seemed to go on forever. After another pothole or two I heard voices and soon was up with the rest of our group. They had reached a pothole with light coming in, and said it would be impossible to get out of that one alone. Just past it was another place that seemed to defy further progress, with an eerie cluster of 100+ huge spiders huddled together. Preston said the spiders were worth a look at. I hopped into the pothole and climbed up to the spiders. I was not disappointed an amazingly creepy spot. It seemed someone had chiseled a couple steps into the sandstone to help get up past here, but I decided to turn around, not wanting to disturb our arachnid friends. I tried getting out of the pothole myself, (>5 ft high) and made a few attempts to jump up and put all my weight above my elbow to prop myself up. While everyone was quite skeptical I could pull it off, after about seven tries I eventually made it, demonstrating that indeed it was possible to get out of that spot alone. This mystical eerie spooky place was probably the coolest spot we were in on the trip: A++.
Awe-inspired and looking for more, though not expecting anything to top what we had recently experienced, I suggested we also check out Baker Canyon, the next one down. I had also read a blurb on this one as a great descent. We stopped and hiked up through verdant growth, and soon came to another chamber with dryfall, with obvious bolt and sling for rappel. Would be nice to come down this one Tom said as we lingered around the ferns at the base. Later we learned that you actually can experience the narrows above this spot (known as Redrock Cathedral) by hiking up and around from a point by the river just upstream of the mouth, then descending into Baker Narrows.
Full of delight, we continued downriver, passing up the hiking opportunities at 25-mile Wash and getting down to Moody Canyon, where there was a fine campsite a short drag up from the inlet. We all reveled in the days explorations and bundled up for another cold night.
Day 5: 9 miles; class II-III with one III+/IV- (Scorpion Rapid)
Camp 5: mile 54.2: RL Georgies Camp
Hikes/Features: Moody Canyon, Scorpion Gulch, Scorpion Rapid, Georgies Camp
We started our next day with a hike up Moody. We found water in the wash a half-mile up and I left my filter and bottles there to purify water on the way down. The skies were cloudy and threatening to rain, and indeed it did sprinkle on us, but not so much that we got soaked. Moody Canyon was large with typical vertical red sandstone walls on either side. It was similar to the main Escalante Canyon, though narrower and without as much vegetation in the bottom. Hiking was easy. We went up perhaps 2 miles without seeing any outstanding features and judging from the Lambrechtse description and topo maps, it didnt appear there were any fun side canyons off it for several more miles, so we turned around. This canyon got a B.
We packed up and launched. Floating downstream we continued to pass Russian olive trees along the river. These non-indigenous invasive trees lined the banks along much of the upper stretch, their pale green leaves imparting a lovely aspect to the canyon. Like the tamarisk, which also lines the banks in the upper parts, the trees were not there a century ago. Tom had mentioned several times earlier how he and his girlfriend had to remove one of these trees from their front yard, and also how it was non-endemic to the region. He was quite elated to share this knowledge with us. Since Tom was not known for his botanical knowledge, I kept a running joke going, asking Tom several times each day Tomster what IS that tree over there?, Is it native?, Do they yield edible olives?, Did you ever have to pull one out?, and got the others to also ask him. He took it in good stride, repeating answers innumerable times. At some point as we progressed downstream that day, the alien tree became notably absent, especially in places where the canyon became more visible and open. However, we did still occasionally observe dead Russian olives near the banks, often with a ring cored around the trunk to suffocate the tree from lack of food and water flow up the xylem and phloem. This was obviously the work of an eradication program. In other places smaller ones were pulled directly out, along with tamarisks. While I agree we all want to see the native flora and fauna, I think its more of an eyesore to see dead trees along the banks. They should be removed, or at least allowed to be burned by people like us.
Our next stop was Scorpion Gulch, 7 miles downstream on RR. With a name like that, who could resist a hike up. It was a route described in the Lambrechtse guide, so we knew it would be easy. The lower route was tough in a different way, though, as we had to bushwack through brush some of the way, and take circuitous paths around the trail as poison ivy had overgrown in places. This vile weed was found along many of the side canyon bottoms with more verdant growth, particularly in Baker, Neon, and South Choprock Canyons. Here in Scorpion Gulch it was even denser. Although none of us suffered that irresistible itch, it was still something to point out, especially to those in the group not so adept at its identification (leaves of three, let them be). We hiked up about a mile and a half, enjoying the slickrock wash and pretty canyon scenery (rating: A-).
Below Scorpion Gulch the gradient picks up a little and there are more riffles in the river. About a mile below the Gulch is the biggest drop on the entire river, known as Scorpion Rapid. This drop, like any, is easily recognized from above. There are nice places to stop on RR before it, and even if proceeding to the lip of the falls, you can still stop in an eddy there. A brief scout revealed routes on both left and right, the right having a more photogenic 4 ft falls. It looked as though you could just paddle hard and make it over the 4 ft drop. We had probed beneath and couldnt feel bottom, so were confident there would be no pitoning. Most of the current was going next to the boulder in the middle of the river, though, which was a little sketchier, since it seemed to push you center. When I tried going over the right I was stopped cold halfway over the lip by the gradually rising rock. I hadnt realized it was less than one inch deep where I had tried to boof over. The others laughed at me as I descried the drop from this different perspective. I backed up, turned around, peeled-out and went over closer to the center where the current made a deep channel, and had a clean run. Preston tried the same line, but ended up too far center and was twisted to the side, scraping, as he plunged over. Alex mentioned this to Mike, who ended up taking something more like my first line, but actually making it over - with about zero speed. He nosed in, fully submersing in the silty water. Seeing all these problems, Tom and Alex knew exactly where to go and had pretty good runs. This class III-IV rapid was a pretty fun whitewater feature of the trip.
We continued less than a mile downstream to an excellent elevated sandy area known as Georgies Camp. Georgie White Clark along with Harry Aleson were the first to descend the Escalante in 1948 (when flows at the gauge were about 30 cfs!), taking seven days to reach the Colorado and another two to get to Lees Ferry. Although it would be fitting, this camp was not named for her, but rather for a stockman in the area, Georgie Davis. The camp is pleasant, with a clear running stream flowing by, no bugs, and nice views of the canyon. We hiked up the canyon, only to find the going difficult due to brush and boulder-hopping. There is a nice loop hike four of us did though, cutting to the right in another drainage-type area after about half a mile, and making our way back to the camp. As we cut right, we tried to get through an oak forest that reminded Mike of being back on the east coast, but eventually had to take a trail around and above it to the right. The interesting topography of this loop is likely due to a rincon, or abandoned meander of the river. Long ago, the river channel actually went up and around the loop that we hiked. At some point the saddle separating the looping water was eroded away enough that flood flows could break through and eventually the riverbed took the shorter course. As the river continued to carve downward in the bedrock, the rincon elevated higher and higher above the current streambed level. One can estimate how long ago the breach occurred by how high the rincon bottom is. Such rincons are numerous in this region of Utah, with nearly a dozen along the Escalante itself, and many more times that along the Colorado, Green, San Juan, and other rivers in the area. Although the hike ended up being much shorter than we expected, we decided to camp here anyway since it was such a nice spot and we had already dragged our boats all the way up to the camp area. We bathed with the clear water down by the river, feeling refreshed for the evenings conversation. Hike rating: B+.
Day 6: 17 miles; class II-III with one tougher class III-IV passage
Camp 6: mile 71.2: RL below Stevens Canyon
Hikes/Features: Saddle, Rapid/Portage, Fools Canyon, Stevens Canyon
I thought that some of the small to medium side canyons on RL might be interesting to explore, so about 5 miles down from our camp we stopped at the most interesting-looking one, Shofar. I hopped out and took a peek up it, seeing that it was similar to Georgies in that it would involve a lot of boulder scrambling to get up to the spot that might have some narrows. It didnt look worth the time and effort, so we pressed on.
We didnt know exactly where it was located, but everyone told us that there was a mandatory portage somewhere down past Scorpion Rapid. The rumor was that someone had put tape along the river just upstream of the rapid, and one group we heard from immediately took out upon seeing the tape, only having to portage about 10X farther than necessary. Experienced kayakers such as us werent looking for anything announcing a rapid we could easily spot the last possible stopping point before a horizon and take out there. As we came down around a right bend, about a mile past Shofar, I noticed a fun-looking red saddle that the river was obviously meandering around, so went up to have a look. The others soon followed. It was a nice short hike with expansive views, and allowed us to glimpse (on the other side) the rapid that most people portaged. We saw a group down there doing the portage shuffle on RL. Up on the saddle, Alex looked back down to the boats and saw that Toms was going downstream all alone! Quickly, I ran down to my boat in hot pursuit, intercepting the renegade kayak in the bend and bringing it over to the side, where I emptied the water and the towed it down. Nice way to do the saddle hike, Tomster! I must say, though, thanks to Pesto for pulling my boat up higher, since Id have been in the same predicament.
At the rapid we all got out to scout. There were two tricky spots, the first a narrow slot about 2 ft wide that a hardshell kayak could pass through, with a 2 ft drop and some squirrely water below pushing a little into an undercut. It didnt look too bad. The next spot was a boulder jumble with the middle and right passages sieves or close to being sieves. The left channel appeared doable after I removed a 3 inch diameter log that was blocking the way. However, it was complicated since it required a tight turn to the right too tight for most of our boats. There was an eddy one could move forward into, and then go backward down the main drop, or better, it seemed you could back into the eddy, and then go forward down the main drop and punch a small hole. The point we took out to scout was at the upper drop, and it was just as easy to plop back into the water below it as it was above, so we all portaged this upper slot, though it was no more difficult than the lower. We all ran the lower part back-first, then forward around the corner, Preston leading the way. He and the others all were pushed hard into the boulder on the right as they came around the corner, while I leveraged myself away and had a cleaner line (i.e. hearing no scraping paddle, and not tilting my boat).
Another mile downstream and we were at the mouth of Fools Canyon on RR where we stopped for lunch. Two other groups had pulled in here, all in IKs. One was a pair of older fellows from Las Vegas and St. George, and the other was a group of five from Salt Lake City, several of whom Tom knew (Bruce ?? and Bill ?? in particular). Bill was a veteran of this river and an Everett Reuss of sorts, in love with this region. He had floated down the river eight time in the past, and had canyoneered all of the slot side canyons. Being starved of knowledge of this fascinating area, I was intrigued hearing Bills descriptions of the area and such stories as how he had been caught in a flash flood at the rappel above Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon. His opinion was that Baker was the premier slot canyon to go down, and one of the finest side hikes you could do from the river was to get up on the slickrock mesa to the east in the region between Baker and Icabod just downstream. On this trip they had climbed to the mesa upstream of Shofar. They were planning on camping at or up Coyote Gulch and hiking out the next day.
We asked them what this side canyon (Fools) was like. Bruce replied that it was great, with a deep pool at one point you couldnt see or feel the bottom of. Thus we hiked up a couple miles, finding a pretty canyon, in some ways similar to Scorpion Gulch, but easy to get around the vegetation in most parts. Just above the deep pool was a skate-park like spot where the bedrock was carved smoothly sloping gradually up on both sides. Up farther, Alex perched on a mushroom rock precariously balanced on some less-resistant strata. All in all, another fine side hike.
A mile or two down near Icabod Canyon I viewed, high up on the left, a sitting Buddah!! It was too late for the others to see it when I mentioned it to them, but did manage to snap a photo of him. He looks like this from several perspectives. Four miles down from Fools we stopped to hike up another cool saddle where we could climb to the base of a large phallic spire. Another few miles and we saw Stevens Arch, a magnificent hole in the sandstone wall probably 100 ft high and wide. Stevens Canyon has a long inlet and one of the nicest camps along the river. The camp was occupied by Todd and Dave, a couple guys from Colorado whom we had bumped into several times previously. We chatted with them a while, then Alex and I hiked up the side canyon, finding immense undercut caverns, belittling us as we made our way up. Since the others werent coming, we cut the hike short at only about a mile up. However, we still enjoyed the grandeur of Stevens. The guys had found one of the nicest camps of our entire trip just downstream on RL, up the bank through some trees, at another huge beach with overhang protection. A highwater ring was apparent on the wall about 15 ft up, perhaps from the high water of Lake Powell. When full, I read that the reservoir extends all the way up to Coyote Gulch, which was only a couple miles downstream, thus it wasnt unreasonable to assume this was a bathtub ring from 1983-84 when the reservoir was at capacity (3708 ft elevation).
Day 7: 11 miles; class II with one tougher class III narrow awkward passage
Camp 7: mile 82.1: Island across from Explorer Canyon Inlet
Hikes/Features: Coyote Gulch, Silty Rapid, Explorer Canyon
We had toyed with the idea of doing a layover day at Coyote Gulch, since we had so much time on the trip, and this side canyon was apparently the most popular hike in the region and as long as you wished. I was originally keen on this plan, particularly since I thought we might be able to make it all the way up to see Spooky, Brimstone, and Peekaboo Gulches, some of the most spectacular narrows in the region, akin to Ringtail. However I didnt know exactly how far up they were from the river, and the two guidebooks I brought didnt give precise details, but it did seem they would be a pretty far way to go. I later realized that it would indeed have been a long day, since they were located about 20 miles up. As it was, we still did a long hike up Coyote Gulch, passing Cliff Arch and settling for lunch after getting tired of the walking. It thought the next natural feature would be pretty close, Coyote Natural Bridge. A couple backpacking groups passed us going down and I inquired of them how much farther up the other arches were. They both said, more or less, well, theres one right here and another a couple miles back. None of us realized what they meant by the one right here since as we looked upstream, we didnt see anything that spectacular, but perhaps there was a small one off to the side. After lunch we decided to walk up a bit further, and literally just two steps farther Coyote Natural Bridge was in full view! Duh! Now it was clear to all of us! They hadnt elaborated or implied at all how spectacular it was, a huge chunk of sandstone overhanging the wash about 40 ft, and one of the most photogenic spots in the entire Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. This, like most natural bridges, also was a rincon where a meander in the wash had been abandoned when the water had broken through the sandstone below some harder layers that remained intact. At this point we hiked back, taking a shortcut just before Cliff Arch by hiking up and over a saddle. Tomster made his way almost to the base of the cliff, to the chagrin of Preston, who was more conservative.
After our long hike, the clouds built, the temperature plummeted, wind gusts kicked up, and it started raining. The weather made the going miserable in some ways, but intriguing in others, as we saw dust clouds spiral into the air when silt banks toppled into the river. These erosion events can be quite dramatic, and a group descending a couple weeks earlier apparently had a large one occur across the river from their camp, creating a tsunami that swept their IKs downstream. They went in pursuit the next morning, catching up with them a few miles downriver! A few miles below Coyote Gulch is an undercut wall on RR which is mentioned in the rangers guide, but was nothing more than a simple move to one side of the river. Soon after this, however, was a spot blocked by a boulder and logs. Preston arrived here first and got out to scout in the howling cold. He thought it should be portaged, but that Id probably run it. It turned out not to be all that bad, with a left-right move by a log to get through. A bit dicey, but none of us had problems. In an IK, it would be much more of an issue.
The current continued all the way down to Cow/Fence Canyons on our trip before stalling out. Logs and some debris clogged the rising lake and we paddled on the warmer clearing water a few more miles down to Explorer Canyon, and unassuming slit on the left that hid a large canyon with a small stream in it. This one sounded like one of the better shorter canyons to explore down in the lake area. We made our way up, cold all the while, finding a trail on the left and scrambling a few times. Oaks, grass, and some shrubs predominated, and made going difficult except on trails. We found a panel of pictographs on the north wall with figures in strange postures that Tomster and Pesto imitated for the camera. Pressing on, we were looking for Zane Grey Arch, supposedly about a mile and a half up from our starting point, but were befuddled by not spotting it anywhere nearby. Suddenly, Alex and Tom found the correct perspective and said, theres something like an arch up here and we all made our way over to see it. It didnt disappoint us, being another huge structure with a dicey top that Tom carefully climbed across. Up and behind it was a Fremont granary that seemed to be more modern than many of the Anasazi ones in other parts. We also tried to find some springs supposedly in the canyon, to no avail, so I purified the clear water in the stream near the mouth. We paddled back out on the lake and over to an island to camp. We made a large fire with the abundant driftwood around, and had a pleasant evening, sheltering ourselves from the occasional shower.
Day 8: ~6 miles; flat lakewater paddling
Trip end: boat shuttle out from Willow Creek Inlet
Hikes: Bishop Canyon
Enjoying some sunshine in the morning, we packed up for our last day of exploring and paddled down to Bishop Canyon, the first side canyon north off of the large Willow Creek arm of the reservoir. According to the Kelsey guide, this one had an overhanging chamber, the largest of its kind the author has ever seen. While some made fun of the author for his third person writing style, the guide was pretty useful. We made our way up Bishop, seeing thousands of tadpoles and dozens of crawdads in the pellucid stream flowing. Bedrock was sculpted delightfully making an ideal walking path, although most of the way wading through the water was the easiest way to progress. Tom realized the same thing as the author did when he slipped and fell numerous times walking on the slippery bedrock. One particularly fun spot was where we had to stem up a narrows section above a pool of water. Past here a ways, and a couple miles up we reached the end. The overhanging area was underwhelming, since we were expecting something more like Cathedral in the Desert. It was still a nice place to get to and hang out briefly. We didnt linger long since we wanted to make our way back to meet our boat shuttle that was due to arrive at 1 pm. We made it there on time, but our shuttle driver ended up being almost two hours late. We ate what little food we had remaining and swam in the warm lake water to clean off a bit. On the boat ride out, our driver (Leonard Iverson) took us a couple miles up the Clear Creek arm of the Escalante to see Cathedral in the Desert. What an amazing place to behold! Although not as nice as it would have been without the motors and the lake, it was still an amazing spot. Within a couple hours we were out at Bullfrog Marina, loading up our vehicles for the drives home. Thus we finished another of the most amazing trips in the Southwest, getting a taste of what Glen Canyon was like before its drowning.
What will become of the Escalante? Chances are that Lake Powell will rise in the future and you wont get to paddle on the river down to Explorer Canyon or farther. However, if Glen Canyon Institute has its way, the lake will be drained and the whole river will be free again. Will the river become so popular that permitting will be necessary? A report such as this will doubtless increase use. However, use will increase regardless. The main feature limiting descent is the lack of water. It is extremely rare to find as much water as we had on the Escalante. In fact, looking through the average flows on the Escalante gauge over the recorded 49 years, May and June of 2005 had the highest flows of any (~130 cfs in May, and ~180 cfs in June). Only in fifteen other months did flows average more than 50 cfs (1956-1970 skipped). That means that on average, youd get a good boatable flow (i.e. >50 cfs for >3 weeks) on the Escalante once every five years. Other possibilities are that maybe you can wait for a flash flood in summertime and do a short three-day trip, or go down with lower flows that are more common (i.e. when averages in the month are 30-50 cfs, which usually have a couple weeks of >50 cfs; there were 8 other years like this in the record, or another one in five). Note that flows on Boulder/Deer Creek do not always correlate well with the Escalante gauge flows. For example, in May 1952 Boulder Creek averaged 79 cfs while Escalante only averaged 38 cfs. Thus you might be able to catch better flows some years. Regardless, future river runners of the Escalante will more than likely be schlepping down over shoals much of the time, and the IK will remain one of the boats of choice. If youre really so intrigued with the canyon and cant wait for boatable flows, just backpack down or float your gear on an innertube and hike!!
Average flows at Escalante Gauge (source USGS; 1956-1970 skipped):
1944 April: 25 cfs May: 74 cfs June: 83 cfs
1949 April: 28 cfs May: 37 cfs June: 86 cfs
1973 April: 23 cfs May: 124 cfs June: 107 cfs
1979 April: 23 cfs May: 55 cfs June: 50 cfs
1983 April: 21 cfs May: 45 cfs June: 125 cfs
1985 April: 25 cfs May: 56 cfs June: 16 cfs
1993 April: 55 cfs May: 75 cfs June: 39 cfs
1995 April: 3 cfs May: 8 cfs June: 53 cfs
2001 April: 10 cfs May: 66 cfs June: 17 cfs
2005 April: ~20 cfs May: ~70 cfs June: ~180 cfs
Hikes on our trip:
Day 1: Hike around sandstone country and Boulder Creek
Day 2: Side Slot, Technical Side Canyon w/pools, Grotto
Day 3: side 23.6 (walled-out); South and North Choprock
Day 4: Neon, Ringtail, Baker
Day 5: Moody, Scorpion, Georgies
Day 6: Fools, Stevens
Day 7: Coyote Gulch, Explorer
Day 8: Bishop
6.1 RL below Boulder Cr.; 6.1 miles paddled that day
21.2 RR sand bench by undercut mosquitoes; 14 miles paddled
32.4 RL below Choprock Canyon; 11 miles
45.3 RL Moody Canyon; 13 miles
54.2 RL Georgies Camp; 9 miles
71.2 RL below Stevens Canyon; 17 miles
82.1 Island by Explorer Canyon; 11 miles
Last day: 6 miles paddled
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