Packrafting Escalante Canyon in southern Utah is the perfect way to combine a safe and easy packrafting adventure with some of the world's finest scenery. If you are keen to learn packrafting, here's a great place to do it. The challenge when paddling on the Escalante River is that it may only flow at high enough levels for a few weeks each year. In most years the water is high enough for good paddling in May, and sometimes into June. Play the video above to get a sense for paddling in this gorgeous canyon.
There are several good options for combining hiking and packrafting in the Escalante. Most people put in where the Escalante River crosses Highway 12, east of the town of Escalante. Of course you can also hike in on one of the many side canyons. There are 3 good exit points. Hike out via Harris Wash (shortest), hike out via Coyote Gulch (more complex, longer, but super scenic) or paddle all the way out to Lake Powell, and arrange a pick-up on the lake.
We had about 4 days, so we chose to get into the river at Highway 12, then exit via Harris Wash. We arranged a shuttle to drop our car at Harris Wash, and drop us at the river. From the river, we floated for two and a half leisurely days, then spent another day hiking up Harris Wash and back to our car. Harris Wash is an easy and breathtakingly beautiful canyon.
Some tips for packrafting in Escalante
- Use Escalante Outfitters. This little outfit offers camping or cabins, showers, a small restaurant and essential gear items. They are friendly, flexible and the restaurant has pretty good food. They can help you arrange a shuttle too.
- Check the water levels. Here's the USGS site for the Escalante River. You will get conflicting reports about the best flows for a navigable trip. In packrafts, you can manage with lower water levels than other types of boats (canoes for example). I recommend that you talk with people at Escalante Outfitters and also at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
- Expect low water. Even at good flows, you may be dragging your butt on the bottom dozens of times per day. Don't worry about it. Packrafts are tough. Pad your butt with some foam if you are prone to easy bruising. Once you get past Boulder Creek, water levels will pick up.
- Explore the side canyons. Do some research and spend some time hiking. There are many, many good hikes.
- Be prepared to navigate. It's easy to get disoriented in the canyons and lose track of which canyon is which. Read your maps carefully and pay attention. Always know where you are. You don't want to pass your exit canyon. GPS devices can sometimes perform poorly in deep canyons. I recommend navigating the old fashioned way.
In mid-August myself and Alan Dixon went way up north to explore in Gates of the Arctic National Park. We planned to packraft and hike on the Alatna and Noatak Rivers, and connect the two rivers by traversing the Arrigetch Peaks. We took a bunch of video, with the idea that we'd put together the story of our trip and share it online. Hiking and exploring in Alaska is a totally different experience than in the lower 48. The wilderness is huge, and there are only a handful of established trails in the whole state of Alaska (there are no established trails in Gates of the Arctic National Park - which is twice the size of the state of Connecticut). You must rely on game trails and reading natural terrain to get around. It is a real test of your wilderness skills. After two trips to Alaska together, we've learned a lot - but this trip humbled us a bit. Our previous trip went off without a hitch. This one....well you'll see. It's difficult to capture the scope of wilderness in northern Alaska - hopefully this video will give you a taste. We used a couple of small cameras, plus a GoPro camera which I sometimes wore on my head while paddling. We've also put some pics in a gallery.