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Backpacker Magazine –

Packraft Utah

Can't decide between river and trail? Paddle and pad your way to the best of Canyonlands National Park.

by: Molly Loomis

Photo Moe Witschard
Photo Moe Witschard

 

Andy! Do you hear that?” I nudge my husband, wanting to solve the mystery behind the shrieks breaking the night. On our first day hiking in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, we’d found evidence of Indian Creek’s other inhabitants—a bighorn sheep’s conch, tadpoles polka-dotting the creek bed, but this? Were they cries from the Ancestral Puebloan dwelling we passed? 

“It’s a wood frog,” whispers my friend Heather from nearby, where she and her husband Moe have thrown their sleeping bags on the slickrock. Content we’re not being haunted, I roll back to sleep, listening to the frog’s macabre lullaby. It’s a song I’ve never heard in the desert; usually I stick to the higher mesas and buttes, with only brief forays down to the water to refill my bottles. But this trip is all about experiencing the canyons from a new perspective. 

We’re at the start of a seven-day loop that will pass through some of Canyonlands’ most difficult-to-access spots, such as the Maze. Normally, reaching the remote western area of the park would require an additional day (or more) of driving on treacherous four-wheel-drive roads, or paying for an outfitter for a shuttle down the Colorado (see “Do it,” page 42). There’s no way to hike to the Maze from our starting point in the more-accessible Needles District (convenient to Moab) because the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers separate here from there. I’ve had friends so keen to access this area (and avoid the drive) that they swam across the Colorado—not exactly safe. 

But we’ve got a ringer: Tucked into the bottom of our packs are personal rafts (or “packrafts”) and collapsible paddles. They add 5 pounds to each of our loads, but they’ll let us travel the big rivers safely—and in so doing, link together a nearly unprecedented route, with 26 miles of river and 34.5 miles of canyon hiking that will open up a new world of Canyonlands exploration.

Packrafting has been around since the 1950s—earlier if you count the skin boats once used by Native Americans—but it’s only in the last decade that it has started to gain mainstream traction as a means of wilderness travel. Much of that has to do with the lightweight-yet-durable construction of Alpacka rafts, made of urethane-coated nylon. The bathtub-size boats provide endless opportunities for linking hiking routes together that would otherwise be inaccessible—or would at least require quit-your-day-job time. What we really wanted was the perfect setting to leverage the packraft’s versatility and unlock otherwise-hidden charms. That’s how I came to be hearing wood frogs in the Utah desert.

Our plan was to follow a half-by-land, half-by-river figure-eight (see map, page 42). We’d start near Hamburger Rock, just outside the park’s eastern boundary, and hike 17 miles down Indian Creek to the Colorado River. From there, we’d float a mellow 20 miles, then pack up our boats and loop 8.5 miles through the park’s most remote areas, including the Maze, the Doll House, the Land of Standing Rocks, and Shot and Water Canyons. After hiking to the outlet of Water Canyon, we’d inflate our boats again and float 6 miles down the Green River’s Stillwater Canyon to the confluence with the Colorado. From there, another 3 miles on the Colorado would deliver us to Lower Red Lake Canyon, where we’d hike 9 miles back to the car. 

The morning after the frogs, we continue hiking down Indian Creek. At peak spring runoff, the creek is supposed to flow high enough for floating, but in early April, we find just a few inches of water that keep our feet cool as we slosh through the sandy wash. Hoodoos, little arches, and towers loom over us from all sides like buildings in a ghost town. Anywhere else in the world, Indian Creek would be a celebrated treasure, but in a region where red rock is as abundant as blue sky, it’s just another wash.

After contouring around a 100-foot pourover, we arrive at the banks of the Colorado River. If this was a simple hiking trip, this would be our turnaround point. Instead, within 15 minutes, we’ve inflated our boats by squeezing air from pillowcase-size inflation bags into the rafts themselves, changed into rain shells (our paddling gear), lashed our packs to the bows, and are ready to do battle with the wind that has blown in with a thunderstorm. Packrafts excel in many types of conditions, but a stiff headwind is not one of them. For five hours, we lean into the wind, paddling hard, but make just 7 of the 12 mellow miles we’d hoped. We quit early and settle into camp on a sheltered beach, tired but amped for tomorrow’s destination: the Doll House, a Maze icon. 

The water the next morning is smooth as a swimming pool and I feel myself sliding into the meditative monotony of paddling—not so different from hitting a rhythm while walking. After 13 miles, we reach our take-out at the far end of Spanish Bottom, just before the wind begins picking up.

With our water reservoirs filled, we begin the 1,200-foot climb up into the Doll House—a cluttered chessboard of stone pillars sculpted out of Neapolitan-striped sandstone—where we’ll make dry camp for the night. Ever high-minded, explorer John Wesley Powell originally named this place The Sentinels in 1869; cowboys later dubbed it the Doll House and the name stuck. The sense of quiet solitude here is almost overwhelming. This place is so remote—and the trailhead access roads are so horrendous—that most visitors are dayhikers on raft trips. We spend the evening watching the sun lower behind the rock sculptures and spotting stone characters in the rock’s wild profiles.

 The next day, we turn our backs on the hoodoos and begin walking a sandy 4WD road to Chimney Rock. There we set our packs down for the 3-mile (round-trip) detour out to two towers with names that intrigue us: the Plug and Standing Rock, the latter famously ascended by pioneering climber Layton Kor in 1962. The sky is heavy and gray with storm clouds, adding to the desolate, remote feeling of the place. A blonde labyrinth of canyons spreads out before us; it beckons exploration and incites a deep sense of caution. I get this feeling every time I stare at something grand, distant, and difficult-looking. A cocktail of apprehension and excitement sets in: the simultaneous fear of everything unknown and the desire for it. 

Back at Chimney Rock, we drop down a staircase made of stacked sandstone nearing the angle of repose and hike along Shot Canyon’s sandy washes, past wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, distant red arches, and gnarled old juniper trees. Eventually, a speckled, salmon-colored slab leads us up to the saddle between Shot and Water Canyons. 

From here, we can see the many personalities of these southern Utah draws. Shot is all sexy curves and soft lines, while Water’s walls are shorter and bulge over like capstones on plump mushrooms. Two miles later in Water Canyon we reach another pourover—this one shining silver like mercury in the late afternoon sun. We pick our way around it following cairns down a scree slope and into a wash where crionoid, brachiopod, and bryozoan fossils hang in the limestone. 

On belay,” says Andy. “Climbing,” answers Moe. We didn’t expect to speak these words. The crux of the route is turning out to be getting off Water Canyon’s shelf and down to the Green River. We could backtrack a mile and try another trail (we know there’s a nontechnical route to the river), but that would be much too easy—besides, what’s another sport on a multisport trip? No longer bound by the flat dimension of a single pursuit, we are becoming more adept, more fluent at moving through the wilderness by any means at our disposal. 

So when faced with this 25-foot pour-off, we pulled out the packraft’s throw rope. Braced by a toehold of scrappy sedimentary rock, Andy gives Moe a hip belay as Moe downclimbs the face into a thicket of tamarisk. The rest of us clamor after him, and we regroup on the beach, joking over what a critical piece of gear the throw rope has turned out to be. We pull out our packrafts and once again raise the inflation bags to the wind. In less than 15 minutes we’re gone, floating quietly down the calm waters of Stillwater Canyon. The only evidence of our passing is footsteps on the beach. 

We finish the last leg of our figure-eight loop with a short paddle down the Colorado, then a quick transition back to land. Climbing out of Red Lake Canyon, we see views back into the Doll House and its jaunty towers perched high above the river. The view has more depth, and holds more awe and mystery, now that we’ve wandered through the place on our own. But it wasn’t just the destination, it was watching the sun dance on the water and play on the sandstone, then staring at that same lazy ribbon of river and basking in that same sunlight up above. By carrying just a little extra weight, we’ve expanded our experience exponentially. 

Back in the parking lot at Elephant Hill trailhead, as we lay down our packs, unroll our rafts so they can dry, and change into flip-flops, a man slows his Suburban and pokes his head out the window. “Just couldn’t decide, packing it all in, huh?” he says. “I’m the same way when I come out here. I bring my bike, my mountaineering gear, my boat, and my climbing gear. I just bring it all.” 

My friends and I smile at each other as he drives away with his multisport outfit. By carrying ours, we got to more remote places more quickly than his SUV ever could. It’s not really the same at all.

Do it From Moab, drive 80 miles south-southwest to Canyonlands’ Needles Entrance Station. Leave a shuttle vehicle at the Elephant Hill parking area and drive to the intersection of Indian Creek and Lockhart Road, east of the park boundary on UT 211. Map Trails Illustrated Canyonlands - Maze District ($10; natgeomaps.com) Shuttle It’s possible to do some of the author’s route by canoeing through Stillwater Canyon to Spanish Bottom (Tex’s Riverways; prices vary; texsriverways.com) and packing backpacking gear for Water and Shot Canyons and the Doll House. Permit Reserve river ($30 plus $20/person) and backcountry ($30) permits up to four months before your intended start date. Plan an hour for your permit check-in as packrafting, while perfectly legal, is still an anomaly in the permitting process. Bring river-safety gear. Contact  (435) 259-4351; nps.gov/cany




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