Life List: Stillwater Canyon, Utah
Travel rugged, red-rock backcountry in Canyonlands National Park the easy way—by boat.
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Mom wants to turn back. A van-size rock blocks the way through the slot deep in the Maze District. I scramble atop it with two simple climbing moves, but she’s not having it. “Let’s just go back the way we came,” she says. In truth, my waifish, 62-year-old mother has no business being here, many difficult miles from the nearest trailhead. Except that we’re just an hour’s hike from the canoes that floated us gently to the Green River beach where my dad is currently lounging. As for the rock—no problem. With my sister’s help, Mom climbs on top of my brother’s shoulders, while I clasp her forearm and pull her up. It seems like nothing, but it’s a moment she’ll talk about for years: the role reversal when her children were the ones lifting her over the obstacle.
My parents love hiking but not hoisting heavy packs, so when I wanted to show them Utah canyon country, we reached for paddles. Floating the 52 miles of the Green River through Stillwater Canyon (120 miles if you tack on Labyrinth Canyon upstream) wins you the same towering sandstone cliffs and immersive desert solitude as backpacking through the Needles or Maze, but without the big load. And for more ambitious travelers, boats can serve as an efficient mothership for fast-and-light forays into the Maze’s famous slots.
We spend mornings floating on the Green’s steady, 4-mph current with a correction stroke here or there to keep us from scraping against the sandstone walls. Afternoons, we amble to petroglyph panels, rock-and-mud granaries, and a 120-year-old log cabin. At night we grill shrimp kebabs, stir-fry fresh veggies from the cooler, and uncork bottles of wine on the red sand beaches while the last light climbs the orange canyon walls. Later, bats flit above the river.
On our final morning, we hike before dawn to catch sunrise in the Doll House, a cluster of mammoth red-and-white-striped hoodoos 1,500 feet above our camp. We have the place to ourselves as sunlight breaks on the towers. Looking down into the canyon, toward the confluence of the Colorado and the Green, I marvel at the mind-bending evidence of the rivers’ power, and at how water has shaped each spire and fin. Even without the transportation perks, the river is obviously the way to travel here—though the effortless miles sure are nice. I bet my dad would agree. I can just make him out, far below, emerging from his tent to start the coffee.
Do it Tex’s Riverways in Moab will drop you off at one of three Green River put-ins and then return you (and your boats and gear) to Moab by jetboat, 50 Colorado River miles from the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers at trip’s end ($145/person; texsriverways.com). They also rent canoes and camping gear.
Season Faster currents in the spring mean it’s easy to make mileage and still fit in side hikes; summer is scorching, but a great time for kids to spend all day in and out of the water; and fall’s low water means great beach camping.
Contact (435) 259-4351; nps.gov/cany
Permits $30 application fee plus $20/person. Though Park Service permits are unlimited, jetboat shuttles frequently sell out, so make reservations several months in advance. (However, small parties and groups with flexible dates will often find availability.)
Get more trip-planning tips and see a photo slideshow at backpacker.com/stillwater.