Photo: Dan Ransom
APA was excited to host our first-ever Access & Stewardship Town Hall this spring, which focused on packrafting the Escalante. Access & Stewardship are core tenets of APA’s mission; we focus our efforts on rivers that are meaningful and unique to the packrafting community, like the Escalante. We felt this was an important event to host this year considering the big runoff expected following the excellent snowfall the region has received this winter. Land managers expect the runoff will draw a higher than normal number of river users keen to packraft the Escalante. APA felt it was important to speak to those land managers to learn about and share best practices for planning a packrafting trip on the Escalante.
We spoke with Eran Howarth from the Bureau of Land Management for Grand Staircase National Monument, and Steve Henry from the National Parks Service for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area; both areas that manage the upper and lower reaches of the Escalante River. They led us through how to plan a packraft trip with Leave No Trace principles in mind, as well as regulations you need to know for the Escalante. Dan Ransom, who has packrafted the Escalante at various levels, also weighed with a couple safety concerns for river users to consider as they plan.
To view the Zoom recording, click here.
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
Fill out a backcountry permit for your group in person. These are located at major trailheads in the Monument, or in the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center.
Download GPS tracks and mark possible exits, mandatory portages, and spring water sources. Carry paper maps, know the area you are traveling in and have multiple exit options.
Tell someone your trip itinerary. Consider carrying an emergency communication device such as an InReach, but also understand that this technology can be faulty in canyon country and should only be used in an actual emergency. If you are overdue, have an emergency contact plan. See emergency contact information below.
Understand how to read the Escalante river gauge and the implications of what that level means. The gauge is located along the river in the town of Escalante. This location is upstream of several larger tributaries of the river and is not a great indicator of boatable levels below the gauge. You may see levels as low as 2-3 cfs that still allow for float trips further down in the canyon system. Be flexible and have a backup plan. Because of the remote location of the area and the many unknowns of runoff times, this will make planning difficult. Be aware that peak flows this year will be higher than normal, and may be above your paddling ability.
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Consider slickrock, washes and sand for travel and camping surfaces. Use pre-established campsites and avoid making new campsites.
Be aware of cryptobiotic soil - don’t camp or travel over it.
Don’t camp in archeological sites.
Practice good river etiquette towards other groups: find other camps rather than crowding popular sites. Have backup campsites in mind if you get to a site that is already taken.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
Pack out all human and dog waste. Use wag bag systems in water tight containers such as dry bags or lightweight backcountry toilet systems with hard sides and securable tops.
Pee in the river when possible.
Pack out all garbage, including food waste. There are dumpsters located at the north end of Hole in the Rock Road.
4. Leave What You Find
Escalante is rich in archaeology; leave all artifacts where they lay and do not touch or disturb cultural sites.
Do not collect firewood.
Do not alter the natural ecosystem by creating your own structures or water diversions.
5. Minimize Campfire Impact
There are NO FIRES permitted along the entire river corridor. Bring a backpacking stove for cooking.
6. Respect Wildlife
There is a healthy beaver population along the river, and you may have to navigate around their dams. Leave these important habitats in place.
Give all wildlife adequate space and do not harass animals.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Travel in small groups. Technically a group of up to 25 is allowed along the BLM section and a group of up to 12 is allowed in Glen Canyon. However, we suggest you travel in much smaller groups. Small groups make portaging and camping easier and lessen the impact on the environment.
Don’t vandalize or create graffiti on rocks. If you see signs of others’ graffiti, snap a photo and mark a waypoint using GPS. Do not try to fix it, as this can cause damage to the resource as well.
Don’t make new rock cairns.
This section was written in collaboration with Dan Ransom, and draws heavily on his experience packrafting the Escalante at various levels.
There are several areas along the river that create rapids that you should consider scouting, and possibly portaging.
Scorpion Rapid 1 mile below Scorpion Gulch is a mandatory portage. Find this on your map ahead of time and make sure you know where to take out before the rock feature. Look for a cairn along the riverbank before this feature marking the portage.
The Sieve is another mandatory portage - do not accidentally float into this rapid! It's located between the canyons known in Steve Allen’s book as Shofar and Hydra. You’ll know you are approaching when you see a broken ridge of serrated wingate towers, and then one large single isolated candlestick tower. Float around this tower in a nearly 360 degree loop and look for a large pile of boulders in the river. The main flow of the river piles right into two undercut boulders and through a sieve. There is an easy eddy you can catch on the left, and the portage is short.
The section from the Bridge to Harris Wash is often choked with wood, and the confluence with Boulder Creek can be particularly heinous. Putting in at Neon will almost certainly mean less wood and better chance of “boating” even in low flows. As the channel changes character there is less wood to deal with.
This is a wild and dynamic river and water levels can change dramatically with a little bit of rain. The river when it is clear and shin deep is a much different river than when it is flowing fast and muddy: the dangers increase exponentially. Eddies are harder to catch, wood is harder to see and comes much faster. In high water you will not have the option to step out of your boat like in low water. There have been multiple trips that have become true epics because the river level spiked from ankle deep to a raging torrent. When Dan Ransom floated it at "high" water, he covered 40 miles from Neon to Coyote in 8 hours - the water was moving fast!
When the water levels spike, wood also starts to move around, creating serious obstacles that may not have been present a few days before. This is a class II/III river with class V consequences, with those consequences being much higher because it is very difficult to hike out of the lower Escalante without a massive effort and lots of off-trail navigation. BLM or NPS resources to help in case of an emergency are limited - be prepared and self-sufficient.
Before you leave, make a solid plan for contingencies. Understand where your escape routes are and how you will hike out in the event of an emergency. Two possible bail out routes are at Moody and Scorpion canyons.
The best exit for overland hiking out to Hole in the Rock Road is through Crack in the Wall just inside Coyote Gulch.
If you are thinking of paddling into Lake Powell, consider hiring a water taxi shuttle or hike out one of the other side canyons that enter the lake shortly after the river feeds into it. The nature of the river drastically changes after Coyote Gulch, and the river becomes braided through sediment deposits from the receding lake. This creates quicksand and mud, and there are fewer camping opportunities.
The gauge on the Escalante may not be a reliable indicator of what's actually happening on the river. The gauge is located outside of town, and much of the water above the gauge is used by irrigation diversions during peak runoff. 90% of the water you will be floating on comes from all the tributaries that drain Boulder Mountain, not the Escalante Mountains. These tributaries are Death Hollow, Sand Creek, Calf Creek and, most importantly, Boulder Creek, with potentially a bit more from the Gulch. These are all below the gauge.
How do you know if it’s “running?” The most reliable indicator would be a first hand observation of Boulder Creek where it crosses Highway 12 near the town of Boulder. A second indicator would be snotel sites on Boulder Mountain. Consider using available websites to check sentinel satellite imagery for the current snowpack. It takes some digging to build an accurate picture of how “loaded” the system is. All that’s left to do is wait for the right weather window, and when that happens is anyone’s guess. It could be in early May, or it could be in mid-June. Every year is different!
Garfield County Sheriff: 435-644-2349
Kane County Sheriff: 435-676-2678
Glen Canyon NRA Dispatch: 928-608-6300
Escalante Interagency Visitor’s Center: 435-826-5499
For more information on safety, regulations and to learn the history of the Escalante River, visit the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area page.
The Escalante greater area has a long history of Native cultures that have lived and traveled throughout the region. It is important to understand and educate ourselves about current Native perspectives for a broader understanding of our impact on this special landscape.
A large impact seen along the river corridor is from the non-native, invasive plant species Russian Olive. This plant consumes large amounts of water thereby reducing stream flow, choking out native plant species and has dense root systems that destructively channel heavy stream flows. It produces 2-4 inch-long thorns that are strong enough to damage equipment, animals and people. There has been an ongoing effort to restore the riparian area of the Escalante by removing the Russian Olive, which was largely completed in 2019. This has greatly improved boater’s abilities to access the shore while paddling, and has saved lightweight boats from being punctured by their thorns. You may see debris piles along the river corridor where the cut plants have been stacked and slashed. Keep in mind that these can become large floating hazards when the river hits flood stages.
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