Packrafting the Escalante River, Utah

Every May I make the annual pilgrimage to the desert, this time, I brought my packraft. Brian and I intended on catching the spring runoff on the Escalante River. I seriously doubted there would be enough water, so we brought a rope in case canyoneering became our only option.

We paid a guy to do our shuttle but next time I’d just hitchhike, there are a lot of day hikers in the area. We started at the Egypt trailhead and made our way down to the river. Delighted to find plenty of water for our float trip, we inflated our packrafts and paddled our way to the mouth of Neon Canyon.

It’s amazing what wind can do to the sandstone

We woke early the next morning and hiked to the top of Neon and repelled in. There were several parties of day-trippers doing the same thing we were. I feared the inevitable traffic jam. I had a dry-top and Brian had a wetsuit. The swims were long and much colder than I thought they’d be.

To keep warm, we ran through the dry sections to the next obstacle.  We knew of two ‘keeper potholes’. The first one was extremely deep and intimidating. One person would not be able to get in and out himself. We jumped in and Brian stood on my shoulders. The water was deep and my mouth was barely above the surface. (A packraft could have been useful here.) He got to the top and threw me the rope. The second keeper hole was full of water and we cannon-balled in and just swam across it. There were three rappels. The last of which is a free, 80’ rap through Cathedral Arch into a pool below- awesome! We were glad we bypassed the other canyoneers because one of them got stuck mid rappel and sat there dangling for quite a while.

Above: Cathedral Arch. Site of the last reppel.

Running the Escalante River is fantastic. It’s like a mini Grand Canyon. The river is chock full of sandstone boulders. It becomes a game to see who can make it through the maze. I wouldn’t want any other boat besides a packraft to do the Escalante.

Above: A mating pair of Water Striders.

I heard of people trying it with a canoe. That might be possible at extreme high water but I can tell you, it wouldn’t be fun. There were two major portages but we were in and out of our rafts several times.

Above: First major portage

Below: Second major portage

Note: There is a TON of poison ivy in the Escalante drainage. A few years back I got it all over myself when I went hiking without a shirt. Never again. It was on my nuts.

It is REMOTE back there. Bring good maps and common sense. We met one other packrafter. After Neon Canyon we saw no one else for 4 days. We hiked out at Coyote Gulch and Crack-In-The-Wall. You’ll need a rope to haul your pack up- it won’t fit through the slot.

8 thoughts on “Packrafting the Escalante River, Utah

    • Thanks for this. I was hoping I could do Neon Canyon solo but after learning about the pot holes. I will have to pass do you think the packraft part is possible solo? My circle of friends are not into this type of adventures.

      • Hi! Yes, I think with proper planning and some experience under your belt you could definitely solo the Escalante. However, since the Escalante is fed by spring runoff it has the potential to dry up halfway into your trip. You must be prepared, and fit enough to hike out if that need arises. Check out for other folks wanting to do that river. Always safer—and more fun—to go with a partner. :)

    • While floating the Escalante (even with high flows) you’ll probably need to portage several times due to rocks and sandbars. But the two major boulder-choked portages are obvious and both can be circumvented on either side of the river. Neither are very long- perhaps a quarter mile. Be aware that russian olive and cottonwood trees can produce some nasty strainers in there. Always scout before rounding blind corners at speed.

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