Packrafting Cataract Canyon


 “Large rocks have fallen from the walls- great angular blocks, which have rolled down the talus and are strewn along the channel. We make three portages in succession. Among these rocks, in chutes, whirlpools, and great waves, with rushing breakers and foam, the water finds its way. We stop for the night only three fourths of a mile below the last camp. A very hard day’s work has been done.”

                                                                                      John Wesley Powell, Cataract Canyon 1869

It was eight degrees when we arrived at Elephant Hill. The visitor center was closed and it appeared that we were the only ones dumb enough to visit Canyonlands National Park in December. I wondered why we bothered to pay for the permits when a ranger pulled up. I would have hidden our paddles had I known the authorities were lurking about but he spotted them and asked about our plans. He told us that a group of packrafters has been rescued a couple weeks earlier. They’d hiked down Rustler Canyon, floated the Colorado River for a while, and then couldn’t find their way out of the steep cliffs that surrounded them. Fortunately, a family member back home had raised the alarm. A helicopter spotted the group and flew them to safety. They went without food for a couple days; at least that’s the story.

It was a sobering reminder of the fact that we weren’t exactly sure how we were getting out of the canyon ourselves. We heard a few people had climbed out just above Calf Canyon. That information alone seemed good enough for us.

We approached the river via Red Lake Canyon, camping at Spanish Bottom.



The following day we ran all the rapids above Cross Canyon. Paul flipped once. It was about 35-40 degrees down there mid-day and even though he had a drysuit he got pretty cold. He was able to dry his things over an open fire that night.


The 3rd day started off well until I flipped my packraft right in front a giant recirculating hole. Not good. I was able to flip the raft back upright, but then I glimpsed the maneater directly in front of me. Without hesitation I ditched the raft, swimming like hell away from it. That’s when I slammed my thigh hard into a submerged boulder. Luckily Paul didn’t flip and managed to push my packraft to an eddy.  Meanwhile, I was able to catch my paddle and swim to shore. I was exhausted and the swelling in my leg was already causing a limp. I sat on a boulder and tried to regain my strength. Across the river I could see the famous inscription that had been pecked into the rock by prospectors in 1891. It read: “Camp #7, Hell To Pay, No. 1 Sunk & Down.” It appeared that other folks had had some troubles there, too.

After that we were both a little gun shy, neither of us wanting to risk another swim in those temperatures. We ran some of the rapids but we portaged the three Big Drops including Satan’s Gut, all of which were very bony at 4000 CFS.


While portaging we hiked with the paddle over our shoulder, the packraft dangling from the paddle behind us. We found it a quick and effective means of carrying an inflated raft when there’s no brush or wind to contend with. We began calling it the ‘Huckleberry Finn Method’.

We found the exit out of the canyon, just upstream of Calf Canyon like we’d heard. It was a third class scramble on loose boulders and crumbly rock- kinda scary actually. But it went!



The rest of the hike was easy, the entire way on good jeep trails.


We found a nice camp at Bobby’s Hole.


Overall, a fantastic adventure. Would I do it again in December? Probably not, it was a bit too cold for this Florida boy, but we had amazing scenery, great hiking, and fabulous whitewater. That, and we had the entire National Park to ourselves. What else could a packrafter wish for?

Check out the video of our trip here-

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