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December 14, 2017

Exploring Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Adventure Stories, Conservation Efforts

After staging multiple adventure trips throughout the Southwest US over the past 34 years, we finally got our chance on the Escalante River.

Photos & text by Tom Bartels

All four in our group had spent time in the canyon backpacking in the past, but never on the Escalante. One of the main reasons is that it runs so sporadically, and you have to leave on a moment’s notice if you’re going to use conventional boats.

Alpackarafts are anything but conventional. They allowed us to run the stretch from Egypt Canyon to Crack in the Rock at an average level. Of 7 cfs on the river guage at the Escalante Bridge. That’s not a typo – 7cfs on the guage. By the time the river gets to Egypt Canyon, it’s about twice that flow due to other tributaries between Escalante and Egypt, so the actual flow was around 14cfs or so.

We had seen the water level surge the week before we were to launch, and later heard of a family getting into trouble due to high water and no local knowledge of the two mandatory portages, one of which they tried to run, which led to them losing most of their gear and an eventually leaving the canyon via helicopter evacuation!

We had a seamless trip, filled with the awe one can expect in this desert labyrinth, paddling 40 miles of the river over six days. Great Trip!

One of the potential challenges we had all experienced down in Escalante canyon is the relentless heat. But this early spring trip was an exception with perfect temps.

The upper stretches of this trip had a fair amount of overgrown plants on both banks that felt a bit like an irrigation ditch at times, but those sections are short, and lead you to big rewards and canyon views downstream.

As the canyon opens up, the views are world class.

"Tom paddling out on day six. If you take this route, you will need to haul all your gear through “crack in the rock” high above the river level, which is the last exit unless you paddle to the lake. A 50’ rope is a key tool on that exit, since your gear won’t fit through the crack, you’ll need to climb through first and haul packs over the lip."

Jennie drops through one of the many rapids that Tom described as "pleasantly technical class 2”.

"With the many side hikes interrupting the paddling, we found ourselves on the water late into the afternoon with beautiful light. Here Sydney paddles through dappled sunlight peeking over the canyon walls that are several hundred feet above the water."

"Getting water levels right is a tough thing to target on the Escalante. The tolerances are much more sensitive than other canyons. Too low, and you drag boats, but just a few cfs more and it’s a perfect run. And on the other side, a hundred cfs more can increase risk considerably. There are very few “quick exits” once in the canyon. It’s still a very wild and unpredictable river, which was one of the attractions for us."

"Many miles immersed in redrock glow."

Tom Bartels has lived in Durango, Colo., since 1983 and has spent most of that time producing various environmental media projects on radio, TV, and the web. His most recent project is an online video curriculum site that teaches people how to grow high-density organic food at home in smaller spaces, with less work. Check out his website: