Location: Escalante, UT
Distance: 48 mi
Elevation Gain: 2555 ft
Dogs Allowed: No
Season: Apr - early June

Packrafting Escalante River

It's hard to imagine a trip that's as action-packed and scenic as packrafting the Escalante River in Utah. This route offers 39 miles of class I & class II rapids, numerous sandy beaches to camp on, and some of the most scenic landscape you will ever see. If you are into adventures, you must raft the Escalante River.

Fence Canyon

There are two popular ways to begin this trip. You can put in at the trailhead right off of Highway 12. This adds an extra 36 miles of rafting and has the advantage of easy access. However, this section of the river is more shallow and not as scenic as its downstream counterpart. Therefore, I recommend starting at Egypt Trailhead and hiking 5.8 miles down to the Escalante River via Fence Canyon.

The trail down to Fence Canyon has numerous cairns marking it, but some of them can be misleading. In particular, when approaching Fence Canyon, be sure to go in the middle of the two legs (no pun intended). This route provides the easiest access to the river.

Heading toward Fence Canyon
Heading toward Fence Canyon
When entering Fence Canyon, go in the middle of the two legs
When entering Fence Canyon, go in the middle of the two legs

At the bottom of Fence Canyon awaits the river. Blow up your raft, and float 1 mile to Neon Canyon which will be on your left. Be careful not to miss it; the current can be fast here. The hike to the Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon is about a mile but is well worth it as this is definitely a highlight of the trip. After Neon Canyon, you will have about 18 miles of relatively narrow water with Russian Olive trees lining the banks. The tree is an invasive species that blocks some of the views and is home to spiders that love to jump on you. This section of the river is relatively calm, but it serves as a good warmup for what lies ahead.

The banks of the Escalante are often lined with Russian Olive Trees before reaching Scorpion Gulch.
The banks of the Escalante are often lined with Russian Olive Trees before reaching Scorpion Gulch.

Scorpion Gulch to Steven's Arch

Once you get to Scorpion Gulch, the river noticeably changes character. Welcome to the most fun section of the Escalante! Here the rapids increase and the views get more dramatic. You will encounter frequent rapids from here on out. The campsite selection also increases with numerous sandy beaches available.

The rapids and obstacles pick up when you hit Scorpion Gulch
The rapids and obstacles pick up when you hit Scorpion Gulch
Past Scorpion Gulch, the walls are higher and the scenery is more dramatic
Past Scorpion Gulch, the walls are higher and the scenery is more dramatic
After Scorpion Gulch, the Escalante offers fun obstacles and beautiful landscape
After Scorpion Gulch, the Escalante offers fun obstacles and beautiful landscape

When you hit Steven's Arch (you won't miss it), you will want to start looking out for Coyote Gulch and it's confluence with the Escalante on your right. This will mark the end of your packrafting journey. What follows is the most difficult part of your trip!

The walls of Escalante Canyon tower over you
The walls of Escalante Canyon tower over you
Floating past Steven's Arch - the end of the trip is near
Floating past Steven's Arch - the end of the trip is near

The Exit: Hiking Out of the Canyon

You have a few options when exiting Escalante Canyon. You can:

Because time is a concern for most people, this guide describes the exit to Fortymile Ridge Trailhead. However, if you have more time, please do consider the other options.

Follow Coyote Gulch until you get to a waterfall that blocks your passage further upstream. The only way to get around this is by skirting up and around it. To your left, you will see a faint trail with cairns that goes up. Follow that.

Hiking out of Coyote Gulch
Hiking out of Coyote Gulch

Unfortunately, following this path will eventually lead you to a precarious downward sloping slickrock ledge with a huge fall at the end that you will have to traverse if you want to exit the canyon via "Crack in the Wall" It looks so sketchy that it might make you question whether you are going the right way. There is also another slickrock ledge above that is an option. Both options look terrifying, but you will need to decide which one you are most comfortable with. Be very careful here.

Sketchy ledge near Coyote Gulch. A fall here could be fatal.
Sketchy ledge near Coyote Gulch. A fall here could be fatal.

Once past this ledge, you can breathe a huge sigh of relief. You should also spend a moment to catch your breath because what lies ahead is a mile long sand dune with 600 feet of elevation gain that you will need to hike up. This part sucks and makes you really appreciate firm footing as it can literally be one step forward and two steps back. When you get to the top of the sand dune, you will encounter your final obstacle out of the canyon. Here lies the infamous "Crack in the Wall", a narrow slot canyon that you should take that leads you up and out of the canyon. Once out, look back at the amazing view and feel good about what you just accomplished.

Above Crack in the Wall and the painful sand dune. Just 2 more miles to the finish.
Above Crack in the Wall and the painful sand dune. Just 2 more miles to the finish.

Fortymile Ridge trailhead is just 2 miles away from here and is well cairned. Follow the route to the trailhead.

Conclusion

Packrafting the Escalante River is everything it's cracked up to be. The low class level and depth of the river makes it a fantastic trip for beginner packrafters, while the scenery and numerous obstacles along the way will intrique seasoned ones as well.

Conservation:

  • Please abide by the requirement to remove all human waste (including toilet paper) from the canyon. Use a wag bag or other waste containment system.
  • Follow Leave No Trace guidelines. Let's keep this area pristine!

Permit:

A free backcountry use permit is required for this trip, but can easily be picked up at the Egypt Trailhead. The NPS stocks the trailhead with permits that you fill out on your own. You leave one copy behind at the trailhead and take the other copy with you for the duration of your trip. You can also pick up a permit at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante.

Logistics:

Shuttle: Since this is a point to point route, you will either need to take two cars or hire a shuttle company. There are numerous shuttle companies in Escalante:

If you go with the shuttle option, probably the best way to do it is to drive your car to the end trailhead (Fortymile Ridge) before starting your trip. Have the shuttle company pick you up and then drop you off at the start (Egypt Trailhead) to begin your trip. That way, you are free to leave whenever you finish your trip. This has the downside of not having your car nearby if something goes wrong towards the beginning of your trip, however. If this is a concern, Excursions of Escalante offers an interesting option of transporting your car to the finish during the middle of your trip.

Be sure to bring:

  • A wag bag. You are required to remove all human body waste (including toilet paper) when within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (the entirety of this trip).
  • A good repair kit for your packraft. Bring lots of Tyvek tape for puncture repairs.
  • Either a spare paddle or the ability to improvise in case your paddle gets lost.
  • Waterproof stuff sacks. Your backpack will get soaked.
  • 30 feet of rope for hauling your gear up when exiting Crack in the Wall. The crack is narrow and you will probably not be able to fit your gear inside it.
  • Shoes with excellent traction when traversing the sketchy ledge / climbing out of Crack in the Wall.

Hazards Include:

  • Low water which would prevent you from floating the river. Make sure you look at the current flow readings before going on your trip.
  • Falling off the sketchy ledge near Coyote Gulch
  • Falling off Crack in the Wall
  • Packraft damage / losing a paddle

Season:

Because the water of the Escalante is usually so shallow, the window for running it is small. The water is at its deepest anytime from April through early June. For a successful packraft run, make sure the river is at least at 5 CFS (cubic feet per second) or be prepared for a long walk down the river.

You can check the current conditions of the river (including its CFS) at the USGS Water Data site.

Current Conditions:

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