This May, five adventurers pushed off below the bridge at Highway 12 in southern Utah to navigate a 100-mile stand-up paddleboard first descent on the Escalante River, which drains into Lake Powell. The caravan, composed of Dylan Brown, Morgan Tilton, Jordan Curet, Morgan Smith, and Aaron Kloer—all seasoned outdoor explorers but novice boaters—made hundreds of hook turns for six days through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s soaring Navajo sandstone. The gorge reached heights of more than 1,000 feet and greeted the crew with boulder-strewn whitewater.
Photo: Tilton admiring one of the many stunning horseshoe bends in a series of progressively taller, more pronounced 180-degree curves near the halfway point on the Escalante. She rode the inflatable Hala Gear Straight Up, which is durable and stable, with fully removable fins and well-placed reinforced stainless D-rings for strapping down gear.Glamorous start? Not exactly. Moving southbound from the put-in, our five-person crew more or less pushed our SUPs for the first six miles through overgrown, sharp, spider-filled Russian olive and tamarisk trees, both invasive to the area.On day one, the river widened and joined with two tributaries: Boulder Creek (mile 6) and the Gulch (mile 16). At the time of put-in, the flow was meager: 8 cubic feet per second (CFS). BLM recommends a trip launch with at least 50 CFS.On our first night, we were incredibly lucky to spot this small, silky white beach. Finding a camp spot was a roll of the dice most nights. We slept everywhere from a terraced cliff (where we experienced fierce fire ants) to a scrabbly hillside at the confluence with 25-Mile Gulch (with scorpions) to a glorious white sandbar and humongous alcove.Early in the trip, we paddled past clumps of dead roots and branches that had washed downstream. A portion of this debris was leftover from the mitigation work being done to remove the nonnative Russian olive and tamarisk trees. The Escalante River Watershed Partnership—an alliance of more than 30 private and public agencies, groups, and individuals that range from the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council to the Nature Conservancy—has targeted more than 6,000 acres for restoration along the Escalante and its tributaries to ensure a healthy riparian ecosystem.Water that drips down the rock faces leaves behind airborne dust and clay particles, which are glued into place by bacteria and microfungi. The black and iridescent blue-black varnish is rich in manganese, and the streaks of dark red or rust are full of iron. The resulting canvas is stunning.After few days, Kloer settled into a smooth pace on the river, and the Escalante Canyon began to tower above our heads. The canyon and its spider arms were the last terrain in the lower 48 to be mapped: a testament to just how exceptionally rugged and secluded this landscape is. In May 1872, ten men from the Kanab Mormon settlement took off on horseback to find a boat that had been cached near the Dirty Devil River. Geographer Almon Thompson—brother-in-law of the great Western explorer John Wesley Powell—was in charge. When the crew realized they’d discovered an entirely unmapped river, they spent the next six years mapping the area.After Neon Canyon at mile 36—where the famous Golden Cathedral is located—we didn’t see a soul. The nearest trailhead, Fortymile Ridge, was at mile 76 and is reached via the Crack-in-the-Wall slot: a hardy five-mile, one-way trek that includes a 600-foot sand dune, 1,000-foot ascent, and a narrow passage that requires a 30-foot rope to haul up gear.According to our map, there were at least two boulder jams that required scouting and possible portaging, but we ended up portaging more than twice. The mostly Class III river features miles of rocks and huge boulders, quick turns, and fast water.Established in 1996, the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—roughly the size of Delaware—is a 270 million-year-old geological treasure box of history. Three distinct sections define the area from west to east: a stepladder of cliffs and plateaus called the Grand Staircase, the dry and expansive Kaiparowits Plateau, and the canyons carved by the Escalante.Each of our three water filters clogged up from river silt. (In hindsight, we should’ve implemented a pre-filter system.) Nearly every natural spring was dried up along the way, but luckily we stumbled upon a water source somewhere between Steven’s Natural Arch at mile 75 and Lake Powell, which allowed us to have plenty of water on our last day of paddling.At trip’s end, most paddlers—kayakers and packrafters—reach Coyote Gulch around mile 75 and hike out of Crack-in-the-Wall: a challenging ascent up a 600-foot sand dune with a total of 1,000-foot of elevation gain from the river to the trailhead, plus a narrow slot that requires a 30-foot rope to haul up gear. Most groups require two trips of the five-mile, one-way trek. We opted for more river time and paddled all the way to Lake Powell, where we had arranged a pickup by boat.The team arriving at Lake Powell, where the bathtub ring around the Navajo sandstone is evidence of drought and an immense drop in water level. Powell is the second-largest reservoir in the Western Hemisphere and exists because of the Glen Canyon Dam. Constructed in 1963, the dam was—and still is—controversial due to what now lies beneath the water: Glen Canyon, which was full of archeological artifacts, animal and plant life, and mystifying geological formations that took hundreds of millions of years to form.In a 13-year period, the number of adventure seekers in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has risen steadily by 35 percent. However, the most recent visitation report reflects a 15 percent spike in 2014 over the year prior. It’s important now more than ever for visitors to help preserve the gem of Escalante and its surrounding wilderness.