Canyon Rebirth - Exploring the Lower Escalante River Tributaries

Lake Powell has dropped over 100 feet below it's full pool in recent years and many of the lower tributary canyons of Glen Canyon are making a come back. Now is the time to explore!

By: Brandon Jett

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The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Southern Utah stole my heart many years ago. I've spent countless days exploring some of the wilder sections of the monument backpacking, hiking and showing friends around the area. Last year I wanted to step it up a notch and check out a region that has been on marked on my maps and nagging at me for a few years, the lower Escalante River tributaries. It's no secret that Lake Powell has dropped considerably over the years, as much as 100' and at times even more, and it's brought forth the argument of whether Glen Canyon Dam is worth the cost of maintaining or should it be decommissioned, letting the Colorado River run free through the Grand Canyon as well as letting Glen Canyon breathe once again. Mother Nature is patient. Glen Canyon may be under water today but it won't be forever. I may not see all the beauty and secrets she holds in her depths in my lifetime, but future generations will one day be amazed at what lies beneath.

The recent packraft craze has opened up all kinds of potential adventures, and the canyon country of Utah is prime real estate. These lightweight packable crafts are perfect for rarely run desert rivers such as the Dirty Devil, Virgin, San Rafael, Muddy Creek and the Escalante River. I purchased an Alpacka packraft a few years ago, mainly for my trips to the canyon country. I've made a few practice runs here in Kentucky, running some class 2-3 whitewater with a pack attached and worked on lightening the load. A boat, paddle and PFD added about 8 pounds to my pack. Not too bad.

After pouring over topo maps, reading trip reports from the area and noting that the lake level was over 100' below full pool, I decided to connect 3 canyons via packraft and backpack...Willow Gulch, Fiftymile Creek and Davis Gulch. This area is remote, and trails are pretty much non-existent. A few paths enter the canyons and cairns mark some routes but its wild country, and the Willow Gulch trailhead where I started and ended my journey is about 45 rough miles down the historic Hole in the Rock Road.

A few miles down canyon the stream started, and I had clear cold water for most the way down...until I got close to the lake.

Broken Bow Arch is the main attraction in Willow Gulch, an easy day hike from the road.  After the arch the canyon is still beautiful with narrows, falls and huge alcoves.

Further down the canyon evidence of Lake Powell shows itself. The bleached sandstone walls and receding silt are all that's left. Flowers are blooming, and waterfalls that were once under water are now available for an impromptu shower...

Not far below the waterfall the man vs. nature battle really shows itself. Silt banks line the bottom and you can hear them eroding as you navigate through the quicksand and bleached sandstone walls. A canyon trying to restore it's balance.

Just around the bend a few hundred yards from the lake I set up camp. Still, not a bad place to be regardless of the muck...

The next morning I inflated the packraft and set off down the lower part of Willow Gulch on my way to Lake Powell. Glassy waters await for the early risers in the morning, and I paddled past Fiftymile Creek down to Davis Gulch. The stark contrast on the canyon walls show how much higher the lake used to be.

Onward to Davis Gulch. The lake ended at La Gorce Arch, one of 2 arches in the canyon. Boats used to be able to paddle through the opening. Not anymore...

Davis Gulch is making a comeback. Waterfalls, pools and alcoves that used to be under water are now the main attractions here. What an oasis! Paradise in the desert.

Take that Lake Powell!

A few more miles up the canyon you can find evidence of past cultures, and the last known camp of the writer and vagabond Everett Ruess. This is also the only non-technical exit/entry out of the canyon via an old stock trail. I camped here and decided to head out the next day overland to Fiftymile Creek instead of exploring up Davis Gulch to Bement Arch. It's quite a thrash through the willows, and there wasn't much of a path.

The next morning I packed up and hiked out on the stock trail, fired up my Gaia GPS app for the first time, and plotted a course overland to the sandslide entry into Fiftymile Creek, the only way in or out that I know of along the south rim.

I made my way down into Fiftymile Creek and headed upstream to an alcove I had heard about with an arch and large petroglyph panel. It did not disappoint. I camped here for 2 nights, exploring down canyon and witnessing the rebirth of one of the more stunning canyons along the Escalante River.

A half moon peeks through the arch in Fiftymile Creek.

The next day I explored the lower reaches of Fiftymile Creek. Narrows, pools, waterfalls, alcoves, bighorn sheep...this place has it all.

These stunning narrows are below full pool. Hopefully the lake will never reach this point again.  

This is the largest alcove I've ever seen. About 80' below full pool. I had to drop the pack and and spend some quality time here. A perfect lunch respite, with a family of bighorn sheep across the canyon on the rim for entertainment.

Notice how high the lake was here. This gem was almost completely under water.

60 mph gusts and storm clouds made me hasten my step back to camp. The locals don't appear worried.

After a restless night full of epic wind, sand and more wind, I packed up and headed up and out of Fiftymile Creek. I reached Hole in the Rock Road and hiked the 4 miles back to my car at the Willow Gulch trailhead. I spotted another petroglyph panel not far from camp, and the Datura was blooming early before the heat and sun found us.

This was one of the more memorable solo backcountry adventures I've ever taken. Combining paddling and 2 favorite activities...made this a special treat. Now it's time to pour over the maps and see what I can come up with for a trip next year.  

Whether you are exploring by boat from the lake, packraft or hiking, now is the time to witness mother nature reclaiming what is hers. As the lake drops, more miles of these and many other Glen Canyon tributary canyons can be explored. The arguments for and against the reservoir will continue while nature takes its course. There are better and more reasonable options that would benefit the majority, but it will take visionary thinking and political will to get it done. Fingers crossed.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.