Trip Report by Native Ambassador, Dylan Brown.
It’s not every day you get to pair two fundamentally different sports. But when you do, it’s worth sharing. This was the case on a recent trip I lead down the Dirty Devil River in southern Utah.
The Dirty Devil River is known to have some of the best technical slot canyons in the world, and in the right circles, is known as one of the best desert river runs imaginable. This past March, seven of us loaded standup paddle boards to the brim—well, stacked them high—and set out to combine two of the sports we all love most: standup paddle boarding and canyoneering.
Now, south-central Utah is wild and raw, and anchor building is paramount to not dying, so we needed to bring enough gear to canyoneer safely. We had ample webbing, too many rap rings, two ropes, wet suits, knee pads and a full head-to-toe outfit to get thrashed while squeezing through tight sandstone. We also wanted to do as many canyons as possible, which meant tons of layover days.
The Dirty Devil River flows 83 miles from Hanksville, Utah, to Hites Marina (now just the Colorado River, since Lake Powell is substantially lower than its “optimal” fill-height). People tend to do this float in 4-7 days, but we opted for 12, with the option for 14.
So yes, besides the extra gear needed for canyoneering, we also loaded our bags full of food. And water. And warm weather gear: dry suits, down jackets, fleece pants, and tents.
All said and done, we were each hauling roughly 60 pounds of gear. Which brings me to an important note: one of the only reasons this pairing was possible was because standup paddleboards draft very little water and are extremely rigid, which allows for good maneuverability when loaded down.
Our first layover was roughly 15 miles downstream in the Robbers Roost Canyon network. This section of the river is in the Navajo sandstone, the crem-de-la-crem for slot canyon formations. Super tight and photogenic slot canyon formations to be precise.
We set up camp on a sandspit, allowing easy camping right off the river, while giving us easy access to several side canyons—up and downstream—which contained the tight slots we sought. We did an evening stroll to a couple of arches and a petroglyph panel, and the following day headed out to Chambers—a notoriously tight slot canyon that eats people alive. Quite literally.
It was exactly what we were looking for: a fully committing slot canyon that is close to the Dirty Devil River. The approach was simple—an hour at the most—and the slot itself, grueling. Only a quarter mile long, it took us the better of three hours to squeeze through. We put our knee pads and wetsuits to use. We practiced our breathing exercises—breath in, wait, breath out, squeeze, breath in, wait…. It was hard, fun and one for the books.
Back at camp, we sized up the next slot. Only a few more miles on the river and we set up camp at the base of the final rappel of Angel Cove—a fun, beautiful and technical slot canyon with several rappels. But the best part was literally rapping into camp, cracking a beer and watching the light glow around us while sitting on our boards, giddy that this dream had finally come true.
We continued down the river, and in less than a day we were out of the Navajo sandstone. As the days waned, we passed through Wingate sandstone, then Chinle, then the Moenkopi formation, and finally stopping at our next layover in the Cedar Mesa sandstone. We were to explore Happy Canyon—a canyon said to rival Antelope Canyon in terms of beauty. I’m not sure I agree, but it is definitely worth putting on the list!
At this point in our trip, the river had sliced its way several hundred—maybe even thousands of feet—below the rim above. Our technical canyoneering gear was replaced with hiking boots and shorts, but the side canyons were endless. We explored countless unnamed canyons, finding gems left and right. We found the carcass of a prized desert buck, a golden-lit cavern and whole cross sections of petrified wood.
Just with every river trip, we kept a close eye on the water levels by sticking sticks in the mud at water level when we arrived at camp, and assessed the water-level change in the morning. After Happy Canyon we started seeing the water drop… inches overnight. We had the gear to stay out for 14 days, but this was a wild river, miles from anywhere and the horror stories of dragging our boards miles through knee-deep mud were real. We decided to push hard, putting down 18 miles a day, trying to keep ahead of the dropping levels. The river held out, and each day seemed to get easier and easier. But we still didn’t trust the dropping water levels.
We finally came to once-was-Lake-Powell (the mud was present, as were chairs and buoys) and our final obstacle was the least expected: mud rapids. It was a wild way to end the journey. The preceding 80 miles were mostly flat, with technical swift-water moves, but these final sections had rapids, drops and the potential for pins. We all buckled down, cinched up our PFDs and sent it no problem.
Our 12-day expedition came to an end 2 days early, but we had plenty of battle scars, sore muscles, and sun-cracked fingers to remind us of the adventure for days to come. We had experienced two epic trips in one. We had survived the Dirty Devil River, explored its tributaries, felt like pioneers, and are already taking stock of the next rivers to come.
photos courtesy Dylan Brown