Adventure Journal | Paddling Reflection Canyon
Back in May, Kalem and I had been itching to spend some time in the sun. It was still a little too chilly for a lot of summer adventures in northern Utah, so we headed down south to Escalante. We didn't have a plan, but we knew we wanted to do some backpacking and paddling in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and roughly how many nights we planned to stay in the backcountry (4) and packed accordingly.
Here is our packing list:
We started our adventure by driving down Hole-in-the-Rock road. The whole road is around 62 miles long. We split up the drive by taking a few days to backpack in Coyote Gulch, a gorgeous canyon with sheer overhanging walls, about 40 miles from the turnoff. When we came out of the gulch a few days later, we finished the drive to Hole-in-the-Rock. The last few miles of the road requires four-wheel-drive, although we *barely* made it in our FWD camper van. The whole length will take you about four hours to drive from the turn-off of Highway 12 outside of Escalante, Utah. I wouldn’t recommend trying to drive the road any faster, as Hole-in-the-Rock is notorious for shredding tires and you're pretty remote.
While not a typical access point for Lake Powell, we chose Hole-in-the-Rock as a put-in for our paddling trip. When we arrived in Escalante, we originally thought we might access the lake from hiking through Coyote Gulch to the confluence with the Escalante River, which flows into Lake Powell and come out Hole-in-the-Rock. However, the USGS water flow report showed levels of discharge that meant most of our “paddle” to Lake Powell down the Escalante would be hiking through a silty river bottom and quick sand, so we opted to put-in and take-out at Hole-in-the-Rock to avoid the hassle. This would be a killer trip, but looks like it could only happen at the end of April or first few weeks of May in a high water year. Instead, like I stated above, we backpacked Coyote Gulch out-and-back and then continued down the road to Hole-in-the-Rock.
So what is Hole-in-the-Rock?
Hole-in-the-Rock is a crack in the canyon rim that a group of 250 Mormon pioneers enlarged over six months using pick axes, shovels, and a limited quantity of blasting powder. The drop from the rim to the Colorado River (now Lake Powell) is nearly 2000 feet with an average grade of 25 degrees. Going down it today, it seems impossible that covered wagons were once taken down the crack and you gain an appreciation for how badass these pioneers were. Surprisingly, no one died on the trek, in fact two babies were born.
Today, Hole-in-the-Rock is located in one of the most remote portions of Lake Powell, 66 miles up from Glen Canyon Dam, and 35 miles down from the Bullfrog Marina. While I'd love to talk extensively on the controversial creation of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam, I'd better leave it to this article and Edward Abbey's The Monkeywrench Gang, as they'll provide a much better education into the region's background and the environmental effects the Lake has had on the surrounding area. I hope that anyone who visits the area takes the time to become aware of the natural and human history that has come to shape it.
Our journey on Lake Powell began and ended at Hole-in-the-Rock. After hiking down from the canyon rim the first morning, we inflated our paddle boards and began heading down the lake. From Hole-in-the-Rock we paddled 9 miles down lake to enter Reflection Canyon. Reflection Canyon is one of the most iconic locations on Lake Powell, and it is usually experienced by motorboat, plane, or backpacking to the overlook on the rim above. Its recent notoriety comes by way of being featured by National Geographic in 2006 through some fantastic photographs by Michael Medford. In 2012 Apple used another picture to promote its new MacBook Pro's high resolution display, adding to traffic seen in the area.
Reflection Canyon is a shorter tributary than many others on the lake, and about a mile and a half upstream both forks of the canyon end. However, it makes up for its short length with grand walls, floating sandstone domes, and sweeping horseshoe bends.
We explored the canyon during the afternoon of the first day, stopping to jump into the lake to cool off a couple of times and watch passing wildlife we saw, including bighorn sheep and river otters. We camped that night inside Reflection Canyon, which isn’t typically doable, but historically low water levels have uncovered a couple of sandy beaches. See a picture of our campsite below:
Whether you backpack out to the Reflection Canyon viewpoint from above, or paddle to it from below, please remember to follow Leave No Trace principles and carry out what you carry in- including any human waste.
The morning of the second day we headed back out Reflection Canyon and explored the tributaries we’d missed on our paddle down the lake, including the mouth of the San Juan river and Llewellyn Gulch. We really enjoyed Llewellyn Gulch, another narrow, windy canyon with sandstone ledges that make you feel like you’re living in an old western movie. We had originally thought that all the paddling and exploring would take us longer than it did, but we arrived back at the bottom of Hole-in-the-Rock around 5:00PM on the second day. We had planned to camp another night on the lake, but instead decided to use our remaining energy to complete the difficult scramble back up to the rim. After deflating our paddle boards, packing up everything, and hiking to the top, we arrived back to the van around 8:00PM, just in time to pull out our camp chairs and watch the sun dip below the Kaiparowits Plateau. We slept there and drove out Hole-in-the-Rock road the next morning.
We both had a lot of fun on this trip. However, I don’t want to understate how difficult this was. On the hike out Kalem and I talked over whether or not we’d ever access Lake Powell via Hole-in-the-Rock again. We agreed we would IF we drove out Hole-in-the-Rock road with a four-wheel drive vehicle. The drive in our van wasn’t the easiest or the most enjoyable of our lives.
Disregarding the drive, hiking down Hole-in-the-Rock and paddling to Reflection Canyon is still a strenuous trip that is go-go-go the whole way, but floating on a clear lake surrounded by towering sandstone cliffs there is no question that all the work is worth it. The quiet moments on the glassy water were seriously spiritual. It’s hard to feel like you’re working hard when you’re either basking on top of your paddle board in the sun or swimming through the refreshing water.
This trip also won for its novelty. We’ve never heard of anyone accessing Lake Powell this way, and it was fun to go off the beaten path. Feel free to reach out if you’re in the area and plan to do a similar trip. As long as you have plenty of sunscreen and snacks, you should have a pretty grand ol’ time.