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Dirty Devil River in Utah

Trip Overview

The Dirty Devil River was named by the Powell expedition to mark their disappointment upon finding it more mud than water; I can think of some less complimentary names. The normal spring flow is around 500 cfs and lasts for about two weeks. The highest recorded was 35,000 cfs, making it bigger than the Colorado. It passes through a part of the canyon country made nearly inaccessible by the deep, vertical river gorges. The entire river is somewhere between 65 and 85 miles of boating from Hanksville, Utah to the end of the canyon at Lake Powell. And, since our National Park Service has closed the road, it is an additional 15 miles to a vehicle access point across the lake. There is in-route access at only one point, a 4-wheel drive trail to Poison Spring. Other than that, once you enter the canyon, you are committed to continue to the end. Few people have made the trip. Due to Government cutbacks we no longer have flow level reports, so we used historical data to set a launch date of June second. We hoped to catch the maximum spring runoff and canoe the canyon in three days. That was the plan.

At the put-in we find the river level surprisingly low, optimistically 50 cfs, about what is should be in the fall. After the first mile of dragging the canoes through knee-deep mud and inch-deep water, the other two couples turn their canoes around and go home. Aurora and I elect to continue, alone except for her 70 pound German Shepherd puppy and my Golden Retriever. We make only seven miles that day. Fly bites and abused muscles detract from the campfire experience that night, but out spirits are raised by attempts to lighten the load of vast quantities of beer.

The second day goes little better. I am using the Golden Retriever to quarter in front of us to locate the deepest part of the channel. About noon the canyon narrows and we are finally able to paddle the canoe for short stretches if the dogs stay in the water. We make 18 miles that day and are having some doubts about finishing the trip before a search party is sent out.

On the third day the canyon narrows to only a few hundred feet with 800 foot walls reaching to a thin river of sky above. Many of the Canyon Lands narrows remind me of cave crawling, but never so much as here, where we see real stalactites and stalagmites under the overhanging walls. We can now paddle about two-thirds of the time. By mid-afternoon we pass the half-way point. Our bodies are hardening to the effort but gathering tamarisk for firewood has left cuts which are unusually painful and slow to heal. Tamarisk is the most noxious weed found on western rivers. Nothing eats it, fire and floods cant kill it, biting bugs always seem to be around it, and it must have a toxin I find that tearing through the tamarisk has caused my Golden Retrievers eyelids to swell shut. She will have to ride all the time now. That means that the puppy will ride too, since they are inseparable. And that means Ill be walking. The puppy has been eating like a pig. Tonight, he finishes off the last of the dog food.

Day four and the water has come up during the night. This is a real blessing since we are entering a zone of rocky little rapids. Im enjoying maneuvering through the rapids until a dog swims into our path. To avoid crushing him I hit a hole sideways and we all go swimming. At noon we pass the Poison Spring trail. This is the first evidence of man weve seen since entering the canyon. By late afternoon the wind coming up the canyon has increased to the point where forward progress is impossible. The spray, sand, and dust combine to cover us with mud. We share our last, sandy meal with the dogs. During the night the wild, heat, and blowing sand make sleep come hard. The tent rips and the poles break.

In the morning the wind still blows but we have been blessed again it is now a tail wind. We start early and make good speed. Everybody rides all the time. At noon we reach the lake and two hours later, the car. We celebrate with Big Macs for all. At work the next day the couples who backed out eat crow.


Put in at town of Hanksville on Highway 24, take out from Lake Powell at Highway 95 crossing.

  • Duration: 2-3 Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Advanced
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip