Trip Report
Muddy Creek - The sublime AND the ridiculous
Tuesday June 6, 2017 10:26am
Faithful readers, herein lies a tale of a trip done so recently that even I remember the details. It was a dark and stormy night, and seldom seen Muddy Creek was on the rise. It had not been since 2011 that Muddy Creek carried enough water to float anything bigger than a popsicle stick, but indications were that this would be a great run-off year in Utah. When flows got up the minimum for paddling for a few days in mid-May, my friend Nick blew out of work, grabbed his pack-raft and went and did it. For him it was a bit rocky and he would have preferred more water than the 174 cfs that was there, although he though Chute Canyon was the most other-worldly thing he had ever paddled. After he got back Muddy Creek started going back down and I was bumming for having missed it. However, as the Memorial Day weekend approached the spring melt-off started in earnest and Muddy Creek started really coming on.
Seldom Seen Muddy Creek makes an appearance over Memorial Day.
Seldom Seen Muddy Creek makes an appearance over Memorial Day.
Credit: Nick Danger
I packed almost everything I would need the night before and headed out early Friday morning, beating the great unwashed masses in their exodus from the city. I got to Tomsitch Butte by mid-afternoon and contemplated running the shuttle solo using my mountain bike. As I set up camp I noticed plenty of paddle people rolling in that I might hook up with for shuttle purposes, and so it came to pass. In the meantime there were new friends to make, beers to be drunk, and meals to be prepared. It was at this point that I discovered an overlooked item on my packing list, a fuel bottle for the stove. So beer and chips for dinner it was. Why is it that I never seem to stray all that far from the planning and decision-making paradigms of my college years?
Camped on the wrong side of a lovely cottonwood tree that offered virt...
Camped on the wrong side of a lovely cottonwood tree that offered virtually no late afternoon shade whatsoever. Planning is everything.
Credit: Nick Danger
The evening was buggy, the night was windy, the tent was silty, and my teeth were gritty; really hitting all of the highlights of camping in the desert. That being said, the morning dawned cool and beautiful.
A cool, beautiful, windless morning, with nary a sound from the unwash...
A cool, beautiful, windless morning, with nary a sound from the unwashed masses.
Credit: Nick Danger
The cliffs of the Glen Canyon Group soar over the bottom lands at Toms...
The cliffs of the Glen Canyon Group soar over the bottom lands at Tomsitch Butte.
Credit: Nick Danger
Cool air, clear skies, no crowds – time to launch.
Cool air, clear skies, no crowds – time to launch.
Credit: Nick Danger
I was way too antsy to wait for any of the folks I had befriended the night before, and their previous evenings’ behavior indicated that they were not going to be getting up anytime soon anyway. Also, given the number of boaters Muddy Creek had attracted this holiday weekend it was soon going to look like the Spanish Armada had just set sail anyway, so I launched early and had the river to myself for a while.
When your point of view is only a couple of feet above the water, even...
When your point of view is only a couple of feet above the water, even narrow little Muddy Creek looks like a much wider river.
Credit: Nick Danger
The rocks look bigger too.
The rocks look bigger too.
Credit: Nick Danger
The morning started mellow with several miles of mostly flat paddling on a skinny creek with only minor shoaling out on sand bars. As you paddle downstream on Muddy Creek you are also travelling down the stratigraphic section. After a few miles of sandy flood plains I entered the first canyons carved into the Triassic red beds of the Chinle and Moenkopi Formations.
Paddling downstream, down section into the red siltstone of the Moenko...
Paddling downstream, down section into the red siltstone of the Moenkopi Formation.
Credit: Nick Danger
As I paddled further down section into the harder Permian White Rim Sandstone, the canyon walls loomed overhead and Muddy Creek filled the canyon wall-to-wall. This is where things started to get otherworldly. It would only get wilder and more surreal.
Entering upper Chute Canyon formed by the thick White Rim Sandstone.
Entering upper Chute Canyon formed by the thick White Rim Sandstone.
Credit: Nick Danger
A couple of hours into my descent I encountered the kayaker who had launched 10 minutes before me. His boat would develop a small leak from one of the many rocks in Muddy Creek and he would be eddying out every couple of miles to bail. As such, he and I would be playing leapfrog down Muddy Creek for the rest of the day.
The kayaker with the leaky boat is just entering upper Chute Canyon.
The kayaker with the leaky boat is just entering upper Chute Canyon.
Credit: Nick Danger
There is a gap between upper Chute Canyon and lower Chute Canyon where the canyon widens out and one can paddle back into the sunshine for a ways. The first class III rapid occurs in this section as well. Unlike many rivers where rapids are formed by a bunch of boulders washed into the main channel by flashfloods issuing forth from tributaries, virtually all of Muddy Creek’s rapids and rocky sections formed by rockfall from the adjacent cliffs. The biggest drop and biggest challenge exists in the upper part of lower Chute Canyon where a rather large rockfall deposited rather large rocks across the full breadth of Muddy Creek. Here there was only one rockin’ & rollin’ channel through the obstacle course, which forms the crux rapid on this river (class III). Any less water than the 195 cfs on the day that I paddled it and it would not go, although one could certainly portage past it. After that it was back into the sublime experience of Chute Canyon, where sandstone walls tower 300 feet overhead and the sky is often a thin ribbon of blue overhead. With the way the overhanging canyon walls warp and weave, occasionally the sky is barely even visible.
The intermediate canyon between upper Chute Canyon and lower Chute Can...
The intermediate canyon between upper Chute Canyon and lower Chute Canyon.
Credit: Nick Danger
Some mellow paddling between upper and lower Chute Canyons.  Things wo...
Some mellow paddling between upper and lower Chute Canyons. Things would get un-mellow soon enough.
Credit: Nick Danger
Entering lower Chute Canyon.  So far so good.
Entering lower Chute Canyon. So far so good.
Credit: Nick Danger
More mellow lower Chute Canyon – for now.
More mellow lower Chute Canyon – for now.
Credit: Nick Danger
The big rockfall and rapid is just around the corner in this photo.  T...
The big rockfall and rapid is just around the corner in this photo. The acoustics mean you know it’s coming.
Credit: Nick Danger
Paddling through the Chute Canyons is otherworldly. On many occasions I have hiked through narrow slot canyons throughout the Colorado Plateau, but never have I had the equivalent paddling experience. It was an utterly sublime paddling experience.
Shadows and light in lower Chute Canyon.
Shadows and light in lower Chute Canyon.
Credit: Nick Danger
Warp and weave of overhanging walls.
Warp and weave of overhanging walls.
Credit: Nick Danger
Water and rock, the basic elements of Chute Canyon.
Water and rock, the basic elements of Chute Canyon.
Credit: Nick Danger
The heart of darkness on Muddy Creek.
The heart of darkness on Muddy Creek.
Credit: Nick Danger
The sky was a small strip of blue in a world of stone.
The sky was a small strip of blue in a world of stone.
Credit: Nick Danger
The evening before I launched a charming couple approached me wanting information on the shuttle. They had no one to shuttle with, and were both paddling pack rafts, so I offered them a ride back to their camp if they took off the creek at about the same time I did. As such, we were also playing leap frog on the river. They took the only pics of me on Muddy Creek, since I am too daft to master the fine art of the selfy.
The author paddling into the darkness.
The author paddling into the darkness.
Credit: Nick Danger
Paddling into the light.
Paddling into the light.
Credit: Nick Danger
Chute Canyon makes a number of sharp turns deep within its confines such that the current draws one into the rock walls. For this reason I had brought my “beater” paddle to play tag with the canyon walls (as seen demonstrated in the previous photo). At one point Chute Canyon narrows down to about 8 ft wide and there is a log jam in the canyon about 20 ft up. I’m thinking if this creek ever flows at around 2,000 cfs it would be a good time to stay home. Below the log jam one exits lower Chute Canyon and paddles back into the sunshine, the cottonwoods, and the red rocks of the Moenkopi Formation. One has now left the sublime and is about to venture out onto the ridiculous. The lower 4 miles or so of Muddy Creek is one rock garden after another. Often there was no navigable channel.
Back into the light and vegetation.  It looks like such a nice float –...
Back into the light and vegetation. It looks like such a nice float – wish that it were so.
Credit: Nick Danger
I WISH the last few miles were as nice a paddle as the first few miles...
I WISH the last few miles were as nice a paddle as the first few miles had been.
Credit: Nick Danger
Approaching one of the many rock gardens
Approaching one of the many rock gardens
Credit: Nick Danger
After about the 20th rock garden I was well and truly ready to get off this creek. There were several places where there simply was no alternative to getting out and dragging the boat. Another 50 cfs would have made a world of difference at this point. Eighteen miles of Muddy Creek had taken just a bit longer than 5 hours to paddle. The guy with the leaky kayak was only about 10 minutes behind me, and the charming couple in the pack rafts just a few minutes later than him. After that we got everyone loaded up and back to camp. The last few miles notwithstanding, it had been a great day on the river. Since it was early afternoon I was looking at a long day with no beer, no fuel to cook with, and several hundred thousand dirt bikes and ATVs to share it with. Time to go home.

If you go: If there is enough water Muddy Creek is totally worth the effort to get there. American Whitewater has a website with current flow conditions here:
https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view
They say Muddy Creek is class I – III and that is correct. They suggest that 174 cfs is at the lower runnable flow level. At this level you will hit many rocks, you will shoal out on sand bars many times, and you will have to drag your boat more than once (like a bunch of times). That being said you will be able to paddle the absolutely awesome Chute Canyon. 200 cfs is better, and 220 would be great. If the hydrograph looks like this drop everything and go! I find it ironic that the weekend after Memorial Day was probably a much better weekend to paddle, but some years you might only get 2 or 3 days so you go when you can.
Credit: Nick Danger

Hydrograph from American Whitewater website.

The San Rafael Swell is way more crowded on three days weekend than it ever is earlier in May. It is also noisier because it is popular with dirt bikers and ATVers – this is completely understandable because of the hundreds of miles of dirt roads left over from the uranium mining boom of the 1950’s. I do not begrudge these people having their fun, but it is probably not necessary to ride slowly side-by-side and hold up traffic – just sayin’.

The dirt roads to the various put-ins and take-outs for both Muddy Creek and the San Rafael River are in pretty good shape, especially compared to what it was back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. Any half decent 4X4 can make it down to the Muddy Creek takeout with no problems, and this has not always been the case. Also, due to the popularity of various off-road conveyances, these roads see a lot more traffic and are much dustier than they used to be.

Although it is possible to put in where I-70 crosses Muddy Creek west of the Swell and paddle for 3 days and 70 miles down to Hanksville (I talked to a couple of guys doing this), most folks just do the 18 miles of Muddy Creek between Tomsitch Butte and the Green Dragon mine. There used to be an intact mining camp with 6 miners’ cabins in pristine shape at the takeout, but all of that has long since been taken by vandals. C’est la vie! Be well people, it’s a great world out there!


  Trip Report Views: 1,205
Nick Danger
About the Author
Nick Danger is a ice climber from Arvada, CO.

Comments
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Mungeclimber

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  Jun 6, 2017 - 10:56am PT
sweet!
dirt claud

Social climber
san diego,ca
  Jun 6, 2017 - 12:03pm PT
Awesome pics and looks like a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing. Dying to get out to the woods, cliffs and trees for a while.
stevep

Boulder climber
Salt Lake, UT
  Jun 6, 2017 - 12:51pm PT
Nicely done. I had other boating friends that did it this spring as well. Wish I had taken the opportunity.

In lower water, it's also a very nice hike. I went from Hidden Splendor up to the end of the Chute and back in one long fall day. And saw not a single person the whole way.
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Jun 6, 2017 - 01:15pm PT
Steve,
I walked the whole thing when I was young and spry back in the '80's and it was an awesome hike - except for the horse flies, which were truly vicious. I actually saw two people hiking it the day I paddled it. They each had a drybag-type daypack and individual floatation. I'm sure they were having fun. I also saw juvenile Desert Bighorn along the creek in the lower few miles - pretty cool! If you can blow off work you can probably still paddle it in the next couple of days.

Enjoy the Swell, Steve, you are certainly living in the place to do so.
Cheers
guyman

Social climber
Moorpark, CA.
  Jun 6, 2017 - 02:15pm PT
Thanks for posting.

looks like fun
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Jun 6, 2017 - 02:20pm PT
Great TR....thanks! Very apropos, Angela and I are heading out tomorrow for a three day float on the Dolores.
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Jun 6, 2017 - 05:22pm PT
Beautiful scenery,
The narrows look incredible, thanks 🙏
Dick Erb

climber
June Lake, CA
  Jun 6, 2017 - 06:09pm PT
Thanks for letting us enjoy your journey.
andy@climbingmoab

Big Wall climber
Salt Lake City, UT
  Jun 13, 2017 - 02:42pm PT
I just paddled it a few days ago at 170 cfs. It is otherworldly as you say - one of the best days of my life. If you are very good at reading water you never have to drag a boat at that level, but I can see how dragging becomes mandatory a little bit lower.

Definitely a must do on the rare occasions it has water.
Dingus Milktoast

Trad climber
Minister of Moderation, Fatcrackistan
  Jun 13, 2017 - 02:46pm PT
Outstanding!

Cheers
DMT
L

climber
And I'm searchin' for waterspouts...
  Jun 13, 2017 - 05:13pm PT
Awesome TR!
Loved the photos.
Fritz

Social climber
Choss Creek, ID
  Jun 13, 2017 - 07:47pm PT
Thank you! A veritable sandstone sonata of prose & a serenade of sedimentary photos.
neebee

Social climber
calif/texas
  Jun 14, 2017 - 12:42am PT
hey there say, nick... wow!! i love this ... great colors too, in the pics... nice golds... :)

very refreshing, too...


thanks so much for sharing this...
:)
Inner City

Trad climber
Portland, OR
  Jun 14, 2017 - 09:04am PT
Wow,
Cool trip report! Thanks for posting.

I was backpacking along the Escalante River a week ago and we encountered 6 people in pack rafts floating the river. It sure looked like fun, but one of the guys said that if you were a heavier person, you were going to be bottoming out all-the-time.

Flow seemed pretty low, but floating looks fun. Horse flies, though,
ugh..

Love the Desert!
Roughster

Sport climber
Vacaville, CA
  Jun 14, 2017 - 09:06am PT
Fantastic!
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