Utah is a high desert, but it’s also a paddler’s paradise

By Rebecca Chavez-Houck

Utah has an almost limitless number of places to enjoy a river or lake float. My husband, Martin, and I have an inflatable Sea Eagle two-person kayak that, when deflated, fits in our RV View’s restroom shower stall, along with our paddles and life vests. I know that most RV “glampers” use hard-bodied fiberglass or thermoplastic kayaks, securing them to the exterior of their rigs, toads or trailers, but the rear slide-out that we have on our View prevents us from doing that, so the inflatable kayak works well for us.

The way we approach kayaking mirrors how we do RV “glamping”: We want our experience to be leisurely. We look for water adventures that provide enough bouncing around for us to get wet and enough excitement to get an occasional shot of adrenaline coursing through our veins. I also love the fact that Martin and I paddle in tandem—it’s really one of our favorite outdoor activities.

For lake kayaking, we’ve launched the Sea Eagle at Sand Hollow and Quail Creek reservoirs in southwestern Utah. Both are great places to relax and enjoy the scenery and wildlife that frequent the state parks. Sand Hollow Campground (3351 S. Sand Hollow Road, Hurricane, 435-680-0715, StateParks.Utah.gov/parks/sand-hollow) is newer and features a number of full hookup sites. To reach it from Interstate 15, take the Hurricane Exit 16. Travel east on State Route 9 for about 4 miles to Sand Hollow Road and turn right. Travel south for about three miles and turn left at the park entrance.

Eight miles due north of Sand Hollow is Quail Creek State Park (472 N. 5300 West, Hurricane, 435-879-2378, StateParks.utah.gov/parks/quail-creek), a more established state park, but hookups are not available. To access this park from I-15, take Exit 16, travel 3 miles east on SR 9, turn left on SR 318 and follow the road to the park entrance.

Author Rebecca Chavez-Houck and her husband floating the Colorado River

Out of the Box in Idaho

One of the more scenic places we’ve floated is in Idaho near Island Park where we camp at the Grandview Campground (Caribou Targhee National Forrest, 208-652-7442, FS.USDA.gov). Located 14 miles northeast of Ashton, Idaho, to get here, head east out of Ashton on ID-47 (Mesa Falls Scenic Byway). The main road makes a big curve and heads north crossing Warm River (Note: don’t turn right onto the Fish Creek Road). Turn left at the Lower Mesa Falls Overlook, and the campground is to the left with the parking for the overlook on the right.

There are only eight sites, but they have electrical hookups, and they don’t take advance reservations. From there, we kayak Box Canyon on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. Since the Harriman State Park wildlife refuge is only 11 miles north on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, sightings of trumpeter swans, elk, moose and various waterfowl are not unusual, depending on the time of year. I absolutely love the birds we see there, and if we’re on the river at the right time of day, Martin will take the opportunity to fish.

Two other couples with whom we’ve camped since our now 30-year-old children were in second grade often join us on these floats. Camping with friends is the absolute best! It’s a great way to catch up on our lives, to enjoy activities such as hiking and fishing, and to share meal prep with each couple taking turns to cook for our entire group (we usually start with an appetizer “potluck,” complete with cocktails and wine on the first night of our trips).

The Moab Daily is a daylong float trip on the Colorado River

Floating the Green

A float our group likes is a stretch of the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam, an area known as Section A. We put in at the spillway off U.S. 191 near Dutch John below the dam. We then ride 7 miles through a narrow canyon that include some fun Class I and II rapids (although the Mother-in-Law Rapids might have you holding your breath a bit), and we take out at Little Hole Recreation Area. It’s a great half-day float that provides abundant fishing opportunities, too.

To camp in the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, we’ve stayed at Deer Run Campground (Ashley National Forest, 877-444-6777, FS.USDA.gov) with 23 sites but no hookups. To get there from Manila, take Utah State Route 44 for 28 miles. Turn left on U.S. 191 and go north for 4 miles. Turn north onto Forest Road 183 and travel 2 miles to the campground, adjacent to Cedar Springs Marina. Adjacent to Deer Run is Cedar Springs Campgrounds (Ashley National Forest Office, 435-789-1181, FS.USDA.gov), with 14 RV camping sites. To get there from Manila, use the same directions as Deer Run but remain on Forest Road 183 for another ½ mile and turn left at Forest Road 392.

Both offer easy access to Cedar Springs Marina where you’ll find world-class fishing for lake, brown and rainbow trout, as well as boating, water skiing, jet skiing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming and scuba diving. For hiking and biking, the Bear Canyon Trail offers a 3-mile round trip journey that includes views of Red Canyon and Flaming Gorge.

Colorado River Journey

In Fall 2018, we all took an enjoyable day trip down the Colorado River just outside of Moab. It’s a stretch known as the Moab Daily (BLM Field Office, 82 E. Dogwood, Moab, 435-259-2100, BLM.gov/visit/moab-daily-river). The headwinds were a pain, but it’s probably because we decided to float it in the afternoon; morning may have been less daunting. We put in at Hittle Bottom Recreation Site (From Moab, go to the junction of U.S. 191 and SR 128. Drive east about 26 miles along the Colorado River along SR 128. The campground is on the left.) and pulled out at Sandy Beach River Access (approximately 11 miles from Hittle), catching enough Class II rapids to have some fun, which made it worth paddling through the slow portions of the river. Although we prefer camping in state park campgrounds, this time, we stayed at the Slickrock Campground (1301 N. U.S.191, Moab, 435-259-7660, SlickrockCampground.com), which provided a good base camp. While many folks like to experience serious rapids on the Colorado during the spring and summer, I prefer visiting and camping in this area in the fall when there are fewer tourists or even locals on the river, and it’s not as high or quick.

We have just scratched the surface of so many easy floats in our state (and in the region). Meeting up with friends and enjoying a hearty meal and a cold brew after an exhilarating day on one of our many accessible waterways is a truly unique activity that lets you see wilderness and wildlife not easily viewed from the road.

See you at the campground!