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Packrafting Into the Unknown On Lake Powell

North America

Photos In Collaboration with Quin Schrock 


Packrafting at Lake Powell, Utah.

A Packraffting Invitation

I didn’t want to go on this trip. It wasn’t anything personal. I didn’t know the couple we would be traveling with very well, but that had never been an issue in the past. I didn’t have anything in particular against packrafting, but I really didn’t know much about it. So it wasn’t that. 

In general, I’m all for pushing myself to try new things. Type two fun as they say. Growth takes place beyond the confines of our comfort zone. So I’m constantly on the search for experiences that will take me to uncharted territory. Even if it’s just uncharted for me. 


Taking a break on our first day packrafting Lake Powell.

Taking a break on our first day packrafting Lake Powell.

In many ways packrafting seemed like just the experience I needed to fuel the fire inside me that felt a little dimmer than usual. A way to delve deeper. To experience the type of unadulterated wilderness that feeds the soul and inspires the imagination. As I understood it, that’s what packrafting was all about. A means to an end. Not just a tool, but a key that allows us to escape the ordinary and access that sense of awe and self awareness that comes from complete immersion. Heart of Darkness type stuff. 

But as I awoke that morning, seeing the backpack ready to go and propped up against my bedroom door,  a wave of anxiety washed over me. I’d been home for a few days, for what felt like the first time in weeks, maybe months, and I wanted to stay right there. Perhaps to close my eyes and fall back asleep for a while longer. Maybe even binge watch a show or two. And then I remembered I’d canceled Netflix – I wasn’t around enough to use it. 

I was too busy living the dream. Or so I was told by strangers multiple times a day on social media. And to be certain, I’m grateful for every person, opportunity, and place  I’ve encountered since drastically veering from my carefully charted plans for life. But laying there that morning, a million trivial worries crossed my mind: What would I do without cell service for a full week? What would happen to “@Jess.Wandering” if I couldn’t engage with my community? Would I loose potential job opportunities while I was gone?  


Paddling through stunning slot canyons on Lake Powell.

Paddling through stunning slot canyons on Lake Powell.

Obviously I’d been disconnected from the outside world plenty of times over the last couple years. But for some reason, this time it felt different. More dramatic. Like there was a strange permanence to it.

That feeling stuck with me on my flight to Las Vegas, and lingered during the five hour drive to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Quin and I met Mina, Juuso, and their dog Kira in the town of Escalante. It was already 10PM and we were an hour late to the rendezvous. The group exchanged tired greetings in the dark and then jumped back into our respective cars. We had another two hours to travel down Hole In The Rock Road before reaching the trailhead for the backpacking portion of our adventure. As we pulled out of town, I refreshed my phone one last time. Then, as if on cue, we hit the first patch of bone rattling washboard in the dirt road, and the last service bar disappeared. And with it, that nagging sense of anxiety that had followed me all day—from Seattle to Nevada, and half way across Utah—floated away into the warm desert night. Feeling liberated, I tossed the phone into the bottom of my pack.


One of our many camp sites during our Lake Powell packrafting trip.

One of our many camp sites during our Lake Powell packrafting trip.

The next morning we woke up with the sun and began organizing the gear we’d need for the next six days. Mina presented us with our Kokopelli Rogue Packrafts. Bright yellow and deflated, the lightweight rafts were folded neatly into a tight DuraFlame sized package. We didn’t know it at the time, but that little package of rubber and kevlar would become an extension of our bodies over the next few days. A home away from home. The only thing separating everything we cared about in life from the dark indifferent depths of Lake Powell. But for now we didn’t need them, so I shoved my packraft into my backpack with the rest of my gear, and closed the lid. It was time to hit the trail. 

The Journey To Lake Powell

The eight mile trudge to the Escalante River was one of the slowest I can remember. Not that they were entirely unenjoyable miles. The company was good, and there was a sense of excitement and anticipation for the journey ahead. Everyone was anxious to inflate the packrafts and get out on the water. But first, we had to navigate our way through river beds, slot canyons, and chest high water – all under the blazing desert sun. That first night, my hips and shoulders were sore from where my pack had rubbed them raw over the course of the day. But laying in the tent, no sleeping bag, rainfly off, under a million stars, I felt completely content. Comforted by the thought that, starting tomorrow, my packraft would do all the heavy lifting for me. 


Our last night was spent camping near a large arch in Escalante.

Our last night was spent camping near a large arch in Escalante.

On The Water

Once the packrafts were inflated, we strapped our packs onto the bows of the boat and pushed off toward the Escalante River. It was immediately apparent that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d anticipated. We were hindered by strong head winds that day. It didn’t seem to matter which direction we headed. Somehow the wind was always against us. By the time we reached the first camp, I was officially wondering how I’d make it through the rest of the week. I regretted slacking on those upper body workouts the last few months – okay my entire life. Each attempt to make up ground was met with the futility of a person on a stationary rowing machine at a regatta. 

Noticing my plight, Quin tied the front of my raft to his in an attempt to keep me from blowing away. We paddled the last stretch together as Mina’s yell echo off the canyon walls from somewhere up ahead: we had made it to camp! Rounding the last bend, a giant arch framed the sky above the water. It was beautiful and larger than anything I could have imagined. We set up camp in the alcove under the arch, overlooking a perfect horseshoe bend in the lake. A camp fire was lit, food was had, and just like that the struggles from the day faded into a distant memory.


Cooling down in Lake Powel at our second camp site.

Cooling down in Lake Powel at our second camp site.


Relaxing after a long day of paddling on Lake Powell.

Relaxing after a long day of paddling on Lake Powell.

The wind disappeared after that first day, and every morning we were greeted with glassy water so calm the reflections created the illusion that we were paddling through the sky. Our rafts glided over the water, and a deep calm washed over the group. The repetitive motion of paddles slicing through water created it’s own therapeutic rhythm. We grew comfortable with the daily routine. Each of us in our own raft, in our own little floating universe. I was thankful for the less than ideal conditions that first day. It gave each day after that a little touch of magic. 

We were out on the water for five days. Every day we paddled down a new canyon in search of a place to call home for the night. The destination was almost always unknown, but never disappointing. Just as promised, the packrafts unlocked a whole new world of possibilities. We camped in backcountry sites inaccessible by foot. Unmarked places that exist only as abstract shapes on maps. Places with no established road, trail, or path in or out. And on more than one occasion it felt like we were the last people on earth. 


Calm mornings on Lake Powell. The reflections were unreal!

Calm mornings on Lake Powell. The reflections were unreal!


Packrafting on Lake Powell, Utah.


The view from our last camp site on Lake Powell.

The view from our last camp site on Lake Powell.

Just What The Doctor Ordered

We stayed up late into the last night talking about life, dogs, and future adventures. The next morning, we packed up our rafts and hiked back out to the cars. It felt like it had been a lot longer than a week since we traveled down the rough dirt road to get here. I knew we were close to Escalante when I heard my phone vibrate with alerts. I fished it out of my pack. And then changed my mind. I didn’t care. The memory worthy experience wasn’t on my phone. It was right now. In this place. Basking in the sense of accomplishment that comes when you venture into the unknown and make it out the other side.  

I  didn’t wanted to go on this trip. I wanted to stay back in the safety that I knew. But there’s no space to grow in the known. Out on the water, in my raft, I thought a lot about the trappings of comfort. There are no answers waiting for me in my bedroom, on my phone, comparing my path to others, worrying about missed opportunities. I’ve been to that place. I know how empty it is. The only opportunity that I was ever in danger of missing, was this one. This packrafting trip, wandering into the unknown.


Paddling between our camp spot and our friends camp.

Paddling between our camp spot and our friends camp.

Essential Packrafting Gear

In many ways packrafting isn’t all that different from standard backpacking. Consequently, you tend to pack similarly! For an overnight packrafting trip, you are going to need to bring your go-to backpacking gear, including you’r Ten Essentials for outdoor adventures. But there are also a few additional items you’ll need pack in your backpack – like a packraft!

A huge thank you to Kokopelli Packraft and Mina for partnering with us to make this experience possible. 


Packrafting on Lake Powell, Utah.

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  1. Leif says:

    I followed your story on Insta. Loved reading the blog. Your trip inspired me to look into getting a raft.
    Best quote “I regretted slacking on those upper body workouts the last few months – okay my entire life. ”

    @leiferick

    • Thanks Leif! It’s true though. I need to hit the weights at the gym or something lol. You totally should look into a packraft though – I feel like it opens so many possibilities. I keep thinking of ways I could use mine. Definitely have my sights on some alpine lakes this summer!

  2. Joseph says:

    Never been to LPowell, but your descriptions and images make it very alluring. Thanks for yet another glimpse into full-on NatureWonder!

    • Thanks Joseph! I always kind of associated Lake Powell with houseboats and hard partying. And to be fair there was a little bit of that. But it was so beautiful it really didn’t matter. And because we had the rafts we were always able to find little slices of solitude. 🙂

  3. Chantel says:

    Love this! Thanks for sharing! Makes me want to buy that big yellow raft and go on an adventure! Would you say it’s better than a kayak? Or just different?

    • Thanks so much for stopping by Chantel! They are very different, and probably good for different things. The packrafts that we used for this trip are great because they fold up into a very small size so you can put them in your backpack with the rest of your gear and hike a long distance. We hiked 8 miles over difficult terrain to get to the water for this trip – we could have never done that with a kayak. But if access is not an issue, a kayak might be a little faster in the water. Happy adventuring!

  4. Manuel Calderon says:

    I had seen Lake Powell from a plane window, and ever since, I’ve had it on my hit list. I had checked out the pages for house boatings, but that is not really my thing. I did not know about packrafting: now that definitely looks like my thing! I read your post avidly, a week of pack rafting in this place definitely sounds like the best way to explore, to do something new (for me at least), and your experience confirms it. Do you know if it is possible to rent the packrafts? Your trip looks amazing! Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Manuel,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. Thanks so much for taking the time to read it. I’m not sure if it’s possible to rent the packrafts. But if it seems like something you would enjoy, it might be worth looking into purchasing one. I think that they would come in handy under a lot of different circumstances. 🙂

  5. Athena Mellor says:

    I adore your honesty in this piece. It’s so refreshing having a blogger who talks about real emotions, as well as the beautiful places they get to visit. Thank you for always inspiring!

    • Thanks so much for the supportive words Athena! It’s funny I really didn’t intend for this post to go in that direction, but it’s just sort of what came out when I started writing. I was worried that I should revise the first part to make it more positive. But in the end, I decided to leave it. I think we all go through ups and downs, and we learn just as much from the lows as the highs.

  6. Steph says:

    Wow…just wow. Love your honesty but the photos are unbelievable. I know I’m never getting to any of these places and thank you for taking me there!

    • Thanks so much Steph! I was really blown away by the beauty of this area. I do hope that you have the opportunity to experience some of these areas someday though. Even if it’s in a different way. 🙂

  7. Sally says:

    Wow what a beautifully written blog, so honest and vulnerable. Loved it and the photos look amazing!

  8. Mohamed says:

    It’s just amazing photos with perfect discribtion, I like it

  9. Mark says:

    Poetry in motion, so descriptie and real to the bone. Love your blogs Jess, your ptotography is amazing. Watching your travels from my front room in awe .
    Keep up the good work.
    Mark
    England.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Can’t tell you how much I appreciate that Mark. I’m so glad you enjoy the blog. I feel like I’m able to share so much more of myself through this medium than any other. Happy reading! 🙂

  10. Amie says:

    Love the way you told this story…an unveiling of your thoughts and experiences. Made me feel I was there struggling to paddle against the wind with you. Beautiful. And the adventure so unique. My favorite blog post so far!

    • Jess Dales says:

      That’s so awesome to hear Amie! So glad that it was your favorite so far. It was definitely a unique experience, and an adventure I won’t soon forget.

  11. Katie says:

    Hi Jess! Loved reading about your lastest adventure. I’ve enjoyed all your adventures you’ve shared. Wanted to know did anyone in the group have knowledge about the lake? Or is it something that a person unfamiliar with the area could figure out or need a guide?

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Katie! So happy to hear you enjoyed the blog. Mina and Juuso did a similar trip last year. Once you are on the lake I it was fairly easy to navigate around, and I think most people with a map could do it independently. The more difficult part is actually getting to the water. We had to hike a fair distance to get there, and there usually was not a trail. That being said, if you had a car that could make it all the way down Hole In The Rock Road, you would have really easy access to the water, and could go from there! Plus you wouldn’t have to hike as far with your rafts. 🙂

  12. Brian says:

    Sounds as if you could pick up where Anthony Bourdain left off, providing that constant call to venture into the unknown. Sometimes I feel as if the majority of us have lost that spirit of adventure.

    • Jess Dales says:

      I’m not sure I could ever maintain the pace that Bourdain seemed to live at. Especially for that long. But I do agree that we could all make a little more room for adventure in our lives. 🙂

  13. I love your writing Jess. Like seriously. I am trying to write more creatively on my blog. I have to be honest though – as much as I LOVE your and Quin’s photos I had to un-follow you guys on Instagram because I kept beating myself up when my photos weren’t as perfect. Lame I know but I’m still beginning and comparing myself to the best of the best was ruining my life. Haha but I still love your blog and follow it! Keep it up and I’m sure this doesn’t fit your feed (I would LOVE to kill the feed) but I love the first part of this post, the vulnerability of it, and I would love to see more insta-"un"perfect behind the scene photos. Again sending you love and not hating. I feel like people tell me things they love and hate about my own Insta and I never could have guessed so I wanted to share 🙂

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Brianna! I don’t think that’s lame at all. I actually think it takes a really strong person to not only acknowledge sources of unhappiness, but to do something about it. And trust me, I know first hand about that social media comparison game, and how miserable it can make a person! Anyway, thanks so much for the feedback, and I’m happy you enjoy the blog and writing! Means a lot. 🙂

  14. Jamie Cho says:

    Hi Jess, reading your blog gives a glimpse of realistic shots, behind the astounding and panoramic scenic shots that just look perfect and surreal. Your blogs are so personable and humble and genuine, and I truly appreciate you for being honest when it’s probably not so easy when you have so many people watching you and commenting about every random thing… like I am now! 😉

    I actually wonder, did you ever have any completely unexpected unpleasant moments, for example, finding a bunch of leeches on your feet after swimming in a lake or getting creeped out by a sneaky snake, or your car breaking down in the middle of no where… etc? I just wonder how much research I should do to prepare for any potential dangers or accidents before I go on adventures to new places, especially nature where it’s not maintained by human as much. I mean there could be anything, right? Like you said, no phone service for a week… and if there’s an accident..? What should I do? 🙁

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Jamie! Thanks so much for the comment. I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy my blog. I think that unexpected moments are part of travel. There’s simply no way you can plan for everything, and at the end of the day those moments sometimes make the best stories! I’ve had cameras stolen, cars break down, rides not show up, missed flights, terrible weather, and all sorts of creepy crawly encounters. But when that stuff happens you just have to focus on the positive and move forward.

      When you’re in nature you always want to have some extra food, water, and layers. It’s also a good idea to go with other people, and let someone who’s not going know where you are going to be, and when they should expect to hear from you. I think it’s important to do your due diligence and be prepared for normal stuff before you travel to any destination. But don’t get so caught up in worrying about "what ifs" that you miss out on the adventure of it all!

  15. Katie says:

    Hi, Jess! This was an amazing read and has truly inspired me to look more into this sort of adventure for myself! Do you have any tips for this specific trip you went on? Also, which packraft from Kokopelli did you use?

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hey Katie! That’s awesome to hear. It really was a very cool experience. We used the Kokopelli Rogue Packrafts, and they worked great. I don’t think that I would start out with the specific trip we went on unless you have pretty good route finding skills, or are going with someone that knows the area pretty well. The initial hike to the water was not always that obvious. But once we were on the water it was pretty self explanatory!

  16. Henry says:

    Wonderful place .. I need to go there thanks for ure blog .. was really useful .. I’m gonna recommend ure blog on my page . iG @henrysdlc

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Henry! Thanks so much. This trip in particular was a very new experience for me, and I really enjoyed exploring the area. Hope you make it out there at some point!

  17. Kevin Koenig says:

    This looks so Fun! And such a cool way to see the area. How did it differ from a normal trekking trip for you? Did you find you had to plan/ pack much different? Ive done some longer kayak trips but would be so afraid of one of these springing a leak!

    Also, what lens did you use for the wide angle?

    Thx for the tids!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Kevin! Thanks for the comment. I would say that it was actually quite similar to planning/packing for other trekking trips. The only difference was that we had to accommodate for a little extra weight and space in our packs for the hike to the water. But once we hit the water, weight wasn’t an issue, which was a really nice change. The rafts themselves are made from extremely durable material and we didn’t have any issues with leaks, although we brought along a simple patch kit (it came with the raft) just in case!

      This was shot with the Sony FE 12-24mm. If you’re interested you can read more about the camera gear that we use on our trips here: https://www.jessdales.com/blog/my-photography-gear. I actually think a GoPro would be a good ultra-light alternative.

  18. Carlos Trujillo says:

    Hi,
    I’m new to the blog but I have to say the ig account and the blogs are so perfect and the info so acurate. Thank you for sharing it!
    Is there any way to get to this places faster?
    Can you go thru this journay by boat? Thanks!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Carlos! I’m so happy to hear you enjoy the blog. This trip was primarily on Lake Powell, so theoretically most of the locations would be accessible by speedboat.

  19. rachel says:

    I’ve heard about this style of trip recently. It’s really interesting, and seems like a fun challenge. What tour company did you use for this trip?

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Rachel! It is a really fun way to get into some areas that would be very hard to access otherwise. We actually did this trip independently with some friends who do a lot of packrafting. So no tour company.

  20. James Lee says:

    Hi Jess,
    this was a great read! Thanks so much! My friends and I are planning to attempt this trip. You mentioned on the first day you guys hit a lot of wind. Did the winds create waves or would you say the water was still on the calmer side? We are looking into all different types of rafts and some are meant for calm waters to smaller waves.

    • Hi James! So glad you enjoyed this post. I don’t recall there every being waves, except for the occasional wake from passing speed boats. Even with the wind I remember the water being relatively calm. Have fun!

  21. Breeanna says:

    Hi, Jess! I’m heading to southern Utah in less than 2 weeks and I’m wondering what shoes did you wear during the water portions of the hike? I have a pair of close toed keens I’m planning on bringing.

    Thanks!

  22. John R. says:

    Jess– Beautiful photos, and looked like a fantastic experience. I know the lake pretty well (been there many many times), and recognize pretty much all the locations you show in the photos, including the camps. You picked some good ones, well done… Yes, there’s nothing like turning off the cellphone and coming alive in a place like that… thanks for sharing, without giving too much away…

    John

  23. Thomas LaMontagne says:

    Hi Jess, wow what an amazing journey you guys had! I was actually thinking of doing this next week, do you know where that island with the archway actually is, like do you know any coordinates and is it visible on the map? I would love your feedback, thats the one place i wanna see for sure! Thanks in advance if you can help me out!

    Tom

  24. Samantha Stamps says:

    You are such a good writer! The places journeys you write about come alive in between your words. I would love to experience Lack Powell like this but would not trust myself to go solo! Thanks for introducing me to another way to travel xo

  25. Ry says:

    Hi! A couple of mates and I are looking to do a similar trip! Is there anyway you could provide a little info on how to get there or find out more info on this sort of trip like what time of year to do it in? Let me know! I really enjoyed your post!

    Fellow Kokopelli rafter

    • Hi Ry! Sorry for the delayed response, I just sent you an email with more information. Please let me know if you don’t get it. Thanks!

      • Hannah says:

        Hi!
        Similar to Ry I would like to plan a similar trip. Is it possible to get the details as well? That would be AMAZING!
        Thanks a lot and happy Saturday

        Hannah (:

  26. Jordan Lapekas says:

    Beautiful photos!

  27. Anthony Sun says:

    Hi Jess, spectacular photos and writing about your experience on the trip! I’m a long time fan of that whole area. I’ve been to Lake Powell a bunch of times and have explored places like Rainbow Bridge. But I’m interested in pack rafting to the same area to explore. Would you mind also sharing some more details/info on getting there and logistics of paddle out and back and returning to the trailhead? Many thanks.

  28. Kathy says:

    Hi
    I am going to Lake Powell tomorrow can you please share where these caves are?

  29. andy graves says:

    Hi Jess, I loved your writing and pictures from your trip. Very inspiring. Some friends and I are planning a packrafting trip and this looks like a great one. Would you mind sharing some more details of your trip with me (where you hiked in, where you hiked out, etc.)? My email is gravesa8@gmail.com.

    Thank you and Hike on!
    Andy

  30. Charles says:

    Hi Jess, I love the photos from your trip. They look amazing! My friend and I are planning to visit Lake Powell and your trip looks amazing! Would you mind sharing some details of your trip with me? Like where you put in at (hiked from) and where you stopped and hiked out of?
    My email is charlesprost1978@gmail.com

    Thanks so much!
    Charles

    • Hey Charles, hope your trip went well!

      • Kelsey Vogel says:

        Hi Jess,

        I just found your website and I have been reading through all of the blogs! From the blogs about tips of cold weather camping to the ones about your exciting adventures. I love them all! I am hoping to go to Lake Powell next year around May but starting my research early. Like Charles I am curious to hear more details about your trip. Lake Powell is huge and so many routes to take. I am hoping to do enough research to figure out which trip best suits me. This route seems beautiful and I was hoping to get some more details about it.

        email: kelseyyomitan@yahoo.com

        Thank you 🙂

        Kelsey

  31. Yoyo says:

    Reading your words feels like I already been there and had the adventure with you. Thank you for bring this unknown world to us.

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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