Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons

Last week I did a nine night trip through some areas around western Canyonlands. This was a new sort of combination trip for me. I started kayaking on the Green River at Ruby Ranch, 95 miles from where it joins the Colorado River. From here the river passes through Labyrinth Canyon and then Stillwater Canyon as it enters Canyonlands and approaches the confluence. After five days I reached Water Canyon, a side canyon five miles up from the confluence that offers access to the Maze district of Canyonlands, on the west side of the river. From here I did a four day backpacking trip, running a circuit through the Maze and returning to the kayak. The last night I paddled to Spanish Bottom, a few miles below the confluence on the Colorado, and was picked up by a jetboat the next day for a ride back to Moab. I used Tex’s Riverways for the dropoff and pickup, who did a fine job and are I think the only outfitter around for arranging this sort of self guided trip.

This structure worked out great, and the two segments of the trip had very different characters, so I’ll talk about them in separate posts. Overall though, both segments were excellent and this is one of the best trips of its length I can remember doing.

The kayaking portion of the trip established a nice rhythm. Each day I did a hike of a few hours, usually in the afternoon, one or two other short side trips, with kayaking interspersed between. The kayaking is very mellow flatwater, with the river sliding along at one or two miles an hour and only a couple class 1 riffles on the entire trip. Sometimes the river gets upcanyon winds, though I didn’t encounter anything strong.

Labyrinth Canyon starts a few miles below Ruby Ranch and continues another 50 or so miles. Canyon walls quickly grow to about 1000 feet, and stay that way for the remainder, very dramatic. Typical views from the river:

Exploring side canyons offered the most variety. Labyrinth Canyon is riddled with side canyons, with new ones sprouting every few miles for the canyon’s entire length and often winding ten miles or more away from the river. With 90 miles to cover in five days I could only see a tiny fraction of what was on offer.

After a few hours of paddling the first day, I made it to Three Canyon, a fairly long side canyon with many side canyons of its own, two of which open right on the river (hence the name). Good hiking here heading as far back into the various side side canyons as I could. Most canyon hikes end at pour-overs like the ones below. These cliffs are hundreds of feet high, though with unbroken and often overhanging walls even a ten foot jump is usually impossible to get around.

The second day’s hike was another 15 miles or so downstream, at Keg Spring Canyon. There are several springs far upcanyon, including the eponymous one, with a nice stream flowing until close to the canyon’s mouth. This canyon didn’t have any of its own side canyons that I checked out, though the main canyon itself offered good variety as it shifted between desert, riparian areas, and slickrock moving up. Eventually it became too overgrown and I retreated to the kayak to continue on.

After hiking to the saddle at Bowknot Bend, where the river starts a seven mile wrap around a plateau before closing to 1000 feet or so from its earlier location, I spent the next afternoon at Two Mile Canyon. More appealingly named than Ten Mile Canyon further upstream, this canyon looked to offer some scramble routes to escape Labyrinth and get to the canyon’s rim, which I was keen on seeing. In the end, I wasn’t able to get all the way out. After a good talus slog, climbing 800 of the requisite 1000 feet I came up to a 200 foot cliff that ran continuously as far as I could see.

Seeing this, the surrounding cliffs, and just how much drier it was up here than on the canyon floor gave me a bit more appreciation for just how incredibly inhospitable this country is. There were still animal tracks though, having the river so close by makes things a bit liveable it seems. The view of the Green River and lower cliffs, from the same spot as the above photo:

Another 15 or 20 miles below Two Mile Canyon brought the end of Labyrinth, with the river opening up as it passed Bighorn Mesa. This is Stillwater Canyon, not as dramatic but still interesting, gradually heightening and closing in along the approach to the Colorado. The view about halfway down Stillwater:

Traveling through upper Stillwater was my longest day, 30 miles on the water, though I still had time to get in some great hiking at Anderson Bottom. I stopped here just to get water from a spring near the river, but got distracted and wandered west and north in the valley to end up at a fun little slot canyon, the only real slot I came across on the trip. After some twisting passages and not too tricky upclimbing I ended up on the rim above the bottom, all slickrock and fun to walk along, and an old cattle path back to the floor. The view from within the slot, and looking in from the rim above:

Past Anderson Bottom I spent the fourth night at the Turk’s Head, a formation still capped by the same layer that makes up the White Rim just to the east. The next morning I hiked around looking for granaries, mostly fruitlessly, and kayaked the remaining 17 miles to Water Canyon. Left my kayak near the water, and started backpacking up canyon towards the Maze.

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