Let me (Tyler) start by saying this was an insane trip and Matt Bainsmith wins the prize for most adventurous-awesomest person I know.
For Matt’s Bachelor party he decided he wanted to follow his newfound passion of Packrafting, which for those of you that don’t know, is backpacking with a tiny raft and then hiking half the route and rafting the other half… Sounded crazy to me too. The river of his choice to packraft was the San Juan in the South Eastern corner of Utah by a city called Mexican Hat (yes that is a real city name), this whole trip sounds made up at this point. We (Tyler, Matt, Tad, and Brian) did a hike starting around Goose Neck State Park (bottom right star is the start), down to the San Juan river, then floated the river to grand gulch, then got out and hiked out of grand gulch via Collins Springs (top star marks the end). It was a great trip, and we all had a good time, though it was up there on the difficulty scale.
The first “plan” on our way down to the drop off point was to do a shorter trip, that I believe was still close to 20 miles of hiking and 10 of rafting. Over bachelor party celebratory beers at dinner at the Moab Brewery, we decided to call an audible and take the river to “Grand Gulch” which was a decent amount further than the original plan. All amped up on the grandness that was sure to be had, we headed for the end point at Collins Creek to drop a car off since we had to shuttle to the start. We got in late that night and threw out our sleeping bags to catch some sleep before the next day. We were greeted with a gorgeous sunrise and got to work packing up and getting ready to head to the start.
Before getting on the trail, we checked out Goosenecks State Park, right by our start point, which I had never seen before and had quite spectacular views of the San Juan winding it’s way through the desert 1,000 ft above the river.
Once on the trail, we had a difficult time finding the trailhead, which isn’t a new occurrence to any of us. This is a trail that is very seldom used, and I’m not sure anyone has come up with a trip like this since packrafts aren’t very commonly used, particularly in the desert. We hiked around in circles for a while, never losing hope, and eventually found the large stack of rocks that was the trail marker. Now just to descend down into the canyon and get to that river.
The hike down was steep and there were no signs of life except a gallon jug of water someone stashed at some point. There were some great views on the way down, and we spotted many rafters enjoying themselves as they floated the river.
We were exceptionally excited to get down to the river, though a bit later than we had anticipated due to our inability to find the trail, and the trail was a bit longer than we had anticipated. We took a short break, went from “Backpack Mode” to “Packraft Mode” and started in on the river!
We floated the day away and had a pretty nice day as the current was consistent with little wind to hinder our progress. We hit a couple solid rapids (any rapid is considered solid in a 5 foot long packraft) and had some fun running them a couple of time before moving on. We also saw some big horn sheep and got VERY close which was an experience for me, be sure to see the pics below. We rafted until it was getting cold and dark and we found a convenient spot to pull off and camp for the night.
We got to camp and everyone was pretty beat from the day, so after a quick nap, I went to work on dinner. The campsite was great, right on the water, and plenty of room for us to sleep. I made dinner, which was rated as a 3 star meal (I think 3 is a lot of stars), but my skills would not prevail and went downhill from the first day. Another pro tip for anyone packrafting, or just rafting, muddy rivers like this, we filled a boat with water, let it sit overnight and all the silt settled on the bottom leaving us with relatively clean water, which we then pumped to purify.
We had a great night, and woke up, made some breakfast, and packed up. On the river again the next day, we encountered a good morning with great rapids, which quickly turned into a slow moving section of river with upstream winds that significantly hindered our progress. We had to paddle pretty hard just to keep moving, and were exhausted by the time we made it to Grand Gulch, late in the afternoon.
We took a short break, and for some of us a quick nap, once we got to Grand Gulch and everyone started breaking down the rafts and going back into Backpack Mode. I wouldn’t exactly call Grand Gulch a “trail” as it was mostly bushwhacking but it was stunning and a sight I believe only a handful of people will ever get to experience first-hand. We hiked until dark to get in as many miles as possible and setup camp on a high ledge along the gulch.
We were pretty tired by this point, and drinking pretty nasty water because our options were pretty limited, but we survived, had a 2 star meal as I burnt the hell out of it, and got a decent nights sleep.
The next day we again woke up, made a quick breakfast, and got on with the hike as we had a lot of miles left to finish the trip and still had to drive home that night. I was degraded to a 1 star chef on this day, as we ran out of food and ended up mixing rice in a Nalgene with cold water for it to hopefully rehydrate before we all shared the 1 pack of cheesy rice. It was disgusting, not at all hydrated, but it was our last morsel of food. The hike out was pretty nice, and eventually we found a trail when we neared Collins Spring at The Narrows. Also note that we thought The Narrows was going to be a decently sized corridor of narrow and high rock walls, since it was labeled on all the maps. It turned out to be about 6 ft wide and 6 ft long with a few logs above it, just in case anyone is looking out for the landmark. At the Narrows we turned left (North) thanks to some positioning advice from some other backpackers who were camped where Collins Spring met Grand Gulch. This was a well marked/used trail and we had no problem following it out to the car to complete the trip!
Overall it was a long and hard, but very fun, Bachelor party trip for Matt. The hiking was good and the rafting was fun and I highly recommend packrafting to any experience backpacker, we were able to see more and go further than what would have been possible without the rafts.
- Distance: 35-45 miles (note all of these are very rough estimates and should not be relied upon)
- 5 miles to The San Juan River
- 20 miles to Grand Gulch
- 18 miles to Collins Creek Trailhead
- Elevation Gain: no clue, I’de guess 2,000 ft
- Trail-head Elevation: 5,160 ft
- San Juan Elevation: 4,100 ft
- Our time: 3 days, 3 nights
- My rating: Very Difficult
- Their rating: I don’t think anyone else has done this