Driftwood Canyon


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Driftwood is one of my favorite canyons at Lake Powell, and I've been there many times, at many lake levels. It's not a particularly long hike, especially when the lake is at higher levels, but it's twisted and narrow. Mostly, I like the challenge of trying to get a boat back in there. The following excerpts from my journals highlight some of the experiences in there from 2004-16, with lake levels anywhere from 3575-3637. I put them in order from lowest lake level to highest, but the photos are randomly chosen from all trips... Here you go...

August 20, 2004
Lake Elevation: 3575’

It came as a shock to everyone when Khawer agreed to go on a hike. Driftwood Canyon promised to be tall and narrow, but the clincher for Khawer was that it would be shady, and with almost no elevation gain. Probably bored from reading his book all day, Khawer, though skeptical of anything requiring walking, got in the back off the motorboat for the 3-mile ride to the mouth of Driftwood. Only Baber stayed behind.


Kelsey’s guidebook didn’t lie: the canyon twisted and turned below sheer walls of Navajo Sandstone, and with the low water, the width soon became severely restricted. About a kilometer upstream, with still not the hint of a sandy beach in sight, we chose the righthand fork, which entered into a slot maybe 20 feet wide. (I’m not sure it’s good grammar to combine the metric and English systems of measurement in the same sentence, but spellcheck doesn’t catch it.) The canyon, while narrow, still looked dark and deep, judging by the blackness off the water and the near vertical walls. And around every corner, we expected something to stop us—a wall, maybe a boulder, or just the narrowing walls. Now we’re down to 10 feet across, too narrow to turn around. We continued.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” Khawer asked. “I don’t see no trail.”

Well, the water had to end eventually. The question was whether the walls would pinch the boat before we got there. And then it happened. The motorboat creaked, scraped, and wedged between the walls. Not too tightly, but enough to stop us from going forward, and enough to raise the question as to whether we could back out. A motorized rubber Zodiac would have been perfect, but of course we just had a clumsy 18-foot motorboat. At least it was a rental.

Up ahead, the dark narrow waterway continued. How far, it was impossible to say, because it disappeared around a corner to the right. But the water was surprisingly warm and clean, even this far in.

“Anyone want to come in with me?” I had to ask.

No takers. But maybe if we lightened the boat, it would free itself, then maybe be pulled the rest of the way.

“Who’s coming?” Silence. What a bunch of wimps.

“I’ll come.” It was Khawer. Of all people.

And so the two of us slid over the bow into the dark channel (“murky” is too sinister a word), wearing life vests just in case. Too deep to touch bottom, but only 8 feet across. We swam. Then a view you don’t get every day: a small boat wedged in a canyon, with three guys staring at you like you’re crazy. But who’s crazy? The water was warm and still quite deep, looked clean too. The motorboat—if it could be freed—would not face propeller damage, partly because of the depth, mostly because the canyon was so narrow you couldn’t turn it enough to have the prop actually strike the walls.


Khawer and I floated silently upstream. Soon we were around the corner and the motorboat was out of sight. But the canyon stayed about 8 feet wide, maybe enough for a boat to make it.

“C’mon! It’s fine!” I shouted, and it echoed, but there was no reply. No takers. About 100 yards more upstream, there was suddenly a cream-colored scum on top, heralding the end of the lake was near. What lay beyond?


“I’m not going through that, Jimmah.” Khawer’s tone was emphatic and final. He was content to wait in the water, preferring that I “check it out.” Clenching my teeth, I brushed the scum aside (old decaying driftwood? Bat guano? The remains of bankrupt houseboaters? ), swam through, and climbed up on shore. And out!

Here on dry land, it was maybe 7 feet across, but the canyon walls still stood about 300 feet high. Cool and dry, numerous pallid bats flitted overhead (maybe it wasguano). They, like us, seemed to be trapped in this narrow slot. No doubt this is where they are every day, in a cool, confined area with plenty of roosting potential high overhead along the overhanging walls. Up and down the slot, sometimes only feet above your head, the bats provided a wonderful exclamation point to the eerie journey in the shadowy dark. Venturing up and out of the water, I followed the narrow canyon upstream several hundred yards. It never widened, a long hallway into the plateau, a labyrinth leading nowhere in particular. Evidence of recent flooding was clear, and with the stormy weather and frowning Spirit of Wahweap hovering somewhere nearby, it was probably best not to push it. Particularly since Khawer wouldn’t cross the layer of scum, and the rest wouldn’t even leave the boat.

So we returned, the little boat towing us backwards out of the canyon till it was wide enough to turn around and speed home.

August 25, 2016
Lake Elevation: 3604’

There are essentially three kinds of hikes in the Glen Canyon region. Great open air hikes, dry and hot, often with just the goal to attain one view or another, high on a mesa top. Then there are the beautiful verdant and vermilion canyons, such as those along the Escalante. These often have red running streams and yawning alcoves in tortuously twisting bends full of possibility and canyon wrens. Bishop Canyon as a good example, as are Davis, Fifty-Mile, Willow, and Coyote Gulch. Finally, there’s the most exciting of all: the slot canyon. These are impossibly narrow and high, rocky and lunar. They look more like a trench than a true canyon, and their lack of vegetation provides mute testament to the destructive power of scouring floods that dig them in the first place. The area between Dangling Rope and the San Juan River is famous for them. And so here we are, under fair skies. Let’s try one.


Driftwood Canyon is a terrific place to be on a sunny day. Deep and cool, like all such canyons, it is not particularly inviting to boats on the main channel, protected as it is by menacing shoals sure to dissuade all but those intending to make the trip. The inlet to Driftwood is only about a mile long, but in that mile the channel narrows steadily. Up the righthand fork, and soon enough it’s no wider than a motorboat and a half. A one-lane road. Pirates of the Caribbean. And then the boat is too wide to even pass the constricted walls. Yet there’s much to worry about: a) you can’t get lost; and b) the water is deep, so the engine and prop can’t be destroyed. And, assuming it’s a sunny day, our original premise, you don’t need to worry about the only thing to worry about: a flash flood.

It is a sunny day.

So Bob, Khawer, and I found ourselves wedged in the walls. (The other three, presumably, remain wedged between their iPods and the kitchen in the houseboat.) So we simply abandon the boat where it is, flopped over the bow in life jackets, and start swimming upstream. “Upstream” is used in the loosest sense, meaning toward the end of the lake, but there really is no flow. Just a deep, dark, narrow channel, 6 feet wide and 300 feet high. The camera makes the trip in a dry bag, which works wonderfully. Khawer’s fear—and the reason Chuck isn’t here—is that end will be filed with a retched stew of floating logs, gasoline, bat guano, and unidentifiable scum. That’s certainly always a possibility in these narrow confines, but as we round the first corner, it looks clean. Maybe 10 minutes of swimming, and suddenly, the end of the water is in sight. And, most exciting of all to Khawer, “there’s no bat guano, Jimmah!”


There really isn’t. In fact, it’s a smooth, clean glide up to a muddy beach, past tiny green sunfish, which dart away as we stir up the mud. From there, the water ends, but the canyon continues, much as before, only now on dry land. Khawer has seen enough, and returns to the boat. Bob and I continue. At first, the ground is gooey, with a small stream, which sucks hard at Bob’s inadequate Croc footwear. But this mess only lasts a couple hundred yards, after which the ground hardens nicely. It’s a truly twisted maze of reds and grays, streked with black, all over a cobbled and gray streambed. Surely in a flood we could be dead in seconds. But no evidence of recent floods—large boulders or logs—is here, and a recent inscription in the sand dated 16-8-06, no doubt written by some German, still is clearly readable. Thus, no floods in the past week, even last night, when a storm at least threatened. Bob surmises the winds may have cleared the canyon of debris.

We proceeded upcanyon on foot maybe half a mile, when the canyon began to climb, and changed to a more broken and rocky appearance. But the beauty and deep silence remained. Soon, though, enough was wnough, and we returned to the boat, where Khawer had somehow gotten the thing turned around. Apparently, once we left the boat, it rode higher in the water, and with its new buoyancy it floated UPSTREAM, past the point it had been wedged in when we first began. Now, however, our collective weight in the boat caused it to get stuck again. So Bob and I got out and pulled, Khawer using the engine at times to help us break free. And then we were done, a slow trip to wider areas, now fully bathed in the sun. Bob declared this to be a trip highlight, lamented the fact that Garrett chose to sleep in. But he did come up with a possible title for this year’s trip:

“Shoals to the Left of Me, Boulders to the Right;
Here I am, Stuck in the Middle With You.”


August 6, 2015
Lake Elevation: 3612’

Driftwood is one of my favorite canyons here. It’s not the longest, or deepest, or narrowest, though it’s pretty good in all those respects. But it’s reliably great, enough of a challenge, and maybe the most pirate-like of all the canyons at Lake Powell. With its arching canyon walls, barely 8 feet apart, to its cobbly bottom, to its myriad of grays and browns and oranges, wrapped in a twisting package, Driftwood is memorable. But you’ve got to get in there first, and that’s not easy.

Kelsey makes it sound simple enough, of course. You just pull a boat all the way in to the righthand fork, work your way past a little mud at the end, and off you go. But that understates the multiple deterrents in this—and nearly every other slot—canyon. Casual access is not possible. You’ve got to be able to pilot a motorboat in a twisting passage barely wider than the boat itself, maintaining enough nerve to believe you can back out the way you came in. You’ve got to trust that your boat won’t stall and can be restarted. And if you can finally make it as far as the canyon will let you—which means to the point where the water turns into a thin soup with a brown crust of mud and logs—you’ve got be able to resolve that you need to actually get into that soup.

Khawer and I piloted our way in, carefully and slowly, with Khawer using the oar to bounce off the walls when the boat got too close. We took note of the few—two, actually—spots wide enough where we could turn around if we had to, maybe 20 feet wide instead of 10. From there, it was just a matter of waiting for the green water to turn brown, and then find a place to tie up.


Driftwood is forgiving in that way. At this lake level, and maybe also slightly less (3612 today), there’s a convenient little shelf on the left, just as the mud slime begins. Khawer would stay with the boat while I put on the life vest, put the camera in a drybag, took a deep breath, and jumped overboard, expecting the worst.

It was surprisingly warm. Not sure that was a good thing, especially with the slimy ooze on the surface, whose constituent parts were better left unknown to us. But it was thin enough to be swimmable, still too deep to touch the bottom. Around the bend, and into the thick of it, I moved forward, glad the life vest kept my head above the surface. In the water, I moved past white bubbly masses, floating logs, even the occasional cactus. I focused forward, as the boat (and Khawer) disappeared behind me.

“Take your time, Jimmy!” The call echoed, and I assumed this meant Khawer would be propping his feet up on the seat and burying his head in a book on his iPad. He’d be fine or another hour.

The water transitioned from a thin consommé to a hearty vegetable beef soup, eventually becoming more of a stew. It would have been impossible to take the boat in through this without clogging the motor and fouling the prop. I half swam and half scooped my way through the thickening muck, until my feet hit something. A rock. The ground. Then it was a matter of slogging, sort of walking, until the depth went from 4 feet to 3 to 2, thankfully leaving me mostly back in the air, though covered from neck to waist (and below, of course) with little bits of brown, and a coat of muddy slaw. I’d have to ignore it.

Only then can one win the rewards of Driftwood Canyon. If you’re not willing to go through all that, you’re better off somewhere else. But if you are, the rewards are great. The twisting cobbly walls pocked with erosion holes, framed by walls perhaps several hundred feet high, are as much a cathedral as a labyrinth, and though there are canyons here that have both those names, they can’t deserve those names any more than this one does.


No one is here. I assume Khawer is waiting with his book. After a few minutes, I hear the low whine of what must be a jet ski, powering down, then eventually stopping. There are voices, but I can’t hear what they are saying, though I recognize Khawer’s as one of them. He’s either discouraging them from going farther, or they’ve discouraged themselves, because soon enough the motor fires up again, and soon disappears. The quiet returns.

I wonder how many people actually make it in here. It can’t be many, not with the effort needed, and yet, there are footprints in the mud. Hard to tell how many feet they belong to, but we’re not alone in spirit, just alone in fact.


The sun is getting low in the late afternoon, and although I’m sure Khawer could content himself with his book for hours, he’s got some steaks to make. I work my way back, flopping into the opaque film on the surface, glad to see the little boat, wedged sideways between the high walls. We backed up for several hundred feet, finally turning around, before heading home.

August 8, 2010
Lake Elevation: 3637’

Russ, Chris and I had time to explore in the now-replenished motorboat. First Mountain Sheep Canyon, with its promise of a narrow slot, with water-filled trenches. But the higher lake level compared to the last visit in 2002 thwarted any possibility of landing. The boat got stuck between narrow walls, and an exploratory swim over the bow only yielded a longer water-filled trench. While the path seemed generally wide enough for a boat, the pinch point that grabbed our Baja boat stopped us.


So I suggested Driftwood Canyon, more or less across the lake, more or less a similar experience. Maybe we could get in there. We’d been there a few years ago, in lower waters than today. The boat wound up the right fork, more beautiful than Mountain Sheep, since its backdrop included the high walls that began the Straight Cliffs, layered and towering above, all the way to Escalante. Finally, the boat crawled to a near stop in a very narrow defile. This Baja boat is a little tough to control at low speeds, not designed at all for this purpose, but a concerted effort to bounce the walls with the oar and hands keeps the boat safe and moving forward.


Unexpectedly, we encounter a private motorboat full of kids and a serious dad returning. No room to pass, barely even room for one boat. So we backed up maybe 200 feet, to where the passage was wide enough to let them pass. Dad said we’d have room to turn around maybe 100 years ahead, but no chance at going further. “There is no end.” We’d see about that.


Sure enough, we crawled and scraped well beyond the hundred yard promise, past overhangs begging to tear the boat’s canopy. With the engine off, all three of us used what we could to paddle and handwalk forward, till we hit a very small but remarkable little beach. Though there was still water ahead, it was murky, covered with a light layer of scum. Russ put the oar in the water to test the depth. Maybe a foot, two at most. We could walk it from here.


Just another 50 feet later we were out. Driftwood is a very narrow slot canyon, and as powerful evidence of the danger of these places, a very recent high water mark—still wet—about 6 feet above the current lake level provided all the waning we needed. A flash flood must have swept through here in the past couple of days, in one of the many storms we’d seen from elsewhere on the lake. Had we been here then, the boat would have been splinters, and we’d be a fine amalgamation of mud and bones, screams heard by no one. But today, all that was left were deep pools of clay mud, lodged in the narrow trench of the normally dry canyon. These presented quite an obstacle, but Russ showed the way. Chimneying, crabbing, knee locks, all sorts of techniques to get up and over. Really a challenge, certainly fun, but tiring too. It didn’t help that our shoes, covered in thick clay like wet cement, tended to lose all traction. And Chris, covered in clay, tended to lose his shoes in it. Maybe a half mile at most, then we turned back. A nice little adventure, and a reminder of the power of the place. Not to be messed with.



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Our houseboat partners LOVE to hike. Like you they got to a spot where the walls narrowed and motorized navigation wasn't possible. Not to be deterred from a good hike, they decided that by using their hands to walk the boat, the boat would JUST float through the pinch, with lightly scraping the walls on the way through. But once past that small pinch the canyon opened up. On they went to a nice sandy beach at the canyon end, where they anchored and proceeded with a leisurely hike up the slot canyon. Returning, closer the sunset (and calmer water), they started back. When they got to that pinch, they realized that the calmer water had actually "lowered" the water level just enough that they were below the pinch and couldn't float back through.

They ended up creating their own wakes until there was enough chop that they could ride a wave over the pinch.

Not Me! No way! No how! But they have a great story and had a fabulous hike :eek:


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My favorite as well. There is no ride at Disneyland that can touch this place. We always stop at the alcove on the right and creep ourselves out because of the blackness of the water. Surely the Creature From The Black Lagoon resides here.