An Ultralight SUP Trip Down Utah's Labyrinth Canyon
I crossed the Colorado/Utah state line going 80 in a methodically packed truck for our upcoming paddleboard trip. My buddy Michael sat shotgun, wearing a Tom Sawyer looking hat, ranting about the awe and wonder of the western landscapes and how stoked he was to get off the grid for a long weekend. I was only half listening to his rambles, zoning in and out between the soft country music playing in the background, and trying to focus on the highway ahead of me that resembled a scene from Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon.
Michael is a hardass climber from central Tennessee, where his idea of a weekend party generally included 10-15 shirtless dudes, hanging from ropes and bolting new routes in sweet southern sandstone. Also from Tennessee, I grew up in the outdoor industry (my dad co-founded the outdoor store, Rock/Creek Outfitters), which exposed me to nearly every outdoor activity imaginable. But despite all the boats and boards I’ve paddled, SUP tops my list as my favorite outdoor sport, physical activity, and way to explore our wild and scenic public lands and waterways.
At the time, I had recently made the pilgrimage Out West to set down roots and Michael became my roommate in Breckenridge, Colorado. As a way to celebrate the start to summer and wave goodbye to what seemed like a neverending winter, we headed to the Utah desert to escape the hustle and bustle of our resort town and embark on an ultralight paddleboard trip.
We chose the lower section of the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon, which is known as one of the country’s premier flatwater paddle adventures. It’s a fairly easy do-it-yourself trip and the perfect length for a weekend away. The 47 miles from Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottom is all flatwater and can be completed on SUPS, rafts, canoes, and kayaks. To keep it light and minimal, we packed inflatable SUPs, instead of a raft, canoe, or kayak.
In all honesty, I prefer the perspective that paddleboarding offers and the ability to quickly get in-and-out of the water is an extra-bonus. However, it’s important to note, our approach isn’t for the faint of heart. We paddled very fast and light, completing the stretch in just two nights. If you have the luxury of time, I would break the mileage into three nights, bring a support raft, and sprinkle in a few hikes up the canyons along the way.
A permit is required for the Labyrinth Canyon section, but, it’s free and easy: just fill out a Labyrinth Canyon permit and submit it to the Bureau of Land Management’s Moab field office. It’s important to remember this canyon is super remote. Be prepared for self-sufficiency and abide by the river’s Leave No Trace principles. This includes bringing drinking water—the river contains high levels of silt and salt and isn’t easy to filter—packing everything out and being very conscious of your impact while there.
There are no designated camping spots or services along this section of the river, though sand bars suitable for camping appear every mile or so during the summer months, their placement and frequency constantly change through the seasons with the river flow. There are fewer campsites available during high-flow conditions than low-flow conditions, so at times you may have to share camps with other boating parties. Before you go, be sure to check the water flow with the USGC Gauge. And, naturally, if raging whitewater is what you’re after, this is not the section of river for you.
Day One: 18 Miles, Ruby Ranch – Dellenbaugh Butte
That Friday afternoon, we drove down a dusty BLM road and watched pronghorn antelope speed off into the distance like Olympic track athletes, making me think I was driving into an African safari. I continued down the long bumpy dirt road for 22 miles, while Michael, with the BLM map in hand, assured me I was driving in the right direction.
The private put-in at Ruby Ranch was a little tricky to find. Some of the signage is slightly misleading, but this map makes it easy to understand. By mid-afternoon we found the Ruby Ranch put-in and paid the small launch fee ($10 per boat, plus $5 a person). Before we left, we lathered on sunscreen like tribal war paint under a large shade tree, did a final gear check, and left our car for the shuttle service (Coyote Shuttle) to retrieve and move to the take-out to greet us on Sunday morning.
If you have the time, I’d recommend starting your trip, and each day for that matter, as early as possible to avoid the afternoon winds and the full day’s heat. If you plan your paddling for early in the day, when those frequent mid-day winds kick up, you can spend afternoons exploring side canyons instead of powering through an unplanned attainment workout.
After making sure all of our gear—big NRS dry bags, water jugs, and a milk crate for accessible items—was tied down and secured on our 12’6” SUP boards, we launched on the river flowing at 9,000 CFS with an 18-mile agenda. As we headed toward our first campsite we saw only one other raft. It wasn’t long before we ditched the to-do’s of our daily grind and started to appreciate the serenity of this expansive river we were paddling.
According to our map-reading skills, Dellenbaugh Butte was our first campsite, a pristine white sandy beach along the river’s edge. That first night we explored the surrounding area, cooked, and prepared for day two. I’d tell you we skinny dipped, but that could be a lie. Or not. Later that night, we cowboy camped, sharing a tarp on the beach, and fell asleep underneath the stars with the accompanying sounds of an occasional duck, bullfrog, and splash of a rising fish.
We cowboy camped to be super light (and, let’s be honest, to feel more manly as we fell asleep under the canopy of stars). In retrospect, because of bugs and possible desert wildlife encounters, I didn’t sleep amazingly and would have felt more secure had I been inside a tent at night. And, in reality, it didn’t save us that much weight to not bring a tent. Hindsight is a…
Day Two: 21 Miles – Dellenbaugh Butte – Cottonwood Bottom
We rose with the sun and begun to get ready for a full day on the river. We packed our daily provisions (water bottles, sunscreen, apples, granola bars and cans of tuna), ensuring they were accessible throughout the day and hit the river full of stoke.
The first half of the day, we paddled quickly, averaging 4-6 mph, stopping occasionally to take a swim, some photos, or snack on the irregular, but welcoming sandbars.
Along the way, we enjoyed the large rock formations, towering spires and sandstone canyon walls, and even played games to see how far our voices would echo. There were countless times as we paddled, that you could beach your board and explore the canyons to discover plenty of history, but we pressed on due to our weekend time-window.
An afternoon headwind abruptly stopped our morning’s efficient pace. The winds uninvitingly joined us for the rest of the day, bringing along an unpredictable and hard to read current and knee-high white capped waves that threatened to flip our SUP or blow our paddle straight out of our hands at any moment. Our attitudes transitioned from a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn paddle adventure, to a serious outdoor physical experience with possible danger.
Like I mentioned before, and based on this experience, I’d highly recommend any crew not pressed for time end their paddle before these afternoon winds start, set-up camp, and enjoy exploring the surrounding canyon for the remainder of the day. Because there’s no doubt these headwinds can take the fun out of any trip and frustrate even the best paddlers. Additionally, we found in this situation that having a leash, a whistle on your PFD, and an extra collapsible paddle on your SUP is a must for numerous safety reasons.
Through the course of the afternoon and early evening, we struggled to make it a mile an hour as we constantly ducked for shelter amongst the cottonwood trees along the riverbank, timing the next paddle push when the winds seemed to pause for a second. Around 5 pm, there was an hour when the winds were so strong we thought our day was going to be complete, forcing us to hole up for the night on a sliver of a beach that barely fit both of us and our boards.
We chose to make a quick meal, and see if the winds would die down enough for us to locate a better campsite. After indulging in river-style Italian, the winds relented, giving us the confidence to push on. The gamble paid off. Shortly after we rounded the next bend, we discovered a fantastic large campsite—to my understanding, it’s known as Cottonwood Bottom. At camp, we hauled up our gear, changed clothes, and laid out our tarp. Our exhaustion overcame the thoughts of critter encounters and we fell asleep under another starry desert sky.
Day Three: 8 Miles – Cottonwood Bottom to Mineral Bottom
Again, we awoke at dawn and prepared to put in as quickly as possible to avoid any looming headwinds—we had learned our lesson. We completed the final stretch of the paddle—about eight miles—and arrived at the Mineral Bottoms’s takeout around 10 am. After taking our boards, we made a light lunch with our leftover food, divided up our gear, and, sat in the shade while we waited for our car.
Overall, we did the trip in quick time—Friday afternoon-Sunday morning—and with only the bare necessities, but if you aren’t looking for this type of experience, you could slow your float down, spend a few more nights camping in the canyon, bring along a few extra items like a firepan and libations, and explore all of the immense history and wonders that the river has to offer.