Canyoneering and Packrafting in Moab with Desert Highlights
What are all the different adventures that Desert Highlights offers?
Canyoneering is our main adventure. We offer a bunch of different canyoneering routes: half day, full day. Some are easier than others. But most of them can be done by beginners, and you don’t have to have any kind of experience rappelling or climbing or anything like that. Most of the people that we take out don’t have any experience at all, which is part of what we really love about offering this service to people. It’s a great way to get off the beaten path because you have to have a rope and a harness and the skills to get to these places. That’s what makes them so special and different from just your standard hike. Yeah, canyoneering is a big part of what we do. In, what, 2012 Matt incorporating packrafting, 2008. He was certainly an early adopter of the packrafting.
How did Desert Highlights start and did you start the Canyoneering guiding in Moab?
Desert Highlights was started back in 1997 by this guy, Matt Moore. He came out to Utah from Ohio and fell in love with the area. Went to school at the University of Utah and moved down to Moab pretty much right after that. So the first year Desert Highlights was in existence it was a booking agency, thus the name. So you would call Matt, and he would tell you, “Here’s the best river trip to do. Here are the best national parks hikes to do, yada, yada.” Did that for about a year and honestly just got bored with it and realized that there wasn’t at that time anybody offering guided canyoneering or rock climbing. So he shifted his focus to that industry and got permits with Moab BLM and the Park Service here and a few other agencies and started guiding.
We consider Matt to certainly be one of the pioneers of the canyoneering around the Moab area. To guide something commercially, it’s quite a process in terms of getting permission from the landowners, getting permits, insurance, and all that. So a lot of the routes around Moab that are today considered trade routes are Matt’s original guided trips. Some of those we managed to keep a secret for a long time with the internet, and beta being the way it is, word got out. We still have some trips that we don’t advertise so that we can have that special experience of having it all to yourself, but the majority of our routes are out there, and for good reason. They’re a lot of fun. A chunk of rope is an amazing tool to just start to explore some of these slots and canyons around Moab, for sure.
It was all around Matt just getting out there and exploring things on his own curiosity and then turning those into commercial routes, and then going to the BLM and saying, “Hey, I want to try to run this as a tour,” which nobody was doing before it seems like.
Desert Highlights was the first commercial canyoneering outfitter in town. In a lot of ways, Matt paved the way for other companies that would come later. There was probably some of what we might call pirate guiding going on at that time where they were doing it under the wire. I think Matt really brought it to the forefront and brought a certain level of professionalism to the industry. So I started working for Matt in 2007, and Melissa started in, what, 2014.
Then we had a chance to buy Matt out basically in 2015, so we’ve had the company since then. He stays on as a consultant. He’s actually become a pilot, so he’s flying all over the place these days.
It was kind of cool when Matt was getting his pilot’s license. Herb especially and other friends were able to help Matt build hours by flying around in a plane with him over some canyons and stuff and looking at potential new routes and stuff like that. So it was kind of neat when he was getting into flying that he could use that to find new places to go. Herb and I still, we’ve been putting some new routes together since we took over in 2015, so we’re still certainly trying to do that.
A lot of the thrust of that originally with Matt is just this sense of adventure, the sense of exploring, and bringing leave-no-trace approach to the canyons so that the folks that come behind us get to have that same experience.
How did the two of you end up meeting and starting the business together?
Herb was guiding for Desert Highlights. This was, what, 2012 or something. I think 2012. Maybe ’11. I (Melissa) came out and did some canyons with some friends. My parents saw some of my pictures and said, “We want to do that.” At that time I did not know what I was doing. So I said, “If you’re going to do that, then hire a guide, and I’ll, of course, tag along.” So they hired Desert Highlights to do the Medieval Chamber trip that you guys did and an afternoon of packrafting. Herb was our guide. So my family, my mom, my dad, my brother was there and my Aunt Kathy and my [inaudible]. They were terrified. Herb did what he does best and coaxed everybody over the first rappel in the Medieval Chamber and did a great job. Supposedly on that trip my mom and my aunt said, “I wish Melissa and Herb could date.” We were dating other people at the time, and we didn’t think anything of each other.
I moved out in 2013 and went into Desert Highlights to see if they were hiring in 2014. Matt said, “Sure, if you want to tag along on some trips. We’ll teach you how we guide and the way that we do things. If you catch on, you’re hired. If not, then you’re not.” So I followed Herb around in a bunch of canyons on a bunch of guided trips and stuff and learned a bunch of stuff from him. At that time we were both single. I guess I did a good job and I was hired the rest is history.
How long has Canyoneering been around in Moab?
Canyoneering’s been around for a long time. Maybe we didn’t always call it that. That term probably came out in the ’90s, but some of the roots especially on the Colorado Plateau date back to exploring around in Zion. A lot of the original canyons in Zion were first descended by rock climbers just simply trying to get off the top of formations. Some of these climbers went in and slowly started looking in at the canyons after that, and were just surprised by the amount of adventure you could find in that. In the Moab area specifically, we’re not really known for our canyons like the way we are for some other things: national parks, jeep trails, and all that. So it’s been more of a recent surge in popularity.
What are some canyoneering adventure options in Moab?
For an afternoon, four to six hours, the Medieval Chamber is a great option: three miles of hiking, two rappels both around 100 feet, pretty big, dramatic rappels. So that canyon’s really great for people that are really excited about rappelling.
The other half-day that we offer right now is called Entrajo Canyon. That one has a little more adventurous hiking, a little bit of scrambling, climbing around on rocks and stuff to get up to the top. Then you visit a nice, brief slot canyon, some pools of water you have to wade through, a short 15-foot rappel and 80 or so foot rappel at the end. So a lot of fun for kids. Kids really like that canyon because the hiking is a little more engaging because they get to climb around on rocks and stuff. So that canyon’s pretty playful. It’s a lot of fun.
For a full-day adventure, six to eight hours or more, we have a bunch of options. Usually, those canyons cover a little more mileage, a little more elevation gain. They’re not necessarily harder than the half-day canyon, but we’re out for longer. Usually, they have more rappels, between three and six rappels depending on which canyon you choose. So those are nice if people are looking to spend a full day out and go even further off the beaten path. Those full-day routes, we’ve got a few that nobody else has permits to guide. We can guarantee solitude, which is pretty cool.
Then we do offer some multi-day trips. Those are something that, a lot of times when we’re out on a half-day or a whole-day trip, we get into talking about those multi-day trips because people are asking, “This is cool. I want to do more of it.” So we’ll take people out in even more remote areas. We provide camping gear. We’ll provide food and everything, so your guide can cook you a nice dinner after a day of canyoneering and a breakfast the next morning. Then we’ll go out and do another canyon. So, two days or canyoneering or three. We’ve had people come out for as long as eight days.
Why is it important to have small groups while canyoneering?
Just to circle back to leave-no-trace a little bit, the land managers around here consider group size one of the biggest things we can do to lessen our impact.From a commercial standpoint, if we’re in a wilderness study area, we’re limited to a group size of 15, which we actually feel like is too big. It should be lower. But in terms of folks listening here that want to come out and visit, keeping that in mind, traveling in small groups is probably one of the biggest single things you can do to reduce your impact out here.
Really it improves that experience in nature, too, because the quieter it is, the more you can take in the amazing landscapes. When you’re standing in the Medieval Chamber, you’re looking around like… you need a moment to take it in. A lot of noise and that noise can carry and echo.
What is “Ghosting a Canyon”?
Ghosting a canyon, first off is certainly not a beginning level skill set, I would say. It’s a little bit more advanced. But it’s that leave-no-trace idea, that we won’t leave anything behind in the canyon besides our footprints in the sand, and that includes all anchor material. There are some special tools and tricks that we can use so that once we’ve done the rappel we can retrieve everything from the bottom. Again, I got to give a tip of the hat to Matt. He developed what to my knowledge is the first retrievable anchor system that was out there on the market. Well, it wasn’t ever commercially produced. Essentially when he started guiding in Arches National Park, specifically in the Fiery Furnace, a lot of hikers, well, not some hikers, were coming across these anchors.
As a way to address that, Matt came up with a system that allowed us to do the rappels and take the webbing. His original design is called the Slick. It borrows from the three-pin system that skydivers use to cut away from a primary chute if they’d use their backup. Nowadays, there are much simpler devices out there: the Smooth Operator or the Fiddlestick. There are canyoneering companies like Imlay that are manufacturing these. Essentially, it could be as simple as passing your rope around your tree, putting a special knot in it where the toggle, a lot of people call them toggles, goes through the knot. After we do the rappel we can remove that toggle and everything falls away.
There are a lot of other things. Yeah, absolutely. So the next person or group that shows up, they don’t see any anchors, and they get to have the experience of figuring out how to safely get down on their own.
There are a lot of ways we can achieve that. What we described is just one or two options. There are tons of techniques out there.
Could you tell us a bit about Cryptobiotic soil and why it is so important to preserve? What are some challenges that the area is facing in protecting the soil?
It’s constantly a challenge. I think land managers here are always faced with the challenge of educating visitors about our fragile living soil crust. We had no idea about it when we moved here. Basically, when you’re traveling around in the backcountry of Moab, we assume anywhere there are loose, sandy soils that there’s this fragile soil crust growing or attempting to grow. Cyanobacteria is the main component, and it stabilizes the soil. Over time other things, like blue-green algae, mosses, fungus, lichen, all kind of grow together creating what scientists are calling the biological soil crust.
It’s really fragile, and without it nothing would grow here in the desert. That soil crust stabilizes those sand dunes so that they don’t blow away during strong winds. It also works like a sponge and retains moisture after it rains so that moisture is available to plants longer. We also like to say it’s a nitrogen fixer which means it’s actively producing food for plants. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly fragile. Just stepping on it tends to pulverize it. Crusts are typically not visible for the first 10, even 15 years. Well-developed crusts that you see out there an inch or two tall could be 100-plus years old easily.
Eventually, it’ll create a nursery environment for other things to grow. But plant life really struggles in its absence.
There’s no quick fix. It takes decades to get it back to where it was for the restoration.
A quick example of that, the rumor is that the San Juan Mountains over in Colorado are feeling the effects of that. When we get our strong, spring winds, sand is actually kicked up in the air and carried by the wind and deposited on the snowpack, which we’ve heard is causing that snowpack. In addition, it’ll just look dirty, to melt out a little faster. So there are all kinds of other consequences that are unforeseen.
What is pack rafting?
For those that don’t know anything about pack rafts, they are one-person inflatable boats. They roll up to about the size of a tent, and they weigh about five pounds, so super light, super packable, very durable for what they are. We’ve got those, the four-piece kayak paddles and lightweight PFDs, so with a six, seven-pound package you can open up a lot of opportunities with these pack rafts. We’ve got some canyons that we guide where you can’t exit that canyon without using a boat. You go down the canyon, you get to the river, and you either have your pack rafts with you and you blow it up and paddle to an exit or whatever, or you swim in the river, organize a boat to come pick you up at a certain time. I don’t know. So those pack rafts, they make some of these canyons available to us, which is pretty cool.
How did pack rafting revolutionize the Canyoneering and backcountry experience?
Being able to get back to wherever you started or the different ways you can shuttle and incorporate the packraft is so cool. I can’t wait to come back and take that trip.
What is the best time to go packrafting in Moab?
We offer packrafting spring through the fall. That being said, spring runoff levels around here are usually peaking mid-June, so late April through late July is when the rivers are up typically. Here’s what you need to know when you visit Moab in the summer, or any month!
One of the beauties of packrafting is those boats only have a couple inches of draft in the water, so they can access terrain that a large raft or even canoes couldn’t by being able to travel down these small watersheds, especially some of these ephemeral creeks that maybe they’re dry 90% of the year. Then you get a flash flood, a foot of water is flowing. That might be enough to get out in the packraft. A trip like the Chutes of Muddy Creek down near Southern Swell is a premier technical canyon float-out trip that you just can’t do. Most of the year you’d have to hike it. But in the spring if we get enough snow, that becomes something you can boat out. So catching it at that perfect level where it’s only available for two or three weeks a year is also a big part of the draw.
Of course, the Colorado and the Green Rivers, they have enough water year-round. That’s where we’re mostly taking our guided packrafting trips around the Colorado and the Green.
Can you tell us about the pedal, paddle, pedal trip?
We strap the boat to the bikes and have the paddles in a backpack or strapped on or whatever, there are a bunch of different ways to do that, and our PFDs and lunch and water and everything for the day. We ride down an old mining road down to the river, to the Green River. Once we get down there we blow up our boat, strap our bikes to the front of our boats and float about 10 or 12 miles downstream to a take out, and there are a couple of options there. You can either float all the way to the boat take out, or you can get out about three miles upstream of the standard take out where canoes and rafts and stuff would take out with a boat ramp and everything. We like to take out in a canyon upstream of that, row our boats back up, put our bikes back together, and ride to that takeout.
That section of river that you visit on that trip, a lot of people are doing three, four, or five-day trips to float through that section, which we love doing overnight river trips, but most people don’t have that time. So that pedal, paddle, pedal is a great way to see a really beautiful scenic section of river and use packrafts in one of many ways that they’re meant to be used and have a cool multi-sport adventure. It’s a big day.
So it’s a lot of riding, a lot of paddling, not certainly a trip that if the river level is up, then that’s prime time for that because you can just sit in your boat and float.
If the river’s lower, you’re doing a lot more paddling. Either way, it’s a really cool trip.
Is packrafting something that someone could do DIY? Do you offer packraft rentals?
We do it all. You could do standalone, packrafting trips. There’s a nice section of class two that we guide, or you could rent boats from us and go out on your own. We will occasionally arrange shuttles and give people advice based on river levels and all that. Yeah, any number of options there. A lot of folks are definitely planning trips down into Canyonlands that they want to rent boats for linking up the Maze district with the Needles. Maybe even Island in the Sky becomes easily doable in a few days with a packraft. So we see a lot of rentals going to the Canyonlands as well.
The cool thing, too, about these boats is that you have a family whether they’re doing a guided trip or they’re going out on their own and they say, “We don’t want any rafting. We just want a flat water section, or we want two rapids and then flat water, whatever.” With an oar rig, with canoes, even often with kayaks, you have to have a boat ramp to back your trailer up to. With those packrafts, there are so many different options, it just opens up so many options even just on the roadside section of the Colorado River through Moab that you just don’t get with a boat that you have to have a boat ramp for. So we can accommodate different abilities, different goals, at different times of the year with different river levels and stuff like that to fit what people want on guided trips or make suggestions for rentals.
How does a packraft perform compared to a hardshell kayak or an inflatable kayak? Which packrafts do you use?
We use kayak paddle boats. They’re comparable to an inflatable kayak or a hard-shell kayak. They usually don’t track quite as well if it’s windy. You end up doing a lot of these short strokes in the front of the boat to maintain your forward momentum. They maybe don’t track as well but in waves, they’re more forgiving where a plastic kayak has hard chimes or edges that are more grabby. These big round tubes are more forgiving and allow you to slip through these lateral waves and whatnot. So it’s a bit of a trade off. If you were trying to put in big miles on a slow-moving creek, you’re going to be working pretty hard in a packraft. The guy in the sea kayak would definitely be blasting by you. Of course, that’s usually not why we’re choosing a packraft.
What brand of pack rafts do you use and recommend?
We’re using solely Alpacka raft brand pack rafts. They’re constantly upgrading and making their boats better. They have a bunch of different models, so they’ve got some whitewater-specific models that might track a little better or do better in whitewater. Then they have some super, super light boats that you’re using for backpacking to just cross the river, so you barely even need the boat, but you need it to cross the river. So they have different models you can use for different things. Alpacka raft company is located in Mancos, Colorado. We want to give a shout-out to Alpacka. I think they get the credit for starting this new sidebar industry. The company was started by Sheri Tingey. She was making boats for her son, Thor, up in Alaska doing these big overland trips. To our knowledge, they are the only boats being made in the US, so they are handmade over there in Mancos. So we like to support them being the original and buy local.
What are some things in or around Moab that are some of your favorite places or things to explore?
More and more we’re starting to reach out and explore the Escalante area. It is sandwiched between some national parks. It is partially a national monument, but I think it gets overlooked. Some of the wildest slot canyons on the Colorado Plateau, an excellent adventure whether it’s mountain biking, bike touring, and all kinds of stuff. So that area is certainly overlooked as people are dashing off from national park to park.
I think Moab and southern Utah in general is becoming more known for the amazing dinosaur trackway sites that we have and dinosaur bone that can be found on some hikes around here. That seems to get overshadowed by some of the extreme sports and all that. But if you’re into geology and some of that kind of history, it’s amazing and overlooked I think.