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The past few years we at Desert Highlights have been exploring canyons with the help of some truly amazing boats – packrafts. While we've typically been land-based canyoneers, the addition of a packraft can really make access into and out of very remote and seldom-visited canyons far easier and incredibly fun! Around our home base of Moab, Utah we've focused our packraft canyoneering outings on the many technical side canyons that descend into the big rivers like the Green, Colorado, Dolores and the San Juan. While these are awesome trips, they tend to be a little chilly in the winter months. What's a canyoneer to do in the winter but grab their gear and head south! So during the winter months we guide packraft canyoneering trips in Lake Mead National Recreation Area outside Las Vegas, Nevada.

Las Vegas. Sin City. Lost Wages. Entertainment Capital of the World. Call it what you will, but the fact is that some of the best wintertime canyoneering is just a dice's throw from the fabled Strip. In fact, some of the country's best rock climbing and mountain biking can also be found right outside of Las Vegas. Despite the chaos of Glitter Gulch (or perhaps because of it), there is tremendous solitude in the rugged mountains that frame those iconic casino facades. While it use to be that “outdoor recreation” in Vegas consisted of a round of golf and poolside lounging between evenings spent at the tables, this is no more (not that we have anything against golf or lounging).

Las Vegas Packraft Canyoneering !!!

• Bald Raven Canyon (Easy-Moderate; 6 hours)
• Ringpin Canyon (Moderate; 8 hours)
• Boy Scout Canyon (Moderate-Difficult; 10 hours)

Our focus in the Lake Mead area is on the Black Canyon, just 20 miles southeast of the city. This canyon is a 1500 foot deep, 10 mile long gorge that has been cut by (and which still contains) the Colorado River. Many side canyons cut down into this gorge and most are “technical,” which means ropes are required to occasionally overcome steep dropoffs. Most of the drops are relatively short, though one canyon in particular – Boy Scout – is an exceptional exception! Because each of these side canyons terminate in the heart of Black Canyon – which has no roads or hiking trails to speak of – the only way out is to float the river. Hence the packrafts. How far we have to float depends on which canyon we go into. Some of these side canyons deposit us in the Black Canyon such that we're pretty far from any possible route out of the gorge, so a long float may be involved. Due to the (blessed) lack of roads here, we're required to hoof it out of the gorge at the end of each of these canyon hikes. Some exits are long and tiresome, some are mercifully short.

These hikes are likely unlike any you've ever done, and as such you'll be carrying some stuff you're not used to packing. In addition to the usual harness, helmet, carabiners, water and food on most canyoneering trips, everyone will carry a packraft, a lifejacket and a paddle. The packrafts we use are ultra-lightweight, ultra-durable one person rafts made by a small company called Alpacka Raft. They weigh less than five pounds and pack down into a neat package not much bigger than a loaf of bread. The paddles break down into four pieces and, weighing in at only 28-ounces, fit neatly in the sides of a pack and provide the necessary propulsion while on the water. Expect your pack to weigh in at around 15 pounds, a bit more if you're carrying rope.

Packrafts make many of the impossible canyons possible. And not only do they make them possible, they make them tons of fun! Combining canyoneering and rafting to accomplish a singular goal of exploring a beautful canyon is one of the most fun, most rewarding days you can have in the backcountry. If you're looking to escape grim winter weather and have a great adventure, join us for some packraft canyoneering in sunny Las Vegas!
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50 East Center St.
PO Box 1342
Moab, Utah 84532
(800) 747-1342
(435) 259-4433

Gallery of Bald Raven Canyon Trip Images
Got an early dinner reservation with tickets to that Cirque show, but still wanna get out for a great backcountry hike? For those short on time there is perhaps no better packraft canyoneering trip than Bald Raven Canyon. Despite its short length, it's still a very technical and somewhat physically demanding canyon.

As with most of the hikes in the Black Canyon, Bald Raven begins as an expansive open wash which, in time and proximity to the Colorado River, narrows down into a beautiful slot canyon. There are enough little downclimbs on the way to keep us entertained till we reach the narrows. There are also a few small, isolated riparian environments along the way. These little mini-oases, formed by springs and seeps, often harbor interesting critters. Who knows what will see? Typically we'll see the usual suspects like zebra-tailed lizards, kangaroo rats, antelope squirrels and such. Don't bother looking for any hairless ravens, though. The canyon's name is derived from the Greek's literal translation for the Cormorant, a bird that we'll almost certainly see once we reach the Colorado River.

It's not long before the canyon walls narrow and we arrive at the first significant drop in the canyon and it's obvious that a rope will be necessary. This beautifully sculpted flume drops about fifty feet into a dark-walled cavern and the beginning of Bald Raven's spectacular narrows. Considering the short length and easy access of this canyon it attracts many first-time canyoneers, so we'll often spend a significant amount of time here covering the basics of rappelling, anchors, belays and so forth. It's a great spot for it, too, and this 50' rappel has a lot going for it. It isn't too intimidating, it's very photogenic, yet it's just challenging enough to make you struggle and feel like you've accomplished something. The best part is that once at the bottom of the rappel you are now in another world! Despite the canyon's easy access, few people experience the section of canyon below this rappel. Solitude abounds and there's no debate that the canyon beyond this rappel is one of the most beautiful in the area. That's what we really like about canyoneering. It's not so much about the thrill of rappelling, it's about using the ropes in a respectful way to access amazing places. Sure, rappelling is fun, but it's where the rappel takes you that makes it so special.
Gallery of Bald Raven Canyon Trip Images
Continuing on we'll encounter a few minor obstacles as the canyon becomes more entrenched. Soon we reach the second rappel which overlooks a stunning series of spring-fed pools and slate gray canyon walls. From here till the juncture of the Colorado River the canyon is polished by a steady stream of flowing spring water. It's pretty obvious from above that the second rappel will land you in a pool of water, but how deep and how cold? Fortunately, not very :)

A good bit of time is spent in the lower canyon, both by choice and necessity. With such inviting water temps and gorgeous environs it's tough to rush on through. No chance of that, really, since just around the corner is the river and we need to rig up our packrafts. Ah yes, the packrafts! Since we've rappelled our way down this box canyon, we're committed! We cannot simply retrace our steps, so we'll inflate our packrafts and float downstream till we reach a reasonable break in the walls of the Black Canyon to hike out. Now, unlike Ringpin or Boy Scout canyons, Bald Raven has very little real estate to spread out and rig your packraft so it'll be a bit time-consuming to get our rafts ready, especially if you're new to this sort of thing. No worries, this is a great spot to take our time.

Just as we spent time covering the basics of ropework earlier, we'll spend plenty of time going over the wonders (and hazards) of packrafting. With its great side canyons and calm waters, the Black Canyon really is one of the best places to get hooked on the joys of packraft canyoneering. Our float out of Bald Raven is short, but there are some pretty cool “side paddles” that can extend the float if desired and we're looking good on time.

While paddling keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Bighorn sheep sightings are practically guaranteed, as are the canyon's namesake bird, the cormorant. The hike out back to the vehicle is almost as visually striking as the canyon itself. It's an uphill hike, so expect a bit of a workout, though thankfully it's a relatively short finish to a wonderfully concise day. And with plenty of time to get back in town for a well-deserved shower, dinner and show!

Bald Raven Canyon

An excellent and quick introduction
to packraft canyoneering

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Price: $120/person. 10% discount if trip has three or more people.

Length: 6 hours roundtrip from the Strip (includes 70 minutes round-trip driving time).

Season: October through March

Physical Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Technical Difficulty: Moderate

Rappels: 2 - (50ft/15m, 20ft/6m)

Total Distance: 3mi/5km of hiking; .5mi/.8km of packrafting

Gallery of Ringpin Canyon Trip Images
You can put money on Ringpin Canyon being one of the best loop hikes in the Black Canyon. It is a relatively short and aesthetic hike, a bit shorter than Bald Raven Canyon actually, but it has several rappels with some spectacular and challenging narrows.

Just getting to the trailhead of Ringpin is an adventure. It's quite a remote location and several miles of rough dirt road are driven to get us far off the beaten path. The hiking is enjoyable right from the start with the “open, gravelly wash” approach, customary to the area, kept to a minimum.

Soon after dropping into the wash we'll enter the narrows and they are beautiful. Several downclimbs and chimneys are negotiated and teamwork becomes an important element here. With all the scrambling involved, packs are often removed and passed along to make the downclimbs easier. Shoulderstands, kneestands and thigh belays – they're all very handy and appreciated. There are four rappels in this slot and, though not very high, they each have their own charm. For starters the rappel anchors are all “natural,” meaning there are no bolts in this canyon unlike Bald Raven and Boy Scout which have bolted rappel anchors. We'll assess and talk about each anchor before using it, so if you're interested in learning about rigging unusual anchors in remote canyons this is a good canyon to check out. Two of the rappels have pools of water at their base which can make things a bit more interesting! Usually these can be avoided. Usually. :)

Eventually the narrows open and we'll reach our last rappel. From here it's obvious the river is not far as the vegetation changes from the classic creosote-mohave scrub (which is actually much more interesting than it sounds) to the telltale riparian plants of the river corridor. As delightful as it is to hike and rappel through the dark, volcanic narrows, it's always a thrill to turn that last canyon corner and come into view of the shimmering waters of the Colorado River. Though it's the end of the hike, it's just the beginning of the next adventurous segment – packrafting!

Gallery of Ringpin Canyon Trip Images
The loop down Ringpin Canyon boasts some of the most aesthetic beaches for rigging and de-rigging your packraft. Of course, one of the great features of the packraft is that it's small enough and light enough to rig basically anywhere. No big beach is needed to launch these things and those who've been in Bald Raven Canyon can attest to that! Nonetheless, having a clean, smooth gravel beach makes for some seriously relaxed rigging.

This area of the Black Canyon is very popular with bighorn sheep, and it's a rare day to not see any as we paddle our way to the nearest exit canyon. Ducks, cormorants and herons are par for the course here, too. In addition to being a nice change of scenery from the hiking and rappelling segments, the packraft portions of these hikes give our legs a break while giving our arms and shoulders a nice workout. These boats really do invigorate you mentally and physically! Soon we arrive at yet another fabulous gravel beach and deflate our packrafts for the hike out. Fortunately the hike out is short, mellow and very scenic. It is a fitting finale to one of the most elegant loop hikes in the area.

Ringpin Canyon

Remote, narrow slot canyon with lots of solitude, short rappels and great packrafting

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Price:$180/person. 10% discount if trip has three or more people.

Length: 6 to 8 hours roundtrip from the Strip (includes 2.5 hours round-trip driving time).

Season: October through March

Physical Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Technical Difficulty: Moderate

Rappels: 4 - (10ft/3m, 20ft/6m, 20ft/6m, 15ft/5m)

Total Distance: 3mi/5km of hiking; .6mi/1km of packrafting

Gallery of Boy Scout Canyon Trip Images
Be Prepared. Be prepared, that is, to enjoy one of the most spectacular, most varied backcountry epics around. Boy Scout Canyon is, with no doubt and a bit of irony, the granddaddy of packraft canyoneering adventures around Las Vegas. It drops into the rugged Black Canyon of the Colorado River just downstream of Hoover Dam.

Boy Scout Canyon descends exactly 1,000 feet in elevation over the course of 2.5 miles from its trailhead down to the Colorado River. Along this wonderful hike are beautiful narrow canyon walls, lush hanging gardens, flowing spring water and soothing hot springs. Be forewarned, however, its challenges – both physical and technical – rival its beauty. In addition to numerous downclimbs and scrambling obstacles, there are a few rappels tucked into this deep canyon. They're mostly short rappels, though. Mostly. We'll get to that later.

From the trailhead we'll casually make our way down the wide open, gravelly wash. This upper section, with its low canyon walls lined with dry creosote and catclaw bushes, belies the awesome canyon it becomes less than a mile away. A few easy downclimbs here and there help prepare us for the more challenging obstacles ahead, especially while wielding such heavy packs. You see, in addition to the typical items brought on a dayhike, we'll be laden with such atypical items as ropes, harnesses, carabiners, packrafts, paddles, lifejackets and so forth. While each individual item is relatively light, it all adds up. Expect your pack to weigh about 15-20 pounds. Although the guide carries the main rappel rope, two ropes are brought along and if you're the lucky one who helps by carrying the other rope then add another 15 pounds to your pack weight. 15 pounds for a rope? We'll get to that later.
Gallery of Boy Scout Canyon Trip Images
After a pleasant half-hour stroll the canyon walls start to close in, their soaring heights cast long shadows, the wash's gradient steepens – there is a sense that something very interesting lurks around the corner. A little more hiking and yes, there it is! The canyon floor plummets more than fifteen feet down! Hmmm, well, a quick scout of the dropoff reveals a relatively easy, though “exposed,” downclimb (“exposed” meaning that it's slightly hazardous with bad consequences of a fall). An easy and safe, though slightly more time-consuming, option would be to rappel down the dropoff. After all, you carried a 15-pound rope, might as well use it. Regardless of how we manage this drop, we'll collect ourselves at its bottom and continue on our merry way towards the river. There appears to be another dropoff around the bend and from the looks of things its considerably taller. Turns out it's three hundred feet taller! While there are a few other rappels further downcanyon, none compare to the one at hand. In fact, few other rappels anywhere compare to this drop. Right at 320' high, this drop now makes you understand – and appreciate – the need for 15 pounds of rope! Despite the length of this drop there's really not much more to it than the fifteen footer you've just come down. There are differences, of course, but we'll cover those and convince you that you will be fine. As with all our rappels, we provide a separate belay rope for safety and we can help you out with this rope if need be. That said, this rappel – this canyon, in fact – is not for everyone. It's a significant psychological challenge, for sure, and needless to say you'll earn your rappelling Merit Badge on this one! Technical issues aside, this dropoff is spectacular. The canyon far below us is stunning and thanks to your adventurous spirit and our encouraging words you'll soon be exploring it in no time.

Beyond the big drop the canyon really becomes a beauty. Flowing water emanates from springs and carves out an aesthetic channel from the soft volcanic rock. Lush hanging gardens suspend from the canyon's overhanging walls. As we near the river, wonderful hot springs abound. Considering what we've just come through, we'll stop for a very well-deserved soak. Can it get any better!? It's truly paradise in the desert. At this point – what with all the excitement of the rappels and the incredible scenery – it's hard to believe that you're just outside Las Vegas. This is certainly not the Vegas you've known about!

As we continue on, the canyon's narrow walls begin to open and after another bend or two we'll soon arrive at the confluence of Boy Scout Canyon and the Colorado River. What a sight! A beautiful gravel beach provides a great place to relax by the water and really admire the beauty of Black Canyon. This beach also provides a wonderful place to rig our packrafts. You see, there are no roads or trails in this part of the Black Canyon. The canyon's walls plummet straight into the water so the only way out is by boat!

There are few finer places out there to learn the nuances of packrafting than down here in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. The water is calm and the paddling distances are relatively short. Depending on wind and water conditions we can easily paddle upstream or downstream. There are several canyons in either direction where we can land our packrafts, roll them back up into our packs and hike up and out of the Black Canyon.

This is certainly the longest day that we guide here in Las Vegas. It is an extremely memorable day and it's even appropriate for first-time canyoneers and packrafters. It is physically and mentally challenging, though, so...Be Prepared!

Boy Scout Canyon

A beautiful and deep canyon with great hiking, hot springs and a fairly long rappel

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Price: $220/person. 10% discount if trip has three or more people.

Length: 8 to 10 hours roundtrip from the Strip (includes 2.5 hours round-trip driving time).

Season: October through March

Physical Difficulty: Moderate

Technical Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult

Rappels: 4 - (15ft/5m, 320ft/98m, 12ft/4m, 15ft/5m)

Total Distance: 4mi/6km of hiking, 1mi/2km of packrafting

Costs are based upon a two person minimum unless otherwise noted (10% discount on groups of three or more) and include all National Park fees and all necessary technical gear (harnesses, ropes, helmets, packs, gloves, packrafts, paddles, lifejackets, etc).

Check out our Frequently Asked Questions page to help you decide on trips and what to bring.

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