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Muddy Creek, Utah
Report by Marc W. McCord

IH-70 to Hanksville
~ 72.0 Miles

General Description

Utah is home to numerous very seasonal rivers, creeks and streams that are sometimes boatable. Muddy Creek, in Emery and Wayne Counties, is one of those that occasionally offers an exciting whitewater ride for canoeists and kayakers. The creek forms near Moore off SH 10 in Emery County, a few miles north of IH 70 in the San Rafael Swell, then flows south beneath IH 10, where it bends southeast and flows to SH 24 at Hanksville in Wayne County near the headwaters of the Dirty Devils River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Muddy Creek begins between Fishlake National Forest to the west and Coal Cliffs to the east. Not much paddling is done above IH 10, but from there to Hanksville is a 72-mile run of Class I to III flatwater and whitewater on an average gradient of about 19 fpm. Numerous access points are available for intermediate length trips of 11, 19, 15, 5 and 22 miles, but access roads make shuttles long and time-consuming for some runs, as following the proper vehicle "trails" can be very difficult unless you know the area really well.

The most popular run is the 15-mile "Chute" section starting at Tomisch Butte and ending at the Chimney Canyon trailhead near Goblin Valley State Park and the Hidden Splendor Mine. It is also probably the most difficult access to find, but you might be able to connect with other paddlers and follow somebody who knows the way. This section features a narrow box canyon of about 4 miles in length that, at its narrowest point, is only about 7-8 feet wide with walls rising 300 feet or more above the creek. Like the San Rafael River, Muddy Creek cuts its bed through the magnificent San Rafael Swell geology at the top of this reach, then ends up flowing through more than 20 miles of high desert down to Hanksville. Muddy Creek usually flows only in May and/or June in years with above average precipitation, so catching a navigable flow is not easy, but when this creek runs it offers a very beautiful and equally remote trip that any whitewater boater should be able to enjoy unless he or she needs some hairboat runs to get the blood pumping.

Location

Emery and Wayne counties in central and southcentral Utah. Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado River and the Henry Mountains sit to the southeast. Lake Powell and Glen canyon are to the south. Capitol Reef National Park and Dixie National Forest are to the southwest.

Distance from major cities

Salt Lake City 209 miles; Provo 164 miles; Grand Junction 165 miles; Durango 288 miles; Denver 411 miles; Albuquerque 740 miles; Phoenix 563 miles; Oklahoma City 1,042 miles; Dallas 1,168 miles; Austin 1,203 miles; San Antonio 1,111 miles; Houston 1,353 miles; Little Rock 1,381 miles; Kansas City 1,166 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

When it flows, which is rarely, water quality is usually very good to excellent, but not drinkable without purification. Minimum flows should be about 150 cfs and maximum safe flows should be about 500 cfs on the USGS gauge at Emery. THe reliable way to determine navigable levels is to look for a bare minimum of two feet of water flowing at the IH 70 bridge. If the depth is less than 2 feet, then it is probable that there will be too little water downstream to paddle a kayak, let alone a canoe, and don't even think about rafting this creek under ANY conditions!

Best Times to Go

May through June is the prime season for running this section of Muddy Creek. However, the season is limited to years of above normal precipitation. Otherwise, the creek may not even be muddy - it may be the DRY Muddy Creek!

Hazards to Navigation

Distance and remoteness are the two major hazards on Muddy Creek runs. Do NOT expect cellular service anywhere near this place, and even if you had it, outside assistance would be many hours, or even a day or more, away. The rapids are not particularly dangerous except at high flows exceeding about 500 cfs, when the creek could become a nightmare racecourse that propels boaters headlong into serious trouble, including bankshots off canyon walls. Another high-water hazard is being decapped by overhanging rock ledges that would normally be safely overhead. Most of the rapids are rated Class I to II, but "The Chute" offers a Class II to III thrill ride with the possibility of holes, standing waves and strong cross currents. Hazards can include dead-fall strainers, rock falls, dead livestock, bankshots off canyon walls, cold water temperatures, lack of sunlight and other potential threats to life and safety. Proceed with extreme prejudice.

The first 11 miles between IH 70 and Lone Tree Crossing starts very rocky, then the channel narrows considerably, with swift currents. This section poses above normal hazards for canoes due to the greater difficulty in steering and control, especially as flows increase above about 200 cfs. Between Lone Tree and Tomsich Butte paddlers need to watch for possible fences across the creek. Between Tomsich Butte at mile 30.0 and Hidden Slendor at mile 45.0 is a very narrow canyon with 300-foot vertical walls where a 20-foot high log jam has recently been reported. Between Hidden Splendor and the Salt Wash crossing at 50.0 miles the creek flows under an overhang that can be deadly in high flow conditions. Exercise EXTREME caution in this area. The last 22 miles is through open, low desert devoid of landmarks or waypoints, and it is possible to run out of navigable water in this area. A compass and map are very helpful, and a GPS receiver would be ideal.

Another hazard would be to have your vehicle break down in the middle of the desert a long way from anywhere. Make sure it is in good working condition before driving it to Muddy Creek. Take along plenty of drinking water, food, a good quality First Aid kit and as much safety gear as you can carry. For overnight trips on the river take along your camping gear. If you are a kayaker on an overnight trip, then you might want to be really nice to those canoeists, if there are any in your group. Their boats have a lot more capacity than your kayak will ever be able to carry! Be smart, and be safe. This is a remote desert run in a very warm time of the year for Utah, but sunlight inside the canyon is minimal, so carry a wetsuit or drysuit and a water-repelling base layer in case it gets cold. This is NOT a place to exprience hypothermia!

River access points

IH 70 about 8.5 miles east of SH 10 at 0.0 miles (private property); Lone Tree Crossing near Hoodoo Arch at about 11.0 miles; Tomisch Butte west of Goblin Valley State Park at about 30.0 miles; Chimney Canyon east of Capitol Reef National Park at about 45.0 miles; Salt Wash in northern Wayne County at about 50.0 miles; SH 24 near SH 95 in Hanksville at about 72.0 miles (private property.) There are no other access points for Muddy Creek below IH 70.

Campgrounds and Accommodations

Primitive camping is available at the Tomsich Butte access, as well as numerous places along the river, particularly in the area between Lone tree access and Tomsich Butte access. State and national parks are located several miles away from the river, but are not useful unless you are willing to travel a long distance to get there. This is a remote wilderness trip that is especially well-suited for those who paid attention when they were Boy or Girl Scouts.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no outfitters located along Muddy Creek. Bring EVERYTHING you need and be prepared to run long and time-consuming shuttles. Access points at IH 70 and SH 24 are on private land - do NOT leave gates open, and do NOT leave vehicles parked on private property unless you have first obtained landowner permission.

Reviewer's comments

For desert paddle trip lovers Muddy Creek will rank up there with the best. This is a run of up to 72 miles with several access points between the put-in and take-out that allow paddlers to choose the section or sections of the creek where they want to paddle depending upon time available, paddling skills, flow and weather conditions or other factors. It is a scenic run that should be documented in photographs, so bring along your camera. The run is contrasted between the San Rafael Swell geology at the top and the high desert at the bottom. Probably the most magnificent part of the trip for most paddlers will be the narrow box canyon in the Tomisch Butte to Chimney Canyon section, where the walls close in to less than 8 feet wide in some places. If you are afraid of being in a tight squeeze, then this is not the place for you. However, if you are up to the task, and get fortunate enough to be in this part of Utah when Muddy Creek flows, then you will be treated to what will probably be one of the greatest paddle trips of your life, and you will be glad you were here!

Technical Data
Class Rating I to III
Length 72 miles
Minimum Flow 150 cfs
Optimum Flow 200-400 cfs
Maximum Flow 500 cfs
First Put-in IH 70
Lat. / Long. 38.8129997 / -111.1997986
Last Take-out SH 74 at Hanksville
Lat. / Long. 38.4035988 / -110.6905975
Elevation msl
Gradient 19 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: 09330500 (Emery)
Boats Canoes, Kayaks
Season Typically, May through June
Permits No


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