PACKrafting Dominguez Canyon and the Gunnison

Joan and I started getting into packrafting these past two years.

I won’t claim that we are very experienced.

I will claim that we both know enough to plan a trip within our capabilities and goals and accomplish it in the time available.

With Joan taking off on a spring break trip solo to Cedar Mesa, I thought I’d take advantage of the time and go on my solo trip.

The trip? A packrafting jaunt up Little Dominguez Canyon, over the Uncompaghre Plateau, down an old pack trail and canyons to the Gunnison River, and float back to the truck over 72 hours.

Now, I should call this trip a PACKrafting trip.  Meaning the emphasis got put on the packing portion.  Joan claims I undersell my trips –

(And I crossed the Rio Grande with water over my knees and then bought a burrito in a nearby town after. True, but maybe not the whole amount of details? )

With that in mind, I think the profile photo tells the tale:

Meaning it is a PACKrafting trip. 

I’ve noticed that because packrafts are portable, easy to pack, and don’t require a trailer, many people enjoy using packrafts as an easy-to-transport alternative for water-based recreation.

However, people tend to do more rafting and not as much packing with their packrafts—more of a front-country vs. a backcountry focus. Considering whitewater models weigh as much as 10+ pounds and cost over $1000, I get a case of agita as a minimalist backpacker.

As a backpacker first, a packraft allows me to connect canyons and other places, so I may hike more.

And no different on this trip.

Because what’s more fun than backpacking for 50 miles? Backpacking for 50+ miles with often no trail, carrying 5 liters of water, days of food, and rafting gear so you can float for ~12 miles. 👍 

All kidding aside, I’ve wanted to go on this trip for a while, and the packraft facilitated the trip well.

And what did the trip entail? 

Four distinct parts –

  • Up Little Dominguez Canyon to Blackpoint.  I’ve never done the upper portion of Little Domingez Canyon, and I’ve seen reports that described it as overgrown and difficult to follow. Perhaps Joan and I have different definitions of overgrown and too much experience following the old pack stock trails, but I found the alignment on the map is more or less correct. Just when I thought I had lost the faint path, I saw piles of old cow dung almost cairn-like and the logical place where pack stock may travel.  I did not find it as difficult as others reported. YMMV.

From an earlier trip before Little Dominguez joins Big Dominguez

  • The Uncompaghre Plateau – Cresting at nearly 9000′ at the highest point, a recent snowstorm left the roads a sloppy, muddy mess. However, that same sloppy mess meant my cross-country route had flowing streams. Well, semi-cross country may be a more accurate description as, again, cows made old paths that I could follow reasonably easily.:) The area reminded me of Cruces Basin Wilderness in a sense I followed streams in sheltered meadows with some subtle terrain. I rather enjoyed this stretch.

From an earlier trip.

  • Down an abandoned trail that winds up and out of canyons to the Gunnison – The old path started as a faint two-track and ended at a very old 1930s or so wooden-log cattle fence.  From there, some maps, compass, and GPS work lead me to follow the old alignment. I saw two cairns all day! Both cairns had lichen on them. Luckily, two CCC-era blasted trails went through the breaks in the canyon safely when I needed them.

Screen Grab from a YouTube video. Note the old cairn towards the dirt patch.

  • Finally, an ~12-mile raft down the Gunnison River.  Scenic, mainly flat-water paddling, and very quiet considering the location of SH50 mere miles away (if over a canyon.) You pass by red rock canyon walls, and orchards, and there’s public camping access.

Alas, my memory card got corrupted on my good camera.:(

I have some river photos from the rafting portion of about 12 miles since I used my phone there.

But I did take some videos I uploaded to Instagram and because I like to try out new things, TikTok (vertical). I made a YouTube compilation of the videos with some rafting photos at the end.

Not pictured? Hedgehog cactus blooms, expansive views of the plateau, sunset view looking to Grand Mesa, and cresting the final push over the rim with expansive views before dropping to the river. Technology giveth and taketh. But I do have the trip memories. (I included the profile photo to emphasize the PACK portion of this trip. 🙂 )

This video gives a bit more of a feel for the trip.

Packrafting info?

I get a surprising amount of questions about the packrafting portion. I want to emphasize that my pacrkrafting experience does not go as deep with packrafting as with backpacking, but I feel I can answer some questions that work for me.

  • We use Alpacka Scout packrafts.  Light, surprisingly capable, packs well,  and (at least the generation we purchased.) as durable as its bigger cousins in the Alpacka quiver.  The Ghost only became available this past year, and though it shaves a pound, I feel it’s more limited with use and that is how Alpacka advertises it, too.  The Refuge, also new, intrigues me, and I can see us purchasing this if we get into more technical whitewater or areas such as Montana with colder water vs. Utah.  Packrafts are much like skis – You have a quiver for different conditions, trip goals, and places.

From an earlier trip to The Maze

  • For paddles, we use four-piece Ninja Paddles” as the light, and compact nature works well for our trips, focusing on hiking vs. rafting. For more paddle-focused or technical trips, we’d take different paddles TBD. These paddles are the equivalent of carbon fiber trekking poles and need some TLC. Alas, they no longer seem available—all the reasons to treat them well.

From a Green River trip.

  • I use an MTI Daytripper PFD.  At about 14oz /400 g and $40, it proves a light, minimalist, and inexpensive solution for hiking-focused and non-technical packrafting trips.  I had the river to myself until the very end, I am not a strong swimmer, and most permits require a PFD.  If I have to carry one, I may as well bring one that is light and fits on my pack. More experienced river people told me this PDF is about as light as it gets and apparently is now out of production. I lucked out!  Additionally, I use a light fanny pack as a chest pack to keep my phone, snacks, and guyline (anchoring packraft).  Similar use as Joan’s SMD Packpod above.

from MTI

  • Speaking of packs, my ULA Circuit and sometimes the Catalyst continues to work well as packrafting packs.  The Circuit works well solo, and the Catalyst works well when I need cold-weather gear or when I go with Joan. The durability, versatility, and ability to comfortably schlep water in Utah means I have a pack that works well for me.

A mini-Wave in a Utah side canyon. PCO Joan.

We look forward to expanding our skillset and further wandering around the Colorado Plateau via raft.


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2 years ago

Pack rafting is intriguing.

eddy de wilde
eddy de wilde
2 years ago

Great weather and scenery and you have it all to yourself. Top of the world feeling Paul!

1 year ago

Can you share GPS track of this journey?