Goliath red sandstone mesas tower over a scenic stretch of the Colorado River north of Moab, Utah. Officially known as the Colorado Riverway Recreation Area by the Bureau of Land Management, the section of river along Utah state highway 128 is home to the annual Back of Beyond stand up paddle race. For the past four years, Paddle Moab, the local SUP shop, has organized Back of Beyond as a platform to share their slice of desert paradise.
While many paddlers pine away for tropical paddling destinations, the rugged beauty of the desert landscapes in the Western United States are my first choice when considering where to spend my leisure time. To be able to combine a visit to the desert with paddling and camping…well, for me, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
What is Back of Beyond?
Back of Beyond is a seven mile downriver race running a navigable stretch of the Colorado River from Dewey Bridge to Hittle Bottom. The wide stretch of river had a good flow this year thanks to an abundance of snowfall over the winter. There was a distinct current to the river. Not so strong that it would knock you off your feet, but enough to make it challenging to paddle up river when following the main flow of the channel. The Colorado is home to a number of challenging sections boasting various whitewater classes, but the stretch where Back of Beyond is staged is squarely in the “Class Fun” category. This is a race anyone, regardless of age or river experience, can handle.
The license plate says it all.
We all made our way to the start at the Dewey Bridge Campground where paddlers gathered at the south end of the parking lot above the boat ramp. Sol Paddle Boards pumped out a steady stream of tunes to rally the gathered crowd of paddlers before Josh Surkes of Paddle Moab announced the course and safety briefing prior to the 2pm start.
Children launched first in a unique shoreline start consisting of a race down the gravel boat ramp, boards in hand, to the water. They were followed by a pool of elite paddlers on 14’ SUPs.
Unlike the rest of the competitor pool, those competing in the elite category at Back of Beyond were required to paddle across the river to a buoy along the opposite bank and perform a right shoulder turn and head up river approximately 100 yards to a second buoy. Only after making another right shoulder turn around the second buoy were they eligible to proceed downriver.
Around the time the first elite paddlers rounded the second buoy the field of open paddlers were released down the boat ramp!
The river was instantly flooded with an assortment of paddlers and boards as those with a competitive drive scrambled to lock into the main current, while others grinned and began to make their way down river at their own pace. The beauty of the river race meant that regardless of how fast you paddled, you were going to eventually arrive down river at the finish. That is, if you avoided the eddies and hunkered down to battle through the 30+mph headwinds gusting through the canyon.
The strong headwinds this year made it tough and there were times when forward progress and any sense of momentum was lost. The wind pushed me into shore at one point as I struggled to keep the nose of my 14’ NeedleNose Sea Eagle inflatable SUP pointed downstream.
The gathering of award recipients.
Despite the challenging conditions, there was a strong sense of camaraderie and festive vibes before, during, and after the race itself that made this event one of the best – possibly the best – I’ve ever attended.
Upon reaching the finish area at Hittle Bottom, elite paddlers were treated to one more obstacle to add a final dash of spice to what had already been an eventful race down the Colorado River. A third and final buoy was placed downriver along the opposite bank from the finish. As the open paddlers joyously darted for the boat ramp, elite paddlers made a left shoulder turn around the buoy before ferrying across the main channel and back up stream to the finish.
As with the start, the race did not finish at the water’s edge. Smiling paddlers scooped up their boards and ran up the boat ramp to a crowd of cheering spectators and fellow competitors to the finish.
There are SUP races throughout the United States and around the world, but I’m willing to wager that none are as well organized and exude as great a vibe as Paddle Moab’s Back of Beyond. For me, traveling from Los Angeles to the Utah desert to race down the Colorado River was a unique experience. With daytime temperatures in the mid 80s and warm evenings, camping at one of the dozen or so BLM campgrounds dotted throughout the canyon valley presented an idyllic locale.
My brother and I spent three nights camping at Hittle Bottom, the location of the finish and post race celebrations. Evening campfires, great company, smooth tequila and cold beer rounded out the weekend on a trip that will go down as one of the best destination paddling events a paddler can find.
Special thanks to Ryan and Dorsie Mullen for welcoming PaddleXaminer into your campsite for the weekend!