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The Dirty Devil

  • 6 min read

Elise Otto is a wilderness ranger and river guide based in rocky mountains and southwest. Accompanied by friend and fellow river-runner, Ian, Elise explores a Colorado River tributary by packraft and foot. Read on for Elise's guest post with stories and photos from their 7 day trip along the Dirty Devil River.


My buddy Ian didn’t really advertise the ‘gnar’ factor last fall when he first brought up the trip on the Dirty Devil River. He listed the primary objectives as “napping in the sun” and “walking around”.


“How dangerous is the whitewater?” I asked.

“An old man in a canoe did it without getting his pet goat wet.” 

“The goat rode in the canoe?” I asked.

“Yeah, it doesn’t like to swim.” It's not really worth talking about how he got this information.   


I was intrigued. The river, named spitefully by the 1869 Powell expedition after its waters proved too muddy for trout fishing, seemed like an ideal adventure: relatively unknown, but not particularly hard or dangerous. For the price of a few tanks of truck gas, Uncle Bens, pasta, cheese and a few cans of chipotles, and hopefully some post trip gas station ice cream we’d get to float between canyon walls, “walk around” side canyons, and take ample naps.. I would be coming off of two back to back Grand Canyon work trips, and Ian would still be regaining strength after a fall and summer getting treatment for leukemia. We didn’t need gnar, we needed naps.   


Nature, doesn’t really care about what you need, and so I find myself, two days into this adventure braving, bruising hail and gale-force winds, while pulling my packraft over sandbar after sand bar, only to get to camp and dive into tent and sleeping bag before going fully hypothermic. I’m exhausted, which is lucky considering the nozzle has broken on my pad and I’m full cowboy by sunset. This river really is a Dirty Devil. 



A professional guide, I am laughably thrown off by the challenge, but discomfort and new found humility are coupled with a complete awe of this landscape. “What a beautiful place to be sore and mildly hypothermic!” I holler to Ian as we pass a river-side arch that is the splitting image of a lamb shank. I yelp in delight at each overhang, and wonder at the possibility of each side canyon. It feels so good to be out in new country, Still, I am cold enough I can barely unbutton my pants to pee.


 A fishhook cactus in spring bloom


The third day, it outright pours. I notice a small waterfall running to the side of a giant sandstone alcove. Funny that the small falls runs, but the large obvious one has no water in it, I think as we paddle on. Suddenly a thundering roar breaks out upstream. I can see the top of a 100 foot waterfall, in a place that was dry only minutes before.


Looking back upstream at what was only minutes before a damp if not dry alcove


Downstream, every creek and notch is running with water. Each poop stain mark on the sandstone is now wet, each overhang a shower. The desert is alive with what defines it both in absence and in excess: water.




Ian enjoys a break in the weather to admire honeycombs in the sandstone floating in his Alpacka Raft.


The weather clears for the afternoon and we head up Happy Canyon, one of the Devil’s major tributaries. Blessed with sun, we head to explore, all while keeping a careful eye on the sky. This also gives us a chance to try out the bedrocks, since thus far we’ve been mostly slogging barefoot through ankle deep sand and mud. 


I’m wearing a pair of 3D Pro sandals that have a prototype heel strap. Bedrocks have been my river sandal for over a year, and I’ve got a pair that of 3D pros that have their lead license on several rivers in Idaho and have seen the Grand Canyon a good deal more than anyone else in my family. But the Velcro hasn’t performed perfectly in muddy conditions. That said, the Velcro does seem to have some magical properties; during my last Grand trip It held perfectly as I ran up and down a side canyon to aid in the evacuation of a client who had fallen. Still, I’m excited about the potential of the new heel strap system on the pro, but won’t go into it much here, since I have yet to truly put them through the wringer of an 18-day muddy work trip.


Ian is wearing a pair of Cairn Pros. I’m hoping to coax him, an avid-approach shoes with Orthotics or Birkenstocks and socks wearer, into a more minimalist sandal. It’s a great social experiment. 


Happy Canyon exploring is a great success, if your idea of success is scrambling up sticky sandstone walls, sitting in elvish nooks and staring at canyon walls.



Photo by Ian Hoyer




Though the sky remains blue, the brown trickle at the bottom of the canyon begins to grow ominously. We exit the canyon at a brisk jog, slapping Vibram soles over pebbles, slickrock and muddy water alike in a nervous rush to get out of this Eden in case it turns death trap.



As we continue downstream, waterfalls, windstorms and hail abound. And then, just like that, the skies clear without a question, and I spend the afternoon lizarded out on a rock up an open side canyon, tanning my scaled dusty skin. Though we’ve seen almost no one, signs of human abound: cattle trails and invasives fill the wider side canyons. 


Now with the time and weather on our side, we spontaneously stop at whichever side canyons look interesting. 




Not much of a climber, at every chalkstone or pinch I temper the desire to go farther with these concerns: 


  1. Will I be able to jam my butt or knee into some crack in a way that aids me in ascending over the obstruction?
  2. Will I be able to extract aforementioned body part from wherever I’ve jammed it, or will it remain lodged forever?

More often than not, knees and butts be damned and we discover many excellent napping locations.    



Trying to catch droplets off of a maiden hair fern during side canyon exploration. Photo by Ian Hoyer.



The dance of the dry-footed


 Ian lizarded up on a honeycomb perch


And then, just like that, we’re out of cheese, and the farts from seven days of dehydrated vegetable and lentils are getting lethal. I smell terrible, am dreaming of popsicles and a night on something other than a fully deflated sleeping pad.


Now, 12 miles from the confluence with the Colorado, cutbanks made of Lake Powell’s muds line the sides of the river, remnants from when the lake level was much higher. For me, the cutbanks have a sobering, claustrophobic effect.


Like any self-respecting river runner, I have my reservations about the Glen Canyon Dam, and these cutbanks are a reminder that I’m floating from paradise into a paradise that’s been lost, and is unlikely to be reclaimed during any type of human time frame. Of course, it is an injustice to any landscape to simplify it into a pristine paradise. But that doesn’t change my grief at what has been altered. 



Ian, dwarfed by a cutbank left by a much higher Lake Powell



Ian paddles past a no wake booey left from when the lake extended more than 15 miles up the Dirty Devil. 


As we exit the canyon and cross the flood plain towards the confluence, the river’s down-cutting into the Lake Powell muds creates continuous stretches of current. I pull over to look. Ian and I walk almost to the confluence and I shake my head. We won’t be running the fast moving incised channel, with swirly eddy lines and wood today. We deflate the rafts and start hiking across the former lake bottom towards the road. It is hot, prickly and frustrating, and I’m tinged with a scratchy feeling of failure, that Dirty Devil. But once again peril is coupled with great beauty. This time the promise of a strawberry milkshake at the Hanksville gas station. 


I can’t help but notice that Ian hikes out in his Bedrocks rather than his approach shoes. “So you like the sandals?” I ask, back at the car. He grunts indecipherably. Such an old man. Next year we’ll have to bring a goat.   


All photos unless credited otherwise are taken by and published with permission of Elise Otto.

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