Wandering the West
May 7, 2008
The only thing in my book that compares to the rush of a day spent powder skiing in Utah is a day spent on the powder after it has melted. The thaw is underway now and the rivers are rising. And if ever there was a year to take a whitewater river trip, this is the one. Late May and June and even into July, depending on how the snow pack melts, should serve up high fast water and as much adrenalin as a powder shot through the Daly Chutes, Puma Bowl or The Abyss.
There are four main rivers, each with different stretches, which require separate trips. Starting in northern Utah, you can launch on the Green River at the Gates of Ladore. Ladore is usually a four-day trip filled with history. This is the first canyon John Wesley Powell encountered in 1869 when there were no maps to warn of what was ahead. While most Utah rivers run dirty brown, the Green up this high runs clean and you can fish for trout along the way. As for the ride, Powell lost a boat here at rapids he named "Disaster Falls." He also named one long stretch "Hell’s Half Mile." Powell’s miseries today are pure pleasure. At Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument the river takes in the flow of the Yampa River and gets bigger and roars through Whirlpool Canyon and Split Mountain Gorge before the takeout near Vernal.
This will be a good year for the Yampa, which starts in northwestern Colorado and joins the Green at Echo Park. The Yampa is the last undammed river in the Intermountain West so you have to hit it early to take advantage of peak flows. Warm Springs Rapid is one of the top ten big drops in the country. Hit it in high water and hang on. Along the way you’ll see 2,000-foot-high canyon walls of sandstone striped like a tiger with desert varnish. At Echo Park the Yampa flows into the Green, so the finish is the same as the Ladore trip.
Below Vernal you can pick up another leg of the Green, in Desolation Canyon. This is a minimum four-day trip with mellower rapids and lots of them. It’s great for families, and a great place to paddle on your own with an inflatable kayak. Side-canyon hikes to old homesteads and moonshiners’ stills make for some interesting human history to go with the geologic history of another deep canyon. The Desolation trip ends at the town of Green River.
Another leg of the Green starts at the town and flows lazily through Canyonlands National Park. This stretch is flat water. You can rent a canoe or float a raft safely here as long as you arrange for an upriver shuttle to get out safely at the confluence where the Green joins the Colorado.
On the Colorado, you can get a great one- or two-day run through Westwater Canyon, near the Colorado state line. Here you have to steer left of the Rock of Shock to avoid the Room of Doom. And be careful in Skull Rapid too. This is a great quick whitewater trip if time is short.
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Below Moab you can shove off for Cataract Canyon, a trip that starts out mellow and flat, but turns into a monster at the confluence with the Green. Cataract is not for the faint-hearted: churning Class 5 rapids (where 5 is the biggest) in high water, with relentless rapids in your face all day long. Once, in the Big Drops, our raft flipped and we wound up in Satan’s Gut, a big sucking whirlpool. Fun only in hindsight.
Near the Arizona line, the last great Utah river run is the San Juan. A few different stretches are runnable, but watch the water levels. A dam upstream controls the flow and at low flow it gets tough to run. Here you’ll be in the Goosenecks of the San Juan, pass Grand Gulch, and take out above Lake Powell’s San Juan Arm.
River trips allow a backcountry experience with the rush of a wild ride in white water coupled with front-country amenities like lawn chairs and ice chests full of beer. Good boatmen and women can pack ice cream in dry ice in insulated storage chests and whip it out for dessert on the fourth night. Try doing that on a backpacking trip.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Web site: http://www.utah.com/raft/
Insider tip: Expect to pay around $200 a day for commercial trips, which are all inclusive. If you’re going private, start scheming early for permits from the BLM or National Park Service, depending on the river.