Wandering the West
You’re not alone if you think all of Southern Utah is a vast, hot, dry desert.
For the most part, it is. But it is also home to two of the easiest, gentlest river float trips in the Southwest. As a veteran canoe paddler from Northern Minnesota I can tell you, there’s no better way to relax and waste a perfectly good day than by putting a canoe in a river and letting the current float you gently past the scenery. And unlike backpacking, you can carry a fair amount of creature comforts with you, like an ice chest or a lawn chair.
South of Interstate 70 and north of Lake Powell lie two great rivers, the Green and the Colorado. One drains Wyoming’s high country, the other carries western Colorado’s snowmelt. They meet in the heart of Canyonlands National Park at a place called the Confluence. Below the Confluence, the merged rivers combine their waters and drop into Cataract Canyon, a hellhole of scary waves, whirlpools and rapids that is actually quite fun when you spit out safely at the other end.
But this column is about the Green and Colorado stretches above the Confluence, where the water is mellow and anyone could safely have a great time. On the Green River side, you can put in at the town of Green River. If you just have a day or two, you can pull out 23 miles downstream at Ruby Ranch. If you have four or five days, it’s much more fun and scenic to float all the way to the Confluence. The river current, which slows as summer wears on, determines your speed, as does the amount of paddling you care to do.
The Green is composed of two stretches, Labyrinth Canyon, a long series of scenic river bends that drop you deeper and deeper between sandstone canyon walls, and Stillwater Canyon in the wild heart of the Canyonlands. There is also a way to shorten the trip by floating Labyrinth only, taking out at Mineral Bottom, or putting in at Mineral Bottom and floating through Stillwater down the Confluence. The only rub here is driving the Mineral Bottom road, which includes 20 miles of dirt and a 900-foot vertical drop in a mile and a half, a trip even the official government brochure says "may become impassable or just plain terrifying." I’ve been there, done that and truer words were never written.
The other option is floating the Colorado from Moab down to the Confluence, a shorter trip, equally scenic between the red sandstone canyon walls. It also has one option for shortening the trip, which is to skip past the put-in at the Moab city dock and launch 15 miles downstream at Potash. Plan on a day trip to get to Potash and three or so, depending on your pace, for the whole Moab to the Confluence stretch.
Both of these trips require plenty of planning and backcountry savvy. Some stretches require either a BLM or National Park permit. You also might wonder just how you get back to your car once you’ve arrived at the Confluence. At least two Moab outfitters offer jet boat shuttles for yourself and your boats. They’ll meet you at the Confluence on a given day and time, load everything on their sizable boats, and blast you back to Moab in a matter of a few hours. Then if you put in at the town of Green River, there’s the matter of how to get from Moab back to your car. Like I say, you need to plan ahead. You must do this in groups anyway, both for safety and the fun of it, so the thing to do is spend the day before put-in pre-positioning cars in Moab so you have a ride back to Green River. Logistics are much simpler on the Colorado River stretch, where you’ll both begin and end in Moab.
All camping is primitive. Fires need to be on metal fire fans. You must bring a toilet and carry out your you-know-what for disposal at a sewer plant. You’ll need to carry a gallon of water per day, per person, and of course, a cooler of beer.
Larry Warren is a writer, filmmaker and author who specializes in all things western.
Park City to Green River: 184 miles, to Moab: 234 miles.
Websites: http://www.discovermoab.com . Click on "River Activities" for more links.
Insider tip: If you can only spare a day, Utah’s most popular river float is the Moab Daily, a 13-mile stretch north of town passing through the Fisher Towers area. There are some rapids here so be careful in a canoe or use a raft. Rentals and shuttles available in Moab.
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