The legendary Colorado River is the final destination for most creeks and rivers surrounding us and forms the drainage basin for most of the Southwest US. The Colorado hosts many classic stretches of multi-day whitewater (and LOTs of flatwater.) We will only cover the stretches in Utah and Arizona closest to us, but there are many more miles of floatable stretches in Colorado, including Shoshone near Glenwood Springs and Gore Canyon.
This is the classic off-season multi-day in the area, due to its easy access and moderate length. Westwater is generally floatable from late March to late November most years. At only 17 miles long, this is a great overnighter, but can be extended by floating thru Ruby/Horsethief (see description below) just upstream to tack on another 1 or 2 nights. Putting in at the Westwater Ranger Station, you’ll be assigned a campsite. Most campsites are upstream of the main gorge, so for most parties, your first day will consist of easy Class II-III rapids. Just below the most popular camps, the gorge proper will appear and with it the larger rapids of the trip. Most are big water Class III with a flavor of Class IV in places. The crux of the run will come at Skull Rapid, where a large hole lurks center right. At higher flows, you’ll want to make sure you don’t end up in the Room of Doom just below Skull on the right. This turbulent, recirculating cove is extremely tricky (or sometimes impossible) to exit at higher flows. Don’t let your guard down after Skull however, because Sock It To Me, a steep V-Wave/Hole lurks 2 rapids downstream. This powerful rapid has a tendency to flip rafts, if not in the hole, then on the Magnetic Wall outcrop just downstream on river left. A few more rapids, and you reach the end of the action and a flat-water paddle out.
Ruby / Horsetheif
This stretch is a great beginner / family stretch, or as an extension to Westwater downstream. This 25 mile section is predominantly Class II and is very popular on weekends. There are numerous side hikes and great camping along the way (Blackrocks or Cottonwoods are the popular camps.) The only downside is the Amtrak railway that runs through the canyon that slightly detracts from an otherwise wilderness feel.
Below the Westwater take-out, the river flattens even further until you reach the Moab Daily stretch, which starts at Hittle Bottom. This stretch contains big-water Class II-III rapids, interspersed between long stretches of flatwater. Most of the action will come near Onion Creek, which is also some of the only good camping on the stretch. There are multiple put-in and take-out options on this stretch. The lower reaches below Big Bend are also very popular for paddle boarding. This is a gorgeous canyon that, despite having views of the highway on occasion, is a worthy day or overnight stretch.
Cataract is an amazing stretch of river that suffers from a bit of a bi-polar disorder. Out of the 112 miles from Potash put-in to the Dirty Devil takeout, about 85 or so miles are completely flat. From the Potash put-in (or Mineral Bottom on the Green River) the first 50ish miles to the confluence is completely flat, with amazing scenery and good side hikes in Canyonlands National Park. Most raft trips will carry a motor to help make progress on all the flatwater. Just below the confluence, you’ll come to Spanish Bottom, which is the start point to the amazing Doll House hike. Those not wanting to brave the rapids downstream can catch a ride back to Moab on a jetboat (make arrangements for a jetboat pickup before your trip).
Below Spanish Bottom, the gradient picks up and delivers you into the action. The rapids will generally start easy and get bigger as you go. At moderate flows below 25,000 CFS, most of the rapids are Class III with some Class IVs. Once the river gets over 30,000, consider this stretch to be Class IV and V.
Rapids 5 & 10 can sneak up on you and Rapid 10 has a world-class surf wave at flows below 10,000. Below Rapid 10, things pick up gradually until you reach the Big Drops, a set of 3 rapids that become some of the biggest whitewater in the lower 48 at high flows (Search for “High Water Cataract” on YouTube). The largest, Big Drop 3, is a very formidable drop even at low flows and should be scouted at all levels. Below Big Drop 3, rapids mellow a bit again, but don’t drop your guard, as these lower rapids are some of the longest and most continuous rapids. One of the final rapids (Rapid 28??) is a long wave train that culminates in a large wave/hole that will sneak up on you. The gradient abruptly ends below this near Gypsum Canyon as the river is inundated with the backwaters of “Lake” Powell. Camps in this lower section are few and far between, so camping near Gypsum Canyon is recommended. Dark Canyon is another option with limited camping and awesome hiking. The takeout is just a mile or so below the bridge at the Dirty Devil takeout on river right. This can be a mud pit depending on water levels, so plan ample time to de-rig. There is a small air strip here that can help make for a cool (and surprisingly affordable) shuttle. Contact Redtail Aviation for more info.
Lake Powell / Glenn Canyon
Buried under the waters of the reservoir (not a lake), is a lost treasure named Glenn Canyon. This paradise was lost when the reservoir was filled in the late 70’s, but one can still experience some of the magic of the canyon via the “lake”. While it may not be the wilderness seclusion it once was, Glenn Canyon is still a spectacular place with MANY side canyons to explore. The Escalante River Arm is especially spectacular, but many hidden gems can still be found in Glenn Canyon.
The Grand should need no introduction. It is arguable the most sought after river trip on Earth. The trip begins just below Glenn Canyon Dam at Lee’s Ferry. From here, you’ll float either 225 or 270 miles through one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Grand is epically spectacular and rivaled by no other. This place is magical to say the least. This is the river trip that all others are judged against. As soon as you launch, you’ll be bombarded with stunning scenery that only gets more spectacular as you go. The peaceful respite of calm water is often interrupted by rumbling, class big-water Class III-IV rapids like Lava, Crystal, Hermit, Granite and many many more. Even at high-flows of 40,000, things generally remain Class III-IV.
There are too many side hikes, attractions, and awesome camps to list out, but you’ll encounter several on almost every day of your trip. Classics like Deer Creek, Thunder River, Matkatamiba, Elves Chasm, Blacktail and many more will keep you entertained while off the water. Most trips will take the better part of 3 weeks to complete the journey, but it can easily be done in 10-12 in self-support kayaks. Trips will take out at either Diamond Creek (for an extremely exorbitant fee) or will venture through “Helicopter Alley” down to Pearce Ferry Take Out.