The Colorado River is a major water source for the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, California, Arizona and Nevada, draining a significant amount of snowmelt water all along the western half of Colorado. The river begins at an elevation of about 10,000 feet MSL in the Rocky Mountains of Grand County, Colorado near Silver Creek on the western edge of Arapaho National Recreation Area northwest of Denver. From its headwaters the Colorado River flows west through Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, into Utah then down to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, where it begins to cut the Grand Canyon. The river then flows through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border before heading south along the Arizona-California border to its mouth at the Sea of Cortez. Along the way, the Colorado River flows more than 1,400 miles, mostly through three deserts.
Near the Colorado-Utah border is an excellent 17.6 to 22.5 mile run(depending upon which Cisco take-out you use) of Class I to IV whitewater known as Westwater. This section of the Colorado River flows through the high desert of extreme eastern Utah down to Cisco. One amazing feature of Westwater, and there are several others, is its year-round season which is very atypical for most Utah streams. The result is a very popular place to paddle, but crowds are somewhat tempered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permit system (see "Permit Requirements" below for details.)
Westwater Canyon is a pool-and-drop section with more pool than drop. Its rapids are exciting, but limited in number (about 11 significant rapids.) Over the past few years several drownings have occurred in the canyon. While most rapids are rated Class I to II+, there are five (Funnel Falls, Skull Rapid, Bowling Alley Rapid, Sock-It-To-Me Rapid and Last Chance Rapid) in the Class III+ to IV range that will challenge almost anybody, especially at high flows. The lack of continuous excitement is offset by the immense natural beauty of this desert setting. Trips begin at the Westwater Launch, a BLM-managed campground and river access in Utah, southwest of Loma, Colorado. A very large canyon of red sandstone welcomes paddlers, then transforms into a beautiful gorge of black gneiss, where the fun begins. While this is a popular section to run, boaters should have at least strong intermediate level skills at any level above normal.
Many people, probably most, run Westwater as a day trip while others run it as an overnight trip - it is only about 17-18 miles to the Upper Cisco Access. Excellent campsites are available within the gorge for those wanting to make this a 2 day affair, but they are pre-assigned by BLM rangers at the put-in on a first come basis (as are launch slots), so be there early (unless it is the same day I am coming there) Bring a camera, and secure everything that needs to stay dry inside either drybags or dryboxes lashed to your boat. Typically, daytrippers launch first followed by overnight trips starting at about 10 AM. Whether on a day trip or an overnighter rig to flip!
Grand County in far eastern Utah, northeast of Moab. To the east lies the Grand Mesa National Forest and Grand Junction, and to the southeast is Uncompahgre National Forest. Situated due south is the Manti La Sal National Forest of eastern Utah. IH 70 is the major road leading to the Westwater put-in.
Salt Lake City 250 miles; Moab 80 miles; Durango 218 miles; Grand Junction 45 miles; Denver 290 miles; Albuquerque 448 miles; Phoenix 548 miles; Oklahoma City 965 miles; Dallas 1,020 miles; Austin 1,140 miles; San Antonio 1,175 miles; Houston 1,258 miles; El Paso 710 miles; Little Rock 1,250 miles; Springfield 1,055 miles; St. Louis 1,138 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
This section of the Colorado River usually flows slow other than just before, during or right after it peaks, and will be somewhat muddy red in color, but much warmer than the mountain valley water in sections above. The river drops about 160 feet in about 17 miles from a starting elevation of 4,300 feet MSL. The water is not drinkable without purification. Peak flows of about 20,000 cfs usually occur in late-May or early June, then drop throughout the summer. Normal low flows are about 3,000 cfs, though flows around 1,000 cfs have occurred in recent years.
This section of the Colorado River has a year-round flow that is almost always adequate for paddle trips in this high desert region, though some sections can freeze in winter. Paddlers should expect cool nights in summer months and cool to cold nights in other seasons. Winter days will be cold, but much more tolerable than the mountainous sections above. Summer days can be downright hot, by Utah standards. Be sure to bring clothing for hot, cold, wet and dry conditions. Bring extra dry clothing in all but summer months.
BLM permits are required for all private boaters between the Westwater Launch and the Cisco Launch. As of 2003, the permit system now exclusively uses a call-in process, with applications being made at least 60 days in advance of your intended launch date. Details of the permit process for private boaters, according the the BLM Moab Office web site, are HERE. Please note that as of March 1, 2012, dogs will no longer be allowed on Westwater trips. Also, during October the Moab Field Office will allow seven, rather than nine, private launches per day. Only five of those launches will be authorized for overnight use in Westwater Canyon. See the BLM website at http://www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/recreation/river_recreation/westwater_canyon.html for more Westwater Canyon details.
Most of the rapids on the Westwater section of the Colorado River are routine Class I to III drops requiring little more than attentiveness and good paddling technique at low to moderate flows. However, difficulty escalates as the rate increases, and at flows over about 9-10,000 cfs medium sized rafts can be flipped by strong hydraulic currents below drops. Known as the Terrible Teens, flows at or above about 9,000 cfs create a whole new set of potential hazards due to the faster current, large hydraulics and more severe consequences for failing to maintain control. Kayaks and canoes should not attempt the river in high flows. BLM advises that flows above about 13,000 cfs can be very dangerous.
The major rapids start at Marble Canyon in the gorge, but there are some warm-up rapids between Westwater launch and Marble Canyon. Some of the Class III and higher rapids can pose problems for almost every paddler in high water conditions, and especially for those of lesser whitewater skills at any navigable level, but demand respect and attention at any navigable water level. In sequence from Westwater launch site are: Little Wild Horse Rapids (Class I to II), Little Dolores Rapid (Class III), Marble Canyon Rapid (Class III), Funnel Falls (Class III), Skull Rapid (Class III+ to IV), Bowling Alley (Class III), Sock-It-To-Me Rapid (Class III) and Last Chance Rapid (Class III).
Little Wild Horse Rapids (mile 3.7 - 5.0) is a series of easy Class I to II rapids that serve as a warm-up for the bigger rapids ahead.
Little Dolores Rapid (mile 7.8) is a generally straight forward Class III that gives a big ride, but is not particularly technical for experienced paddlers.
Marble Canyon Rapid (mile 8.9) signifies the entrance to Westwater Canyon and the start of the big rapids. It is an exciting, but not technical, Class III drop that, like everything above, can be boat scouted then run.
Funnel Falls (mile 10.0) is a short, technical rapid of surprising difficulty for the inattentive paddler, and is one that causes many problems for boaters. Funnel is most severe in high water conditions, and is responsible for putting many paddlers in the drink. The danger of swimming here is the close proximity to Surprise and Skull Rapids, the next two below Funnel Falls. Swift currents in high water conditions can carry swimmers downriver quickly into nearly continuous Class II rapids, possibly sending them into other larger hazards interspersed among the easier stuff before they can get out of the river.
Skull Rapid (mile 10.7) is the toughest hazard on the river. It sits about 3/4 of the way through Marble Canyon. Entering Skull can be deceptive, because the approach is an area of backed-up water leading to a river left boulder garden that creates the rapid. On river right is a sheer black gneiss wall. At the bottom is a large hole. The best line is usually run from right to left to avoid the hole, but your line will be dictated by flow conditions. At normal levels the run is not too difficult, but in low water conditions the left side, to which you should normally try to paddle, can be bony and full of small holes that can easily flip an inattentive canoeist or kayaker. At high flows Skull Rapid can test the skills of experienced boaters, and can flip large rafts. Skull Rapid can (and probably should) be scouted from river left.
Bowling Alley (mile 10.9) is a relatively straight forward Class III drop with a tongue to pull you through the rapid.
Sock-It-To-Me Rapid (mile 11.1) comes shortly after Skull. This is another boulder garden rapid with a large "V-wave" at the bottom, where the water collects as it slides through the boulders. This rapid is capable of flipping rafts, and can play havoc with canoes and kayaks, sometimes sending paddlers for an unexpected and unplanned swim. Sock-It-To-Me also has a strong current toward the left wall, which is locally referred to as "The Magnetic Wall", so watch out! When flows hits the "Terrible Teens" the wall usually causes more capsizes than the holes, but the wall should be regarded as an obstacle to avoid at ANY level below 6,000 cfs. Going to the eddy after the rapid can put you into the canyon wall before you know it. The best procedure is to not relax after the drop, but rather to immediately start pulling right. At high flows the usual recovery zone may be covered, and swims may be longer in duration. Scout for Sock-It-To-Me from your boat or from river right.
Last Chance Rapid (mile 11.3), the last major rapid on the Westwater Canyon run, is second only to Skull Rapid in difficulty. At very low flows it becomes a distinct double drop that requires exiting the first drop straight to avoid possible major problems at the second drop. Paddlers should avoid entering the second drop sideways.
The Grand County Sheriff's Office, (435) 259-8115, has search and rescue jurisdiction for Westwater Canyon. When an injury or illness is not life-threatening and transportation would not result in further injury, it is usually best to continue downstream to the takeout and drive the individual(s) to medical assistance. If the illness or injury is life-threatening, such as when body movement must be constrained, helicopter evacuation should be considered. In most cases, the injured party is billed for this service. Helicopter evacuation can be initiated by contacting either Life Flight - St. Mary's Hospital, Grand Junction, CO (800) 525-4224, Flight for Life, University of Utah Medical Center, Salt Lake City, UT (800) 662-0050, or Intermountain Life Flight, Intermountain Medical Center, Murray, UT (800) 321-1911. The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation (435) 259-3750 should be notified of any major incidents that occur on the river.
Westwater launch ranger station (N 39° 05'12.03" / W 109° 06'04.41") site about 5 miles ESE off IH 70, exit 227 (or exit 221) between Cisco, Utah and Loma, Colorado on river right at 0.0 miles; Upper Cisco Access (N 38° 58' 13.34" / W 109° 15' 00.94") on Boat Launch Road NE from Fish Ford Road on river right at about 17.62 miles; Fish Ford Road (Lower Cisco) Access (N 38° 55' 21.48" / W 109° 14' 49.26") SE from Boat Launch Road split on river right at about 22.54 miles. There are no other access points for this section of the Colorado River. There are dirt ranch roads that CAN be short-cuts for running shuttles, but avoid these if it has been, or is, raining. Getting stuck in the mud can cause you to miss your launch window.
The BLM operates a campground with five campsites that are available free of charge the night before launching on a first come basis at the Westwater launch site. Many primitive campsites can be found all along the river, and are pre-assigned by BLM rangers at the put-in on a first come basis, according to group size. Campsites within Westwater Canyon include (in order from top to bottom): Miner's Camp, Upper Cougar Bar, Lower Cougar Bar, Little Hole (across from Little Hole Canyon), Upper Little Dolores, Lower Little Dolores, Hades Bar, Big Hole, Big Horn, and Bald Eagle. Little Hole, both Little Dolores camps, Big Horn, and Bald Eagle are all suitable for large groups. Visitors are strongly urged to take every precaution to preserve the natural environment, including the use of firepans, packing out everything you pack in (including human and pet waste), avoiding soap or debris entering the river, avoiding damage to plants, animals or geology, and leaving only footprints as a trace of your having been there.
Contact the Utah Bureau of Land Management (435-259-7012) for a current list of authorized outfitters offering rentals, shuttles and/or guided trips on the Colorado River.
The Westwater section of the Colorado River is an ideal trip for anybody wanting to "get away from it all", and is generally well suited for beginner and novice paddlers in guided rafts, or intermediate or higher level whitewater canoeists and kayakers at low to normal flows. This reach becomes much more demanding, and is best left to rafting when flows hit the "Terrible Teens". The gorgeous sandstone canyon leading to the black gneiss gorge is awesome and spectacular. The high desert setting offers a year-round season, though water may be lower in summer months, or anytime during drought conditions. There are no river-related services available along this section of the river, and nowhere nearby to re-supply, so be sure to take along everything you will need including boats, paddles, PFDs (lifejackets), trash bags, food, drinks, clothing for warm, cool, cold and/or wet weather conditions and multiple vehicles so that you can set up your own shuttles, if not contracting from a licensed outfitter. Be sure to bring a camera to capture memories of a great wilderness trip on the gorgeous Colorado River. The one drawback may be the number of other paddlers sharing the river with you, but even that is not much trouble if everybody is respectful of others. Unless you are a highly skilled whitewater rafter or kayaker, avoid the river during peak flow season when it exceeds about 13,000 cfs.