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.
From Moab to Hite Marina on Lake Powell is about 112 miles of everything that is special about this high desert Utah plateau with its majestic sandstone canyons. For starters, the area is VERY remote. Upon departing Moab you will see few people and no signs of civilization until near the end of the trip. Other paddlers may or may not be on the river, depending upon the time of year and access point you choose to begin your trip. There is only a single intermediate access point at Spanish Bottom where Lower Green River trips ends. It is just you and Mother Nature in a deep canyon on a gorgeous river where navigable flows are usually year-round. Winters will be bitter cold, and summers will be very hot during the day, then cool to cold at night. There are plenty of places to camp along the river, and spectacular side canyons offer excellent opportunities for exploration, but watch out for rattlesnakes if walking or climbing around rocks. They are here, and they WILL bite! This might be a good time to advise you to throw away those worthless snakebite kits (other than the Sawyer Extractor - see the safety section of this guide for information on preventing and treating snakebites) that usually cause amputations or serious infections, and do little to actually help with the problem. And, even the Sawyer is of very limited effect unless used within the first three minutes after a bite. But, very few people are ever bitten by snakes, and this run is not prone to snakebites, so just use caution and avoid the possibility.
This run begins in southcentral Grand County near the Colorado state line, and ends at Hite Marina on Lake Powell in southeast Garfield County, between the magnificient Cataract and Glen Canyons. Above the Green River confluence you can expect Class I flatwater flowing through gorgeous red sandstone canyons towering 2,000 feet or more above the river. The 46 miles of Cataract Canyon, with 28 rapids in about 14 miles (most of which are in the Class III to IV category with a couple of Class V's at high water levels), begins about 5 miles below the Green River confluence and ends near the Dirty Devil River confluence. Once you start the whitewater run the river is swift and the rapids come one after the other over a short distance. When flows exceed 40,000 cfs (the annual high flow is usually around 45,000 cfs) holes are created that can flip large rafts like a piece of paper. The major drops are called Brown Betty, Mile Long (which includes five major rapids: Capsize, Powell's Pocketwatch, Ben Hurt, Satan's Gut, and Big Drop with its three drops of about 30 feet in one mile, and are to be taken very seriously. They are usually the most severe in May and June, but become a little more manageable starting in July, when the river drops. Frank Zappa said, "...the crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe..." The apostrophe on this trip is the distance from the end of the whitewater to the Hite Marina take-out, where you can expect to encounter about 30 miles of dead-water paddling into strong headwinds. Many paddlers opt to pre-arrange a motorized river taxi with the people at Hite Marina, while others do raft-supported trips and take along a motor to power the raft across Lake Powell to the take-out. Fortunately, the trip to that point makes the difficult effort at the end well worth it. Paddlers need to be self-sufficient and self-reliant wilderness boaters and campers who understand the risks, and are prepared to deal with them, to truly enjoy this wonderful and very scenic reach of the Colorado River where few will ever visit.
Grand and Wayne Counties in far southeastern Utah, southwest of Moab. Situated due south is the Manti La Sal National Forest of eastern Utah. US Highway 191 in Moab and US Highway 163, running through Mexican Hat are the only major roads in the general area. US 191 crosses US 163 just east of Mexican Hat and southeast of Canyonlands National Park, which is acessible via SH 313 off US 191 a short few miles northwest of Moab.
Salt Lake City 240 miles; Grand Junction 110 miles; Durango 192 miles; Denver 356 miles; Albuquerque 368 miles; Phoenix 463 miles; Oklahoma City 939 miles; Dallas 1,140 miles; Austin 1,100 miles; San Antonio 1,008 miles; Houston 1,250 miles; Little Rock 1,297 miles; Kansas City 962 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is usually very good to excellent except in summer, when it is good to very good. Flows are almost always adequate for boating, weather permitting. The river becomes very dangerous in high water conditions, and the lack of access, as well as increased difficulty of rapids, makes it necessary to be prepared for whatever happens along the way. A good rule of thumb would be to expect the worst and hope for the best. Flatwater sections may freeze in winter.
This section of the Colorado River has a year-round flow that is almost always adequate for paddle trips in this high desert region. Optimum flow conditions are typically from May through early- to mid-June in normal precipitation years. 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 in Colorado. Summer days can be downright hot, by Utah standards. Be sure to bring clothing for hot, cold, wet and dry conditions.
Boating below the Green River confluence requires a permit from Canyonlands National Park. Permits are issued for a season beginning on the first business day in January on a first-come basis. Canyonlands National Park now charges a $30 reservation fee plus $20 per person fee for the river permit, and group size is limited to a maximum of 40 persons. For information and permit applications contact the Canyonlands National Park office at 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab, UT 84532-8000, (435) 259-4351, or visit their web site (this permit can also be obtained from the BLM Price Ranger District by using the Recreation.gov website.
Most of the rapids on the Moab to Lake Powell reach of the Colorado River are routine Class I to II drops requiring little more than attentiveness and good paddling technique. However, Class III to IV rapids, some of which can rise to Class V in highwater conditions, begin about 5 miles below the Green River confluence at Cataract Canyon. The river is swift, and the rapids come one after the other over a short distance. When flows exceed 40,000 cfs (the annual high flow is usually around 45,000 cfs) holes are created that can flip large rafts like a piece of paper. These drops, which are located in a 14 miles section of the river starting about 5 miles below the Green River confluence, are called Brown Betty, Capsize, Powell's Pocketwatch, Ben Hurt, Satan's Gut, and Big Drop (3 consecutive drops that descend over 30 feet in one mile), and are to be taken very seriously. They are usually the most severe in May and June, but become a little more manageable starting in July, when the river drops. Open canoes should be equipped with floatation, and possibly spray covers to prevent swamping. Paddlers should have swiftwater rescue training and at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills.
Moab off US Highway 191 (N 38° 36' 17.01" / W 109° 34' 51.82") on river right at 0.0 miles; Spanish Bottom (N 38° 09' 36.70" / W 109° 55' 47.43") on river right at about 67.25 miles; Hite Marina (N 37° 52' 22.88" / W 110° 24' 01.92") on Lake Powell at about 112.0 miles (permits are required from Canyonlands National Park for runs below the Green River confluence - see notes in the "Permits" section below, and the statistics box at the top right.) There are no other access points for this section of the Colorado River.
Many primitive campsites can be found all along the river. 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.
There are several liveries or shuttle services operating on or near this section of the Colorado River who may be able to provide guided trips, rentals, outfitting and shuttles. Ask local paddlers or BLM rangers (435-259-2100) for advice.
I LOVE THIS TRIP! For me, wilderness tripping on a whitewater river is NEARLY as good as, well, just about anything! The canyons of this run are awesome compared to most rivers I have paddled. The geology along the way is, to me, more beautiful than the Grand Canyon because of the much closer nature of the walls along most of this trip. You get a real perspective of where you are in relation to the world you left behind when you came to Utah to paddle the Colorado River. You WILL be required to obtain a free permit from Canyonlands National Park before paddling the river down to the Green River confluence. As of March 31, 2011, a reservation fee of $30.00 plus a river permit fee of $20.00 per person is required for trips below the Green River confluence.
There are actually several options for a Cataract Canyon trip: start at Moab and continue to Hite Marina, start at Spanish Bottom (with a jetboat taxi ride to get there) just below the Green River confluence and go to Hite Marina, or start somewhere on the Green River and go to Hite Marina. It's all beautiful, so any option is perfect, and other than Cataract Canyon the rest of any trip is relatively easy with Class I to II rapids and a lot of flatwater, scenic canyons and usualy beautiful skies. It can get hot in summer and very cold in winter, so come prepared.
There is just no way to get outside help in the event of an emergency, so a first-rate First Aid kit (or two) is strongly recommended. A camera is an absolute necessity, but carry it in a waterproof, bump-proof case (I prefer Pelican cases) to protect it from damage when not in use. A helmet camera would be ideal if you are paddlding or oaring the river through the rapids because you will not have time to take photos with your hands if you want to keep the boat up right and stay inside it, not that having yuor hands on the paddle or oars will make that happen.
April to mid-May and July through October are usually the best months for normal flows. Mid-May through June can bring the highwater season where several rapids reach class V status. The entire trip can be done in 4-5 days by most boaters, depending upon how fast you want to paddle, how well the river is flowing and how much time you want to spend exploring the riverbanks and side canyons along the way, but you might want to spend a little more time appreciating the wonderous beauty of this magnificent river and its canyons. Canyonlands National Park allows up to 14 consecutive nights on their permits.