The Virgin River forms as several forks in Kane and Washington Counties of far southwestern Utah in and around Zion National Park, then converge into the mainstream that flows down into Arizona in far northwestern Mohave County before flowing under IH 15, into Nevada and to its end at Lake Mead. The forks are the East Fork, North Fork, Right Fork, North Left Fork, South Left Fork and one or two others that apparently are nameless because they ran out of forks. None of the forks or the mainstream is lengthy, but they do pack a wallop into the short distance they flow.
The mainstream of the Virgin River forms near Coral Park Sand Dunes State Park in western Kane County, then flows west along the south side of Zion National Park through the Towns of Virgin and Hurricane in Washington County, turning southwest just past US Highway 59, where it then flows through St. George, down across the far northwestern corner of Arizona through Littlefield in Mohave County and into Nevada at its mouth at Lake Mead. Between Virgin and Littlefield the river flows about 49 miles on waters ranging in difficulty from easy Class I flatwater to steep and rough Class V whitewater with some Class V+ action at higher flows. Its short season lasts only from about mid-April through May, and the rest of the time it generally is not navigable. The area is very remote and very rugged, with some of the most scenic vistas to be found anywhere. Las Vegas is a short drive from the Zion National Park area, and if you are running this river, then you must be a gambler, so when you finish getting wet and betting your life on a river run you can hoof it on into Sin City and gamble away the rest of your money. They don't call it "Lost Wages" for no good reason!
Kane and Washington Counties in far southwestern Utah near the Arizona and Nevada borders down to Littlefield in Mohave County of northwestern Arizona. Las Vegas is about 2 hours to the southwest and Salt Lake City is about 5-6 hours to the north.
Salt Lake City 300 miles; Las Vegas 140 miles; Phoenix 318 miles; Flagstaff 180 miles; Albuquerque 594 miles; Durango 500 miles; Grand Junction 367 miles; Denver 613 miles; Oklahoma City 1,238 miles; Dallas 1,346 miles; Austin 1,336 miles; San Antonio 1,363 miles; Houston 1,522 miles; Little Rock 1,514 miles; Kansas City 1,500 miles (all distances are approximate, depending upon starting point, destination point at the river and route taken.)
Water quality is usually very good to excellent during the short season of navigable flows. The river needs a flow of at least 200 cfs for boating without dragging, and flows above about 500 cfs become dangerously high for the obstacles to be encountered.
As a rule, mid-April through the end of May is the season of navigable flow on the Virgin River. It is also the time of year when weather conditions are most favorable, leaving behind the cold winter, but not yet into the hottest part of summer.
The Virgin River is a pool-and-drop river full of boulder gardens, dead-fall strainers, and semi-steep gradients with swift currents, all of which can combine to present hazards to navigation. At the lower limits of navigability the river is rated Class I to II+ or IV-, but as flows increase difficulty raises a half step to a step, and the potential problems become more pronounced. The first few miles are generally on Class I to II water with occasional Class III rapids, but around St. George the river begins to intensify, with bigger drops and tighter lines. The middle 20 miles of this reach are the most serious, but significant hazards exist almost all the way to Littlefield. Boaters should have at least strong advanced level whitewater skills for boating the hair of this run, and access points for the easier sections can result in trespassing on private property, so boaters should familiarize themselves with all public access points in relation to difficulty factors to be encountered. Swiftwater rescue and First Aid training are advised. Mandatory portages will be in play for all canoeists on the bigger drops, and some kayakers will select that option, as well. Remember, discretion is the better part of valor. There are old paddlers and bold paddlers, but few old, bold paddlers. Good judgement, quick decision-making and precise execution are as important as whitewater boating skills on this very remote river.
WARNING: A relatively new weir dam with a drop of about 10 feet has been constructed just above the town of Littlefield, Arizona (see photo at right), and it is not visible until you are just about on top of it. It is located approximately three quarters of a mile down stream from the rapid know as "Big Ten", the largest rapid on this reach of the river. This hazard features a horseshoe cut in the middle that creates standing waves and a strong hydraulic current. Be VERY careful approaching and running this weir to avoid injury or death. Currently displayed Google Earth maps are too old to show this obstacle, and thanks goes out to Albert C. Douglas for the info and photo describing this hazard.
SH 9 at Virgin below the confluence of the North Fork at 0.0 miles; SH 9 in Hurricane at about 6.0 miles; SH 18 in St. George at about 21.0 miles; SH 18 in Littlefield, Arizona at about 49.0 miles. Other public access points may be available.
Quail Creek State Park, between SH 9 and IH 15 just below Hurricane, offers excellent campsites with and without water, restrooms, showers and other amenities. Watchman and South campgrounds, with excellent facilities and amenities, are available within the boundries of Zion National Park near the south entrance close to where the Virgin River flows. Snow Canyon State Park is located a few miles off the river northwest of St. George, offering excellent campsites with amenities; Gunlock State Park is just west of Snow Canyon State Park, and offers similar facilities. There are no public campgrounds located along or near the river below St. George. Natural campsites are available all along the river, but beware of camping on private property.
There are no known liveries or outfitters located on or near the Virgin River. Bring everything you need and run your own shuttles. Depending upon the length of your trip, shuttles can take from a short time to several hours, Plan your schedule accordingly.
What you you say about a river with a reach that spans the scale from Class I to Class V or V+? How about, "WOW!" Most of the real hair on this river comes at high flows, and the rapids are a more manageable Class III to IV other than in the peak runoff season around the first of May. However, the remoteness of the area demands that difficulty be given higher consideration because of the consequences of getting into trouble and not being able to get outside assistance. This river is very beautiful in an area that is equally as scenic and eye appealing. Bring a camera for the sections below Class III, but use it only from the riverbanks in the more technical parts of the river, lest you become the stuff of campfire stories told by survivors of your ordeal. Be sure to bring EVERYTHING you need, because services and supplies are not easily attainable from the river. Just be sure to be here between mid-April and late May if you want to paddle this river or its tributaries.