Backcoutry Pass: Rafting Utah's Desolation Canyon

YOU DON'T float the Desolation and Gray Canyons of the Green River for the rapids. You go for a blissfully mellow trip through remote wilderness. During a trip down the Green one recent fall, an old friend and I didn't wear life jackets or get our feet wet for eight days. The life-jacket part I don't recommend, but the rest I do: We floated 84 miles through the Uintah and Ouray Reservation from Sand Wash to the takeout near Green River, Utah, eating lunch on the raft and passing the yellowing cottonwood leaves and the sweet-smelling tamarisk in various shades of yellow, brown, orange, and salmon.

The Beta

Time Required: 5-8 days
Length: 84 miles
Best Time to Go: Autumn
November Temp: Day: 40s-70s/Night: 20s-50s
Level of Difficulty: Easy (with moderate to strenuous day hikes)

When Edward Abbey floated the Green in November 1980, he wrote that this was "one of the sweetest, brightest, grandest, loneliest of primitive regions still remaining." Late fall is still the best time to go, in my opinion: The nights are frosty and there may be patches of snow in the shade, but the days are warm and (most of the time) you can get by wearing just a T-shirt and long pants. You can eat well; on an oar-rigged raft trip you don't need to skimp on gear or rations. You can also camp on ample silt banks and and hike up side canyons to look for tracks of bear and mountain lion, or scout for 1,000-year-old petroglyphs left by the Fremont Indians.
After Three Fords rapid, at mile 59, you pass out of Desolation Canyon and into shallower Gray Canyon. Look upriver here and you'll see a great contrast between the red-stained Wasatch formations you're leaving behind and the low, rounded, gray-green hills of the Mesa Verde Group ahead. The mild rapids turn to riffles and become fewer and fewer from here to the takeout.

Rapids: More than 60 rated Class I, II, or III.

Runnable Water Levels: 1,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second.

Permits: $18 per person, required year-round. Apply to the Bureau of Land Management Desolation Canyon River Unit, 435-636-3460. Another permit is required to camp or hike on the river's left bank from mile 7.5 to 70, which has restricted access controlled by the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Apply to the Tribal Office, 435-722-5511.

Logistics: Drive your gear to Sand Wash, the put-in beach, via the 50-mile-long Forest Road 5550 (a left off U.S. 40/191 one mile south of Myton, Utah). Unload here, and then drive to the takeout at the town of Green River, Utah. Leave the car and hop an air shuttle ($100 per person with Arrow West Aviation, 435-259-7421) back upstream.
Getting Outfitted: Western River Expeditions in Moab rents rafts equipped with oars for $95 per day (435-259-7019). Adrift Adventures (800-874-4483; and Sheri Griffith Expeditions (800-332-2439;, also based in Moab, will outfit five-day trips in November for $690–$725.

Don't Go Without: The waterproof Desolation River Guide.

Best Campsite: Jack's Canyon, at mile 24 on river right (facing downstream), is a wide, sandy beach under a grove of cottonwoods with massive, gnarly trunks. Sleeping quarters are beds of dry alder leaves—no tent. Heavenly.

Best Side Hike: Rock Creek Canyon, at mile 41 on river right. Look for the former homestead built of hand-carved sandstone. Hike up the spring-fed creek, where brook trout thrive. Fremont petroglyphs are on the right a short hike into the canyon.

Filed To: Utah
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