Wild Wild West

TRIBUTARIES OF THE COLORADO: Green River, Cataract Canyon, and San Juan River

Jul 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

The Green River begins in Wyoming, meets up with the Yampa at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument, and then continues rolling towards the Colorado where their meeting explodes into Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. Little known, the Green is a big river, with a larger watershed than the famed Colorado. When John Wesley Powell pioneered the Colorado River in 1869, he traveled 538 miles from Green River, Wyoming, to the junction with the Colorado River, hitting Green River, Lodore, and Desolation canyons in the process. "The Green River through Lodore Canyon is like Cataract Canyon or the Grand Canyon in that its geology is similar, but the difference is that it's farther north and higher in elevation, so that you get these desert rocks mixed with ponderosa pine, and more varied wildlife. It's the ultimate combination between high desert river and alpine river," says John Wood, co-owner of Holiday Expeditions.

Holiday Expeditions (1-800-624-6323, www.bikeraft.com)
Since 1966, Holiday has run trips on Utah's rivers. Their first trip on the Green is a four-day, 44-mile trip that begins at the Gates of Lodore, two 800-foot vermillion cliffs that appear as buttresses on either side of the river. "The trip as it's presented, with its side canyons and river history, comes the closest to what people expect a river trip to be," says Wood. The Gates of Lodore trip, an intermediate route ranging from Class III to IV, is appropriate for families. Trips run through mid-September from Vernal, Utah (180 miles from Salt Lake City), and prices start at $795. The second trip explores Desolation Canyon, a section 80 miles downstream with 60 rapids along an 84-mile stretch of river. Five-day trips are offered during the high-water runoff, but as the water levels drop and lose speed, the trip stretches to six days. Although the rapids are a bit smaller, guests usually cite practical factors, such as trip length, as the reason to choose between Lodore and Desolation Canyon. The Desolation Canyon trip meets in Green River, Utah (180 miles southeast of Salt Lake City), and begins with a flight upriver to the put-in, passing over most of the river sections to be run. The five-day trip begins at $893 ($693 for kids); the six-day trip is $960 ($760 for children).

Nestled deep in Canyonlands National Park, Cataract Canyon is the explosive meeting of the Green and Colorado rivers, and, at high water, is often touted as some of the biggest and most challenging whitewater in the United States. "Cataract Canyon is only second to Grand Canyon in terms of its splendor," says Steve Markle of OARS. "With its steep red rock walls, it has great side canyon hikes and tons of Indian petroglyphs." In May 2005, the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center predicted a 50 percent chance that the water will exceed 50,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) this year. The last time Cataract Canyon was over 50,000 cfs was when it hit 70,000 in June 1997.

Sheri Griffith Expeditions (1-800-332-2439, www.griffithexp.com)
In business since 1971, "our mission is to help enhance people's lives through outdoor adventure," says Arlo Tejada, of Sheri Griffith Expeditions. The difference between the four- or five-day mid- to late-summer trips is the type of boat that is used, as both trips cover the same 96 miles of Class III to V rapids. "The difference between the oarboat and the motorized J-rig is the excitement; the motorized is the safer ride, whereas the oarboat is more likely to turn over, and is a better place to see the action," says Tejada. The five-day trip also offers the opportunity to hike amongst Anasazi ruins and the popular Doll House deep in the park. Four-day trips are $790, and run until October; five-day trips are $950. Most guests travel to Moab and take the complimentary shuttle to the put-in at Potash, an hour west. A $104 scenic flight over Canyonlands National Park is offered from the take-out at Hite Marina back to Moab. Sheri Griffith Expeditions also offers a variety of trips on the Green and San Juan rivers, including Yoga and Massage journeys and a women's-only writer's retreat.

The San Juan runs 360 miles through Colorado and New Mexico before it empties into the Colorado River in southeast Utah. As a fairly mellow, Class II river, rafters are attracted more to the San Juan for its archaeological treasures, Anasazi ruins, geology, and history. "However," says OARS' Markle, "we do have the ability to bring oar rafts, dorries, and kayaks, which allows for a choose-your-own-adventure trip." Despite the large snowpack and high waters this year, the San Juan consistently remains a Class II, great for families, albeit a faster-moving rafting trip involving less work.

OARS (1-800-346-6277, www.oars.com)
In operation since 1969, OARS runs more trips on more rivers than any other outfitter in the world. "And with that expertise, we are able to set the standard in the industry," says Markle. OARS offers trips in not only far-flung destinations such as Fiji and the Galapagos, but also on other rivers mentioned here, such as Cataract Canyon and the Gates of Lodore on the Green River. Beginning in Bluff, Utah, 300 miles from Salt Lake City, the OARS trips on the San Juan are broken down into three-, four-, or six-day options. "Three or four days is a great introduction to expedition and exploration travel," says Markle. The six-day trip is the most comprehensive, starting at $940; the three-day trip is $640 and encompasses the beginning of the six-day trip, and the four-day trip, $776, concentrates on the second half. OARS trips log an average of five hours a day on the river, allowing for leisurely meals and more time in camp, reading, relaxing, or exploring.