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You’ve probably heard the story. In 1869, a one-armed Civil War major named John Wesley Powell led a ragtag crew of mountain men and former soldiers 1,000 miles down the Green and Colorado rivers. Their goal was to explore the final “blank spots” on the U.S map, particularly the great unknown of what was then called Big Canyon. Wild rumors reported plunging waterfalls or that the river vanished into the earth.
On May 24, 1869, the ten-man expedition launched from Green River Station in Wyoming Territory in four wooden rowboats. Rations and equipment, expected to last ten months, were secured in the hatches. But three months later, only six emaciated men in two boats emerged from the Grand Wash Cliffs in what is now western Arizona. What had happened along the way quickly became the stuff of legend.
Today, the same rugged topography that once repelled early explorers is a world-famous adventure corridor through Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. (And the topic of my recent narrated guidebook, Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route.) While the route has become a boater pilgrimage due to its amazing whitewater, flatwater, and reservoir paddling, there are plenty of exciting ways to explore this dramatic landscape. Below are seven trips—with quotes from crewmen journals and Powell’s account—to help you discover why the 1869 expedition was one of the greatest adventures in American history.
Visit Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
“The river is running to the south…It glides on in a quiet way as if it thought a mountain range no formidable obstruction. It enters the range by a flaring red gorge.”—John Wesley Powell, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons
Welcome to Flaming Gorge. Straddling the Utah-Wyoming border, it’s the first major canyon encountered by the expedition. Today, 90 miles of the Green River are flooded by Flaming Gorge Reservoir. But plenty of stunning scenery remains above water level.
Instead of paddling the entire segment, day trips are possible from many access points. The launches and campgrounds near the Flaming Gorge Dam, like Mustang Ridge or Cedar Springs, are particularly popular. Or check out Dutch John Resort for cabins, guided trips, and boat rentals. A drive along UT-44 offers visuals of Powell’s flaring red gorge, while scenic trails can be found atop the canyon rim near the Red Canyon Visitor Center. For a remote experience, consider paddling beneath the Chimney Rocks in Firehole Canyon at the north end of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which Powell described as resembling architectural forms and strange statues.
Explore Red Canyon with Boots, Boats, or a Fly Rod
“All aboard, and off we go down the…beautiful river that increases its speed. The boats bounding through waves like a school of porpoise…we plunge along, singing, yelling, like drunken sailors, all feeling that such rides do not come every day.”—Jack Sumner (lead rower in Powell’s pilot craft, the Emma Dean), June 2, 1869
Today, with constant releases from Flaming Gorge Dam, plus the riverside Little Hole National Recreation Trail, you can have fun in Red Canyon almost any time of year. That said, late spring, summer, and early fall may be best, with several options for exploring the seven miles called A Section or continuing onward into B and C sections. Raft or kayak Class II+ whitewater, hike the trail, or take your fly rod on a guided dory through this world-class trout fishery.
Raft Whitewater Rapids in the Canyon of Lodore, Desolation Canyon, or Cataract Canyon
“[The river] grew worse until we came to the wildest rapid yet seen. I succeeded in making a landing in an eddy…But one [boat] with three men in it…went over the rapid, and though the men escaped with their lives, yet they lost…everything except shirt and drawers.”—George Bradley (lead rower of the Maid of the Cañon), June 8, 1869
Upon seeing the river enter a canyon between stone pinnacles that resembled gates, a crewman on Powell’s expedition suggested the name Canyon of Lodore. The early rapid that destroyed one boat became known as Disaster Falls. In total, it took the men ten days, with countless mishaps and portages, to descend 46 miles that today are a popular Class III trip through Dinosaur National Monument—a trip that’s now typically run in three to five days with modern equipment.
Several other options for whitewater rafting trips of similar lengths exist along the Powell route. For a few days’ float through Canyonlands followed by an exhilarating day or two of Class IV rapids, head to Cataract Canyon. For a five- or six-day trip with Class II–III rapids, plus amazing ruins and rock art, check out Desolation Canyon. All runs can be booked as guided trips through OARS and Sherri Griffith Expeditions.
Visit the John Wesley Powell River History Museum
“The river turned into a perfect hell of waters that nothing could enter and live. The boat drifted into it and was instantly smashed to pieces. In half a second there was nothing but a dense foam, with a cloud of spray above it.”—Jack Sumner, June 8, 1869
To see a full-size replica of the No Name, the 1869 boat destroyed in Disaster Falls, head to the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah. While there, check out exhibits about the expedition, river history, and famous river runners from the region. For the 150th anniversary, though October 4, a special exhibit includes a beautifully illustrated map of the entire 1869 expedition route.
Paddle and Hike Glen Canyon
“Past these towering monuments, past these mounded billows of orange sandstone, past these oak-set glens, past these fern-decked alcoves, past these mural curves, we glide hour after hour, stopping now and then, as our attention is arrested by some new wonder.”—John Wesley Powell
Most of Glen Canyon is flooded by several hundred feet of water behind Glen Canyon Dam. But much remains to be seen on Lake Powell, including many side canyons perfect for kayaks and paddleboards. For a half-day adventure, paddle west from the Antelope Point boat launch for one mile to access Antelope Canyon. You can travel about two miles into this side canyon and continue on foot to explore the dizzying slots. For novices, consider joining a guided trip out of Page, Arizona.
Other worthy sites are nearby. Stop by Glen Canyon Dam to see the colossal and controversial structure up close. Visit the famous Horseshoe Bend viewpoint and imagine Powell’s boats on their way to Grand Canyon. Better yet, join Wilderness River Adventures for a float down the 15 miles of Colorado River that still flow through the lofty heights of Glen Canyon.
Take the Trip of a Lifetime Through Grand Canyon
“We are now ready to start on our way down the great unknown…We are three quarters of a mile into the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above.” —John Wesley Powell
It was Powell who decided that the name Big Canyon didn’t do justice to the grand chasm they encountered. At the time, Mormon settlers had estimated this little-seen canyon to be 70 or maybe 80 miles long. But the expedition spent a month in its depths, toiling over a much longer distance. The exhausted men ran some rapids, lined others, and often portaged by humping the wooden boats over rocks. Bradley wrote on August 7, 1869, that the “constant banging against rocks has begun to tell sadly on [the boats] and they are growing older faster, if possible, than we are.”
In the end, what became Grand Canyon was 200 miles long. When combined with Marble Canyon, the entire distance between what became Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs in known territory was about 275 miles. Along the way, the team encountered more than 100 rapids, ranging from what we now categorize as Class II to Class IV–V.
Road-Trip the Powell Route
“The general course of the river is from north to south and from great altitudes to the level of the sea. Thus it runs from land of snow to land of sun.”—John Wesley Powell
If you’re curious about the Powell route but want to explore by road, consider this basic itinerary that parallels the Green and Colorado rivers.
Start in Green River, Wyoming, with a visit to Expedition Island, a national historic landmark near the 1869 launch spot. Drive south along the shores of Flaming Gorge Reservoir toward Red Canyon (activities listed above). The western route on WY-530 and UT-44 offers a detour on the Sheep Creek Geologic Loop and a high-ground vista of Flaming Gorge. If you take the eastern route on US-191, drop by Firehole Canyon or Antelope Flat to see the dramatic landscape from reservoir level.
After Red Canyon, head south through Vernal to Dinosaur National Monument, where the Green River emerges from the geologic paradox of Split Mountain. Bonus hikes and the fossil bone quarry will give you plenty to do.
Stop by the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah, on your way to Canyonlands National Park near Moab. In particular, the Island in the Sky district offers viewpoints above the Green River through Tower Park. It’s an area of ridiculous rock formations and spires that Powell named—and you should see. With a sturdy 4x4 vehicle or mountain bike, the 100-mile White Rim Road is an unforgettable experience (permit required).
Your next stop is Glen Canyon and southern Lake Powell near Page, Arizona. In addition to the spots mentioned above, consider Lees Ferry. Today it’s the launch spot for Grand Canyon river trips, but there are also several great hikes, including the thigh-burning Spencer Trail to the top of the Echo Cliffs, where you can view the growing crack that is Marble Canyon.
End your trip at the South Rim of Grand Canyon, with a hike on the Rim Trail and some views. Powell route pilgrims will want to visit scenic Powell Point, where a plaque commemorates the exploits of 1869 and a second expedition in 1871.