Places and Tips for Local River Running
By Sean Zimmerman-Wall
“Water is the driving force of all nature.” Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit: “Mud in your Eye”- University of Utah Outdoor Recreation Program- Cataract Canyon
When John Wesley Powell set out on his epic quest to chart the Colorado River and its canyons, his expedition’s knowledge of what lay ahead was minimal and their equipment rudimentary. However, through shear will and enduring spirit, Powell’s team of adventurers made a harrowing journey that forever changed the American West.
The main portion of Powell’s voyage took place in the heart of the Colorado River Basin, the great state of Utah. Today, folks from around the globe make pilgrimages to Utah every spring and summer to experience the unique rivers the state has to offer. For most locals, these great treasures lay just outside their back doors.
From the northern reaches of Flaming Gorge to the arid canyons of the Colorado, there are a variety of rivers for nearly every skill level. Both kayakers and rafters can find a plethora of entertaining sections to hone their techniques and keep the adrenaline pumping. This guide divides the state into Northern and Central/Southern sections and outlines various types of equipment, necessary skills and outfitters to make the most of your river experience.
Now, before we go any further, rafting and kayaking can be extremely fun, but can also be extremely dangerous. It’s important to utilize all the resources at your disposal and feel comfortable with your float plan. American Whitewater is a national organization that lays out safety codes and rating systems to assist paddlers with their decision-making, and some of the information contained in this article comes directly from its guidelines.
American Whitewater designates rivers based on their difficulty level with a I–VI (one–six) rating. More detailed descriptions can be found at americanwhitewater.org.
Class I– Fast moving water with riffles and small waves.
Class II– Novice: Rapids are straightforward and usually wide.
Class III– Intermediate: Rapids are irregular and hard to avoid.
Class IV– Advanced: Rapids are intense with strong currents, but are predictable.
Class V– Expert: Rapids are long, narrow, violent and usually back-to-back.
Class VI– Unrunnable: Death is the most likely outcome. Virtually no rivers in Utah have this rating.
In addition to difficulty level, rivers flow at different levels throughout the year. Flow is measured in Cubic Feet per Second or CFS. It’s a measure of the volume of water flowing past any given point at any given time. CFS is usually at its peak in the early season (April–June) and lower in the late season (July–September). However, some rivers are dam released and may offer more consistent flows throughout the season.
The dramatic landscapes of northern Utah provide scenic vistas year-round. In the winter, they are covered in massive amounts of “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” but in the spring and summer the snow melts to feed some of the gorgeous rivers that run throughout. Flaming Gorge in northeast Utah is home to the Green River, a serpentine-like waterway that meanders through the beautiful red rock hills. Over millions of years, the Green has carved breathtaking canyons hundreds of feet deep all through the region.
The two most popular runs on this stretch of river are Gates of Lodore and Split Mountain Gorge. Gates of Lodore is perhaps the most majestic float in this part of the state. Technically, Lodore Canyon starts in Colorado just outside of Dinosaur National Monument, but it runs into Utah just outside Vernal. Lodore offers paddlers an unparalleled experience as the river winds through vermillion cliffs and desert scenery. A solid Class IV, this section of the Green requires you to be on your game. Also, due to the overwhelming popularity of this run, a permit is necessary. Split Mountain Gorge is another incredible section of the Green that enables river enthusiasts to marvel at the dazzling geography of northern Utah. This is a Class III float with a few named rapids that will keep you entertained at any flow.
Northern Utah also has some great rivers a bit closer to Salt Lake City. The Weber and Provo Rivers provide hours of excitement just around the corner. Flowing out of Echo Reservoir east of Park City, the mighty Weber is a Class III river that offers novice to intermediate paddlers a chance to test their abilities in a lovely mountain setting. The most popular section runs about six miles from Henefer to Taggart and has several named rapids that are sure to expose the thrill seeker within. This is an excellent section for kayakers to perfect their river style and work on basic maneuvering.
Photo Credit:“Last Choice”- Ben Napolitano- Weber River
The Boulder Garden presents a few challenges and the Croydon and Taggart Waves are fantastic surf spots. (Surfing is when a kayaker points their boat up stream, slides themselves into a wave and remains stationary as the water flows by; it’s quite a sensation.) At higher flows (1000–1900 CFS) this section provides an exhilarating float that is sure to clench a few buttocks. As the river runs down through Weber Canyon and into Ogden, it flows through the Kayak Park. This park was built in 2000 once the city realized its blossoming kayaking scene, and it offers hours of great Class II–III surfing and spectator enjoyment just off 24th Street.
Photo Credit: “Corona Glow”- Seanzilla- Weber River
The Provo River has its roots deep in the Uinta Mountains, but the section run most often is through Provo Canyon. Difficulty on this portion of river ranges from Class II–IV, with the guided portions averaging around Class II. Breathtaking views of Mt. Timpanogos and Bridal Veil Falls awaken the adventurous spirit and stir the soul. Moonlight trips are also available on the Provo and are a unique way to spend a warm summer night.
The rivers of central and southern Utah are wide, brilliant and represent some of the finest big water rafting and kayaking in the West. Winding their way through brick red canyons, the Colorado and Green Rivers attract paddlers the world over. Their earthen-colored waters provide days of challenge and excitement for enthusiasts of all skill levels.
Just east of Moab, the Colorado River crosses the Utah-Colorado border and begins its descent through Westwater Canyon. This Class III stretch of whitewater is home to some classic rapids that will quench any adrenaline junkie’s thirst for adventure. As the river flows westward, it rolls through Moab from Hittle Bottom to the town bridge. This section is know as The Daily and is great for paddlers looking to gain some experience on big water. After Moab, the river runs into Cataract Canyon, the quintessential Utah whitewater experience. This section is a solid Class IV and is not recommended for the timid or feeble. At high water (25,000–50,000 CFS) this stretch has some of the gnarliest paddling in the state. With rapids like Hell to Pay and Big Drops One, Two and Three, courage is a must. A guide is highly recommended for this section.
For those looking for a tamer way to experience big water, the Green River offers several Class I–I sections. Labyrinth Canyon and The Green River Daily provide and excellent platform for beginners to learn valuable skills on a calm and scenic float. But, once you’ve mastered your j-stroke and back paddle, head for Desolation Canyon; an extraordinary Class III stretch that will leave you with memories that last a lifetime.
Outfitters and Guide Companies
Adrift Adventures- 888-783-8923, adriftadventures.com
All Seasons Adventures- 435-649-9619, allseasonsadventures.com
University of Utah Outdoor Recreation Program- 801-581-8516, utah.edu
REI Salt Lake City- 801-486-2100, rei.com
Moab Adventure Center- 866-904-1163, moabadventurecenter.com
Western River Expeditions- 801-942-6669, westernriver.com
Red River Canoe Company- 435-259-RRCC, redrivercanoe.com
Canyon Voyages Adventure Company- 435-259-6007, canyonvoyages.com
Now that you know where to go and some outfitters to go with, here’s a list of items every paddle monkey needs in their arsenal.
Kayaker: Paddle, helmet, life vest, spray skirt and boat.
Rafter: Paddle, helmet, life vest and some sort of air-filled raft.
These items can be rented from nearly any outfitter statewide, and all guiding operations provide them as part of the package. For renting locally, visit the University of Utah Outdoor Recreation Program, which has Salt Lake’s best deals on gear rentals.
In addition to gear provided by the outfitters, there are a few companies that I’ve been particularly impressed with. For kayaks, Prijon (wildnet.com) and Wavesport (wavesport.com) make excellent boats that stand up to years of punishment. I’ve been paddling a Prijon Delirium for about six years and its unique hull design has proved versatile in all types of water. If you aren’t into hard shells and prefer an inflatable, NRS (nrsweb.com) makes a fine raft. Their duckies (inflatable kayaks) are durable, self-bailing and easy to pack in the car.
For life vests, Lotus Designs (patagonia.com) and Extrasport (extrasport.com) are my first choices. Their ergonomic construction makes an all-day paddle more comfortable, and their convenient pockets allow for ample stash space. As usual, Werner (wernerpaddles.com) is leading the industry in paddle innovation and they have the price tag to prove it. I recommend a Werner for experienced paddlers, but if you are just starting out, look into Carlisle (carlislepaddles.com). For shoes, try Chaco’s (chacousa.com) Pro Series Sandals which are available in a variety of styles and feature a Vibram Indro Grip outsole that’s designed for outdoor professionals and river runners. It has an anti-slip compound that holds on wet rocks and in slick conditions. Good places to pick up inexpensive gear are local gear swaps and craigslist. For more information on gear and river flows, check out eddyflower.com.