Essential Paddling Guide: Cataract Canyon, Sample The Best Of The Southwest's Rivers

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Cataract Canyon through Canyonlands National Park. NPS photo.

Editor's note: This is a special advertiser-supported article from the Essential Guide to Paddling The Parks.

It’s just two days on the river, but the section of the Colorado River that flows through Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park is one of the best not only in the West but in the entire country for whitewater aficionados and admirers of spectacular red rock scenery.

From the time your raft enters the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, until you reach Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, this outing through Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands will both infuse you with the joy of riverrunning and provide a solid introduction to the lore and history of canyon country.

Cataract Canyon, with more than two dozen Class IV-V rapids, is one of the iconic river runs in the Southwest. But Wilderness River Adventures’ trips through it are about more than just frothy, foaming, and leaping whitewater. The company’s guides will lead you into side canyons that dart off from Cataract Canyon to marvel at ancient stone granaries, petroglyphs and pictographs, and cliff dwellings that are relics of ancient civilizations. And they’ll verse you into more recent history that revolves around running the mighty Colorado.

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Wilderness River Adventures’ big rigs allow you to enjoy the scenery and hold on while the guide negotiates Cataract Canyon. / WRA photo.

Your day starts out mellow enough, with an easy downstream float to the confluence with the Green River as it drains south out of Wyoming, through Dinosaur National Monument, and into Canyonlands National Park. Here you’ll spend the night in camp 1,000 feet below the park’s Confluence Overlook, dining on fresh meats, seafood and vegetables.

After a breakfast that might include eggs, hashbrowns, toast, and coffee or juice the next morning, you’ll head into the maw of Cataract. You have little time to prepare yourself for running rapids, which are squeezed into a 14- mile stretch of raging water, as the very first, Brown Betty Rapid, is an impressive Class III.

It’s during the short lulls between the rapids that you have the time to step ashore into this landscape that so riveted environmental icon Ed Abbey. As you walk into the side canyons threaded into the sandstone walls, feel the sun on your back, and try to follow the flitting western collared lizards with your eyes, you’ll understand why Abbey so loved the Southwest.

You’ll also gain greater appreciation for the task Major John Wesley Powell and his band of nine men took on in 1869 when they became the first whites to navigate, over a period of roughly two-and-a-half months, the Green River from Wyoming into Cataract Canyon and through the Grand Canyon to present-day Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

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Unlike the major and his men, you won’t have to strain at the oars of wooden boats. Wilderness River Adventures’ trips through Cataract Canyon are aboard eight-passenger Motorized Snout Rigs that power you through the rapids. And you won’t want for food or drink, as the company provides a filling lunch and snacks and variety of beverages to keep you sated and hydrated.

After traveling through Cataract Canyon, you will be in the upper reaches of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and land at Hite Marina. From there you can extend your adventure by adding a scenic flight over Canyonlands back to Moab, or pick up your rig that was shuttled to the marina while you tasted one of the finest experiences the Colorado River offers.