Swim the Desert

If you plan one big river trip this summer, make it Utah’s Cataract Canyon, where you can cash in on whitewater, red rock and solitude without all the hassle of a bigger endeavor.  

I woke up with sand in my mouth and eyes and pretty much everywhere else sand can get. My skin was pink, freckled and peeling, even though I spent every morning meticulously smearing sunscreen across my body. I had been floating through towering red walls and exposed rock falls for days. I was exhausted and having Instagram withdrawals from the lack of cell service I’d had all week. Little did I know, I was about to spend the afternoon swimming through two rapids. Despite all of this, Cataract Canyon was exactly what my soul needed.

Everyone always talks about the Grand Canyon as if it’s the end-all, be-all whitewater destination in the country, possibly the planet, but The Grand is not the only river trip, or even section of the Colorado River, with towering red rock walls, ancient ruins and Snap-worthy waterfalls. Opting for Utah’s Cataract Canyon requires much less time and financial commitment than doing the Grand, without having to compromise on adventure, meaning you can have it all. Nestled in the heart of Canyonlands National Park, the canyon encompasses 112 miles of some of the best scenery, camping, hikes and rafting in the Southwest. At high water, it’s often touted as some of the biggest and most challenging whitewater in the country.  It’s also one of the only canyons that remains in a state anywhere near as wild and powerful as when John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led a cartographic and scientific investigation of the Southwest, ran it way back it in 1869.

Photo courtesy OARS

If you plan to run it, check the conditions: The ever-changing flows can make the place a challenge, but that’s a big part of the draw. Cataract peaks at around 50,000 cfs on average, and occasionally approaches (and even exceeds) 100,000 cfs. (For perspective, the Grand Canyon typically flows between five and fifteen thousand, occasionally a bit higher). Basically, it’s so wild and free that you never know what you will get. During highwater, experienced paddlers delight in the huge waves and the famous big drops. In April, and then again from July through October, as the water levels go down, it becomes a great family-friendly run, with less intimidating rapids suitable for boaters with all levels of experience. But whether it’s running at 50,000 cfs or 2,000 cfs, floating the river is the best way to access the backcountry of Canyonlands. Here, there are no crowds or #vanlifers and you can play in places that would otherwise require a day’s travel in a 4×4 rental jeep, just to get to the trailhead.

After we put-in near Moab, the first few days of the trip consist of following the lazy river under landmarks like Deadhorse Point, Island in the Sky and the site of that infamous car scene at the end of Thelma and Louise. When I did the trip with OARS last summer, the guides brought inflatable kayaks and SUP boards so I was able to get out of the boat and feel as if I were actually contributing, rather than just riding along. The 100 miles between Moab and Lake Powell can be covered in a day if you take a speedboat through the rapids, but stretching it to a leisurely five days leaves time for hikes. Here, you have the chance to visit sites still held sacred for many indigenous communities (so show the proper respect), including ancient drawings left by natives 1,600 years ago. And the steep, loose hike up to the candy-colored spires of the Doll House, one of the most remote, hard-to-get-to hikes in Utah, is worth the effort.

The rapids complete the trip. At the point where the Colorado and the Green rivers converge, the Colorado doubles in size. When the canyon narrows beyond Spanish Bottom, the red walls draw closer and the river accelerates, churning up massive rapids—24 in 15 miles. Now the fun begins. This is what you traveled days to experience, so enjoy the ride and prepare to get soaked. I survived the swims and, yes, I would go back and do it all over again.

Photo courtesy OARS


Contact OARS. The four- or six-day trip ($1,549-$1,649) starts out low-key from its put-in near Moab, but picks up momentum below the confluence with the Green River, where rapids can be Grand Canyon-size in spring high water but still thrilling Class IIIs or higher by mid-August. The price includes tasty meals and snacks, dry bags and coolers for your own beverages. Bonus: From the take-out point at Hite Marina, a short van ride delivers you to group of small airplanes for the flight back to Moab. Don’t forget to tip your guides. oars.com

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