Prime Paddling on the Colorado

Cataract Canyon

Most Cataract Canyon trips begin at the BLM boat ramp at Potash, located about 15 miles below the U.S. Hirip begins on BLM land. Cataract Canyon flows through Canyonlands National Park and is managed by the National Park Service (see map). A permit is required to float Cataract Canyon.

Once you're rigged and ready to launch, get ready for two or three days of lazy floating. It's 49 miles from Potash to the confluence with the Green River, and four or five miles below that before the rapids begin. There's not a rapid to worry about the entire length.

But when the rapids begin, they do so in earnest. There are only about 12 miles of rapids in Cataract Canyon, but they're some of the most famous in the West and the biggest water this side of the Grand Canyon. Most boaters consider a high-water float on Cataract in May or June to be far more challenging than the Grand Canyon. The river isn't as fierce once the water drops, but it's still technically challenging. Cataract Canyon has been called "The Graveyard of the Colorado," so it should be obvious this is a run for experts.

The 25 rapids that survived the flooding of Cataract Canyon when Lake Powell was built begin about five miles below the confluence with the Green River, which enters on the right. A warning sign near the confluence tells boaters of the approaching rapids. Several Class III rapids appear for the next few miles, including the Button, which has been known to flip boats.

All these, though, are preparation for the Big Drops, a series of rapids given the rather unimaginative names of Big Drop One, Two, and Three. The obstacles that form Big Drop Three are two of the most daunting problems on the river, Satan's Gut and Little Niagara. Both are holes that are meant to be skirted, not run directly.

All of the Big Drops can and should be carefully scouted.

After completing the run through the drops, it's only about a mile until Lake Powell begins to reach into the canyon. A weak current will continue for awhile, depending on the time of year, but most boaters consider it essential either to bring along a small outboard motor, arrange with Hite Marina for a tow, or stash a small motorboat in one of the side canyons. There are about 30 miles of dead water between the start of the lake and Hite Marina, where most Cataract trips end, at least three days of constant rowing without motorized assistance.

Because of the length and difficult logistical problems of Cataract Canyon, it's a relatively costly float. Most outfitters charge between $500 and $900 for a Cataract trip, depending on the level of service they provide (some offer airplane flights back to Moab). Private boaters should figure on a cost of between $100 and $150 per person, because most groups consider it money well spent to have vehicles shuttled the 200 miles between Potash and Hite Marina.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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