Prime Paddling on the Colorado

Breakneck Canyons Beckon along the River's Utah Section
  |  Gorp.com
The Colorado River
The Colorado River

The great American poet T. S. Eliot probably wasn't thinking about the Colorado River when he wrote "I do not know much about gods, but River is a brown, strong god," but his description fits Utah's biggest river perfectly. The Colorado runs brown and rugged through the southeastern quarter of Utah, cutting through deep sandstone gorges and ancient black metamorphic rock, creating huge rapids that surge over boulders washed into the river by flash floods. Several side canyons also enter the river, many of which offer interesting hiking possibilities.

The Colorado River flows for more than 200 navigable miles between Loma, Colorado, and Hite Marina on Lake Powell in the Utah section of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The entire stretch can be floated, although lottery-type permits are required for Westwater Canyon and Cataract Canyon, two of the river's expert whitewater sections.

Ruby-Horsethief Canyon

The uppermost reach, from Loma to Westwater, runs through Ruby and Horsethief Canyons, which local boaters often abbreviate as Ruby-Horsethief Canyon (see map). This is a relatively easy 28-mile float that can be done in one long day, although the trip is lazy and lends itself to soaking in the river atmosphere.

You don't need a permit for this section, although boaters are required to abide by Bureau of Land Management river regulations and must sign in at the put-in just outside of Loma. A BLM river ranger is generally on duty at the put-in during the peak boating season.

Black Rock Rapid, the only significant excitement on the Ruby-Horsethief stretch, is a fairly straightforward Class IIIII rapid, but it can be safely skirted by inexperienced boaters. The river narrows considerably as it passes through a rocky stretch just below Black Rock Rapid. This creates an unusual and often tricky series of whirlpools and eddies that can cause problems for canoes, kayaks, and small inflatables, especially at high water.

The best campsites and the best beaches on this stretch of river are also just below Black Rock Rapid. They're popular, but the beaches are large enough to accommodate several groups. It's a good idea to get there early. Below, campsites are a bit scarce and sometimes require scrambling up muddy banks and through stands of tamarisk and Russian olive trees to find a flat place to pitch a tent.

The black rock, by the way, from which the rapid gets its name, is Precambrian schist, the oldest exposed rock in Utah. The formation disappears shortly below Black Rock Rapid, but it reappears miles below in Westwater Canyon, squeezing the river through a narrow gorge and forming the most famous and challenging section of whitewater on this part of the Colorado.

The takeout for the Ruby-Horsethief section is at the BLM ramp at the Westwater Ranger Station.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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