Prime Paddling on the Colorado

Westwater Canyon
Gooseneck in the Colorado canyon country
Gooseneck in Colorado canyon country

The Westwater Ranger Station also serves as the put-in for Westwater Canyon (see map). Westwater is considered by most boaters to be the premier big-water run in Utah. It's much shorter and logistically much easier than running Cataract Canyon, the other high-adrenaline run on Utah's reach of the Colorado. This makes it a very popular run, and a private Westwater permit is a coveted item (permits are required year-round).

The Colorado generally peaks between mid-May and late June, sometimes reaching flows of 30,000 cubic feet per second or more. The higher flows usually make the float easier, because they tend to wash out the big rapids. The river is fairly forgiving at its lowest levels as well.

Mid-level, however, is what you have to watch out for. Depending on their state of mind, local boaters either dread or cherish Westwater when it flows between about 12,000 and 20,000 cubic feet per second, the so-called"Terrible Teens." This is when the river can be truly nasty.

The first seven miles of the trip is an easy, gentle float through wide-open country. There's generally a lot of bird life, especially Canada geese and great blue herons. About three miles into the float an old miner's cabin can be seen on the left bank.

About seven miles downstream, the Little Dolores River enters on the left, signaling an end to the easy boating. Little Dolores Rapid, a looping Class III run, begins just below. There's a good camp on the right at Hades Bar. Below Little Dolores Rapid on the left is the Outlaw Cave, where legends say two robbers hid for a year after robbing a bank in Vernal.

The canyon begins to narrow about a mile below Little Dolores, as the river is squeezed between the walls of Precambrian schist, a black, greasy-looking rock that gives this section an ominous cast. The river will drop more than 50 feet in the next 2.5 miles, its fall marked by the Class III and IV rapids that make Westwater famous.

Marble Canyon rapid (Class III) begins at the mouth of the side canyon of the same name. Just downstream is Staircase, a series of Class III standing waves. Both these rapids will be at least partly washed out above 10,000 cubic feet per second.

Next is Big Hummer, a Class III rapid on a right-hand bend that can produce extraordinary waves at high water. Immediately below Big Hummer is Funnel Falls (Class III), which can be a tricky run. The river takes a sudden drop between boulders, with a sizable wave train. Just below Funnel is Surprise, which gets its name for obvious reasons. Lots of unsuspecting boaters have found themselves swimming through Surprise after prematurely celebrating a successful run through Funnel Falls.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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