Glen Canyon: A River ReturningJanuary 12, 2023
By: Jack Stauss
The impacts of a changing climate on the Colorado River have become front and center in the national dialogue. There is a myriad of complexities and issues that we as a community must address, and some huge challenges ahead for water managers and cities across the Southwest that rely on the wild, silty desert river. But this uncertain future is not without a silver lining.
If you’ve been tuned into the great environmental fights of the modern era, you may know what was lost when the Bureau of Reclamation built Glen Canyon Dam in the 1950s. Glen Canyon was many early river runners’ favorite section of the river, rivaling even the Grand Canyon. The playful current ran through 180 miles of pristine canyon country. Along the river, hundreds of mystical, beautiful side canyons led travelers to neon, sinuous wonders full of willows, birds, and maidenhair ferns. Edward Abbey once said that he had found the heart of the Colorado Plateau, and that was Glen Canyon. The silver lining of Lake Powell’s receding is that we are being given a second chance to see, explore, and ultimately protect Glen Canyon.
But how can we experience the place?
With Holiday River Expeditions
The first and most fun, way to see a returning Glen Canyon is to take a river trip. This not only allows for some great restored canyon hiking, but it also lets you experience the place as the previous generations of Glen Canyon explorers might have.
A Meander to Cataract Canyon trip is the gold standard here. Meander Canyon itself is much like Glen could have looked – stunning sandstone cliffs with a serene flowing river and amazing archeology. Then, running the rapids of Cataract provide the stark contrast of wild untamed whitewater. After Big Drop 3, the last rapid that survived Lake Powell, you are in the “restoration zone.” There are more than 20 miles of restored river here – with amazing riffles and rapids, great side canyon hiking, and evidence of a changing world in the Anthropocene – the Dominy Formation. Sediment banks are left high and dry by a receding reservoir.
Another canyon to run is the lower section of the San Juan. The last day of that float puts you right in the restoration zone, where you see the limestone Honaker formation transform into Wingate sandstone, with sinuous side canyons exposed.
As you travel below historic high water, your guides will also be a great resource. They spend years of their lives down there and can help you understand the amazing change in both the water and sediment. In terms of the guides and Holiday’s expectations, it would be good to discuss a chartered trip with the explicit goal of seeing areas like Dark Canyon and Clearwater, as it can change the logistics of the trip for the team at Holiday.
If you are an intrepid explorer, you can plan your own trip. The folks at Holiday and Glen Canyon Institute can help advise you on these if you need more information.
All travelers should practice Leave No Trace, and Visit With Respect principles.
Another way to see changes occurring in Glen Canyon is to do a backpacking trip. There are several trailheads out of the Hole in the Rock Road that can get you down to below high water, the most popular being Crack in the Wall via Coyote Gulch. Another excellent one is 50 Mile Canyon. In these canyons, one can expect bubbling annual creeks, towering sandstone walls, rock art, and interesting changes below the historic reservoir level. In places like 50 Mile, it is astonishing to understand what the reservoir once drowned, and what we are able to experience now. The way to know if you’re in the restoration zone is to have a GPS and see when you’re below elevation 3700 feet above sea level.
Speaking of GPS… Both of these require 7-10 miles of hiking each way to reach the historic high water mark. The trips should be treated as backcountry trips, and not to be taken lightly: bring a way to treat water, be prepared to transport waste out of the canyons, and follow trails whenever possible to limit impacts. Travelers should be well-versed in desert backcountry travel and should have a plan in case of an accident. Mapping tools are of the utmost importance.
On the Reservoir
The most efficient way to see restoring canyons is to use the current reservoir, Lake Powell, to either paddle or motor to sites of interest. This is less of a wilderness experience than the previous two, but still an interesting trip nonetheless and a good way to quickly get into places we once thought lost.
Most trips will start at the Bullfrog Marina. If you are going to paddle, canoe or kayak, there are a couple of canyons that are a reasonable day paddle away, like Moqui, Halls, or Lake. Each of those has great uncovered features that are worth exploring.
If you are able to rent (from the Lake Powell Marinas operated by Aramark) or launch a motorboat, you can travel further up or down the canyon. The Escalante Arm of the reservoir holds Cathedral in the Desert in Clear Creek Canyon, amazing arches and bridges in 50 Mile and Davis, as well as the Escalante Delta, to see what a returning river looks like. It’s a surreal, strange, and rapidly changing landscape down there. But, life finds a way – native plants are returning to the canyons, and we have an amazing opportunity to see the place anew.
For a reservoir trip, you can find water updates here. Like backcountry trips, travelers should be very prepared for changing conditions, primarily strong winds that can become very dangerous.
What to do with all of this
There are some good resources about this changing landscape. The Returning Rapids Project has been surveying the return of the river in lower Cataract Canyon and upper Glen Canyon and has published annual field binders to help us understand those changes. Glen Canyon Institute has been working diligently to document changes in the region. All of the work of these groups is to advocate for the landscape: to champion a future where we uphold natural values over trying to control the river in an unsustainable way.
Jack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide-open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free-flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at email@example.com or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram.