By: Justin Malloy
In contrast to the Green River, where John W. Powell named the canyons during his 1869 and 1871 voyages, the canyons of the Colorado River experienced a less formal naming process. As Europeans settled the West, many of the names they gave to places were informal and exchanged by word of mouth, therefore frequently changing over the years until the maps being made became more widespread and consistent.
The following boat names have been used multiple times throughout Holiday’s history. Call us superstitious, but there is something about having a “Ruby” or a “Meander” as part of the fleet. Our company was founded on running trips in these places and they remain some of our most traveled stretches of the river. Without them, we literally wouldn’t be here, so it’s only right to pay homage to them when we can.
Ruby Canyon is the second half of a scenic 25-mile stretch of flatwater on the Colorado River, just upstream of Westwater Canyon. Known for its varied geology, calm water, and pleasant side hikes, Ruby begins where Horsethief Canyon ends at the Rattlesnake Monocline, an impressive bend in the rock strata at mile 141.5. It is home to a frequently used section of the Union Pacific Railroad and many of the early explorers of the area were surveyors. The famed Kokopelli Trail traverses atop the smooth red rock cliffs that form the canyon and from which it earned its name (Ruby = Red). The Colorado-Utah state line is in Ruby Canyon at mile 131.5. The canyon ends rather abruptly, as Ruby’s walls fall away and open up to a small fertile valley.
The Westwater Ranger Station lies just after the end of Ruby Canyon. Immediately behind the ranger station is a large plot of farmland in a small, fertile valley known as Westwater Ranch. Union Pacific engineers took this first occurrence of open, flatland to turn the railroad tracks west and exit the river corridor. There you have the origin of the name “Westwater”: where the railroad turns west away from the water. The river meanders by this farmland for three miles before entering Westwater Canyon proper.
Once the river passes the ranch property, sandstone cliffs emerge followed closely by outcroppings of Vishnu schist, with the latter quickly becoming the canyon walls on both sides as the first tastes of whitewater appear. On the river-left shore immediately after this first rapid is a small dugout cabin. Known as the Miner’s Cabin, it was built by a young man by the name of Owen Malin in 1918 and was used for placer mining for gold. Unfortunately, Owen was not successful in his endeavors.
Westwater is characterized by the striking Vishnu schist, a shiny black rock which, at 1.8 billion years old, is some of the oldest rock exposed above ground in the world. In addition to Westwater, Vishnu schist is exposed in the Grand Canyon and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. In all three instances, this rock creates a narrow canyon with frequent tumultuous rapids. This is especially true in Westwater, as the 11 fun, splashy, technical class 3-4 rapids come one after another in a short 3.5 mile stretch, where the canyon walls themselves are as narrow and dramatic as they can get. After the whitewater, the canyon continues for a few more miles before the schist retreats under the Earth’s crust and gives way to sandstone walls, ranch land, and meandering flat water.
The typical takeout location for Westwater Canyon trips is just outside the town of Cisco, Utah. Originally built as a waystation for the railroad, Cisco saw multiple boom periods from early tourism, ranching, and Uranium mining, but by the time U.S. Interstate 70 was built a few miles to the north, the town was slowly abandoned and is now considered a ghost town.
When Holiday was founded, Dee made himself a busy man. Every week he could, he would run a trip down Cataract Canyon Monday-Friday and then a Westwater trip over the weekend. After hopping off Cataract, he would head back to the warehouse to unpack, clean up, and prepare for a weekend Westwater trip. The following morning, he would meet his guests in Cisco at Ethyl’s Cafe (hopefully in time for breakfast). This tradition carried on through Holiday’s early years until Ethyl’s closed and most of Cisco had been abandoned.
After the town of Cisco, the river flows through open country and the scenic stretch near Moab known as Fisher Towers or the Moab Daily. It passes Moab and the uranium tailings pile north of it (a story for another day), before entering what is known as “The Portal”, a stretch of red rock sandstone cliffs popular for climbers, hikers, and off-road enthusiasts. Eventually it reaches mile 47 of the Colorado, known as Potash, which marks the beginning of Meander Canyon. This is where the majority of Cataract Canyon trips begin their voyage.
Near the boat ramp is a processing plant for potash, a material mined from the Paradox formation and used in fertilizers. Across the river from the plant is an abandoned meander, which is a place where the river used to flow, typically in a bend, that has been abandoned by the river as it carved a straighter course. It’s possible this is how the canyon earned its name, however, as any boater will attest, the river through Meander Canyon certainly takes its time as it winds and bends through some spectacular scenery.
This canyon is home to many fascinating hikes and historical sites, including a collection of petrified wood, indigenous granaries and rock art, spectacular viewpoints, and, during the spring runoff, even waterfalls. There has been a fair amount of mining activity in the area as well, including in 1925 when some industrious gentlemen dug a 5,000 foot well until it struck oil, subsequently catching fire and gushing 1,000 or more barrels worth of oil into the river every day for six months.
After 47 miles of meandering, the river reaches the confluence with the Green River and so marks the start of Cataract Canyon.
Originally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.