By Susan Munroe
Utah’s Green River through Labyrinth Canyon is the ultimate in relaxing river trips. Smooth orange walls encase a tranquil, lush river corridor, studded with sandbars and enchanting side canyons. There are no rapids on this trip, and that is exactly why it’s so good. The scenery is the main attraction; the calm and quiet are the main event. The river carries you softly through a landscape that grows more beautiful around each bend, leaving you free to stare, marvel, wonder, and absorb. This is a rare trip, well-worth doing. Talk to Holiday about spending five days in Labyrinth Canyon and discover why sometimes it’s better to skip the rapids.
Perfect for: hiking enthusiasts, people looking for a calm, relaxing float, stand-up paddleboarding, history buffs, families with young children (ages five and up); custom charter trips available for groups of 12 or more.
Labyrinth Canyon Highlights
There are two places this trip could begin. The longer option starts from the Green River State Park and lets you float under Interstate 70 and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad bridge. Spend a day winding through the eerie badlands of the Green River Desert, a purple and gray prelude to Labyrinth itself. Or, launch 24 river miles downstream at Ruby Ranch, where buff- and gold-colored sandstone rises out of the river. Wherever you begin, the river is calm and smooth. This is a trip for people who relish the idea of having no schedule, nowhere to be, and nothing to do except float, hike, and contemplate the continually unfolding majesty of time-worn sandstone. Swim alongside the rafts, dragging your toes along the sandy bottom, or explore along the edges of the river on a stand-up paddleboard. There’s history everywhere along the banks. Ranchers, homesteaders, and miners carved rough lives out of this canyon, and left behind their cabins, hand-hewn roads, and equipment. Early river runners carved their names in the walls alongside much older indigenous rock art. More than history, however, there is nature. Groves of cottonwood trees and Gambel’s oak mix with willows and tamarisk along the shoreline. Birds riot through this thick riparian vegetation. Great blue herons, peregrine falcons, beavers, big horn sheep, and deer all inhabit this corridor. Several side canyons have perennial streams, complete with minnows, crayfish, and cattails. And above all of this are the canyon walls, which grow ever higher as you move downstream. Smooth, unbroken slopes transition into blocky cliffs, with pillars and pinnacles jutting out beneath the pale domes of the uppermost rock layers. Far from any source of light pollution, Labyrinth lies beneath some of Utah’s darkest skies, making it an ideal place to view the cosmos.
Only in Labyrinth:
- Canyon walls completely dominated by Wingate Sandstone.
- Groves of Gambel’s oak trees.
- Inscriptions from historic figures such as Norm Nevills, Buzz Holmstrom, the Kolb brothers, and Denis Julien.
- Totally calm water, with no rapids.
- Remnants and artifacts from the uranium boom of the 1940s.
- Pass the mouth of the San Rafael River, one of the Green’s tributaries.
Labyrinth’s signature rapid:
It isn’t always about whitewater. A river trip is about so much more than adrenaline. No other Utah river trip offers such simplicity and grandeur at the same time as Labyrinth Canyon, without even a single riffle to interrupt.
Best known for:
Calm water and good beaches beneath massive orange, red, and gold sandstone cliffs.
The Holiday Way: Preservation
The first line of Holiday’s mission statement is worth noting: Holiday River Expeditions’ goal is to preserve our nation’s wild lands. It’s not just about money, or providing the most fun river trip possible. It’s bigger than that. We recognize that our business couldn’t exist without these wild lands, and beyond that, we believe strongly that wild places are critical, not only for the health of our planet, but for the health and well-being of our species.
In March 2019, Labyrinth Canyon was given official status as a protected wilderness area—or at least, the west side of it was—as part of the Emery County Lands Bill, an omnibus public lands package that sought to strike a compromise between advocates for wilderness and advocates for more access and development. Holiday celebrates the permanent protection of the western side of the Green River through Labyrinth. But in keeping with our mission, we’ll continue to advocate for thoughtful, far-sighted land management strategies: in Labyrinth, and anywhere else we see the need to speak and act on behalf of our nation’s wild lands.
- Crystal Geyser: step off the rafts onto terraces of bright yellow mineral deposits and check out the short pipe that’s always bubbling over with cold, mineral-laden water. Maybe you’ll get lucky and be there during one of the geyser’s rare eruptions.
- McCarty Bottom, where ranchers, homesteaders, and Native Americans have all left artifacts to explore.
- Trin-Alcove Bend: follow a perennial stream up the longest of three canyons that come together at a picturesque bend in the river.
- The River Register, a short scramble up a rock fall to examine dozens of historic inscriptions and other modern rock art.
- Hey Joe Canyon: hike up a dry wash into the Chinle rock formation and examine the remains of a uranium mine.
- Bowknot Bend: climb to a low saddle in the canyon wall for spectacular views of the river sweeping around in a huge bowknot to arrive just a few hundred feet from where it started.
- Hell Roaring Canyon, one of two places where the elusive and infamous French-Canadian fur trapper, Denis Julien, carved his name.
Starting and Ending Points
Meet in the town of Green River, Utah. Hop in the vans for the quick, three-minute ride to the Green River State Park or take the longer but more scenic trip down Floy Wash to Ruby Ranch. Wherever we start, the river wanders mostly southwest, taking time to enjoy the view on its way toward Canyonlands National Park. We’ll take out just before the national park boundary at Mineral Bottom. The drive out of the canyon may be the most adrenaline-producing part of the trip, along a road literally carved out of the side of a cliff! Once we reach the rim of the canyon, it’s a two-hour drive back to Green River, skirting north and west around the deep chasm through which we’ve just been floating.
- 68 river miles from the Green River State Park
- 44 river miles from Ruby Ranch
- May–September (scheduled upon request)
- Spring runoff can peak anywhere between 15,000–45,000 cubic feet per second (CFS)
- Summer flows can get as low as 1,000 CFS, but frequently hover between 2,000–8,000 CFS
- Required, administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. Available from the Green River State Park or the BLM website.
- Most of the land between Green River and Ruby Ranch is privately owned.
First Known Descent of Labyrinth Canyon:
Major John Wesley Powell gets the credit for being the first white man to travel the length of Labyrinth Canyon, as well as Desolation and Gray canyons above, and Stillwater and Cataract canyons below. A one-armed civil war veteran, he named Labyrinth and many of its side canyons and features in 1869 as part of a larger trip that explored and mapped the Green and Colorado rivers from Green River, Wyoming, through the Grand Canyon.
Denis Julien, however, was a French-Canadian fur trapper who traveled along the Green River in the 1830s and left his name on rock walls as far north as the Uinta Mountains and as far south as lower Cataract Canyon. It’s unclear whether Julien floated through Labyrinth Canyon by boat, although some of his mountain man contemporaries were using round “buffalo boats” to navigate the upper Green River.
Labyrinth Canyon Weather
Types of Boats Used
In Labyrinth Canyon, as well as on every other section of river that we run, Holiday uses oar-powered rafts. These are 18-foot inflatable boats rigged with wooden frames and 10-foot oars that a single guide uses to steer and row. There’s plenty of room for both gear and passengers—our rafts are custom-built to the specifications that Dee Holladay and generations of boatmen perfected for maximum efficiency and comfort.
We’ll also bring an inflatable kayak or two, as well as one or two stand-up paddle boards, depending on the group size and what people are interested in using. These are smaller, personal watercraft that let you do your own exploring, get a little exercise, and enjoy some solitude throughout the day.
What we don’t bring are motors. Holiday doesn’t use motors on any of the sections of river that we run, but in Labyrinth, a motor seems especially out of place. The canyon walls and the slow-moving river are a natural cathedral, a place that seems to demand quiet reverence and contemplation. And although the river moves slowly, there’s really nowhere else we need to be. Each mile of the river offers something marvelous, something spectacular, something worth seeing. In Labyrinth Canyon (and really, everywhere we float) the whole point is to go with the flow.
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com