By Susan Munroe
Insider’s Guide to Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River, the undisputed king of Utah river trips. It’s a trip of superlatives: the biggest water, the most miles traveled, the reddest rocks, the starkest desert landscape, the most dynamic geology. This insider’s guide to Cataract Canyon will show you why nothing about this canyon is done halfway! Join Holiday for our signature five- or six-day trip and float the biggest canyon in Canyonlands National Park—without motors. For the ultimate Cataract Canyon experience, go long: sign up for Holiday’s extended fall hiking-intensive trip.
Perfect for: people with a longer time frame who want a truly immersive river experience, whitewater enthusiasts, and stand-up paddleboarders. During high water, children must be at least 16 years old; during the rest of the season, the age limit is eight. Custom charter trips are possible with groups of 18 people or more.
Cataract Canyon Highlights
The pacing of a Cataract Canyon trip is unique in that it builds. The river moves slowly at the start. The stillness is shocking at first, but by the end of day two, you’ve never felt so relaxed. Settle in to the rhythm of the oars rowing us downstream, without the drone of a motor to intrude. Contemplate the thousand shades of red of the canyon walls and the way they contrast with the impossibly blue sky. We’ll float through the place where the Green and Colorado rivers meet, deep within Canyonlands National Park, and then: rapids! The suspense of the flat water makes the whitewater climax all the sweeter.
High Water Highlights: Good snow in the Rocky Mountains and the Wind River Mountains means good water in Cataract. It doesn’t happen every year, but in those high water years, Cataract boasts the biggest waves in North America. Thirty-foot-high waves (literally!) roar and crash around Holiday’s signature triple-rig rafts and demand all the adrenaline your body can produce. Fast-moving currents mean more time for hiking, and high flows allow for camping in secluded nooks that are too high above the river to access at other times of the year.
Medium and Low Water Highlights: Whatever the level, Cataract’s rapids are a joy. There are more than 30 individual drops to navigate, each with its own particular flavor of fun. Low water trips mean enormous beaches for camping and playing, warm water for swimming, and easy currents for paddleboarding. Late season trips in particular have the best, most stable weather, perfect for stargazing under Canyonlands National Park’s internationally recognized dark skies.
Only in Cataract:
- Triple rigs! Only in Cataract and only with Holiday. Ride the rollercoaster of a high water Cataract trip on Holiday’s signature motor-less innovation.
- Swim at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.
- See the deepest, hardest-to-access region of Canyonlands National Park.
- Constantly changing rapids as majestic but unstable walls slowly crumble into the river.
- The Paradox Formation, the salty remnants of an ancient sea that underlie most of eastern Utah.
- Geology in fast-motion: witness the effects of wind and water almost as they occur, in the soft sediments of the ever-changing silt banks of the lower canyon.
Cataract’s Signature Rapid:
The Big Drops, three distinct drops that at high water become one massive rapid. The river drops over 30 feet in less than three-quarters of a mile, through features known as Little Niagara and Satan’s Gut.
Best Known For:
WALLS of water: the biggest waves in North America during high water.
The Holiday Way: Triple Rigs
When Cataract’s rapids are at their biggest, they dwarf a standard 18-foot raft. During these high water events, other companies switch to larger, motorized rafts. But Dee Holladay believed strongly that motors detract from the overall experience of a river trip. Instead, he got creative. The solution he developed was to tie three of our rafts together, side by side, tripling the surface area (and therefore the stability) of a standard raft: the triple rig was born!
The rig moves downstream sideways and takes two guides to run it. One guide manages the front oar, scanning the river ahead and calling the shots; the second rows from the back, hauling on the 11-foot oar and setting the necessary angles to move into or away from the various features in each rapid. A triple rig bounds over and through the waves: the front raft takes the biggest hit from each crashing wave, whereas the lighter rear boat frequently feels like it’s airborne, pulled up and over the crest of each wave. It is a true rollercoaster ride, the most fun you can have in whitewater. Dee always said, “You have to go to know,” and triple rigging is an instance where that phrase definitely applies.
(What does a triple rig run actually look like? Look here.)
We break up each day with excursions away from the rafts and into the canyon. For those who can’t get enough hiking, we offer an extended fall trip for maximum hiking opportunities.
- Petrified wood, an easy stroll from the river bank to a remarkable concentration of ancient logs preserved in the canyon’s rock layers.
- Lathrop Canyon ruins, a moderate hike to see where indigenous canyon dwellers stored food and painted stories on the walls a thousand years ago.
- Indian Creek, where a trickle of water sometimes becomes a raging waterfall.
- The Loop: climb up and over a low point in the canyon wall, a hike of less than a mile, while the rafts travel a full four river miles to reach the same place.
- The Doll House, a strenuous, 800-foot climb out of the canyon and into a world of white- and pink-striped sandstone pinnacles.
- Rock hop along the river bank to scout one or more of the biggest rapids of the trip: Baseball Diamond, Ben Hurt, and the Big Drops.
- Clearwater Canyon, a relaxing walk in a deep, sandstone side canyon, past small pools and smooth sandstone ledges.
Starting and Ending Points
Cataract Canyon rafting trips meet at Holiday’s warehouse in Green River, Utah. The majority of our Cataract trips will put in on the Colorado River at the Potash Boat Ramp, just south of the town of Moab and a 90-minute drive from Green River. The Colorado flows southwest for 47 miles until it meets the Green River, then runs for another 48 miles, all the way into the northern reaches of Lake Powell. We take out near the former Hite Marina, and then drive two hours back to Green River.
- 95 river miles via the Colorado River
- Class II-IV (Class V at flows over 25,000 cubic feet per second [CFS])
- May–June for high water excitement
- July–September for moderate (but fun) flows
- Spring runoff can peak anywhere between 20,000–85,000 CFS
- Summer flows average 4,000–15,000 CFS
- Required, managed by the National Park Service
First Known Descent of Cataract Canyon:
Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, and his crew of eight, 1869. Powell was an amateur geologist, ethnologist, and cartographer who ran the Green and Colorado rivers from all the way from Green River, Wyoming, through the Grand Canyon, mapping the previously unknown region and gathering scientific data. Powell and his men portaged most of Cataract’s rapids, carrying their heavy boats and gear along the rocky river banks in the heat of mid-summer. Already running low on supplies and clad in tattered rags, Cataract pushed them almost to the breaking point.
Cataract Canyon Weather
Types of Boats Used
In Cataract, and on all of Holiday’s trips, we use custom-built, 18-foot inflatable rafts with wooden frames that we build ourselves. These are oar-rigs, set up to be maneuvered and propelled by a single guide, who sits in the middle of the raft and rows downstream using two 10-foot oars. These rafts carry both gear and passengers, and are designed to provide the most comfortable and safest ride possible for our guests.
If the Colorado River’s flow rises above 25,000 CFS, the waves start to get big—really big. Big waves call for bigger boats, and that’s where our signature triple rigs come in. We rig three of our standard rafts together, side by side. Two guides work together to navigate the rapids, and passengers hold down strategic locations throughout the extra-large raft, enjoying an up-close-and-personal (and wet!) view of the Colorado River at its most powerful.
Holiday does not use motorized rafts, not for the calm water above the rapids, and not for the rapids themselves. The magic of Cataract Canyon is not just the adrenaline rush of the whitewater—it’s also the peace and quiet of the scenic stretches, the opportunity to disconnect from the rush of our modern lives. We feel strongly that motors do not belong on a river, and our guides take distinct pride in knowing that we can row the flat water and navigate the rapids with only the power of our arms, shoulders, backs, and brains.
The sole exception to our motor-less policy is in Lake Powell. The still water of the reservoir absorbs the current of the Colorado River in the lower reaches of Cataract Canyon, turning the last several miles of the canyon into a literal lake. When the reservoir is low, we row all the way to the takeout point, but as the reservoir level fluctuates, there are times when we have to use a small, motorized dinghy to push us down to the take out.
Cataract Canyon is our best trip for stand-up paddleboards; we typically bring one or two per trip, depending on the group’s interest. The mellow water upstream of the rapids is the perfect place to practice your balance and get a different view of the canyon on your own personal craft. We pack the paddleboards away once we get to the rapids. We also typically bring one or two inflatable kayaks, which are great for solo exploration, and loads of fun in the rapids. On medium-to-low water trips, we allow guests to paddle the inflatable kayaks through rapids 1-10. Intrigued? See more information about our boats here.
We hope you have enjoyed this insider’s guide to Cataract Canyon.
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