By Susan Munroe
The Colorado River through Westwater Canyon is the best short river trip that Utah has to offer. This insider’s guide to Westwater Canyon will cover our three-day trip, which includes Horsethief and Ruby canyons as well as Westwater itself. Three days make for a perfect sampler of red rock scenery, short hikes, and exciting whitewater. Overnight trips through Westwater Canyon are available if you only have the weekend to play, and one day custom charter trips can be arranged if you have a group of 12 or more.
Perfect for: people with a short time frame, whitewater enthusiasts, groups (bachelor/bachelorette party trips, corporate retreats, family reunions, youth groups), and families with children 8 years and older.
Westwater Canyon Highlights
Almost immediately after pushing off from the boat ramp, pale pink canyon walls welcome visitors to Horsethief Canyon. For the first day of the three-day trip, the river is gentle, with a few riffles and small rapids. Great blue herons abound, bald eagles perch along the cliff walls, and careful observers may see beavers or river otters swimming along the banks. Big horn sheep are frequently spotted on the talus slopes above the river. By the end of day two, the ancient black rocks of Westwater Canyon emerge, and we descend into a deep gorge, with the biggest rapids just ahead.
Only in Westwater:
- The Amtrak Train, rolling through Ruby Canyon on its way west to California or east to Chicago.
- Float across the Colorado-Utah state line.
- Smooth black canyon walls made of 1.7 billion-year-old schist, the oldest rocks exposed on the Colorado River outside of the Grand Canyon.
- An outlaw hideout stuffed with artifacts, and a mysterious riverside gravesite.
- The narrowest point on the Colorado River at Skull Rapid, a mere 35 feet across.
- Low water is fun water! Later in the season, rapids get bigger, steeper, and splashier.
Westwater’s Signature Rapid:
Skull Rapid, a roaring Class IV drop with a sneaky little channel on the left.
Best Known For:
Narrow, black rock canyon with fun, fast whitewater.
The Holiday Way: Double Rigging
Rapids in Westwater Canyon change considerably depending on the volume of water. In the spring, high water creates fast currents and strong whirlpools, making even our 18-foot-long rafts feel small. In the best Holiday traditions of innovation and conservative boating, we’ve invented the “double rig”, used during periods of high water. We tie two of our rafts together, side by side, doubling the boats’ surface area. Two guides work together to steer the double rig through the boils and eddy lines—a real feat of teamwork and a rollicking ride for our passengers!
Westwater Canyon has a number of diverse hikes; options will vary depending on the trip.
- Mee Canyon, a classic desert walk through a dry wash with dramatic rock formations.
- Black Rocks Overlook, a strenuous but rewarding climb to the rim of Ruby Canyon; an excellent choice for sunset or sunrise when camping at Black Rocks.
- McDonald Creek, a moderate walk to a natural amphitheater and prehistoric rock art.
- Miner’s Cabin, a short walk from the river’s edge into a historic gold mining cabin.
- Little Hole, a longer hike up a dry wash into a large alcove with good views and rock art.
- Little Dolores, a short slot canyon hike that winds through quartz-veined schist and gneiss to a small pool; in wet weather a waterfall appears above the pool and the canyon becomes a stream.
- The outlaw cave, a quick riverside stop to see the remnants of life in hiding.
Starting and Ending Points
Both three- and two-day Westwater Canyon trips meet at Holiday’s warehouse in Green River, Utah. We will transport you and your gear to the launch point: three-day trips begin at boat ramp in Loma, Colorado; two-days start at the Westwater Ranger Station, a few miles southeast of Interstate 70 in eastern Utah. Both trips take out near the town of Cisco, Utah, a ghost town turned artists’ community, where Holiday’s vans will pick you up for transport back to our Green River warehouse.
- Three day = 42 river miles
- Two day = 18 river miles
- Spring runoff peaks between 10,000–40,000 cubic feet per second (CFS)
- Summer flows fluctuate between 1,800–7,000 CFS
- Required, administered by the Bureau of Land Management
First Known Descent of Westwater:
1897, Doctors Babcock and Miller, dentists from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, who were primarily searching for “cliff dwellers”, or ruins left behind by ancient cultures.
Westwater Canyon Weather:
Types of Boats Used
In Westwater Canyon, we primarily use “oar rigs”, rubber rafts set up to carry both gear and passengers. Each raft is rowed by a single guide, who sits in the middle and uses two oars to move the boat downstream and navigate waves and obstacles. There is ample seating for our guests, whose primary role in the raft is to sit, relax, and hold on. In high water (volumes above 15,000 cubic feet per second) we use “double rigs”, two rafts tied together side by side with two guides to steer. Holiday specifically does not use motors, believing that the best way to experience a river is to go at its own speed. It’s why our motto is “Go with the Flow”.
For passengers who prefer to be active, we bring inflatable kayaks and stand-up paddle boards (SUPs), individual craft that allow for some solo exploration and exercise. In Westwater, SUPs and inflatable kayaks are available for the first two days through the mellow rapids of Horsethief and Ruby canyons, and the first part of Westwater Canyon. We put them away for the biggest rapids in Westwater and everyone rides together on the oar rafts.
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