By Susan Munroe
The Green River through Desolation Canyon is a classic eastern Utah wilderness trip. Carved out of one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48, Desolation is a world unto itself, one of rugged beauty, fun rapids, abundant wildlife, and endless possibilities. Sandy beach playgrounds, shady cottonwood groves, and a variety of hiking options make this an ideal family trip. Join one of Holiday’s five- or six-day Desolation Canyon trips and add your own story to the canyon’s rich human history.
Perfect for: families with young children (ages five and up), people wanting a true wilderness experience, inflatable kayakers, people with a longer time frame, and river history buffs. Custom charter trips of up to nine days are available for groups of 16 or more.
Desolation Canyon Highlights
Desolation trips begin with a scenic flight, soaring up the Green River as it flows through the mountainous Tavaputs Plateau. The rugged chasm yawning open beneath the plane’s wings is unbelievably compelling, and anything but desolate. The landscape comes to life as we push off from shore. Cliff swallows billow from the craggy canyon walls, wild horses stand like sentinels above the river banks, fields of prickly pear cactus bloom in the spring, and great blue herons stalk the shallows. The river moves slowly at first, with calm sections perfect for swimming and water fighting. Desolation is the best trip for inflatable kayaks; people of all ages and abilities will find a section or two that they can paddle comfortably, and there’s adrenaline aplenty in the bigger rapids like Cow Swim, Wire Fence, and Three Fords. History lines the river banks in the form of rock art panels, granaries, and homesteads left by previous human inhabitants of the canyon. The influence of the un-regulated Yampa River, upstream of Desolation, means that the canyon and river look and feel much as they did when the explorer John Wesley Powell first floated through in 1869, naming landmarks such as Sumner’s Amphitheater and Lighthouse Rock. Sediment and driftwood from the Yampa also contribute to the health of Desolation’s ecosystem. Raptors, black bears, beavers, big horn sheep, deer, native fish, waterfowl, and other shorebirds are frequently spotted. Deeper than the Grand Canyon at the Bright Angel Trail, Desolation Canyon’s rugged, spectacular interior is the best of Utah’s truly wild lands.
Only in Desolation:
- Fly in a small plane to the put-in, following the course of the Green River through the Tavaputs Plateau.
- Float through some of the youngest rocks on the Colorado Plateau.
- Largest debris fans of any canyon Holiday runs, which create over 60 rapids!
- Experience a landscape almost entirely unchanged since John Wesley Powell’s historic journey in 1869.
- Free-range bison roam the river bottom, part of a herd introduced by the Ute Tribe for recreational hunting purposes.
- Cow Swim rapid, formed in 2008 by a huge debris flow.
- The KT boundary, the thin line of rock representing the meteor impact that contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs and most life on earth, approximately 66 million years ago.
Desolation’s signature rapid:
Three Fords, with a tight, rocky entry that gives way to a long line of fun, crashing waves that come from all directions.
Best known for:
Beautiful campsites, shady groves of cottonwood trees, big beaches, human history, consistent, fun whitewater, wilderness…the list goes on!
The Holiday Way: Going with the Flow
The beauty of a river trip is that once we push off the shore, we surrender to the water, letting the currents carry us. Holiday River Expeditions is built on a tradition that honors the will of the river—it’s part of why we don’t use motors—and Desolation Canyon is the best place for going with the flow. The canyon is managed as a wilderness area, with minimal intervention and regulation. Campsites are not assigned, and with over forty good camps and dozens of side canyons for hiking and exploring, every trip is different. With so many options, we find it best to stay flexible: you never know what’s going to come around the next corner.
Desolation Canyon has countless side canyons; it would take a lifetime to explore them all. On each trip, we’ll offer a few classic Desolation hikes as well as opportunities for additional exploratory hikes.
- Rock House Canyon, an easy walk through a sandy wash to see ancient petroglyphs.
- Mushroom Rock: walk through an open sagebrush flat to a unique rock formation with petroglyphs carved at its base.
- Cedar Ridge Canyon, a choose-your-own-adventure hike up a long side canyon with rock art near the mouth.
- Flat Canyon, a short walk from the river’s edge to a breathtaking petroglyph panel. Go farther up the canyon and find a small waterfall; even farther, you’ll spot a natural arch, high in the cliffs.
- Rock Creek Ranch: wander through the remains of a historic homestead in the deepest part of the canyon.
- Chicken Rock, a moderate-to-strenuous hike to a spectacular overlook of the river and an abandoned meander.
- Cow Swim: hike through a field of native plants to scout one of the biggest rapids of the trip.
- Coal Creek: walk through stone and timber buildings left behind by a crew of surveyors examining possible dam sites in Desolation Canyon.
Starting and Ending Points
Trips through Desolation Canyon meet at our warehouse in Green River, Utah. Due to the logistics of the early morning flight, we’ll ask you to come to the warehouse the night before your trip for a brief orientation session and to collect your dry bags. On the morning of the trip, we’ll shuttle you to Green River’s small airport for the flight to the put-in. The flight takes 35 minutes and follows the river north. You’ll land on an airstrip above the river, and have the option to hike down to the river, approximately 1.5 miles. The trip ends just outside of the town of Green River at Swasey’s Beach. We’ll pick you up there for the 15-minute ride back to our warehouse.
- 84 river miles
- Class I–III
- Spring runoff peaks between 18,000–35,000 cubic feet per second (CFS)
- Summer flows fluctuate between 1,200–10,000 CFS
- Required, administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
- The left (east) side of the river upstream of Coal Creek (river mile 26) is part of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and as of 2020 is CLOSED to all camping, hiking, or stopping except in emergencies.
First Known Descent of Desolation Canyon:
Major John Wesley Powell and a crew of nine fellow explorers, in 1869, part of a longer journey to map the length of the Green River from Green River, Wyoming, through the Grand Canyon. Powell’s men entered Desolation under the influence of a severe case of food poisoning after eating pilfered potato greens from a garden upstream. Some speculate that illness inspired Powell to dub the vibrant canyon with such a foreboding name.
Desolation Canyon Weather
Types of Boats Used
Holiday is proud to offer motorless trips through Desolation Canyon—and through all of the river canyons where we operate. Instead of disrupting the natural river environment with the noise and smell of a motor, we use oar-powered rafts. These are custom-built inflatable rafts designed to comfortably carry both passengers and gear. Each raft is operated by a single guide, who sits in the middle of the boat and uses two oars to row the boat downstream, leaving you, our guests, free to relax and enjoy the ride.
Don’t like sitting still? We also bring inflatable kayaks (1–3 per trip, depending on the number of guests and interest). These are personal watercraft that let you paddle your own way downstream. Desolation in particular is a great trip for inflatable kayaks (or “duckies”). With everything from small riffles to big wave trains and even a couple of Class III rapids, there’s something for every paddler to enjoy.
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