by Julie Trevelyan
Rafting the Colorado River through Utah’s famous Cataract Canyon is the river rafting adventure of a lifetime for many people. Cataract Canyon, which swirls its way through the heart of beautiful Canyonlands National Park, is renowned for its tremendous whitewater rapids, gorgeous canyon walls that tower up to the incredible blue sky, and different stunning views each day of the trip. This white water rafting trip is one for the bucket list.
The Colorado River through Cataract Canyon usually flows 3,000-45,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) in a given year. High flow is in May and June when all the snowmelt is racing off the mountains and right into the river. Some years have been doozies, including 2011, although it looks like 2012 might settle back into more typical, if not slightly lower, levels. Whether at high flow or low flow, however, Cataract Canyon provides different challenges for your guides, which translates to a darn fun rafting experience for you either way. You can check the current river conditions at the USGS site.
The Dolls House of Canyonlands is a supremely pretty area you can only see by driving and hiking a long way in, or—ta-da!—going through Cataract Canyon via raft and doing it as a side day hike. Named for its collection of large rock monoliths that sort of resemble giant rock people, the Dolls House is surely one of the most scenic hiking areas in all of Canyonlands. On a Cataract Canyon rafting trip, you might have a chance to enjoy this wonderful hike on a morning jaunt before launching for another day on the river.
Native Americans lived in the area for centuries, leaving various remains such as rock art for future generations to ponder. Fur trapper Denis Julien made it to Cataract Canyon in 1836, making him the first European guy on record, as far as is known, to enter the area. What was the record? His signature, scrawled onto the rocks. Don’t do that today, since it’s illegal, not to mention just uncool. But seeing really old rock signatures like his is an important part of the historical record, not to mention interesting to contemplate when you wonder what he thought the first time he beheld the rapids. He was not the first to run them, however; that honor goes to John Wesley Powell and his crew in 1869.
Who will enjoy this trip most:
If you have a hankering for big springtime water, Cataract Canyon should fill that bill. With the preponderance of serious rapids and usually generous water flows in May and June, this Colorado River trip is pretty much what people think of when they think of whitewater rafting. Later in the season, the flow backs off a bit, making it a tad less wild and woolly. Regardless, this is a justifiably popular trip overall.
- Cataract Canyon holds a whopping 14 miles of rapids, all the way up to Class V.
- At the confluence of the Colorado River and the Green River, the whitewater Big Drops descend 80 feet in less than four miles, in what is a pure adrenaline rush through individual rapids with names like Satan’s Gut.
- Highest recorded flow to date: 114,900 CFS on May 27, 1984. Wowza, that was pretty crazy!
- Tough Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell commanded his historic raft exploration through Cataract Canyon with only one arm.
Written by Julie Trevelyan.
Julie is a freelance writer and wilderness guide in southern Utah. She especially enjoys books, coffee, yoga, wild country, horses, and dark chocolate.
See more of her work at www.wildgirlwriting.com