By Casey Kleinman
Towering sandstone cliffs frame the picturesque Green River as it stretches south through the Tavaputs Plateau. An armada of tiny goslings churns desperately against the current in a frantic attempt to keep up with their mother. Mule deer feed peacefully on the abundant vegetation made ready by the recent spring thaw. High above in the cloudless blue, a golden eagle enjoys the warm sunshine. Green cottonwood groves, clear-water side streams, and white sandy beaches appear sporadically throughout the winding corridor.
The men responsible for naming this seemingly blissful spot on earth, saw these canyons in a different light. In 1869 when John Wesley Powell first scouted this section of the Green River, his party of explorers were just recovering from an almost fatal passage through Lodore Canyon. Short on supplies, and weary from the long journey, Powell and his entourage were discouraged upon entering the next series of canyons. It is understandable why the name “Desolation,” seemed most appropriate to this group of beleaguered adventurers. Now over a century later, those same qualities that seemed so menacing to Powell, serve to attract travelers from around the world. This rugged expanse of Utah wilderness is a favorite destination for people looking to escape the pressures of urbanville.
Desolation river trips begin with a flight or drive to the Sand Wash ranger station in eastern Utah. Though commonly referred to simply as “Desolation” this trip actually travels through both “Desolation” and “Gray Canyons“. The ride to the put in provides an introduction to the vast stretch of wilderness surrounding the Green River and its tributaries. From the put-in point on the river for several miles downstream the water is peaceful and quiet. First time visitors often find it hard to believe that this tranquil flow of water cut a river gorge that in places reaches deeper than the Grand Canyon. As the rafts proceed downstream, the calm slowly gives way to riffles and rapids. With each day of the trip the whitewater continues to build in intensity. Rapids are rated on a scale of I to VI. Class I is considered the least difficult and class VI is considered too dangerous to run. By trips end you will have run over 60 class I-III rated rapids.
Whitewater is just one of many attractions in this region of the west. Desolation and Gray Canyons are rich with early American history. Throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s prospectors, homesteaders, farmers and ranchers came seeking a better life. Land was plentiful but those that staked their claim in Desolation and Gray usually found it too wild to be tamed. The legacy of these early Americans can be seen throughout the river corridor. An abandoned wooden skiff can be found just upstream from “Gold Hole”. At Rock Creek the remains of an abandoned cabin marks the end of a settlers dream. Soon after Powell’s legendary trip through Desolation, a different sort of explorer ventured into these canyons. These were the outlaws of the old west, and they came to these remote regions not to chart maps or grow crops, but to hide out from the law. The weathered remnants of the McPherson ranch is a popular stop for river travelers. It was here that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid often hid out and traded with local ranchers for fresh horses.
Prior to the arrival of the settlers in the Colorado Plateau, these river canyons were occupied by a much older generation of people. Over 2000 years ago Paleo Indians inhabited these river canyons. The Paleo Indians gradually evolved into what we now know as the Fremont Indian culture which lived in these regions about 800 years ago. Evidence of their existence is found in the stone ruins, arrowheads, pottery, and petroglyphs that they left behind. These revealing sites tell the story of an ancient culture that once flourished along the river. Although protected by federal law these sites are accessible and readily viewed by river travelers throughout both of these canyons.
The geological history of Desolation and Gray canyons has long been a focus of interest for scientific research. The geology of these canyons is relatively young compared to some of the other canyons of the Colorado plateau. Desolation and Gray Canyons comprise 84 river miles, and expose several different geological formations. One of the more easily recognized divisions between formations takes place at the separation between Desolation and Gray canyons. The rocks visible in Desolation were formed during the Tertiary geologic period and the rocks in Gray canyon were formed in the Cretaceous geologic period. It was between these two geological eras that the dinosaurs fell to extinction. The difference in appearances between Desolation and Gray canyons is a result of the rock formations in the two geologic periods and the way these formations have reacted to erosion.
Over the years Desolation has become popular with families and first time river runners. The combination of whitewater, scenery, and history is a great introduction into the sport of whitewater rafting. These rapids are challenging and provide plenty of excitement but are not overwhelming for beginners and most family groups. River runners interested in even greater excitement often request that their outfitter bring along inflatable kayaks. These one-man boats allow thrill seekers to challenge the rapids one on one.
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