By: Easton Smith
Cataract Canyon is not so well known as the Grand Canyon below, but it is no less glorious a place to visit; and no less harrowing. Cataract is home to some of the most famous and fun rapids on the Colorado. In fact, it’s this rough water that gave the canyon its name.
“On starting, we come at once to difficult rapids and falls, that in many places are more abrupt than in any of the canyons through which we have passed, and we decide to name this Cataract Canyon.” That’s John Wesley Powell writing about his first ascent into the canyon on July 23rd, 1869.
Since 1869, thousands of people have had the pleasure of following in Powell’s wake down the River. At Holiday, we have led countless expeditions between these steep, majestic canyon walls, and we have discovered every splendid detail of Cataract Canyon. Here are some of our favorites.
It’s in the Heart of Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is split into three sections, the Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Needles. As a park map shows, these three sections are divided by the Green River and the Colorado River. Their confluence is the heart of the park, and the beginning of Cataract Canyon.
From there, the canyon continues down to split the Maze and the Needles districts, giving view to the scenery that canyonlands is famous for high, stark red cliffs, jutting rock pires, and deep cut alcoves. The river runs right through it all. There’s no better way to visit the national treasure that is Canyonlands.
The Whitewater (of course)
By July 25th, 1869, Powell was still in Cataract. He wrote the following: “Still more rapids and falls to-day. In one, the Emma Dean [one of their boats] is caught in a whirlpool and set spinning about, and it is with great difficulty we are able to get out of it with only the loss of an oar. At noon another is made; and on we go, running some of the rapids, letting down with lines past others, and making two short portages. We camp on the right bank, hungry and tired.”
Cataract isn’t so dangerous anymore for rafters. With professional guides like those at Holiday, the rapids are just fun. Cataract Canyon is truly world-class rapid territory. In high water, it’s a class V run. If you want to see what that looks like, you can watch some of our videos.
Humbling Sacred Sites from Ancestral Puebloan Cultures
If you hold respect and reverence for the native peoples of this stolen land, Cataract Canyon holds many stories from ancestors long forgotten by our modern world, reminding us of a different way of interacting with the earth. Despite a legacy of broken promises, indigenous peoples have sustained themselves and their cultural traditions in the face of an increasingly westernized world. In Cataract Canyon we have the humbling opportunity to visit sites still held as spiritual sources for many indigenous communities to this day. Some of the sacred sites from long-lost cultural groups like the Ancestral Puebloans in the hallowed walls of Cataract Canyon make it not simply a beautiful place with rich histories of a people but more than that, a spiritual place.
We can pause at these sites to reflect on our own culture. Do we live in symbiosis with these beautiful desert landscapes? Do we assume that the land is ours for the taking? What do we owe those who came before and those who will come after?
Peace and Relaxation
Yes, you read that right. Our Cataract Canyon trips are as much about the peace and relaxation of a meandering river as they are about the adventure and thrills of the white water.
As you can see on our trip itinerary, our Cataract trips start off with a few days of slow, steady floating down the Green River. This part of the trip is perfect for learning to kayak or stand-up paddleboard, or for making some progress in your novel. Nothing like perfect, pool-temperature water and gorgeous views to help you relax and go with the flow!
The Astounding Views
One of the many perks of Cataract Canyon is the dramatic sheer cliff faces that seem to tower so far out of reach that it’s hard to imagine just how high they must be. The only thing better than marveling at these cliffs from the comfort of the Colorado River is to join us for Holiday’s most folkloric hike, “The Doll House”. Earn your dinner by filling your water bottle and scaling one of these impressive canyon walls up a historic trail to sit among titanic “Dolls” on the high cliff face. These dolls (or more accurately, hoodoos) give the impression of mysterious figures, sentinels watching over you from the valley floor. From the top, these dolls are gentle giants, affording you shade, slot canyon adventures, and will bear witness with you and your friends while you take in the view from 1,600 feet above the river. Whether you’re relaxing at camp or sitting among the dolls, the view is great.
The area around Arches and Canyonlands national parks is also known for its clear, dark skies. It’s the perfect place to see the Milky Way or some of your favorite constellations. Canyonlands was even recently designated a “Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark-Sky Association. Now, imagine seeing all those stars cradled between two vast canyon walls. There is no better way to feel the brilliant, radiating wonder of the universe than from the bottom of a canyon. In fact, so many people want to experience these dark skies while on the river that we have organized a special, 5-day stargazing trip down the Cataract. Or if you really want to take your time to explore this magical place, we have an 8-day stargazing and hiking trip through Cataract as well!
Big, Sandy Beaches for the Kids (and everyone else)
You don’t need to go all the way to the coast to hit the beach.
As wind and water rip through the soft sandstone of the Colorado Plateau, it weathers the rock, forming these beautiful canyons. And all of that eroded sediment sticks around to build up into a soft, silty river bottom and perfect, wide river-side beaches.
Take a seat, grab a beer, and watch the river flow by while you dig your toes into the sand. Your kids will have plenty of opportunities for getting messy while building castles, swimming, and playing games on the beach.
Epic Side Canyon Hikes
For millions of years, inland oceans repeatedly filled up and retreated from the region that is now Canyonlands. The sedimentary deposits of these ancient oceans formed incredible, successive horizontal rock layers. A period of uplift about 70 million years ago pushed these rock layers up. Now, rivers like the Colorado cut through this uplifted rock, exposing the stacked bands of red rock. But it’s not just the Colorado River. There are many tributaries that have cut along this same rock to meet the mighty Colorado. These lesser known rivers and side canyons have hidden secrets of all kinds: swimming holes, ruins, slot canyons, and amazing views. Even some of the more well-known side canyons, like Indian Creek (a hot spot for climbers), are totally different when entered from river-level (hint: there’s a waterfall).
Easton Smith is a Local Wasatch Front resident and writer. He spends his time community organizing, rock-climbing and playin’ some mean banjo. For more writing from Easton, check out his organizing collective’s blog “Brine Waves” here or stay tuned for future loggings in River Currents.