By Joe Ballent
Westwater Canyon is Utah’s “Little Grand Canyon”. I recently had the privilege of guiding a two-day Colorado River Westwater trip with the family and river cohorts of long-time Holiday friend Dave Wiggins. Members of this hard-charging and incredibly fun crew asked me great questions about the numerous trips Holiday offers. When asked what my personal favorite trip is, I unapologetically and firmly answer with a name that connotes the vastness and mystery of the truly great American river running legacy; Westwater.
Narrowing my choice down so definitively doesn’t mean that the other trips aren’t incredible; they are. Desolation Canyon offers an unprecedented serenity and boasts deeper chasms than the Grand Canyon itself. The Yampa River and Lodore Canyon converge in a spectacular and picturesque marriage of scenery worthy of a classical painting. Cataract Canyon boasts some of the most fearsome whitewater on the continent. I’ve simply found over the years that for a combination of soul-searching and thrill-seeking, Westwater offers a balance that is hard to beat – and impossible to find elsewhere.
Within minutes of putting in at the boat ramp, river runners are greeted by the sight of bald eagles known to live along the sandstone cliffs near the ranger station. Watchful ravens and majestic blue herons swoop across the river like sentinel guardsman of ancient river life. Often, they are more than willing to oblige photo opportunities for eager photographers. Depending on how quiet it is and how lucky you are, you may even encounter a family of wild deer drinking from the river.
Throughout a two-or-three-day adventure, river runners encounter an easily accessible mining cabin, an outlaw cave (followed shortly by an old outlaw grave), and petroglyphs bringing you all the way back to ways of life known to ancient inhabitants of the river corridor. The experience of standing where a frontier-era (or even prehistoric) fellow river explorer stood is humbling, grounding, and awe-inspiring all at once.
Holiday River Expeditions’ guides pride themselves on many things, not the least of which is an ability to conjure forth restaurant-worthy meals out of a few coolers and ammo cans. You’ll find yourself beginning to wonder how we pulled it off, but your thought will likely be quickly interrupted by a robust hors-douvres or juicy filet mignon, complete with sauteed onions and mushrooms.
Beaches and Camps
Shortly after the put-in, depending on water levels, guests find themselves having a delicious lunch at a scenic riverside beach ideally suited to a gentle float to cool off from the unforgiving sun. Campsites closer to the rapids like Upper and Lower Little Dolores offer the soothing lull of distant gushing water to sing you to sleep, not to mention a hint of things to come.
On the final morning of your Westwater trip, there’s always a unique feel in the air. It could be that the waters of Little Dolores rapid have been teasing you with sounds of wave-borne thrills, or that group energy level is at a trip high. Regardless, Marble Canyon rapid kicks off a marathon of back-to-back rapids that leave your heart pounding and laughter on your lips (which may be soaked with river water). Rolling and tumbling down through ancient Vishnu Schist rock formations, Holiday oarsman navigate boats through river features that both delight and inspire. Just as you recover from one adrenaline rush, the next is on its way, with an arguable pinnacle at the notorious Skull Rapid (featuring an aggressive pull across the river and a view of stunning geologic features). Fear not though; the ever-safety-minded Holiday guides undergo thorough training before ever taking guests down the river, and company policy mandates the time-tested specialized rigging of boats per water levels to maximize safety and guest comfort. Not only do you have a front-row seat to the might of the river, but you can feel confident and safe while taking it all in.
I’ve made my case for Westwater, and particularly enjoyed my latest trip with crafty river veterans. Each trip takes on its own attitude, and each geographic region promises a whole new set of memories and adventures.
As always, Go With The Flow! See you out there. – Joe
Joe Ballent found the river- or it found him –when he was only 16. He began guiding with Holiday in 2008 and has enjoyed the unique privilege of getting involved with Holiday’s youth trips, including the University of Utah Hospital Burn Camp program. His writing has been featured on various outdoor online communities including mountaintechs.com and backcountrybeacon.com. Joe works with troubled teens full-time but manages to find trouble around the country and world in his freetime. He is an outdoorsman by trade, a romantic by choice, a guitarist in a band, and an outlaw in Europe.