White Water from the Big Drops on Cataract Canyon

Review: White Water Rafting Utah’s Cataract Canyon

Adventures

Located just a few miles from the iconic outdoor mecca that is Moab, Utah lies the mighty Colorado River. While the Colorado snakes around the Southwest for over 1,400 miles, most of the rafting attention is focused on the Grand Canyon’s iconic runs but that’s not the only place you’ll find huge views and huge rapids, not by a long shot. Welcome to Cataract Canyon.

White Water from the Big Drops on Cataract Canyon

Entering one of the Big Drops on day two of our trip. So much power… so much water!

When my family first invited me to join them on the trip I had to google the name just to know just to know where Cataract Canyon even was and even then, I just didn’t get anywhere close to understanding just how amazing the place would be but a rafting trip, Utah trip, obviously I said yes. As it turns out, Cataract Canyon gets its name for the rapids that lie some 50 miles into the typical run while the entire tour can be close to 100 miles making it nothing like your average half day, white water adventure. Along the 3-5 days that it typically takes to run the river there are huge canyon views, big hikes and the most powerful water I’ve ever experienced.

Cataract Canyon River Map from the Moab Adventure Center. Click to visit their website.

Our tour was put together by World Wide River Expeditions who actually let us crash their final guide training trip which meant we got to hit the water before the busy season and before the crazy summer heat, experiencing it all with just a handful of other boats to share the views with. While this post is certainly not intended to be a review I will talk about them along the way as Cataract Canyon is simply not something most of us can go out, rent a boat for and survive. Having a good operator makes a world of difference.

To be completely honest, heading into the trip I was almost reluctant to get on the water at first. After a couple decades of regular summer rafting trips in Northern California and Oregon, the idea of being on a motorized, giant boat sounded a little, well, dull. Compare that to the amazing experience of being in Moab with Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Jeep Roads, Sky Diving and so many more adventures around, sitting on a boat for 3 days sounded, well, lazy. In ways that’s fair, rafting on a 35′ rig certainly a is different activity than pounding a boat through small shoots and sucking it up for miles of calm water rowing yourself but different experiences can be good, very good.

Day one: Floating to the confluence 

Because Cataract Canyon is in the middle of absolutely no where, things start in conditions that are anything but whitewater. Still, after heading out to the launch spot a few minutes outside of town, our trip started off like most river adventures with our lead guides going over the basics of boat safety, water behavior, leave no trace and similar details. With nearly 50 miles of engine-powered floating for the day, we didn’t even need life jackets and getting underway was a quick process… pick a spot on the deck, fill your waterbottle, sunscreen up and gently float off.

Entering the Colorado river

What day one lacked in bumps and twists it more than made up for in views and off-river adventures. Leaving the launch dock (which is nothing more than a dirt ramp with a vault toilet nearby), the river almost immediately cuts into a several hundred foot deep canyon with towering rock views all around. The first few miles have signs of civilization both past and present; a few private buildings on the east side of the river, a still functioning hotel built into the canyon walls that never quite took off as intended on the west, even a restroom stop a couple hours in but after that signs of the modern world disappeared for 2 and a half days. No cell coverage, no vault toilets, not even a Jeep road.

Most of the white water I’ve experienced has been on rivers that felt big but really weren’t. The Colorado on the other hand is massive, often spanning a few hundred yards across with power unlike most others. With this in mind, White Water touring companies use a few types of boats to get down the river depending on the conditions, some motorized and others human driven. Our armada was comprised of two large “J-rigs” powered by beefy engines and two smaller oar boats though even those dwarfed the typical paddle boats I’ve become accustom to taking on rivers. With almost 50 miles to cover in the first day, we set out as one giant unit with the four boats lashed together and nearly 30 people (3 “clients” and a heck of a lot of guides new and seasoned) spread across the decks, moving down at 7 or 8 miles an hour.

Goal Zero on the river

Charging up camera phones along the river with my Goal Zero, Nomad 7 solar panel. Best gear call aside from my rain shells.

Clearly the first / float day is something a moderately skilled (and well equipped) boater could handle themselves, it’s flat and there’s no where to get lost. Heck, there’s even a motor boat service to bring you back up at the end of your run on a canoe but even here having guides proved to be immensely interesting as they pointed out natural features, old spots in human history and navigated our giant rig in to stop to look or dock and poke around constantly as we powered down the river.

Petrified tree

Part of a giant & petrified tree from one of our first breaks on the river.

After eating on the river (having a boat big enough for a lunch table is something else), we pulled in for our first real side adventure of the trip, a short hike up and around the river banks where remnants of native populations from over 700 years ago can be seen. Walking by ancient grain storehouses, petroglyphs and even a hand impression was impressive to say the least and a turned out to be a recurring theme on the river with many more old-culture sights to walk up to and float by along the way.

Cataract Grainery

Grainery along the walls of a canyon hike.

When you have a guide and a motorized boat, there’s not much to do on the first day but soak it all in while you hydrate up and roast in the Utah sun. Still, while that narrative would sound terribly boring to me reading this, floating in the middle of a towering canyon passes the time far better than you would think — it’s like hiking down the Grand Canyon only with a seat for the day. While a few of the guides read a book or snuck in a nap, the three of us “clients” stared at the walls above, pointing out arches and balanced rocks that would be invisible from above and inaccessible in nearly any other way than on the river.

Floating along the river

Before reaching the confluence (the junction between the Colorado and Green River which immensely increases the flow and thus builds the rapids below), we docked at Indian Creek, a small beach head along the river and the guides divided up into a camp crew and hiking crew. Following their lead, we explored deep into the canyon, first passing a few more old grain buildings but soon basically bushwhacking (there was a trail but clearly we were among the first to use it for the year) our way into the recesses of the mountain. After several scrambles and a good half mile of canyon-fording, we arrived at the mighty Indian Creek Falls. Many of the group jumped in and navigated the powerful falls while others scrambled around above for photos and exploring, I stuck it out watching from below but what a first place to stop for the night!

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Returning back to our river camp, it was almost funny how far we were from the civilized world and yet how well provisioned we were. With huge boats and tons of gear room, tour companies are able to bring individual tents, sleeping bags, even cots along. Dinner was an elaborate feast of different options before turning in under the almost full moon on a nearly perfect night.

Day two: Into the biggest rapids of my life

After a big breakfast and last trip to the bathroom (to reduce impact, touring companies actually carry a toilet system with them), we were back on the river for a full day of far more serious adventuring. The sun was barely up over the canyon walls as we headed down, making for a cold start with spray from the river kicking up and over the boat in stark contrast to the warm, warm day before. Thankfully we weren’t subject to this too long before reaching out first stop to make the steep Loop Hike.

Loop hike views

Looking at both sides of the river from the top of Loop Hike.

Canyon walls

Looking at the walls of the canyon from the saddle ridge on the Loop Hike.

This moderate trail took us up and over a low spot in the canyon walls while the boats floated the long way around a horseshoe bend in the river. After powering up 400′ or so to the saddle, we were treated to killer view of the bending river and canyon walls from a new perspective. The descent down was also worth the effort as we passed by plant fossils and some of the most impressive petroglyphs I’ve seen.

Petroglyphs on the river

Petroglyphs on the Loop Hike, day 2.

Returning down the river and continuing on, our guides took us on a final stop before the confluence to check out the remains of an old survey camp that was abandoned some 80 years ago. Looking down at the artifacts I joked that the river, I’d say Cataract is as much a history museum as an outdoor adventure; totally unexpected and yet totally awesome.

Old survey supplies along the river

The confluence junction is an an unassuming spot… just another part of the canyon with a river heading gently into your path and yet to think about it, it’s clearly immensely powerful. Returning via a small plane the next day, the contrast in the two rivers painted a much more impressive picture than being right on the surface did at the time, especially with cold spray back in our faces but it was interesting to see from the ground just the same. After a stop to snap photos of the Cataract Canyon white water warning sign below (also where you register for campgrounds), it was time to start the real fun! Our first taste of the power of the river was with a quick hitting, big power rapid but just one. Stopping for lunch before the big run to follow, it was clear being on the river at something like 40,000 CFS (well below the all-time max but certainly not low) was going to rock!

Warning on the river!

Warning! This river was smooth sailing for us, even our oar boats, but experienced guides get the credit for that … for sure!

Returning to the water, we re-reviewed the previous safety points, especially what to do if you “went for a swim” (fell in). It’s impressive to see the machine of a well operated guiding company as they line up the seemingly small details, securing everything down, checking out each lifejacket all while down playing the fear I could hear being whispered around, even from guides (note: fear is a good thing, and a fun thing). By the time we left the shore, there was a roaring sense of excitement shared by everyone.

The rapid section of Cataract Canyon is only a few miles in total and yet there are dozens of major and many more minor hits along the way through it. Nothing has as big of an actual vertical-drop as the aggressive California rivers I’ve paddled on but the sheer power, size and force of the Colorado is simply in another league than those. To compare a class IV here to a class IV on the American or even Cherry Creek is completely apples and oranges — but I’ll say this, there are only a couple rapids I’ve really wanted to avoid swimming before and none I was ok swimming here.

Cataract Canyon Rapids

Into the rapids! Each hit was head on and like having a bucket-brigade go full force turn after turn… so much fun!

As it turns out, a Go Pro without a stick is a lot less impressive but even a half-way clear video tells the story of the rapids far better than words. One would think that 35′, powered boats would treat a drop like nothing big, that’s most certainly not the case as we jumped, bumped and dipped up and down. Sitting on the deck and holding on was not definitely not the involved fun of a paddle boat but getting to watch it all… damn.

After running rapid after rapid after rapid, we sadly passed through the last of the white water, gone too soon I would say though it actually took a few hours to navigate. While we dried off in the afternoon sun, all anyone could do was talk about the run before… bigger than most local white water tours and yet just one part of the overall adventure. [For the record, my favorite rapidwas just before the big drops where the higher flow had turned a nice dip into a big hit and I think is the source of the first video.]

Having guides has its perks. Having guides who bring top shelf food, that's just spoiling yourself. Yum!

Having guides has its perks. Having guides who bring top shelf food, that’s just spoiling yourself. Yum!

Camping on the beach that night started out nicer than home life. World Wide River pulls out the stops for customers and we dined on steaks and salmon, had a freshly baked cake and a bunch of other food I totally didn’t expect. However, just as dinner was winding down and the sun started to drop, the winds picked up sending sand everywhere. That night would remind me why I love alpine adventures so much — my four season tent — as we were all battered by sand and wind gusts through the night with no where else to run. In the middle of the night, several tents had been packed away after being blown off the beach (with people in them) and by morning everyone and everything was covered in a layer of sand. Days later I’m still getting the damn stuff off my gear but that’s nature for you!

Day three: Dark canyon hikes, river floats and an epic flight home

Emerging from the sand, day three was a return to calm river floating though now with a sharp wind that made me very glad to have unpacked my Arc’teryx Hardshell pants the night before [protip: the river is both hot and freezing cold depending on shade and spray, bring really waterproof layers to cover up].

Motoring down the river as a large group again, we only had a few hours of travel time to get to our final destination so our guides planned out a long hike to explore Dark Canyon and make the most of the remaining sights on the way. Years back when Lake Powell was at a much higher level, boats were able to turn off into this canyon and head a good mile in, nearly to the first pool but that’s no longer the case and we left the boats for a rustic trail just a few hundred into the side canyon.

Dark Canyon Pools

A small fall and pool below the first main pool in Dark Canyon.

Crossing the small stream, wandering over open fields and then moving into some decent scrambling / rock walks, we followed our group of guides into the canyon towards our first stop at a river bowl where a small waterfall trickled down to a pool deep enough to swim in. No one stayed there long though as we climbed up and over the walls and back to the even more exposed parts of the canyon towards the second bowl another mile or more back. As exciting as the pools were, the adventure of getting out to them (and getting back) was just as fun, climbing over limestone and sandstone, up and down the riverbed and pretty much navigating however seemed best (and least impactful) as there was little sign of a trail before us.

Rock in Dark Canyon

Stunning rock veins from the hike into Dark Canyon.

Finally, we arrived at the second bowl, a 15′ deep pool below an gentle waterfall and surrounded by 20-30′ cliffs on all other sides. Most of the group spent their time playing in the water below while some continued back a bit further into the canyon to explore and others sat in the upper pool which looked more like a man-made tub than a natural lake. All said it was a pretty spectacular use of 3 hours and one of the better hikes I’ve been on lately though not much of a workout to offset all the food!

Inside Dark Canyon, Colorado River

Looking back down Dark Canyon from the second pools. Epic, epic, epic hike.

Cliff adventures in Dark Canyon

Not me but you get the point just the same I’m sure!

Dark Canyon Pools

The upper part of Dark Canyon’s second pool.

Returning to the boats for the final stretch, the river enters what is or was Lake Powell. Several years of lower level water have exposed areas previously caked in sentiment and while many feet of it remains on the edge of the canyon walls, the river is slowly reclaiming its old look, washing out the dirt so to speak. These final miles of the river run are wide and open, sunny but also subject to breezes and chills with spraying water as the motors pushed us quickly down the river. The canyon walls while now further out are also higher, towering well above and making for yet another fantastic view as we chugged towards the offload ramp.

Our plane back to Moab

Arriving around 4, World Wide River Expeditions’s guides began the “fun” process of dragging their massive boats and piles of gear out of the water while we headed over to our transportation back to Moab — a ten-seater plane operated by Redtail Aviation. While I’ve had my share of prop planes over the years, this was by far the smallest flight I’d ever been in and even just standing on the runway (which is little more than a side-road several hundred yards long) was exciting! From takeoff to landing the flight was one of the most impressive parts of the entire trip and well worth the cost versus shuttling back in the dark for hours. Flying over the river, past the confluence and then up to Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point and Arches before entering Moab proper, we had a chance to retrace our entire trip, pointing out where we had been, looking for things to do next time. Heck, I’d go back just for the flight!

Redtail Aviation inside

Strapped in and ready to fly!

Views from the sky

Views from the sky on the Red Tail Aviation Plane back to Moab.

Views from the sky

Cataract was different than my expectations and one heck of a trip.

Trying to sum up the experience of Cataract Canyon is hard. It’s not the involved, hands-on rafting of something like California’s American River nor is it the day after day white water of the Grand Canyon (at least that’s how it looks from the photos) but that also allows for an entirely different experience. The trip was as much about seeing sights, being inside the canyon and exploring around as what we did on the river its self. And when we did get to the white water, man was it a ride… power like nothing else, no wonder it’s said to be the biggest in North America when the flows are at full force.

One final view of the epic river floating.

One final view of the epic river floating.

Camping on the river bank and sitting back on the boat made for an easy couple day adventure, a sweet pairing after a Moab trip filled with exploration and activity first though I’d certainly suggest more than just the one day I had for that. The cost of a guided tour will set you back a good $600-$900 per person but self rafting the rapids is not for beginners clearly. Worth it? Different, but worth it.

You can find out more about World Wide River Expeditions on their website and of course there are several other operators who also run the Cataract with a variety of trip lengths, classiness levels and amenities to fit your take.