Westwater Canyon Whitewater

By Brooks Stevenson
Utah Outdoors Magazine

Westwater CanyonNo cars, no long lines, no barrage of sweaty tourists muscling their way to the front of the view point. Forget the "are we there yet?" squeals from the back seat and the constant potty breaks at run-down gas stations. On a rafting trip, once you start, and until you end, you are always there; always doing what you came to do–relax, enjoy the landscape and run the river.

Rafting trips–whether they involve extreme whitewater, a few boiling pools that raise your heart rate a tad, or just some smooth flowing flat water that provides unparalleled scenery–have to be one of the best ways to see the sandstone canyon country of southern Utah.

Time passages

On a river, time passes like it should: slowly. You get a sense of how the world really functions, outside of a Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 schedule. But you also have a chance to encounter an ecosystem that is, by and large, inaccessible to tourists. Except by raft.

I took my first journey down the Colorado River’s Westwater Canyon last summer with a guide service that included three large oar-powered rafts, a smaller paddle raft and all the people to fill them.

As we pulled away from the launch at Cisco Ranger Station–about 240 miles southeast of Salt Lake City–and started down the river, all of the wonders of the desert were magnified. The geology of the desert is overwhelming from the perspective of the river. When you see it from a road or from above, you don’t get the same appreciation as you do from right in the heart of the source of the erosion.

Before I really had a chance to enjoy the first few miles of river, the route began a descent into an eerie, black section of canyon. The familiar and vibrant sandstone was replaced by black, shiny rock, smashed between the upper layers of red rock and the river floor. Vishnu schist, as the rock was later identified, lined vast sections of Westwater Canyon, adding to the scenic flavor and geologic variance.

Westwater MapCarved by the seemingly eternal flows of the Colorado, Westwater Canyon not only offers the traditional thrills of whitewater rapids, the towering sandstone sentinels, and ancient remains of American Indian culture, it also exposes visitors to some of the most unique geological scenery along the river.

It was like leaving the familiar and safe for the unknown of a darker and more dangerous journey. That is what makes this canyon so spectacular and attractive to river runners and tourists. It brings with it a unique change from the constant free-flowing sections of sandstone to the entirely out-of-place shiny schist.

And it wasn’t long after the scenery changed that the river began to mirror the rough, fluted walls of the canyon.

Funnel Falls, Skull Rapid, Sock-It-To-Me, Last Chance and a host of other big rapids rushed between narrow deep canyons of billion-year-old Precambrian schist and granite, creating a rodeo-like ride for the next hour. We tumbled, twisted and turned our way through the short, steep drops, one by one, before getting out of the boats to float along with the rafts in the steady, smooth current.

Perspective is everything

The water, at first glance, looked harmless and docile. Once you’re in it, though, your perspective changes as the swiftest part of the river (below the top foot and a half of water) takes over and pushes you along at sometimes frightening paces.

On the flat-water stretches that followed for the next two days, it seemed that nothing moved–the sky seemed fixed and the scenery appeared to barely change form. The skyline was framed by views of the magnificent Fisher Towers standing at attention before a backdrop of the snowcapped La Sal Mountains.

We motored along with the aid of a small outboard engine and relaxed in the sun. We passed Dewey Bridge, one of the oldest expansion bridges this side of the Mississippi, scores of slot canyons where we took short hikes to view rock art, an historic miner’s cabin, outlaw cave, and hiking trail that lead to the Dolores Falls with a popular swimming hole. The last part of the trip bordered Arches National Park, with spectacular views that only can be seen from the perspective of the river.

Cliffs of red and gold sandstone gave way to spectacular vistas of wide-open canyon country and the wildlife that resides in the barren landscape: bald eagles, great blue herons, turkey vultures, mud swallows and desert bighorn sheep.

Utah is a land of sharp contrasts. And the river is no different. Look closely and you’ll see the obvious contrast of the life-giving waters of the Colorado River and the starving and parched banks it patrols.

But in Westwater Canyon, you get to see something entirely new. Something more. You see what you might ignore through the glare of a windshield; what you can’t smell in the early morning air; what you can’t hear above the linguistic buzz of English, German or French and the wild cries of tired children; and what you can’t touch with your shoes on and your legs inside the boat.

On a river, things are just different. Life is just better.

If you go

Westwater Canyon’s rating is considered difficult–Class I to IV rapids, short steep drops, sheer walls and holes dot the route. You can run the river year-round, but be prepared for high flows in June.

A permit is required and only a limited number area issued. Click on the BLM link below for details. This is a very popular route, first run in 1916, for rafts and kayaks. Some have even called it the West’s best short whitewater trip. The entire distance is 52 miles form put-in at Cisco to take-out at Moab.

Access — Take the Westwater exit on I-70 (about an hour east of Green River) and follow the dirt road to the ranger station.

Resources — "River Runners Guide to Utah and Adjacent Areas," by Gary C. Nichols; Various guide services and outfitters can help you find the best trip for your schedule and group.

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