Redrock and Cataracts: Hike, Raft, and Explore the Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
- Enjoy classic redrock canyons
- Explore off the beaten path with daily hikes
- Ride Class III and IV whitewater on the Colorado River
Nutritious meals from day 1 dinner to day 9 lunch
Rafts, lifejacket, paddles, dry bag, group gear
Knowledgeable, professional, safety-oriented guides
Cataract Canyon -- even the name is legendary. John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition was the first to explore this remote section of the Colorado River, and the area remains isolated even today. This Red Rock Exploration trip not only takes you through Cataract Canyon but to unique landscapes in the wider region. We begin with three days of hikes in scenic areas near Canyonlands National Park. Next we spend six days on the river, stopping frequently to hike dramatic side canyons and discover Native American rock art accessible only by river
Cataract Canyon -- even the name is legendary. John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition was the first to explore this remote section of the Colorado River, and the area remains isolated even today. This Red Rock Exploration trip not only takes you through Cataract Canyon but to unique landscapes in the wider region. We begin with three days of hikes in scenic areas near Canyonlands National Park. Next we spend six days on the river, stopping frequently to hike dramatic side canyons and discover Native American rock art accessible only by river.
Our trip begins at our base camp at Green River State Park. Daily hikes sample some of the best scenery in the Canyonlands region, from the pine-scented overlooks of the Green and Colorado Rivers, through geologic wonders, and into hidden canyons with abundant traces of early Native Americans. A visit to the John Wesley Powell Museum will deepen our understanding of the river’s history and Native Americans in the region. On our third evening we get ready for the river section of the trip. Depending on river flows, we will begin our rafting journey either on the west side of the Island in the Sky District at Mineral Bottom on the Green River or on the east side at Potash boat launch on the Colorado River.
These two mighty rivers are carved deep within the red rocks of Canyonlands National Park, and define the boundaries of the Island in the Sky District. The famed Cataract Canyon begins just downstream of their confluence. Cataract Canyon is home to the biggest whitewater rapids in Utah.
While the whitewater is certainly a draw, there’s much more to this river experience, including serene floats beneath towering 1,000-foot canyon walls, sandy beach camps, star-filled skies, and a variety of hikes. The canyons feature 300 million years of rock history, abstract sculpted sandstone spires, and Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs and granaries.
Upstream of Cataract Canyon, the fast-moving current glides quietly beneath brilliantly colored cliffs and towering table-top mesas. This is a good time to experience inflatable kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. We stop each day for hikes to discover ancient art; explore arches, overhangs, and spires; and photograph dramatic scenery. Evening camps are on riverside beaches. Our professional river guides will prepare scrumptious meals while we relax at happy hour. Canyonlands National Park has been designated a “Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park” and at night we should be able to see tens of thousands of stars in the dark sky.
On our next-to-last day we descend through Cataract Canyon. This section of the river drops so steeply that we run over 30 rapids in just a few miles. These Class III and IV rapids will fire up our adrenaline, drench us with water, and make us scream in delight. After running the drops, we spend our final night on a sandy beach, celebrating our exhilarating experiences and new friendships.
The next morning we get a different look at the river as it rapidly carves through sediment that at one time formed a delta as the river entered Lake Powell. The river now flows to our take-out through the upper reaches of the re-emerging Glen Canyon. From there we are driven back to our starting point in Green River.
Day 1: Trip begins midday at the picnic tables beside the John Wesley Powell Museum. Following introductions, we spend an hour exploring the John Wesley Powell River History Museum. The Museum contains exhibits about the history of the area, river running, and dinosaurs, as well as a movie depicting John Wesley Powell’s first descent of the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. In a few days we retrace one of the most exciting segments of their journey, and when we do we remember that Powell and his team traveled in inflexible wooden boats with no knowledge of what lay around each bend of the canyon. Upon leaving the museum we explore a nearby canyon with Barrier-style rock art and get a feel for hiking in red rock country
Day 1: Trip begins midday at the picnic tables beside the John Wesley Powell Museum. Following introductions, we spend an hour exploring the John Wesley Powell River History Museum. The Museum contains exhibits about the history of the area, river running, and dinosaurs, as well as a movie depicting John Wesley Powell’s first descent of the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. In a few days we retrace one of the most exciting segments of their journey, and when we do we remember that Powell and his team traveled in inflexible wooden boats with no knowledge of what lay around each bend of the canyon. Upon leaving the museum we explore a nearby canyon with Barrier-style rock art and get a feel for hiking in red rock country. When we return we check-in to our group campsite at the Green River State Park. This lush, shaded park along the Green River is our home for days 1-3. As we set up camp, our guides prepare dinner. Our next day’s plan and other local knowledge is then shared while we enjoy our evening meal.
Days 2-3: Red rock country provides a near-infinite range of hiking options. Depending on the weather, road conditions, and permit availability, we may hike in Dead Horse Point State Park, in surrounding BLM lands, or within one of the nearby national parks. Every hike will provide a different perspective on this fascinating country. In the words of Edward Abbey “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”
Days 4-6: Let’s get on the river! Depending on weather and river conditions, our trip may start on the Colorado just outside of Moab, or on the Green River at Mineral Bottom.
Either way, our itinerary on these days will be a relaxing journey through beautiful red-rock canyon country. Each day there is time for participants to play on the river in the inflatable kayaks or on the stand-up paddleboards (SUPs). There are daily hikes that provide opportunities to stretch our legs while we visit spectacular rock art and granary sites, experience dramatic geology, and take in stunning river views. At points the sheer sandstone cliffs force the river into tight loops or meanders. Regardless of whether we start on the Colorado or the Green we will be deep in the heart of Canyonlands National Park.
Day 7: We approach the confluence, where the river flow is nearly doubled as the Green and Colorado Rivers merge. In the afternoon we’ll encounter the first rapids of Cataract Canyon near our campsite for the night.
Day 8: It’s time for Cataract Canyon! We put away the inflatable kayaks and the SUPs and prepare to run the dozens of legendary Class III-IV big drops of Cataract. We’ll learn about the unique geology that resulted in the narrowing canyon and the steep drops. Geologic events have formed a chain of significant rapids. We encounter over 30 major rapids in 15 miles, and each one is a thrill! After splashes and excitement, we spend our last night together on one more sandy beach, falling asleep to the murmur of the river.
Day 9: In past years we would coast into the upper reaches of Lake Powell and be met by a motorboat for a tow to the takeout. But with the drought the reservoir is so low that power generation is threatened, and studies show it may never fill again. So we can now float the upper reaches of Glen Canyon through a surreal landscape of steep cliffs of silt, unofficially called the “Dominy Formation', named for the infamous Bureau of Reclamation director who pushed for building Glen Canyon Dam. Since the lake filled 50 years ago, a river delta has formed as the Colorado dumped its sediment load into the upper reaches of Lake Powell. As reservoir levels have dropped, the river has quickly carved through this silt delta, and we can now float all the way to our take-out. During the trip we’ll talk about these dramatic changes and the start – sooner than anyone expected – of the reemergence of Glen Canyon from the silt. Our outfitter’s van meets us at take-out for the return to Green River in late afternoon.
Please note, the trip price does not include gratuities for the river guides. Gratuities are customary, but are entirely voluntary and solely at your discretion. The guides work hard day and night to make this trip as memorable and fulfilling for you as possible. If you agree they worked hard and contributed significantly to the success and enjoyment of your outing, you may want to express your appreciation with a tip. A guideline of 9-18% of the trip price per guest is appropriate. Your Sierra Club trip leaders do not share any portion of the gratuity; your leaders are unpaid volunteers and cannot accept them.
Our trip begins and ends in the town of Green River, Utah. Green River is about 180 miles east of Salt Lake City, on I-70. If you choose to fly, the airports closest to Green River are Moab's Canyonlands Field Airport (CNY): 33 miles; Grand Junction, CO (GJT): 102 miles; and Salt Lake City, UT (SLC): 187 miles. Rental cars are available at all three airports. There are also shuttle services from CNY or SLC to Green River. Amtrak provides daily train service to Green River, and Rocky Mountaineer trains stop in Moab. Your trip leader may be able to assist you in making travel arrangements, and in finding other participants for carpooling. Please hold off on making non-refundable travel arrangements until notified to do so by the trip leader
Our trip begins and ends in the town of Green River, Utah. Green River is about 180 miles east of Salt Lake City, on I-70. If you choose to fly, the airports closest to Green River are Moab's Canyonlands Field Airport (CNY): 33 miles; Grand Junction, CO (GJT): 102 miles; and Salt Lake City, UT (SLC): 187 miles. Rental cars are available at all three airports. There are also shuttle services from CNY or SLC to Green River. Amtrak provides daily train service to Green River, and Rocky Mountaineer trains stop in Moab. Your trip leader may be able to assist you in making travel arrangements, and in finding other participants for carpooling. Please hold off on making non-refundable travel arrangements until notified to do so by the trip leader.
Accommodations and Food
For days 1-3, we will be camping at a group campsite in Green River. The campground has flush toilets and showers. For days 4-9, we will be camping along the river. After the trip ends late in the afternoon of day 10, it is recommended that participants spend the night in Green River and join in a no-host farewell dinner before traveling onward.
All food will be provided, beginning with dinner on day 1 through lunch on day 9. Breakfasts include fresh coffee, and depending on the day may include items such as made-to-order omelets, fresh blueberry pancakes, hash browns, bacon, and sausage. There is always a cold option of granola, yogurt, and fresh fruit for those who prefer something lighter. If you’re hungry during the day, there’s trail mix, snack bars, and fruit. Lunch is served deli style or packed ahead of time for a day of hiking, and can range from chicken Caesar wraps; to deli sandwiches or wraps with all the extras like pickles, avocado, hummus & hot sauce. After a long day of hiking or rafting, we’ll wind down with freshly prepared appetizers and delicious camp dinners. We can accommodate food allergies and most ordinary dietary restrictions with advance notice and meals can be tailored for vegetarians. Please indicate any dietary issues on the personal questionnaire that you submit when you reserve the trip.
Beverages will be provided including drinking water, lemonade, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. You may wish to bring your own sodas or other favorite beverages in plastic bottles, cans, or wine boxes. No glass is allowed on the river trip and no alcohol is allowed during the day or while on the river. This is for your safety, and the safety and enjoyment of others. Marijuana use is not permitted as it is illegal on federal lands.
The hiking and rafting activities are moderate to strenuous in nature, and participants need to be in basic good health so that we can all enjoy the trip. Many of the hikes are 5-7 miles in length, and include elevation gain and steep, rocky trails. Weather in spring or fall can be unpredictable, so hikes may be cool or quite hot. Participants are encouraged to walk, hike, and do muscle strengthening exercises in preparation for the trip. The entire river trip is professionally guided and includes rapids up to Class IV. No previous rafting experience is necessary; however, participants should be able to brace themselves on a raft, expect to get wet, and be prepared for the unlikely event of a swim in whitewater. The outfitter will give an in-depth safety talk before we get on the river. Participants will be asked to assist in loading and unloading dry bags and other equipment on and off the rafts. They need to be able to carry their camping gear to and from the campsites, as well as set up and take down their own tent.
Equipment and Clothing
Rafts, paddles, life jackets, waterproof river bags, camp chairs, and group kitchen gear will be provided. In addition to your personal camping clothes, you'll need to have a free-standing, backpack-type tent with a removable rainfly, as well as a sleeping bag and pad, or if desired, a tent and sleeping gear can be rented from the outfitter. You should also bring broken-in hiking shoes, a day pack, and water bottles for the hikes. Your Sierra Club leader will provide a detailed clothing and equipment list specific to this trip after you sign up.
An overview of this area's natural and human history will enhance your experience. The following sources are recommended:
- Patterson, Carol, Petroglyphs of Western Colorado and the Northern Ute Indian Reservation as Interpreted by Clifford Duncan. Anthropologist Carol Patterson and Northern Ute elder Clifford Duncan describe and decipher petroglyphs found throughout western Colorado. The interpretations are supplemented with cultural and political history to provide a background context. In addition, ethnographic information from other scholars provides readers with a deep appreciation as to what makes Ute petroglyphs so unique and fascinating.
- Webb, Belnap, and Weisheit, Cataract Canyon: A Human and Environmental History of Rivers in Canyonlands. 2004. A Tour of the natural, environmental, and human history of Cataract Canyon. “Cataract Canyon is a book of scientific and emotional integrity. Consider it a passport for anyone entering this particular stretch of the Colorado River with their eyes wide open for a joyous pilgrimage.” (Terry Tempest Williams)
- Powell, John Wesley, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons; An American classic of exploration. Powell recounts the 1869 geographic expedition he led down the Green River to its confluence with the Grand (now the Colorado) River through the Grand Canyon. One will gain a great sense of awe at the accomplishments of Powell and his company as you descend through Cataract Canyon today.
The Colorado Plateau and its watersheds continue to be the front lines for water wars in the age of climate change. Our land and river journey is a perfect setting to put into perspective the history and development of water resources in the region from John Wesley Powell’s 1969 exploration, the creation of National Parks and Monuments, and through the era of big dam projects. Despite a shrinking Lake Powell, there are still proposals for new dams in the watersheds of the Green and Colorado Rivers. We will talk about today’s complex challenges and threats to Utah’s wilderness-quality lands, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, National Monuments which lie on either side of Canyonlands National Park. These threats include water shortages, mining, oil and gas development, as well as the booming tourism industry.
We will also discuss the work that the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other organizations are doing to preserve the remaining wilderness in the Southwest.
Going back in time further, we will learn about the vibrant history of the area’s Ancestral Puebloans, and the challenges current tribes face.
We are guests on this land. These lands were first inhabited by waves of migration from Ancestral Puebloans, and later Fremont, and more recently Navajo, Ute and Paiute peoples. We acknowledge that these lands were considered sacred, and in many cases these peoples were forcibly removed from their homelands. As we traverse these lands, we remember and respect those who came before us.
Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and when applicable will operate under permits obtained from U.S. federal land agencies.