Utah has no shortage of excellent whitewater rafting runs, but few are as accessible as Westwater Canyon. Westwater is the first canyon the Colorado River flows through after it crosses the Utah border. It’s the quintessential desert river trip: beautiful scenery, challenging whitewater, abandoned outlaw hideouts, and absolute solitude. What’s more, the river has a fairly long season and is usually runnable from early spring to late fall. Most years you can even make a trip in the middle of winter, as long as you’re willing to put up with freezing temperatures at night and the possibility of ice bridges covering the entire river.
My friends and I have planned a Westwater trip every fall for the past six years. We usually run it as an overnight trip, camping in the canyon just before the first major rapids. But the canyon also makes a great day-trip, especially when the water is moving faster in spring and early summer.
This trip has something for everyone. It’s a great first rafting trip for friends who have never been, and it’s still a lot of fun for the more seasoned boaters. That being said, it is not a place for inexperienced guides. The folks at the oars need to know what they’re doing or you could find yourself literally swimming through mile after mile of big water. The rapids are all very close together and there are few eddies to pull over and regroup, especially when the water is high.
The first day of floating is mostly flat water. It’s a great opportunity to slow down and soak up the scenery. And even in autumn the weather is usually nice enough to go for a swim. Along the way there are several canyons to stop at for a quick (or long) hike as well as a few abandoned cabins and dugouts to explore.
There are plenty of great camping options in the canyon. This year we camped at one of my favorite spots, Little Dolores Creek, right at the top of the first major rapid. Little D, as it’s affectionately known, is a large site perfect for a group of 18 or more (group sizes are limited to 25) and there’s a great hike up the creek to a small waterfall just a mile or two from camp. But best of all, the rapid at Little Dolores has a beautiful surf wave for kayakers or anyone who just wants to swim through and get water up their nose. The wave can be difficult to catch at lower flows, but it still offers a pretty rowdy ride.
After a few hours of playing and hiking around, we enjoyed a meal of dutch oven potatoes and BBQ chicken. Fires are usually permitted in the canyon, although they were banned for most of this season due to the insane wildfire season throughout the west. Fortunately the ban was lifted just before our launch date so we enjoyed a warm night by the fire, sleeping under a full moon.
The second day is a significant change of pace from the first. The red rock canyons give way to pink granite and billion-year-old schist as the canyon narrows and the river speeds up. Eleven named rapids await, the biggest of which, Skull, has a massive wave hole right in the center of the river that feeds into an extremely powerful eddy known as the “Room of Doom.” At higher flows (12,000 CFS and above), boats can easily flip here, sending their passengers on a long, cold swim, or sending them to the Room of Doom for half an hour, floating in circles with dead cows and other debris that’s washed in from the surrounding desert, waiting for someone to pluck them out from above. But later in the season, it’s usually just a rocky rapid with a few good waves and nothing more. At lower flows the real fun comes from the rapids above Skull (Hummer, Marble Canyon, Funnel Falls) and below it (Sock-it-to-me, Last Chance). This year I ran the canyon at the lowest I’ve ever seen it (2,900 CFS) and it was still a wild ride with plenty of big waves and swift water despite the low flows.
After the last rapids, the water slows down considerably to enjoy a lazy float for a few hours, throwing your unsuspecting friends into the water for a cold swim before reaching the takeout at Cisco, Utah. Cisco is a classic abandoned railroad and mining town, although vandals and harsh weather have destroyed most of the relics. From Cisco, it’s an hour drive to Green River where every trip has to end with a stop at Ray’s Tavern to enjoy a burger and a drink before heading home.
Permits are required to run Westwater Canyon, but are very easy to obtain. Just call the BLM Westwater field station two months before your launch date to reserve your spot. Commercial trips are also available through just about every outfitter in the state. You can see a list of outfitters here.