Westwater Canyon: Getting in the offseason flow on the Colorado River
There is nothing more relaxing and beautiful than floating downstream on the Colorado River.My offseason scene this year consisted of red canyon walls set against a bright blue Utah sky with vibrant green cottonwood trees coming to life along the riverbank. There were constant sightings of egrets, great blue herons, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and ducklings during our three-day trip.It gave us time to leave the world behind and the opportunity to become one with the Colorado River. It was the ultimate three-day getaway.Relaxing on the river is all well and good, but a good old-fashion heart-racing rapid sure got my blood pumping. Westwater Canyon is the first whitewater stretch of the Colorado River in Utah. National Geographic labeled it “the West’s Best Short White Water Rafting Trip.”
The 17-mile stretch has 11 class III and class IV rapids, plus numerous less-challenging ones to play in. This section has been nicknamed the “Little Grand,” in comparison to the famous rapids of the Grand Canyon.
The river is nothing to be trifled with – it has killed seven people since 1982. It can be a dangerous place if not treated with respect. My river-rat friends and I never underestimate the river, and that is why we came out unscathed again.While floating downriver, your imagination goes back in time – there is so much history along this stretch. The black uplifted rocks are the oldest exposed formations in eastern Utah. This Precambrian metamorphic gneiss is approximately 1.75 billion years old. Chinle and Wingate sandstone walls tower above the Precambrian inner canyon.There’s a miner’s cabin at river mile 124. The rock and log dugout structure was built in the early 1900s by miners seeking gold in gravel beds next to the river. The so-called “Outlaw Cave” is perched a short distance downstream of Hades Bar campsite at river mile 120. According to one legend, two brothers hid here for 18 months after robbing a bank in Vernal, Utah. We put in at Loma, Colo., on a Friday and floated 20-or-so miles to Westwater, where we got our permits, and ran the rapids the same day. We took out at Cisco, Utah, on Sunday. There are awesome campsites along the entire stretch, with sandy beaches and plenty of hiking. Depending on water level and trip length, you will see from 18 to 50 miles of the Colorado’s finest beaches, side canyons and campsites.
Westwater Canyon is best run from April through October. Peak time is in June. Because of its popularity, permits are required year-round for private and commercial use. Between April 1 and Sept. 30, private use is limited to five permits or 75 people (whichever occurs first) per day; commercial use is limited during this period to 75 passengers per day. From Oct. 1 through March 31, private use is limited to nine permits or 150 people per day. Commercial use generally does not take place during that time period. Permits are issued only through advance reservations and the maximum group size is 25 people.Westwater Canyon begins near the Utah/Colorado border, approximately 50 miles northeast of Moab. How to Get There:
•Westwater Ranger Station (the put-in): From Interstate 70, take exit 227. Turn south at the stop sign and proceed for nine miles to the ranger station. •Cisco Landing (the takeout): From Interstate 70, take exit 214. Turn south at the stop sign. Follow this road to the (mostly) ghost town of Cisco. Turn left near the “Cisco Disco,” a decrepit building with an elaborate mural. Take another left shortly thereafter. After 2.5 miles, turn left toward Cisco Landing. The boat ramp is two miles down this road.•The shuttle: The round-trip shuttle from Westwater Ranger Station to Cisco Landing takes approximately two hours. •The closest services (i.e., gas, telephone) are in Mack, Colo., and Thompson Springs, Utah, both of which are located along I-70.
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