For the river rat, permit season is a nerve-wracking time.
It starts with grand visions of a summer packed chock-full of trips on stretches of rivers that are hard to draw permits for, with dreams of finally getting onto Gates of Ladore, the Upper Salt River, Hell’s Canyon…and, as is the case with all lotteries, disappointment the only thing you can count on.
But it’s OK, really, because the giant swatch of desolate land between western Colorado and eastern Utah – basically, in our backyard – is a desert landscape, full of veins that offer a summer of river adventure for everyone, from the first-time boater to the experienced navigator. If you dream of getting away from the real world, nothing beats floating in the desert. Around the southwestern Colorado-northeastern Utah border, it’s an easy drive to river-rafting put-ins for trips of all levels, and the bureaucratic hassle between you and river paradise is kept to a minimum.
The easiest and most satisfying high-desert river trips can be found on the lower portion of the Gunnison River, and on several stretches of the Colorado River spanning the Utah/Colorado state line, from Grand Junction to Moab.
ESCALANTE CANYON TO DOMINQUEZ CANYON, I-II
Coming from Telluride, Ouray, Ridgway or Montrose, the easiest and most accessible nearby desert river trip is one- or two-day float on the lower Gunnison River from Escalante Canyon to Dominquez Canyon.
This 13-mile class I-II is a perfect first trip of the season in May and June, before it gets too hot and buggy. Set between the Grand Mesa to the east and the red slick-rocked 66,000-acre Dominquez Canyon Wilderness Area to the west, the river slowly meanders north, in and out of fruit orchards. It’s a slow, family-friendly trip that can easily be done in one day – or two, if a night under the stars is part of the plan.
While this lazy river trip is perfect for rafts, kayaks, stand-up paddles and canoes, the real adventure can be found by hiking into Dominguez Canyon near the takeout (where designated campsites are located). Think of it as a visit to the set of your favorite Spaghetti Western.
RUBY HORSETHIEF, I-II
An equally lazy but more popular desert float can be found further downstream on the Colorado River, just past its confluence with the Gunnison, on the Ruby-Horsethief stretch. This 25-mile class I-II has grown in popularity over the past few years because of its close vicinity to Western Slope population centers and its immense camping possibilities. Because it’s so popular, the Bureau of Land Management recently enacted a permit requirement for camping from May 1 through September.
Starting in Loma, Colo., and ending at the Westwater takeout in Utah, the stretch of river is mostly flat-water; in the intense summer heat, it’s a great place to cool down. Upon turning west, the river is surrounded by red rock canyons that offer plenty of opportunities for side hikes and exploration.
While there are 35 designated campsites, the most popular among them are in the Black Rocks stretch of the river, where 1.7 billion-year-old black Vishnu schist pokes up along the riverbanks. If you are into camping soon after launching, opt for the Rattlesnake camp. While the beach isn’t great, the camp’s natural amphitheater creates a desert seclusion not found at some of the more popular downstream camping areas. Hikers will want to check out the large number of arches to be found upon hiking out of the Rattlesnake camp.
For those looking for quiet desert seclusion, Ruby-Horsethief may not be for you, especially on the weekends: Its popularity is the one drawback of this scenic stretch of river. The pluses are many, however: It’s easy to get to. It’s easy to row. The shuttle isn’t long. It’s like car-camping, on the river. Just be prepared for neighbors.
WESTWATER CANYON, I-IV
Where Ruby-Horsethief ends, Westwater Canyon begins. This 17-mile stretch of the Colorado River is not so much about the riverside camping, although there are some great sites. It’s mostly about the class I-IV whitewater that can be encountered, depending on the time of year and the spring runoff. Because it is one of the most popular whitewater trips in Utah, BLM permits are required year-round.
The set of fast-moving rapids on this stretch can humble even the most experienced boaters, as even the slightest mistake can quickly mean a flipped raft (I know this from firsthand experience). Should you decide to camp above the rapids, the roar of the river will be a constant reminder of what’s to come the next day, from rapids with ominous names – “Funnel Falls,” “Skull” and “Sock-It-to-Me” – awaiting you downstream. These three rapids give boaters the most trouble, but believe me, a beer never tastes as good as after you’ve run the rapids on Westwater.
A lot of whitewater seekers go for permits early in the summer, during the spring runoff, when it’s the bigger whitewater action, but I personally prefer the lower whitewater levels, later in the summer. Call me a wuss, but for my money, that inevitable cold-water drenching just feels better in the late summer months. But that’s a personal preference, and any time, from early to mid to late summer, Westwater Canyon is a must-do for any water rat longing for deep whitewater action.
MOAB DAILY, I-III
Further on downstream, closer to Moab, things calm down again, on the 13-mile stretch of river called the Moab Daily. Depending on the river conditions, this section of the Colorado ranges from class I-III, making it perfect for anyone wanting the taste of a quick and easy river trip in just one day.
If you’re heading to Moab for a day or two in one of its National Parks, the Daily section is perfect for a unique rafting add-on. As the river rolls westward, glimpses of the La Sal Mountains and Fisher towers can be seen. And if just a taste of this stretch isn’t enough of an outdoors experience, there are plenty of camping opportunities to be had, as well.
The Colorado River adventures, of course, don’t stop here. You can keep rafting (with the required permits) all the way to Lake Powell, if you want to. The giant swath of land spanning western Colorado and eastern Utah has immense river possibilities, but with low water on some rivers, these desert river stretches are easily the most reliable.
And so, regardless of how I do in the late-spring river permit lottery, you can find me on these sections of the Colorado throughout the long, hot summer.
More information and regulations on each of those river sections can be found online at Bureau of Land Management websites. If you don’t own river equipment or don’t have river rowing skills, there are a host of local outfitters who can take you on the river adventure you seek.