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The Mighty Cataract Canyon

If any of you are like me, you didn’t know about Cataract Canyon. I knew there was a ton of great whitewater out West, and I had rafted several times near Buena Vista, CO and Taos, NM. I was unaware that the biggest whitewater in the lower 48 was in Utah – in Canyonlands National Park, no less. I didn’t know that Canyonlands is home to some of THE most remote wilderness in the country. I definitely didn’t know that Cataract Canyon was legendary, and a float down it was a trip of a lifetime.

The Colorado and Green rivers come together in Canyonlands National Park and fuel the impressive Cataract Canyon rapids. Here we float on the Colorado as we slowly approach its confluence with the Green River.

I was clueless until a friend gave me a ring one day. He called somewhat out of the blue to tell me that he and 7 other friends were planning on a 6-day rafting trip down the Colorado and Green rivers, right on through Cataract Canyon. He said river levels were liable to be very high because of the extra snowy winter; this was a great thing for rafters seeking a thrill. He thought this kind of trip was right up my alley - he was absolutely correct - and invited me to join them.

Writing about this brings back such strong memories and feelings of true freedom. I felt more alive on this trip than maybe ever – with 6 days to float, watching millions of years glide by with every paddle stroke, we were all able to disconnect completely from the outside world. We were on a team and we depended on each other to not only get down the river, but also to make camp, food, shelter, and most importantly FUN.

Freedom and happiness are the best words I can think of to describe this experience. Through some pictures I’ll try to convey how magical Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado and Green rivers, and the desert southwest are. If you ever get the chance to float Cataract Canyon, take it!!

Day 1

I watched as everyone, coming together throughout the day, contributed gear that helped make this trip so seamless and affordable. Everyone aside from me was experienced in whitewater rafting or kayaking, and with the help of friends and family we accumulated boats, Paco pads (made in New Mexico and so amazing!), coolers, tables, tarps, dry bags, ammo cans (for dry-keeping), a toilet/"groover", paddles, life vests, helmets, chairs, camp canopy, stand up paddle boards, food, water, and probably more I’m leaving out. We were told to each budget 10 beers per day, so we had roughly 540 beers in tow. If you didn’t know how much a whitewater raft could hold, now you do – enough supplies, food, beer, and water for 9 people for 6 days fit on TWO rafts with enough room for passengers to sit comfortably. Not a bad way to travel.

Packing begins! It took a few hours for everyone to assemble and get the boats packed, and the stoke was high. What awaited us in these next several days was a mystery and so much fun to anticipate.

We got rigged up by midday and then we were off! We floated for a few hours, got our bearings with our new vehicles, and wrapped up a big day at a great campsite (no photos of this one!), an amazing dinner, and a ton of laughter. What an amazing start to the trip.


I'll sum up our second day with this photo:

The first couple of days looked just like this - we had many miles to cover over calm water; we enjoyed the chill pace and extra time to take in the scenery.

The first 100 miles is as easy going as this looks: relaxed.

I love my monocular! With the nice, calm pace of the float, we were able to really connect with our surroundings. Here I am, so content just ogling rocks/birds/clouds.

We hiked up, hung out and walked around, and made our ways back down the other side just in time to be picked up!

This little side hike was beautiful and a great stretch for our legs.

Me atop a saddle in the Loop.

After rafting for a couple of days through calm water, enjoying insane views and so many laughs, we came to the Brown Betty campground. This spot is a GEM - it's the last good campground before you start seeing rapids in Cataract Canyon and it also gives you direct access to the Maze's Dollhouse right up on the canyon rim. Remember we're floating through some of the most remote and desolate land in the US! This part of Canyonlands National Park is incredibly difficult to access by car, so aside from the seldom raft floating or dory buzzing by, we were completely on our own. Our plan upon landing at Brown Betty was to stay the night, take the next day off from rafting to explore, and then prepare for the wild ride ahead of us.

We pulled into the luxuriously spacious sand bar in the afternoon and set up camp. This site is a dream - lots of area for people to spread out, play games, dock rafts, and most importantly explore.

cataract canyon, brown betty
We somehow managed to nab the Brown Betty campsite, the last respite before running the gauntlet down Cataract Canyon. This site also give you direct trail access to the Maze's Dollhouse, a part of Canyonlands so remote you might only get to read about it.

This is the south-facing view from the Brown Betty campground...I wish they'd just left me down here to live!

Bocce ball reached a whole new level out here - we took advantage of the more natural obstacles to mix things up.


Day 3 unfolded beautifully - everyone woke with the sun, made breakfast, and prepped for a day of hiking the rim of this incredible canyon. Each of us planned for a full day of exploring the Dollhouse, a famed and isolated geologic treasure tucked back in Canyonlands National Park. I had been anticipating this part of the trip since hearing from a geology professor that, during his raft guiding days, this was one of the most special places he'd ever been. And today was the day I got to witness it!!

Just unreal, this place - our hike began along the banks of the Colorado River and soon the trail transformed into steep switchbacks.

Before we knew it, we were seeing signs that we were on the right track and SO CLOSE to some real magic.

The granaries in the vicinity of the Dollhouse are artifacts remaining from when Native Americans called this area home. What an amazing place to live! Our first stop, though, was the Dollhouse proper.

This was our first real view of the Dollhouse - one big, beautiful valley with lots of otherworldly sandstone sculptures just waiting to be explored.

As we hiked, we came across a beautiful place called Surprise Valley - bounded by faults on either side, this valley's center dropped down, thus creating this cute little hidden valley and defining it as a graben.


Here the boats, fully loaded, get ready to embark down some hungry rapids!

The master oarsmen put us in the log book and discuss the plan for the upcoming rapids. We had two kayakers on this trip - they had an even wilder ride ahead! This was when the euphoria of the trip so far transformed somewhat into a subdued terror/exhilaration of what was to come.

I'm lacking photo proof of THE MOST EXCITING part of the trip, but trust me, it was intense, amazing, nerve-wracking, and absolutely worth it!! I'm so thankful to have been part of such a talented and knowledgeable crew.


We float a bit of the way down past the rapids and set up camp for our final hoorah. We camped out one last night a great spot near a big bend in the river (the site name is lost on me), and celebrated an incredible journey.

Here we set up camp for our last night on the river. Words can't describe how much I enjoyed this trip and these people. The memory will be so strong that I'll be chasing this experience for the rest of my time.

The final panorama showcasing the views we had to *endure* for nearly the past week.


Leaving Cataract Canyon was difficult. As much fun as possible was had before the river forced us to come back to reality - to Lake Powell, our cars, our unpacking, and our departures from a family bond made over the past week. As with a lot of trips it seems, it rained on the last day as we slowly floated under the first bridge we'd seen since the beginning of the week. The bridge, and the people on it, represented civilization. We were finished. WHAT AN EPIC TIME!!!

Photo credits: Many of these photos were taken by Justin Bobb, local New Mexican and master outdoorsman.

#CataractCanyon #Canyonlands #Utah #ColoradoRiver #GreenRiver #Dollhouse #whitewater #adventure #rafting #TheMaze #geology #SUP #hiking #backcountry #camping #brownbetty #groover #sendit

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