The roar is deafening. From shore, the Colorado River looks like an angry serpent, coiling and unspooling through drops the size of small waterfalls before cresting over waves that rise dozens of feet high. From my vantage, the three Big Drop rapids, sporting names like Little Niagara and Satan’s Gut, look like a nightmare. I can’t imagine what it will be like in the middle of that chaos. It is late spring and winter runoff is pushing through at 28,000 cfs – far from flood-stage water, but enough to create technical, class-IV rapids. My palms sweat as we scope out the whitewater of Cataract Canyon. The roar seems to increase in volume as we walk back to the boats, and my irrational fear of drowning kicks into high gear. I almost wish I could skip this part of the trip. I already experienced my favorite times on this river excursion, which didn’t come in the form of rapids. No, I’m far more interested in what resides alongside the river; the sideshows of Cataract Canyon.
When in the water, I’m like a fish flopping out of it. So when I got the opportunity to go rafting in Cataract Canyon, I hesitated. I’m far more comfortable on dry land, and all my past rafting experiences ended with my boat wrapped like a taco shell around a mid-river boulder in the most dangerous rapids. This happened twice in Colorado – once in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and again on the Arkansas River near Salida. Nearly hypothermic, I had to be rescued both times by guides, but only after they peeled the deflated raft off my rocky perch. I vowed I would never go rafting again.
But then I learned about the side hikes that are part of a Cataract Canyon river trip. Trails meander through remote canyons to ancient ruins. Cliffs are a canvas for immaculately preserved pictographs and rock-hammered graffiti left behind by members of John Wesley Powell’s first expedition of the Colorado River in 1869. Beyond the history of the place, a hike in Dark Canyon leads to crystal-water swimming holes glistening below cold waterfalls. And the most photo-worthy hike of them all, The Doll House, offers a steep climb from the river that leads to candy-colored spires in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, one of the most remote places in the United States. Forget the rapids. The river will be my transport to landscapes I would otherwise never get to witness. So I signed on.
My fears about the rapids are eased by the fact that our guides are Utah State Parks river rangers. They put the trip together so I can shoot an episode of KSL Outdoors along with the show’s host, Adam Eakle. Among the rangers are Jeff Arbon, who focuses on river safety, Ty Hunter, who is the Boating Program Manager for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, and Eugene Swalberg, Public Affairs Coordinator for Utah State Parks. But the captain of my boat is Brody Young, who was a professional guide for Western River Expeditions for five years before becoming a law enforcement ranger for the State of Utah. In that role, he miraculously survived being shot 9 times at the Poison Spider Mesa trailhead near Moab during a routine patrol in 2010. With a survivor like Young at the helm of my raft, I know I’m in capable hands.
Old Art, Ancient Wood
It’s mid-morning when we put in just north of Moab. The entire first stretch is flat water that we motor through as fast as possible. With nothing much to see until the Potash evaporation ponds, I’m content to just doze in the sun and close my eyes against the spray coming off the front of the boat’s twin pontoons. But as we float beyond Potash, the canyon walls close in. Rock formations sprout above us, and Dead Horse Point towers above all.
About ten miles from Potash, we come to our first sideshow of the trip. A trailhead overgrown with tamarisk chokes off the shore, leaving barely enough room for two boats. But we somehow squeeze in and tie off. A short trail through the vegetation leads to a rocky hillside where erosion has uncovered a petrified forest. The ancient wood in this place is some of the best I’ve ever seen in Utah. Entire tree trunks, perfectly preserved, stick out from the cliff side and nearby rock outcrops. Closer inspection reveals tree rings and bark that was turned into stone over the course of millions of years. I am fascinated.
A few miles downriver we beach the rafts across from Lathrop Canyon, where sandstone castles rise above the river and hide several pictographs and granaries. A very short hike leads to some of the most brilliant Ancestral Pueblo rock art around. Large overhangs have kept water and wind away from the paintings and the preservation is stunning. There’s a bighorn sheep, triangular humanoid shapes, and a strange arch pattern between two small circles. But my favorite is a row of four handprints that seems to say, “We were here.” One pair is large, likely an adult, but the other is small, perhaps the hands of a child. What’s most interesting is one hand is missing a finger. I can only imagine the story behind that.
According to Winslow Houghton, a Canyonlands Ranger who has joined us on our trip, this entire area is brimming with a huge amount of archeology. The river shore below the rock art shows signs of farming, and all around the field is even more pictographs, petroglyphs, and granaries wedged beneath overhanging rock. Unfortunately, these ruins have been visited to death, and as Houghton shows us one particularly large structure, he explains that it had to be partially rebuilt. “One of these walls was almost completely destroyed. It was pulled down by someone actually getting into it. We had an archeologist come out here and use the old techniques; he used local mud and water and rebuilt the front face of this structure.” I look at the details and can see the color difference in the dried mud. I get closer to take pictures, careful not to touch the delicate rock walls. It’s vitally important to preserve this history so they can remain here for future generations.
After geeking out on the archeological sites in Lathrop, we motor to Indian Canyon. A small beach with numerous tent sites nestled in the trees make this an awesome camp site. But with many miles left to burn, we stop only for another hike. Just as the name implies, Indian Canyon houses another fine collection of 1,000-year-old structures. After a 15-minute walk, we scramble up to a cliff where a neat row of squat buildings are huddled together. They look bigger than granaries, but too small to be dwellings. I take a peek inside one of them, and the space seems like it could fit a person lying down. Perhaps these ruins were like ancient tents – a place to stay a night or two while traveling from canyon to canyon.
I tarry amongst the ruins snapping photos and ask Young what he thinks life would have been like here. “It would have been unimaginably difficult,” he says. “The life span of the ancestral Puebloan Indians, they only lived to be in their thirties. I mean, you probably got married when you hit puberty, 12-14 years old. There was a lot of sand in their diet, so eventually their teeth would wear out and so hence not living as long.” He goes on to say that there is evidence of human teeth on human bone, which makes one wonder if there was cannibalism when drought hit hard and food became scarce.
Late afternoon arrives but we are not done exploring the Colorado River shoreline yet. Our next stop is The Loop hike. The trail itself isn’t a loop – that moniker refers to the river as it makes a huge turn, literally looping back upon itself over the course of several miles. Whoever isn’t driving a boat gets dropped off to make the 700-vertical foot climb up to a saddle, then down to meet the boats on the other side where the river comes back around. Huffing up the switchbacks, Eakle asks why we’re bothering to do this. “For the view,” Young says. “It’s all about the view. And the exercise.” And he’s right, the view is spectacular. From the saddle, I look up and down the mighty Colorado as it cuts through the land, just as it has for millions of years. The top of the Loop hike lends perspective on how big the river and canyon is compared to my puny body. Our boats floating far below look smaller than ants on a sidewalk.
The Doll House
Day two is rapids day. But before we get drenched in Cataract Canyon’s 28 rapids, we pack up camp on a wide, sandy beach, then motor across the river to a trailhead for a morning hike to the Doll House. When Powell came around a bend up river, he saw these colorful spires atop the canyon wall and called them The Sentinels. But according to Houghton, the name changed in the ranching days when one of the rancher’s daughters thought one particular formation looked like a doll house. Slowly the name spread to the whole region.
The hike is steep as it ascends high above Spanish Bottom. As I conjure up my inner stairmaster, I’m struck at how well maintained the trail is. The rangers say it used to be an old cattle trail and I have a hard time imagining ranchers rustling cows up and down a hillside as steep and rocky as this. It’s only mid-morning, and the temperatures are already pushing 90 degrees. Buzzards circle overhead. A 1,000-foot climb brings us to the Doll House, a large outcropping of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that has been weathered into a collection of beautiful towers and spires. I lag behind the group, busy taking photos of these fantastic rocks. Overlooks provide a view of the Needles District across Cataract Canyon. The Colorado stretches far below like a brown roll of melted taffy. The La Sal Mountains shimmer on the horizon, where the remains of winter’s snow provides contrast to the amber rocks in the foreground.
We navigate over a foot path to a few well preserved granaries. I look at the bottom and can see bark fiber the early inhabitants mixed into the mud for reinforcement. A different path takes us to shadowed hallways between rock towers. I squeeze through a narrow slot, and turn a corner into a cave called the Icebox. Inside, the temperature drops 20 degrees and I can feel a breeze rushing through a gap in the rock like nature’s own air conditioner. I wish I can stay behind, camp in the Icebox, and explore the Doll House for days. It’s a privilege to be here. The Doll House is one of the most remote, hard-to-get-to places in Utah. It’s a 6-hour drive from the Hans Flat Ranger Station on serious 4×4 tracks through the Maze District. Clearly, the river is the best way to reach this desert corner.
The Rapids of Cataract Canyon
“This could flip us. That could flip us,” Young says as he points at every dangerous hole from the shore of Big Drop 2, one of the largest rapids in Cataract Canyon. “And that could flip us,” he proclaims, pointing at one more wave a few yards downriver. To me it seems to be cresting over 20-feet tall. “There’s another flipper downstream and another. It’s endless.” Swalberg gleefully joins in, saying, “On the right there’s this massive big hole they call Little Niagara. On the left is a lateral, and it kind of curls back. They call it the Red Wall. You’ve got to treat it with respect.” I wipe my sweating palms on my already river-soaked shorts and look where Swalberg is pointing. It is one big wave.
My stomach resides in my throat as we approach Big Drop 2 in the rafts. After already riding the bucking bronco through upper rapids with names like Capsize and Ben Hurt, I feel ready to take on the Big Drops. But the roar of the rapids and the sight of unfathomable, thunderous hydraulics put the fear back in me. The definition of “cataract” is a waterfall or cascade. When naming this canyon, Powell chose correctly. In a way, the entire river is one big waterfall as it rampages through the Big Drops, as nowhere else along the whole Colorado system does elevation fall as rapidly in such a short period of time as it does here.
I involuntarily lose my breath as a rush of freezing water avalanches over me. We hit a corner of the Red Wall and the boat goes airborne. I grip a rope tight with one hand, trying not to drop my camera with the other. We land on the opposite side on flat water and I come down hard on my ass. I catch my breath in relief that my body is still in the raft. Behind me, Young is laughing. I laugh too. I’m not afraid anymore. Full of adrenaline, I shake the water out of my eyes and howl right before yet another wave slams into me. Big Drop 2 is unadulterated fun.
The rest of the whitewater goes down in the same manner. The rapids are big for miles, and each one is a view of sky, water, sky, water, as the boats go nearly vertical, up and down, on every roller and white-capped wave.
In a surprisingly short amount of time, the swift water suddenly ends and the river becomes the flat water of Lake Powell. But we’re not done with the Cataract Canyon sideshows yet. The best is saved for last in Dark Canyon. Eighteen miles before the takeout near Hite Marina, we motor the boats into a narrow side canyon, where huge walls of silt left behind by Lake Powell’s receding waters make the drainage narrower still. After bushwhacking in tamarisk and a trudge through sludgy water, we hike alongside a tiny creek to a series of clear pools fed by small waterfalls. Each is an irresistible swimming hole. We dive off rock ledges into the water like children; grown men hollering and splashing. Young climbs to the uppermost cascade and dams it with his body. After enough water builds up behind him, he stands and unleashes a torrent. Elated, I swim to the falls and sit underneath. My vision is obscured by water, much as it was in the rapids. Only this time, it is the last.