Roughing it on the Colorado River

Colorado RiverWith a water­shed run­ning through 11 nation­al parks over sev­en U.S. states, and boast­ing 1,450 miles of riverbed from its birth­place in the south­ern Rocky Moun­tains to its nat­ur­al ter­mi­nus in the Sea of Cortez, the Col­orado Riv­er is a mas­sive dia­mond in the rough whose sto­ried geo­log­ic his­to­ry includes carv­ing the Grand Canyon itself. If you’re ready to join the flotil­la of kayak­ers, rafters and canoeists who ply her waters, here are some tips to get you started.

Lots of Miles to Travel
The Col­orado Riv­er fea­tures near­ly 700 riv­er miles in the U.S. alone, which means you have your pick of how long you’d like to be on the water. Depend­ing on your put-in and take-out points, and the water lev­el, two days of pad­dling plus one overnight on a riv­er island may be just as doable as three weeks of pad­dling and overnights. Con­sid­er whether you’d like to build in time to explore oth­er parts of the riv­er, includ­ing trib­u­taries and side canyons, and fac­tor that into your sched­ule. Keep in mind that the longer you’re afloat, the more work you’ll put in to plan­ning your trip, and the more weight you’ll have in gear and provisions.

Adven­ture for All Skill Levels
While the Col­orado does offer plen­ty of stretch­es of love­ly, drift­ing flat­wa­ter, an unde­ni­able part of its appeal are the white­wa­ter rapids. If you’re still wet behind the ears when it comes to riv­er camp­ing, check out easy kayak trails like the Wilbarg­er Pad­dling Trail, which can be done as a day trip or a slow-paced overnight; or the fam­i­ly friend­ly, 25-mile Ruby-Horsethief Canyons run and score a gor­geous prim­i­tive site through the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment. On the oth­er hand, if you’ve got the skills and expe­ri­ence, noth­ing beats the thrill of big water. Near Radi­um, CO, Cataract Canyon offers rapids from class II-IV, and Gore Canyon in Bond, CO, is home to the apt­ly named Gore Fest for its infa­mous down­riv­er race through wild Class V Gore Canyon. And then there’s the Grand Canyon, which offers an end­less buf­fet of fea­tures. No white­wa­ter enthu­si­ast needs to be told about leg­endary rapids Crys­tal or Lava Falls, but begin­ners beware: these are best left to pro­fes­sion­als and the extreme­ly experienced.

Colorado RiverPaper­work
Once you’ve deter­mined the length of your trip and iden­ti­fied the sec­tion of the riv­er you’d like to run, the next step is to secure any nec­es­sary per­mits with local gov­ern­ing agen­cies in order to law­ful­ly com­plete your run. While skirt­ing author­i­ty to pull out­ra­geous stunts may be “ille­gal, wrong-headed…and glo­ri­ous,” no amount of per­son­al glo­ry is like­ly to off­set the headache of fines and heart­break of a trip cut short for want of prop­er paper­work. Know before you go, and pay care­ful atten­tion to sec­tions of the riv­er that may require mul­ti­ple sign-offs from dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ing bod­ies, such as launch­es from Dia­mond Creek in the Grand Canyon which require both a per­mit from Grand Canyon Nation­al Park and paid access fees to the Huala­pai Tribe.

Life jack­ets save lives, so wear them. Addi­tion­al­ly, be sure to check the flow rate of the sec­tion of riv­er you intend to run, as both high flows and low flows can intro­duce new dan­ger­ous con­di­tions and haz­ards, which may put the trip fur­ther from your com­fort zone. Fif­teen dams along the main stem of the Col­orado pro­vide reg­u­la­tion of flow rate and flood con­trol, so the riv­er does run less wild than it has in the past, but there are still sec­tions where the flow rate can deter­mine whether a par­tic­u­lar rock gar­den is sub­merged or exposed, or where the best line through a haz­ard may lay. Self-res­cue is always your most reli­able bet on the riv­er, so if the con­di­tions appear over­whelm­ing, bet­ter to be safe than sorry.

In addi­tion to your water­craft of choice—be it a wood­en dory, a canoe, inflat­able raft, or a kayak—and all assort­ed oars and pad­dles, you’ll need to pack enough pro­vi­sions for the length of your trip. That includes water! You’ll have plen­ty of it below you, but depend­ing on the river’s con­di­tions, it’s like­ly to be too silty for even the stur­di­est fil­ters. Water­proof dry bags are impor­tant for keep­ing your per­ish­ables fresh and your sleep­ing sys­tem from becom­ing sog­gy; and portable riv­er toi­lets are a must for pro­tect­ing the san­i­ta­tion of a riv­er bot­tom that sees mil­lions of vis­i­tors a year.