Colorado River (Meander Canyon)

Yvonne, Angela, Wallis and Isabelle just downstream from Potash on Day 1. Isabelle is blowing her “Kids don’t Float” safety whistle. This was cute for about 10 minutes. (She blew it nonstop for 5 days.)

We’re floating down the Colorado River in a “cata-canoe”, two 17′ aluminum canoes strapped together by 2x4s with a plywood shelf in the middle. In the 51-mile stretch of gentle flat water between Moab and our final camp at Spanish Bottom, it’s virtually unsinkable. Or so the outfitter said when I rented the boat. If anyone can sink this canoe it’s a boatload of adults and children laden with accessories like multiple changes of warm/dry clothes, bags and bags of food, toys, high chair, extra life-jackets, tarps, stoves, pots, toilet, diapers and anything else you could possibly desire when floating and camping for 5 days with kids.

There are 6 of us in the boat: 4 adults and 2 girls. The girls, age 2 and 4, are wedged behind the front thwart in a pocket lined with dry bags in the hopes of offering some sort of barrier lest they suddenly jump or roll towards the side. They are kept in place with a steady stream of toys and snacks passed forward anytime they become restless.

At the put-in near Potash the canyon is a mile-wide and the 500′ red walls loom in the distance, but by early afternoon the canyon tightens as we drift down the river through muddy waters lined with willow and tamarisk while staring at blood red walls that rise dramatically to the white rim.

Sunset view down river from Camp 1.

We row for about 4 hours until beaching the boat on a large sand bar. The kids are brimming with energy and spend later afternoon wandering around looking at raccoon and ringtail cat tracks and rolling down sand dunes until hair and ears and fingers and toes are packed with mud and sand. That evening we cook dinner while serenaded by the yip of coyotes in the distance.

Camp 1; river-right, Mile 14. (See map below.) Isabelle (2.5) and Wallis (4). One kid is bad enough; put two together and… Not sure why I always forget to move fuel bottles away from fire.

By the end of day 2 we’ve floated 30 miles and have probed deep into Canyonlands National Park. Our float has taken us past several beautiful canyons that we briefly stopped to investigate, but the threat of flash floods made us push on until finally finding a football field length sand bar that looks like the perfect camp.

Bacon & processed meats. When we returned we heard the bad news about bacon and Isabelle sniffled for two solid days.

We set up the tents in late afternoon and wander around on another sand bar looking at animal tracks. Steep walls on either side surround our campsite and just upstream from where we’ve camped Anasazi ruins cling to the canyon walls. The girls dance back and forth across the sand while we set up camp and cook dinner. My daughter runs barefoot, a novelty for anyone from Alaska. Attempts to put shoes back on are met with screams so we eventually give up. We eat, tuck the kids into bed and then once again sit around the fire staring up into the stars and listening to the crackle of tamarisk turning into flame and the splash of river otters in the shallow waters next to us.

Impromptu dance session upon reaching Camp 2.

Camp 2; river-left, Mile 28. We packed a beach ball – the kids (and Jeff) loved it. Jeff at camp 2.

Looking upriver in the morning.

Impromptu dance session upon leaving Camp 2.

We’re making good time so our third day is short. We stop briefly at the outlet of Indian Creek but recent rain has turned the campsites into mud pits so we opt to continue down river. We float only 5 river miles to a glorious sandbar complete with bathing pool and easy hiking access to a short canyon above us.

Day 3; somewhere near Indian Creek. Note constant supply of snacks and water soluble crayons.

We spend the early afternoon exploring the dunes and swimming and take a short hike into a side canyon, but only make it a mile or so before cliffs block our progress. Back at camp we watch the sun set and the rock walls turn gold and red. Later a bright moon rises and burns away all the stars and we gather closer to the fire in the October chill.

Looking down at the Colorado and camp from the side canyon.

Isabelle exploring the sand dunes at Camp 3. My girls.

Camp 3; river-right, Mile 34.

Sunrise. Isabelle’s camp highchair. This thing is awesome – don’t do a river trip without one! Wallis before coffee.

The next morning we awake to find that the river has almost doubled in volume. Where the boat had been beached on dry sand (and tied off) when we went to bed, we now find it partially floating. An endless column of floatsam drifts down river with the current and when we push off we find ourselves continually steering around logs and branches. We learn later that the water went from 4000cfs to 8000cfs overnight.

Jeff powering the canoes. Mid river diaper change. Floatsam.

The increased volume means we make good time and before we know it we’re floating almost double the speed from our previous days. We drift through a double oxbow called the Loop with 500′ walls on either side. A few miles later we approach the only rapid on this section of river. It’s a Class I+ ripple of water called The Slide where the current increases as the river funnels through a slot chocked by rockfall. With the higher water the rapid is bouncy enough to demand extra attention but aside from a good splash there is little to worry about.

In the shadow of The Loop.

Wallis & Jeff.

And then 2 miles later we’re at the confluence with the Green River. The waters flow side by side for a while but then they mix into a frothy soup and soon we’re beaching the canoes at Spanish Bottom and unloading everything for the last time.

At the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Isabelle appears to be attempting to roll out of the boat.

Looking down at Spanish Bottom from the canyon rim near the Dollhouse.

After dinner I carry my daughter around on my shoulders and we wander the desert looking for animals. A 1/4 mile out from camp we hear a rustling and shine the flashlight into the sagebrush to see 4 eyes reflecting back at us. The deer snort and fade into the darkness. We wander about more until she starts to fade and I return her to the tent where she drops off into slumber.

Night shot looking up the Colorado from our camp at Spanish Bottom.

We rise early the next morning and hike to the canyon rim for sunrise. Sitting on top of a cliff with my feet dangling above the Colorado River I watch the horizon burn blue to orange as the sun rises. Off in the distance there is snow on top of the La Sal Mountains and 1500′ below me we can see our camp and the river glistening in the morning light.

Needles District Sunrise.

Sunrise above the Colorado and Surprise Valley.

Spanish Bottom at first light.

Our shuttle arrives a few hours later and we fly upriver passing familiar camps and sights. The visit is too brief; mere hours from now we’ll be on the plane and flying back to winter. Dreaming of sun and sand.

Big J. little j. What beings with J? Just another jet boat journey. J. J. J.

Colorado River – Meander Canyon

This is one of the world-class sections of flat water suitable for kids. If you go in the fall water level will be around 4,000cfs and there will be ample sand bars for camping – if you go in the spring water levels will be closer to 35,000cfs. Spring is faster but with fewer camp spots – fall is best for sandbars and kid hiking. There is a ton of information out there about this section of river so I won’t share much. Here’s all you really need to know:

  1. Go with Tex’s Riverways or Tag-a-Long for the rental / shuttle. We went with Tex’s and they were awesome and I highly recommend them. They were the most helpful in terms of planning and they’re also the only company that rents the cata-canoe which is the ideal kid vehicle. Tag-A-Long is the only company that will shuttle a raft. That said, I think a raft on this section of river would be pretty miserable.
  2. Get Belknap’s Canyonland River Guide, Kelsey’s Canyonland’s River Guide and the National Geographic Canyonlands Map.
  3. Browse this forum for recent river reports and/or to ask questions.