Green River (Desolation & Gray Canyons)

This is a photo dump from a recent trip down Desolation and Gray Canyons on the Green River. 10 of us flew down from Anchorage and spent a week on the river. We had 6 adults and 4 kids ages 3-6. We crowded into 2 16′ rafts and brought a packraft as an extra boat. We had perfect weather (7 days of 70 degree sun) and low flows (3000cfs) which meant the majority of the rapids were mere ripples (but also meant that travel was slow). This was Isabelle’s second desert river trip and she happy to run around barefoot in the sand and spend time with her friends. It was the perfect October escape from Anchorage which can be dreary before the snow arrives.

Prying our feet out of thick mud we shove the rafts off into the glassy waters and drift slowly down river in the slow current. Our boats are heavy: 4 children, 6 adults, 7 days of food, 25 gallons of water and all the amenities needed to keep kids (and adults) happy, sane and safe for a week of wilderness river travel. We were drifting into Desolation Gray Canyon – an 84 mile stretch of the Green River from Sand Wash to Swasey’s Boat Ramp with everything from slow meandering flat water, exciting rapids and sandy beaches made for children.

Isabelle at the Sand Wash put in.

Our crew!

Lunch (and sand castle) break around mile 88

The first portion of the river is flat water and the low flow makes for slow travel. We spend our time pulling hard on the oars and battling bored children who need to run. We drift past a lone wild horse drinking from the river, beaver, blue heron and a group of desert bighorn. In the distance we hear coyotes yipping and the sun burns our pale skin while the dry heat cracks our hands and fingers. Midday temperatures are in the 70s and the water is around 65, warm enough to put your feet and hands in, but not quite warm enough for swimming.

Finally, just before the children revolt from pent up frustration we beach the rafts one a sandbar and cut the kids loose so they can run barefoot through the sand. We’re at mile 83 and have floated 13 miles. We unload the rafts, setup tents, cook dinner and collapse into chairs around a fire while staring at rock walls glowing in the moonlight as the stars climb and temperatures drop.

Our rafts & Utah stars. I rowed the orange boat – a 16′ Rogue bucket boat (i.e. not self bailing). This boat is over 40 years old and if you put your ear next to the tubes you can hear air hissing out!

The second day brings more flat water and slow travel. Halfway through the day we stop for a short hike up Rock House Canyon to view petroglyphs and then we eat lunch and put in another few hours. We reach our camp at Jack Creek (mile 69) in late afternoon where we park the boats on a large sandy beach and quickly set up tents and cook dinner while fending off children tired after another long day on the river.

Early morning down river view.
Somewhere around mile 80.

Rock House Canyon petroglyphs.

Having made almost 30 miles in 2 days we opt for only a half-day for our third day. We have finally entered into Desolation Canyon proper where the river narrows and the rapids finally begin and the miles go by much faster. By early afternoon we’ve floated 14 miles and we decide to stop for the day at Flat Canyon (mile 63). We set up the tents so the kids can nap and spend the afternoon hiking to view a wall of petroglyphs and scrambling up ridges to view the river from above.

Aven & Isabelle happy to be out of the boat.

Gwen, Aven & Isabelle – Pringles break.

Flat Canyon camp. 

Flat Canyon petroglyphs.

Looking down at the Green River and Flat Canyon from the ridge above camp.

Alaskans are always amazed that Ursa Major hangs so low when they leave home.

By day 4 we are in the heart of Desolation Canyon. The canyon rim rises 5000′ above our boats and the river narrows and plunges into a canyon with rapids every half mile. The rapid names (Wild Horse Rapid, Steer Ridge Rapid, Calf Canyon, Belknap Falls) scream caution, but for the most part they are wave trains with minimal hazards. A few require extra caution, but the only mishaps are wet children who scream with glee. We push through lunch and pull off the river at Chandler Falls camp (mile 47) in early afternoon. The kids nap while we scout the upcoming class III rapid (Chandler Falls) that we’ll run the following morning.

I set up the GoPro in the front to capture everyone’s expression as we ran some of the rapids. These are a couple of my favorites. Isabelle looks unsure in the first photo (Aven on the other hand looks like she’s ready to ride the front tube). After getting completely soaked Isabelle started laughing hysterically and was pumped up for rapids for the rest of the trip.

Chandler Falls camp.


Chandler Falls rapid (III). Easy entrance with a delightful wave train.


Our 5th day starts with a bang. Chandler Falls has an easy entrance and a huge wave train that our 16′ bucket boat plows through. The kids are soaked to the bone and laughing hysterically.

Todd punching though the biggest hole in Chandler Falls.


Lauren diving into the wave train.


After that we have a handful of moderate class II ripples before reaching the crux rapid of the trip: Joe Hutch Canyon Rapid / Cow Swims (III+). A mandatory scout, we park the boats and follow the trail through sagebrush and prickly pear to the rapid’s edge. The waves look big… too big for children so we return to the rafts and unload everyone so they can walk the rapid while we run the rafts through without children to worry about. The rapid is big with a giant hole at the end that has been known to flip rafts at high water. We line up perfectly and shoot down the wave train. By rapids end my bucket boat is so loaded with water I can barely turn so I take the final drop head on and bounce through it with a tremendous crash.

Me exiting Joe Hutch Canyon rapid.

After picking up the kids we continue on until pulling off in early afternoon at Below Wire Fence camp (mile 36). We are at the end of Desolation Canyon and towers line the rim of the canyon. Our camp is perfect – a huge sandy beach and muddy wading pool for the kids, a class II+ rapid for play boating, a nice trail to scout the next rapid and great hiking up the sandy wash behind camp. We stay up late watching the almost full moon rise above the rock tower across the river and go to sleep to the sound of great horned owls hooting in the distance.

Somewhere above Wire Fence.

Joe in Wire Fence rapid (III).

Below Wire Fence camp.

Mud, sand, sun & warm water = kids dream camp.

Monarch butterfly.

Tower across the river from camp.

Tower to the west of camp at the edge of Desolation Canyon.

Moon rise above camp.

My boat crew.

Right out of camp on Day 6 found us dropping into the second biggest rapid of the trip: Three Fords (III). We had scouted the night before and knew the hero run is the only line at low water. The guidebook told us: Enter right (current pulls deceptively hard to the right at the top), drop, big hole and wave, second drop, big hole and wave, wave train, huge hole at the bottom. You have to take the first two holes; plan on missing the last! We entered right but by the final hole the boat was so full of water I wasn’t going anywhere. So I set up the bucket boat and pushed hard and we powered through soaked to the bone.

Full boat swamp in Coal Creek Rapid (III).

Rattlesnake rapid (II). These walls demand respect.


After that it was 14 miles of fun white water until we pulled out at Rattlesnake (mile 22) for our last camp on the river. We set up camp and tromped around in the desert. I climbed a small peak above camp and sat on top as the moon came out.

Bad moon rising from the top of Peak 4879.

Rattlesnake camp & Ursa Major.

Our final day found us fighting winds and low water for 10 days until finally beaching our boats at the ramp and unloading happy dirty kids.

Gwen & Isabelle on dish duty.

Looking upriver at School Section Rock.

Last day on the river!

This was all followed by the flurry to packing up boats, the drive back to Salt Lake and then repacking the boats into the shed until late evening. A wonderful journey with good friends and family – the perfect desert trip.