Green River (Desolation & Gray Canyons 2017)

These are photos from an October 2017 raft trip through Desolation and Gray Canyons on the Green River. I’ve wrote up a pretty lengthy post about this trip in October 2016, so I’ll limit this to mostly a photo essay.

Todd Kelsey scored another cancellation permit for Desolation / Gray and put together another team for the trip.  We ended up with 8 from Anchorage and then Todd’s brother and a friend, and my brother both signed on to make for a total of 11 people. We took 8 days to do the float and had a total 3 rafts (16′ Hyside, 16′ Rouge, 12′ Hyside), an IK and a hardshell kayak which John paddled for the full 84 miles. We spent 6 nights in the canyons and the final night at Nefertiti Camp which mean the last day was rowing the day use section only.

The weather was a bit colder than our previous October float (snow dusted the surrounding peaks while we were on the river), but every day was sunny and we didn’t have any issues with afternoon winds.  There was only 1 other party with the same rough itinerary as ours so we had zero issues with campsites.

We were able to do a full layover day at Three Canyon and spent an entire day hiking. We also managed to spend a half day hiking around Range Creek.  All in all it was a wonderful uneventful trip with good friends and family.


Night sky at Sand Wash.

Waning moon at Sand Wash.

On October 7th, we rented a passenger van and trailer and hauled the gear down to Sand Wash without any issues.  We had everything rigged by early evening and after the morning ranger debrief we launched and were on the river by late morning.  We only made it 11 miles to Mile 87.8 Right Camp when we were forced to pull off early due to strong afternoon winds and cranky kids who had just flown down from Alaska.  The camp was an island and we were unable to get across the far channel so we were forced to spend a short afternoon / long evening in a pretty small zone surrounded by tamarisk.

Packing up after a night at Mile 87.8 Right Camp.

We launched early the next morning (October 9th) and by lunchtime had made it to Rock House Canyon (Mile 80) where we ate and went for a short hike to see the petroglyphs and stretch our legs. We then rowed another 4 miles to Mile 76.7 Camp which was a nice camp – albeit with no hiking.

Lizard at Rock House Canyon.

John & Isabelle in Rock House Canyon.

Around mile 79.

Stars at Mile 76.7 Right camp. On this trip I did a lot of night shooting with the Sony a6000 and a Rokinon 12mm lens.  The Rokinon is a fully manual lens which means you have to focus and set the aperture on the lens itself.   The noise was a little loud which required a bit of cleanup in Lightroom, but for a first try I was pretty happy with the results.

Campfire at Mile 76.7 camp.

Todd making coffee in the early morning.

The next day (October 10th) we floated to Above Cedar Ridge Camp (Mile 65.7 Right) with a lunch stop at Mushroom Rock.   Day 3 on Deso finally starts get fun and the minor rapids and ripples made for a welcome change after 30 miles of flatwater. Our campsite was nice, but we arrived too late to explore the canyon, however  the big sandy beach / camping area made up for the lack of hiking .

Around mile 71.

Family portrait around mile 71.

Lunch at Mushroom Rock.

Mushroom Rock.

Isabelle at Mushroom Rock.

Mile 65.7 Right – Above Cedar Ridge camp.

Evening at Above Cedar Ridge camp.

Evening at Above Cedar Ridge camp.

And finally a nice day of whitewater!  We floated from 65.7 to 49.9 through several Class II and III rapids which made for an excellent day of boating.  Water levels were right around 5000cfs which was perfect for kids in the chilly weather.  Camp was made late in the day at Lower Three Canyon Camp (Mile 49.7 Right), but we had planned a layover at this camp so the extra push was worth it.

Around mile 62.

Desert Bighorn sheep at Log Cabin Camp.

John around Mile 53.

On our layover day at Three Canyon we all split and went different directions.  Before dawn Todd and I hiked up a ridge above camp and spied buffalo heading up Three Canyon (bison were reintroduced to the Uinta Basin in 1986). Joe Chmielowski hiked way out the ridge south of Three Canyon and climbed a 7000+’ peak about 7 miles from camp, John scrambled to the ridge West of camp, Yvonne and Lauren climbed up the base of Chicken Rock, the kids hiked the entire abandoned meander. In the late afternoon Todd and I scrambled up the rock buttress that sits in the middle of the rincon via a class 3 route with exciting exposed crack climbing above cactus for encouragement. It was a great day of exploring and scrambling and everyone was happy to stretch their legs.

Mile 49.7 Right – Lower Three Canyon Camp.

Ruby & Isabelle on an evening hike above Lower Three Canyon Camp.

Looking down at Lower Three Canyon Camp.

Three canyon. The black dot center left is a buffalo!

Juniper tree in Desolation Canyon.

Ruby, Gwen & Isabelle hiking around the abandoned rincon.

Todd on top of the tower in the middle of the rincon.

Looking down at Three Canyon Camp from the top of the tower above the rincon.

Evening at Lower Three Canyon Camp.

Refreshed after a nice layover day we put another long day in and floated 12 miles to Below Wire Fence Camp. This section has the best whitewater on the trip.  We floated through 16 Class II and III rapids including the crux rapid – Joe Hutch – a big water Class III+ where we forced the kids to walk the portage trail to avoid the potential for a big swim.

Yvonne at the oars around mile 46.

Todd in Joe Hutch Rapid (III+).

John in Joe Hutch Rapid (III+).

We had one swim in the IK in Chandler Falls, however the boater scrambled back into the IK almost quicker than he fell out.  Halfway through the day John asked if anyone else wanted to paddle the kayak.  He was perpetually cold and probably insinuating that he was miserable and needed to get on a raft to warm up… but no one would make eye contact with him.  A bit later John flipped in a rapid, but nailed his roll on the first try.  Upon rolling back up he commented that due to the cold water he vowed to not flip again for the rest of his trip.  He kept his word!  Apart from that everything was smooth.

Roan cliffs.

John hiking above Wire Fence camp.

Camp was made at the wonderful Below Wire Fence Camp (Mile 36.9 Right) and we spent the evening hiking around the hills above camp and checking out the rapids. John and I went for a nice hike and on the way back to camp witnessed a beautiful sunset where the evening light bathed the Roan Cliffs in deep red.  John took a snapshot of the scene and a year later he shipped me a beautiful watercolor he painted from that scene.

The Roan Cliffs and Wire Fence Rapid (III).

The Roan Cliffs – painting by John Finley. John painted this photo based on a snapshot he took on our hike above camp.

That night the stars above camp were exceptional we spent hours sitting around the fire looking at the sky.  I didn’t try for another time-lapse like I did on our previous trip,  however I stayed up well past my bed time and took serval night shots and stitched together a star trails  photo.  Can’t decide which of the night shots I like the best so I’ve included all of them.

Evening at Below Wire Fence camp (Mile 36.9 Right).

Evening at Below Wire Fence camp (Mile 36.9 Right).

Roan Cliffs start trails.

The next day (October 14th) was another shorter day and we only floated 6 miles to Range Creek #2 (Mile 31.1 Right). The morning started off with a bang as the immediate rapid just downstream of camp (Three Fords) is a large Class III with mandatory holes that you need to punch in a loaded raft (smaller crafts can sneak left). Everyone ran it cleanly and then we floated for a couple more hours to Range Creek where we stopped for the day,

Evening visitor.

Todd through the rapid and into the wave train.

Joe in Three Fords Rapid.

In the afternoon everyone hiked up Range Creek which was running warm and clear.  We hiked up until it necked down tight then John, Brent, Todd and I turned off and hiked up the north side of the promontory west of camp know as Three Golden Stairs for another incredible view of the valley.

John on the Three Golden Stairs.

Looking down at river mile 31.5.

Standing on the top we were admiring the view when we heard a deep rumbling of thunder in the distance. We glanced towards the Roan Cliffs and watched as a huge section of rock broke off and tumbled 1000′ to the valley below.  We sat and watched as the dust-cloud rose 2000′ until finally dissipating.

“Geologic time includes now.” – Edward Abbey

The next morning we broke camp and had another good day floating 12 miles of whitewater until finally making camp at Nefertiti Camp (Mile 20.2 Left). We set up camp and then John and I hiked up the small peak above camp for a final view of the river. John is 20 years my senior – and he continues to stay strong and join me on adventures everywhere from the Wrangell Mountains to day trips up Seneca Rocks.  Being with him on an 8 day river trip was a special treat for our family.

John above Nefertiti Camp. Looking down at river mile 21.

Back in camp we spent a beautiful evening watching the fall colors fade into night and then sat around the fire for a final night of star gazing and socializing.

Nefertiti Rock from camp.

Nefertiti Rock at night.

Nefertiti Rock from below camp.

Nefertiti Camp (Mile 20.2 Left).

And then a final day of 8 miles to Swaseys Boat Ramp.  It was a chilly breezy day and we spent most of the day bundled in fleece eager looking forward to warmth but sad that another desert trip was ending.

Around mile 13.

Ruby takes the oars!

A wonderful trip with wonderful friends and family. A big thanks to Todd Kelsey for organizing the permit details and boats and to Lauren Kelsey for dealing with the food packing and my confusing lists.  And a big thanks to my brother for taking time off from his big-whig DC job to join our family on a desert river trip.

And lastly a shoutout to Senator Murkowski for co-authoring the public lands package which granted in 63 miles of protection on the Green River including than 13 miles of Desolation Canyon as either “wild” or “recreational,” and more than 49 miles of Labyrinth Canyon as “scenic.” This is a big deal – thank her!


Green River – Desolation Gray

One of the best river trips in the lower 48. Much has been written about it and information can be found everywhere if you look for it. Some things to note:

And finally… the lands surrounding Desolation and Gray Canyons have seen intense oil and gas development in the past decade. Zoom around on googlemaps in the lands near Sand Wash and you can see evidence of roads and drill pads all the way up to the rivers edge.

Currently, 290,845 acres west of Desolation and Gray Canyons are provisionally protected as a wilderness study area and the BLM has recommended designating nearly 225,000 of those acres as permanent wilderness. However the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area is one of the centerpieces in the debate surrounding the Public Lands Initiative proposed by Utah congressman Rob Bishop. This proposed initiative would remove wilderness protections for vast swaths of the Desolation Canyon area.

You can learn more about proposed development in the Desolation Gray Canyon area here:



3 Thoughts on Green River (Desolation & Gray Canyons 2017)
    Herm Hoops
    13 Jun 2019
    1:11pm

    Nice orange boat!

      akmountain907
      13 Jun 2019
      1:22pm

      40+ years old and still going!

    Joe Chmielowski
    17 Jun 2019
    10:34pm

    Amazing trip. Thanks for the invite Todd and the awesome photos and write-up Billy! The night shots are fantastic and bring back fond memories.

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