Rafting the Green River’s Desolation and Gray Canyons

By Michael Lanza

Our two prop planes climb to 2,000 feet above the Green River, flying north from the tiny airport in the one-horse town in southeast Utah that shares the river’s name. The brown current far below wiggles between castle-like walls in a canyon carved deeply into the Tavaputs Plateau, a twisting labyrinth of towers and sharp edges that looks not much more decipherable from up here than it does trying to navigate it down there. The early-morning sun slashes across the tops of the tallest formations—which are about level with us—but has not yet reached the shaded canyon bottom.

Most conspicuous, though, is what’s unseen: any significant footprint of civilization beyond an occasional rough, rambling line of hardened earth and rocks that constitutes what passes for a road out here. We are heading into one of the most inaccessible patches of the U.S. West and one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48, to float through that yawning canyon.

A rafting and kayaking party floating the Green River through Desolation Canyon.
Our rafting and kayaking party floating the Green River through Desolation Canyon.

Thirty minutes or more after taking off, the pilot banks our plane left and all seven of us passengers—including my 23-year-old nephew, Marco Garofalo, getting full value from the co-pilot’s seat on his first bush flight—gaze out the windows to see what manner of runway awaits us in this desolate expanse of uninhabited desert.

Ahead of us appears a narrow strip of earth in a lighter shade of brown than the surrounding landscape—in the desert, the eye quickly recalibrates its sensitivity to the full and rich spectrum of brown. Minutes later we touch down and bump along a rocky airstrip that seems better suited to mountain bikes than aircraft, rolling up beside the other plane carrying the rest of our party, which landed just ahead of us.

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A couple in an inflatable kayak on the Green River through Desolation Canyon.
Erin Gleason and Bill Mistretta kayaking the Green River through Desolation Canyon.

Any trip that begins with a bush flight into a remote backcountry airstrip is off to a great start. And this one is about to get a whole lot better.

After hiking 45 minutes to the river, 16 of us, family and friends, climb into rafts and kayaks and push off into the swirling, milk-chocolate water, embarking on a six-day descent of Desolation and Gray canyons on the Green River, led by guides from Holiday River Expeditions, based in the town of Green River. Nicknamed Deso-Gray by river people, this 84-mile stretch of the Green is known for more than 60 rapids up to class III, most of them easy, fun wave trains; big camps on sandy beaches, some shaded by tall cottonwoods; and the stark beauty of these vast canyons, which will remind us at times of other sections of the Green my family has floated, Lodore Canyon (also with Holiday River Expeditions) and Stillwater Canyon, but also reveal their own unique character and mysteries.

The searing June heat feels tempered somewhat by the up-canyon breeze in our faces. Flanked by high rock walls nearly identical to the Book Cliffs outside the town of Green River, we meander downriver, only covering perhaps two miles each hour because the river level has already dropped very low in this hot, dry spring (a prelude to what will become a scorching summer that eclipses heat records everywhere). Although the heavily silted water is too brown to see beneath the surface, my friend Vince Serio and I, sharing my two-person inflatable kayak, repeatedly dig our paddle blades into the sandy riverbed just a couple feet below the surface.

By mid-afternoon, 15 river miles from the put-in—but already feeling light years removed from civilization mentally—we pull the boats up to a sandy riverside camp called Gold Hole. A mostly clear, dry, windy evening arrives, along with the great relief of the canyon wall throwing our camp into shadow.

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An Unhurried Mindset

On the river by around 9 a.m. on our second morning, before the sun has fully crested the canyon wall—walls that rise taller with each mile we advance down Desolation Canyon—we paddle and float alternately through patches of warm sun and cool shade. An up-canyon wind blasts us with frequent, strong gusts; it seems to possess malign intent, bent on stalling our forward progress.

A great blue heron—the first of several we’ll see today, even more than yesterday—lifts off from the riverbank, where it had blended into the backdrop of sand, rock, and scrub brush, and glides just above the river’s surface with languid flaps of wings that span several feet. It looks absolutely prehistoric. 

Floating the Green River can induce a sense of dropping out of time. It’s easy to draw an initial impression of Desolation Canyon as true to its name—at first blush, it seems there’s nothing out here: sparse vegetation, little wildlife, no noise but for the river’s soft, percussive sounds and, less consistently, the wind.

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A great blue heron in the Green River in Desolation Canyon.
A great blue heron in the Green River in Desolation Canyon.

John Wesley Powell, leading the first expedition on the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869, described this part of their journey as “a region of wildest desolation,” and the name stuck. Floating the Green more than a century after Powell, in 1980, the beloved writer Edward Abbey called it “one of the sweetest, brightest, grandest, loneliest or primitive regions still remaining.”

Before long, though, we increasingly notice the abundance of life. Herons appear in surprising numbers, so still and inconspicuous in the shallows at river’s edge that I wonder how many of them we miss. Above us, wild horses graze a steep, rocky slope. Squadrons of swallows burst from tiny pockets in the face of cliffs and raptors circle high overhead. We seek out the shade of tall, broad cottonwood trees and, on hikes out of our camps, step carefully to avoid the prickly pear cacti and other desert flora that would jab needles into our legs.

But not many people. With just six river parties permitted to launch every day during the peak summer season on the Deso-Gray section of the Green, we see perhaps two other groups each day, and only briefly, in passing.

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A group of rafts and kayaks on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.
Our group on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.

It doesn’t take more than a day out here for an overwhelming sense of solitude to take over—and it sits comfortably beside the prevailing unhurried mindset that quickly sets in.

On our second evening, after a day of easy floating interspersed with bumping through fun wave trains and riffles, we make camp on a beach in Flat Canyon, where several of us take a 20-minute walk on a flat trail to some of the most detailed and elaborate petroglyphs I’ve ever seen.

Sleeping on the sandy beach, my 20-year-old son, Nate, and I awaken at some point to gaze up at one of the darkest night skies in the country. Stars riddle the moonless black dome overhead, a density of pinpricks unfathomable to most people who never see a night sky in a place far from the nearest city glow. The Milky Way looks like a silent procession of faint ghosts. It makes me happy to know that my kids have, already in their young lives, seen night skies like this countless times.

Cow Swim Rapid

On our fourth morning, we run playful, easy rapids—and in flatter stretches of the Green, struggle to paddle into, or at least not get blown back to the put-in by the relentless and powerful up-canyon wind, which had howled and shrieked throughout the night.

At midday, we take out on a tiny patch of riverside sand, tying off the duckies and rafts to keep them from drifting or blowing away. Then all of us who are paddling kayaks and most of the guides hike a sandy trail about 20 minutes to stand atop riverside boulders for a good look at the class III Cow Swim Rapid.

The Green gets pinched into a narrow channel with boulders littering its riverbed. From the top of the rapid, a well-defined V-shaped tongue of fast-moving, brown water accelerates forward, eventually disappearing into—or getting swallowed by—a choppy, chaotic swirl of whitewater. Immediately after entering the rapid, we’ll have to avoid a hole between two recirculating waves on river right; a couple hundred yards or more farther down, near the rapid’s bottom, more holes lie in wait to upend any boats that wander too far left. We must run it left of that upper hole and the first curling wave and right of the lower holes. Everyone in a hard-shell or inflatable kayak feels ready for it.

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Chicken Rock overlook above Three Canyon camps on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.
Marco Garofalo at Chicken Rock overlook above Three Canyon camps on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.

Launching the boats again, we proceed in a predetermined order, with two rafts piloted by guides leading, ready to retrieve any swimmers below the rapid. Nate, an experienced hard-shell kayaker, then sets the correct line for the four duckies following him; he’ll eddy out at the bottom of Cow Swim to help chase down anyone who swims. The other two guided rafts run sweep.

My brother-in-law Tom’s wife, Barb Peterson, who joined me in my inflatable kayak all morning—including fighting that headwind—stays on board for Cow Swim. We nail the entry move, watching the upper hole whip past close on our right. Then we smash through a series of big, loud waves, water in our faces as we work to steer rightward to avoid the lower holes. As everyone regroups below the rapid, all still in our boats, we let loose with hoots and cheers.

After a satisfying lunch—always impressed at how hungry we get just sitting and paddling—we float a few more miles into the afternoon. The wind continues its impersonation of commercial jets taking off, bending riverside bushes and tamarisk nearly to the ground.

A raft in Three Fords Rapid on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.
One of the rafts running Three Fords Rapid on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.

As we approach our next camp on a beach shaded by cottonwoods, with campsites amid juniper behind the beach, the wind seems to reach a climax, literally pushing waves upstream.

Nate spins his kayak around and tells me, “These are swells. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve surfed swells that are moving upstream on a river.”

Every evening in camp, we sit in a big circle of chairs and talk until after dark. A variety of games ensue on the beach. One late afternoon before dinner, our guides—lead guide Tyler Jameson, Lucy Gerber Brydolf, Brayden Davies, and Garrison “Gary” Petrie—plus Nate, Marco, my daughter, Alex, and my wife’s nephew, Andrew Peterson, all try to sprint the length of three upside-down duckies lined up end to end on the river (tied off to a raft)—every one of them, inevitably, toppling into the water before clearing all three wildly bouncing, inflatable boats.

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More Big Rapids

On our fifth morning, we leave camp in moderate winds—a big improvement over the howling gales of the past two days—with two bigger rapids coming up immediately, the first just minutes downriver. I ask Alex, 18, if she’ll join me in my inflatable kayak. After a moment of hesitation—owing to the wind and the shade hanging over the river magnifying the chill of getting soaked by big waves—she agrees. Apparently, my prediction that we probably won’t flip and swim either of the rapids convinces her.

We paddle hard into the first one, Wire Fence, bouncing and laughing through a wave train. On one of the bigger waves, Alex gets launched upward in the bow, for an instant hovering about four feet higher than me, before we crest the wave and slide down the other side. Below the rapid, we take out on the riverbank and watch everyone else run it as I shoot photos.

Then we float around the corner to run the class III Three Fords Rapid. 

A kayaker paddling Three Fords Rapid on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.
My son, Nate, kayaking Three Fords Rapid on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.

Three Fords marks the boundary between Desolation Canyon and Gray Canyon and straddles a major geologic signature known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary Line, or K-T Line (the “K” abbreviating the German word for Cretaceous). Discovered a century ago by geologists and visible at several sites around the world, the K-T Line denotes the end of the age of reptiles and the beginning of the age of mammals, about 65 million years ago. One of the greatest mass extinctions in the planet’s history, that period saw at least 75 percent of all species on Earth, in the seas and on land, including the dinosaurs, wiped out. More than 90 percent of plankton in the oceans died, leading to the collapse of the oceanic food chain.

That story sounds like a highly relevant parable for our current times, when we are living through the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, one triggered by our use of fossil fuels driving climate change. Scientists predict that 75 percent of animal species could vanish with the next three centuries—a radically faster rate than in past mass extinctions. And yet, whatever happens to humankind, this indifferent canyon will remain for many eons.

I ask our lead guide, Tyler, where I might shoot photos of everyone running Three Fords. Tyler has river guiding in her blood. Her older sister, Larkin, is also an HRE guide and their dad, Brett Jameson, guided for HRE in the 1980s.

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Pointing ahead, she suggests I hike along the riverbank to a rock ledge several feet directly above the first two, big waves of Three Fords, which are followed by a long wave train. Alex comes with me. It’s a great spot for photos and to spectate, and we cheer everyone on as they hit the entry waves one boat at a time.

Marco enters it as one of the first duckies and blasts through the first wave. We shout encouragement and he gives us a thumbs-up—releasing one hand from his paddle in the few seconds between the first two waves. Even before Alex finishes laughingly shouting at him, “Dude, hold onto your paddle!”, his boat begins to spin sideways. Instead of hitting a line left of a very large, crashing wave, he broadsides the wave; instantly, his ducky flips, throwing him out, and he’s swept downriver.

We watch as guides in rafts scramble after him. But while still in the long wave train, Marco executes an impressive self-rescue, flipping his ducky upright and climbing back into it to resume paddling—as if nothing happened.

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Duckies floating the Green River in Desolation Canyon.
Duckies floating the Green River in Desolation Canyon.

His swim and dramatic self-rescue blossoms into a story we’ll retell and laugh about in camp that evening—and probably for a long time.

After lunch, we paddle two miles of riffles and flat water and take out to scout Coal Creek Rapid, a class II+ to III. This one has a hole to avoid on the right soon after entering the rapid, followed by a series of large waves and rock hazards. Farther down, there’s another hole on the left that we need to avoid and is hard to see when running it—but that seems the least of our problems.

Once again, two rafts lead the way, trailed by Nate in his kayak and the four duckies, then the other two rafts. Joined in my inflatable kayak by wife, Penny, we avoid the first hole but creep a little too far right and hit a big wave head-on that we’d hoped to avoid. Fortunately, though, we narrowly dodge a huge rock to our right, staying in our boat.

Everyone loves it, including our Colorado friends Erin Gleason and Bill Mistretta, getting an introduction to paddling whitewater in a borrowed two-person inflatable kayak on this trip.

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Early morning on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.
Early morning on the Green River in Desolation Canyon.

By mid-afternoon, we stop on a sandy beach some four miles beyond Coal Creek Rapid, waiting out the hot sun’s descent under umbrellas as much as possible, and then having a fun, final evening on the river, with numerous matches of Can Jam, a Frisbee-based game that Erin brought.

As afternoon slips into evening, I notice a lone bighorn sheep traversing the steep canyon slope across the river and point it out to everyone. Early the next morning—after another starry night, a sight that never fails to stir a powerful sense of awe—a choir of birdsong builds to a volume that awakens some of us.

Floating toward the takeout on our last morning, sitting in a boat as it slowly spins around in a slowly moving river, watching a panorama of soaring, timeless canyon walls unfurl a new vista around every bend, and recalling the moments of thrill in the rapids in Deso-Gray, I look at the smiles on every face and think: This is something everyone should do at least once in a hectic lifetime.

But do it once and you’ll probably decide you want to do this again and again.

See all stories about paddling trips and Utah adventures at The Big Outside, including “Why Conservation Matters: Rafting the Green River’s Gates of Lodore” and “Still Waters Run Deep: Tackling America’s Best Easy Multi-Day Float Trip on the Green River.”

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Take This Trip

THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR rafters and kayakers of any experience level on guided trips, including families with young children. Unguided parties should have the skills for rapids up to class III and planning multi-day river trips.

Guided Trips Holiday River Expeditions, bikeraft.com.

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