By Molly Absolon
A whitewater trip down the Grand Canyon may be more than you have the time, money, or know-how to tackle, but that doesn't mean you have to miss out on the experience of a desert river trip during your visit to the Four Corners Region.
Rivers in the Four Corners Area
In this land where the rivers come tumbling down out of the Rocky Mountains and cut their way down through the colorful rock of the Colorado Plateau, there are a number of river trips to choose from including day tours in sea kayaks on the Colorado below the Hoover Dam and whitewater trips of varying duration on the Green, the Yampa, or other sections of the Colorado rivers.
Arizona and Colorado also have whitewater trips on rivers like the Salt and Verde that run through the Sonoran desert offering a sharp contrast to the painted redrock scenery of canyon country.
A San Juan River Trip
One of this writer's favorite rivers within a day's drive of the Grand Canyon is the San Juan. The San Juan has few named rapids; mostly you'll find fast-moving water and some waves trains with no major obstacles to navigate. What makes the trip so magical is less the challenge of the river and more the human history that surrounds you as you float downstream. This section of southern Utah was once the home to the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan people, and signs of their passing can be found at every bend along the river corridor. Cliff dwellings fill the alcoves, rock art adorns the massive blank canvases created by the sandstone cliffs, and pottery chards and dried-up corncobs can be found washed out onto the mesa tops after a rain shower. The Anasazi lived here between 700 and 2,000 years ago, and the arid climate of the Colorado Plateau has preserved many of their artifacts, leaving behind a mysterious story that teases your curiosity and lures you deeper into the San Juan?s side canyons and drainages in search of yet another ruin or petroglyph panel.
I traveled the river with a group that included seven children under the age of ten. The kids found the bouncing water of the river's rapids offered plenty of excitement, especially when they rode down through the waves in duckies or inflatable kayaks with one adult. In addition, they loved playing in the sand and mud along the river's edge, and enjoyed the scrambling hikes we took each day.
But what truly set the experience apart for them was the magical feeling of the past coming to life as we explored the ruins we encountered. They came up with their own stories about the people who'd lived here long ago mining their imaginations while piecing together the information we uncovered like detectives. Our guide taught them how to use strands of yucca fiber to make cordage and they tried their hand at building deadfall traps out of boulders and sticks.
We carried two handmade Native American-style flutes along with us, and everyone took turns playing them under the great overhangs that made the music circle around us and brought back echoes of sound from the people who'd come before. The children felt a sense of history in a way that is hard to capture anywhere else, and I'm sure they learned more during that week than they learned in months of school.
The lower section of the San Juan travels through a unique twisting, turning section of river called the Goosenecks. Here the river sculpts its way into a 1,000-foot deep canyon through the Hermosa Formation, traveling five miles back and forth while progressing only one linear mile forward. Below the Goosenecks, you pass by several side canyons that have been carved into the Cedar Mesa Formation. These canyons include Slickhorn, John and Grand Gulch and all provide wonderful opportunities for side hikes up out of the river bottom.
San Juan trips require a permit for both private and commercial groups. For private groups, you need to apply for your permit before February 1. A lottery is then held during the first week of February to distribute permits for the upcoming river season. For more information on the lottery, visit http://www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/monticello/recreation/san_juan_river.html. Alternatively, you can join a guided trip down the San Juan. The BLM maintains a list of certified commercial guides who operate on the river. You can obtain the list from the BLM's website.
Moab, Utah River Trips
For other river trips near the Grand Canyon, get on the Internet and start searching. Moab, Utah offers a number of options in terms of river difficulty and trip duration. You can run Utah's most popular stretch of river, the Daily, which follows Highway 128 past the Fisher Towers, Castle Tower and the Nuns and Priess formations. Ideal for a day's adventure, the Daily includes rapids up to Class III. Westwater Canyon, which lies north of Moab, is a 17-mile stretch of river that includes 11 rapids up to Class IV in difficulty. Westwater can be run in one or two days. Cataract Canyon is a wild 112-mile stretch of the Colorado that flows through Canyonlands National Park. Containing 26 rapids ranging in difficulty up to Class V, Cataract Canyon is one of the most isolated and starkly beautiful areas in the continental United States. For more information on these and other river trips in and around Moab, click here.
Salt River, Arizona Trips
In central Arizona, the Salt River provides another exciting whitewater option for visitors. The river drops an average of 25 feet per mile for more than 50 miles tumbling over Class III and IV rapids separated by calm pools en route. Unlike most of the Utah rivers, as well as the Grand Canyon, the Salt's scenery is classic Sonoran desert punctuated by stately saguaro cacti and teeming with birds and other wildlife. Commercial trips on the Salt range in duration from one to four days and can be arranged throughout the river season, which typically lasts from March until May. Nearby the Verde River offers a range of boating options including flat-water sections perfect for fishing and remote, rugged sections through deep canyons with rapids up to Class V. The Verde does not have any commercial outfitters permitted to guide on the river, so boaters need to be experienced and to provide their own equipment and logistical support to enjoy its scenic splendor. For more information on the Verde, click here.