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Colorado Rafting - the Ideal Colorado Camping Day Trip
Cool Times on the Colorado
By Jamie Reger-Vukelich
Even with a length of 1,450 miles, the Colorado is not the longest river in the United States (that title belongs to the Missouri), nor does it conjure up romantic images like the Mississippi. None the less, if you ask someone to name the river for the ultimate boating experience, more than likely the first name they will come up with is the Colorado and the second thing they may tell you is that it is only for expert river runners. The first statement is certainly true, but the second one is false. The Colorado offers stunning beauty and a wild water adventure for every age and experience.
The Colorado is truly an amazing waterway. Called “Rio Colorado” (Red River) by the Spanish, it was named for the red silt which it carried along before the Glen Canyon Dam, built in 1963, deposited the silt into Lake Powell. “Too thick to drink and too thin to plow” was a common (and fitting) description of the river in the old days.
What makes exploring the Colorado special is not just the river, but the spectacular scenery that water, wind and time have created. This IS the American desert in all its glory, with dazzling rock formations that change with the light of the day. It blooms in the spring, sizzles in the summer and the temperatures (and colors) cool in the fall. It can’t be captured in pictures; you have to see it for yourself—up-close and eye level with the water!
The headwaters begin over 9,000 feet up, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. In Utah it joins the Green River and then snakes its way through Arizona, Nevada and finally into California where it empties into the Gulf of California (and into the Pacific). It slices through three national parks, (Arches, Canyonlands, and most famously, Grand Canyon National Park). In a relentless drive to make its way to sea level, it twists and turns and drops nearly 2,000 feet in the Grand Canyon alone—making one roller-coaster of a ride!
Rafters today are in for a much easier trip than that of Major John Wesley Powell. In 1869 he and his crew set out to become the first explorers to navigate the river. It merely required 98 days, four boats and ten men, though only seven made it back home. They made their journey without even having a map to give them any hint of what might be around the next bend. After a second trip, Powell made a map himself.
A rafting trip is much more stable today as the Glen Canyon Dam helps regulate the flow of water and reduces the chance of flash floods into the river. River classifications run from 1-6, with 1 being calm water and 6 having extremely dangerous water conditions. The Colorado River has the full range. If you are in any doubt as to the ability of your group, hire a guide or go on an organized expedition, which will also be able to supply top-quality equipment and the sometimes hard-to-get river permits.
Group expeditions generally use one of three kinds of boats. Motorized rafts are large (holding perhaps 15 people) and offer more space. The driver guides the raft through the smooth water so you can sit back and relax and he pilots the boat through the rough water so you can hold on tight! Although any boat can flip over, the size and buoyancy of motorized rafts makes this highly unlikely. Evenings are spent camping along the shore.
The oar-driven rafts are smaller (four passengers and a guide) and are propelled by the fast-moving currents of the river and directed by your guide, who does the rowing. Oar trips are better for those who want more of a “thrill” ride and who want a slower and more intimate trip down the river.
The third and least common type of boat used for organized river trips is a traditional wooden dory—not unlike the ones Powell used on his first trip down the river. While there have been modifications made to make the boats easier to maneuver, the wooden boats let you feel every bump and turn of the water. Although they can quickly snake through the rapids, dory expeditions tend to be long and more leisurely overall.
If you are heading out without a guide, apply for any necessary permits well in advance and leave a detailed “float plan” with someone back on shore. Take all necessary safety gear and make sure your boat is designed to handle the most extreme river conditions on your route. Much of the area is desert and camping comforts like clean drinking water and electrical hookups are unheard of in many areas—so be prepared.
There are many ways to enjoy boating on the Colorado River—and many areas to explore. Where you go will depend on your experience and how much time you have. Trips can be as short as one day, or as challenging as a week or two or more! April through October is the most popular time for paddling on the river, both for weather and water quality. Due to the swift current, most areas of the river are not safe for swimming anytime.
Dams and Lakes
One quiet way to experience the Colorado is to camp along the edges of one of the lakes created by the many dams that regulate the river flow. From there you can launch a kayak or canoe and explore by water totally at your leisure. These areas offer a boating experience for even the youngest paddlers and are a good way for families with young children to “get their feet wet.”
Lake Powell in Arizona is one of the most popular of these lakes. It has 1960 miles of coastline, which is greater than the length of the western coast of the United States! There are 96 canyons to explore, with soaring red rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. Set some time aside to see Rainbow Bridge National Monument which you can only get to by boat. The Glen Canyon National Recreation area offers great camping facilities—but reserve your spot early if you will be visiting during the peak season.
The next step up the ladder in exploring the river is a scenic ride through the many calm stretches of the river. One of the better areas is Black Canyon near Hoover Dam. You can opt for an organized day trip from nearby Las Vegas, or check the regulations and launch your own boat to see it on your own. These trips may not be suitable for preschool children if they have trouble taking directions or sitting still.
Another great float trip that is perfect for a day adventure is the area between the Glen Canyon Dam (Page, Arizona) and Lee’s Ferry. It’s a peaceful area where you can “see back in time” and paddle by the colorful rock formations and ancient petroglyphs.
The Colorado River is also pleasant in Utah north of the area where it joins up with the Green River (between Arches and Canyonlands national parks). Between Moab Dock and Potash Dock, the river loops and meanders for about 15 miles through deep canyons with plenty of wildlife to be spotted on the shores.
If you have decided that nothing else but a full-blown, hold-on-tight, water-in-your-face white-water adventure is for you, the Colorado offers a world-class challenge. If you are not an expert, you must hire a guide to take you through it.
White-water trips are best for adults and older children who have had some outdoor experience and who are confident in the water. Although many river guides will take non-swimmers on a trip (everybody has to wear a PFD anyway) a solid swimmer will feel more secure on the water.
Up north, the river will also take you for a wild journey on the rustic Cataract Canyon portion in Canyonlands National Park. There are more than 25 rapids to ride, some being as challenging as class 5. After you set up camp, you can hike to see the art and cliff dwellings of the Native Americans who used to inhabit the shores.
The traditional and most popular stretch of the river to run is also the most scenic—through the Grand Canyon. Many trips begin in Lee’s Ferry and go through the canyon, ending at Diamond Creek. Shorter trips may stop at Phantom Ranch in the middle of the national park where you can then finish your adventure with a hike up to the south rim.
Despite the fact that it takes quite a bit of advance planning, many consider a boat trip on the Colorado River a “must-do” adventure of a lifetime. It is a ride on a geological time machine of the American West, and the majesty of this mighty waterway will stay with you long after you return and pack away your gear.
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