Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rafting Trip in Desolation Canyon, Utah

I have wonderful friends! They like to explore the rivers and canyons of the American Southwest and we do it in style. I enjoy their company, the hiking, the way they can whip up a gourmet meal in the wilderness, the thrill of running the rapids in our small inflatable kayaks, and sharing the world-class scenery and geology with them. I had previously run Desolation Canyon in 1980 but didn't remember much about that trip. I was surprised to find such glorious red rock scenery (in the Wasatch Formation) in the central parts of this canyon.

This is a view of the rocks on the way down to the put-in at Sand Wash. It is a stark beauty carved out of the Uinta Formation, when a large lake filled the Uinta basin some 50 million years ago.

Our first nights camp was on an island in the Green River and within the graceful embrace of Sumner amphitheater (rear and named by John Wesley Powell for his much admired river companion). The buttresses in low angle light were spectacular.

Looking east from this island camp, we observed a rocky profile cut into the opposite wall. The generally concave profile of the top of this ridge may be the former location of the Green River's channel. Some geologists have suggested that the Green River has meandered wildly from former positions in the canyon. Our guidebook showed one channel alignment that existed when the river flowed about 400 feet higher than today (perhaps a few hundreds of thousands of years ago). Those meanders are quite unrelated to the pattern today. What would cause a river to change its path so dramatically after having been already incised in a canyon? I can only think of canyon in-filling and later retrenching in a different course. In this view, the river flowed through the gap from left to right.

Here are 10 of our 14 trip members enjoying the shade of an alcove on a hot summer day. From left to right: Wayne, Norm, Sam, Bryan, Nathan, John, Frank, Jamie, Leif, and Lee. Not pictured: George, Lisa, Cassie, and Katie.

There are many relics from the Old West in Desolation Canyon. Here Frank peers through the door of a "still" hidden up in a side canyon near a spring. Imagine making whiskey in a hidden canyon.

One of the joys of a river trip is stopping for lunch at a small sand bar. This is one that we stopped at on July 18 and is called Nutter's Rock. Nutter was a rancher in the canyon in the 1800's.

A view of our boats on the water in Desolation Canyon.

The Fremont Culture left many petroglyphs along streams and the river. We hiked up Rock Creek to see this panel in the late afternoon.

At the mouth of Rock Creek was an old ranch abandoned after WW II. Most of the ranch accouterments were still present on site.

Here's a view of the interbedded nature of the Wasatch Formation (light-colored, massive sandstone cliffs) with the Green River Formation (dark, thinly-bedded shale and mudstone). This interbedding represents the fluctuating shoreline of the Green River Lake some 55 million years ago. The sands were derived in streams that fed the lake (during relative low-stands of water) and the shale formed when the lake water expanded across the landscape. Note the channel forms present at the base of the shale. A great one is just above the green trees in the center.

The landscape of the American Southwest at the time that rocks in Desolation Canyon (shown with thin black line) were laid down.

While camping below Rock Creek one night, a giant thunderstorm rolled in at 2:30 AM. We could hear distant thunder becoming louder until it filled the canyon with echos and flashing light. Then a hard rain fell for half an hour. Eventually the cell moved northeast but not before inundating the camp with water. This is the beautiful morning scene after the storm.

The scenery was fantastic throughout Desolation Canyon!

Last August a giant debris flow roared down Joe Hutch Canyon and reorganized the rapid here when new debris was flushed into the river. This was a great ride in our duckies.

Frank wielding his cooking apron for an Italian repast that was phenomenal. Everyone made great meals as we took turns cooking for the group.

The strata continue to rise as floaters move downstream and the profile and color of the rocks get more dramatic. The name "Desolation" was used strictly to mean uninhabited and for the geology or scenery buff, there is nothing desolate about this place. It is a cathedral in stone that beckons the soul to "pay attention" to this moment in our lives.

The largest rapid is called Three Fords and here Bryan takes his raft through the waves.

Jamie shows good form in her whitewater canoe.

Eventually, gray Cretaceous rocks are lifted above the river bank and the view changes dramatically. We climbed a bluff along Range Creek to obtain this view.

Gunnison Butte is a well-known landmark that signals the end of the 87 mile run through Desolation and Gray canyons. It was named for Capt. John Gunnison.

Final sunset at Swasey's Rapid. The air is hot with summer but so serene as it moves among the spires and temples of rock. We camp one more night beneath the majesty and count our many blessings to have emerged safe, renewed, and ready for our next adventure.


  1. What an awesome river trip. The scenery is outstanding. Always like the geology thrown in.

  2. Awesome trip! Kandi and I just got back from Utah too....fantastic up there! Great report and photos as always! Thx.

  3. Anonymous5:05 AM

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  4. Going this June!!


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