Cataract Canyon

Tom Turiano, Tom Bennett, Stephen Koch, David Koch, Mathew Goewert, David Stubbs, and Forrest McCarthy descended Cataract Canyon on an unsupported all-Alpacka trip.

We started at Elephant Hill in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. From there we walked a 9 mile mix of jeep trails and single track to Red Lake Canyon and our first Camp at Spanish Bottom on the Colorado. The following day the whitewater began. The rapids above Range Canyon were relatively moderate and the bigger flipper holes and cresting waves could be avoided. Several of us enjoyed an enjoyable afternoon hike up to the canyon rim.

The Following day we negotiated the biggest whitewater, including Big Drops 1, 2, and 3. One packrafter ran all the rapids. We camped that night near Imperial Canyon. The following day we negotiated the last few rapids and many miles of flat water with fantastic scenery, stopping for camp at Sheep Canyon. The following morning we paddled the last 7 miles to Hite.

The River was running around 7,000 CFS. Guide books rate Cataract Canyon at this flow Class III+ (Class IV). We were able to sneak along the banks and eddies through some of the biggest drops. These “sneaks” had a creaky character with technical maneuvering and small poor-overs. It was necessary in a few places to poke out into the main current and negotiate big cresting waves, frothing whitewater, and pushy eddy-lines. The paddling was technical and committing. The consequences were big. I give it a PR 5 rating.

We had several swimmers and applied the swift water rescue techniques developed by Roman Dial and Alaska Pacific University. All boats had bowlines and grab loops in the stern. We found these very effective. Everyone had a throw bags, a Coast Guard approved whitewater life jackets, and a helmet.

We had planned on taking out at Dark Canyon. However, to keep the logistics simple we took advantage of the low levels of Lake Powell and rode the current all the way to Hite. At higher Lake Levels packrafters could exit at Gypsum or Dark Canyons. The possibility of a loop, with no shuttle, exists if one parked at Beef Basin and approached the River via Red Lake or Cross Canyons. For packrafters wanting to avoid whitewater great loops are possible by putting in above the confluence and hiking out from Spanish Bottom. Another highly scenic and non-technical option (at low Lake levels) would be to approach the river via Gypsum Canyon and exit at Dark Canyon or Hite.

Permits are required through Canyonlands National Park (CNP). Permits cost 30$ and are issued at a first come first served basis. There is normally no waiting list, however, plan on at least several weeks to process all the paper work. Nights spent within CNP, but not on the river, will require an additional backcountry camping permit. Fire pans (we used an aluminum turkey pan), wag bags (packed in a dry bag), extra paddles, First Aid Kit, and Coast Guard approved Life Jackets are required. Chances are you will encounter a Ranger and will be asked to show him/her the required items.
Copy of CAT 07 120.jpg

I plan on doing this one within the next 2 years, very nice… :smiley:

To read more about our Cataract Canyon trip go to

I’ve hiked down Dark Canyon, then boated out to Hite. It’s a great adventure, but try to get beta beforehand–the mouth of Dark can be impassable due to deep mud &/or debris. To avoid this, I found sketchy narrow ledge walking about 15’ off the deck.

Ran Cataract back in November, solo. – pretty much everything right down the middle. Scouted the three big ones but ran each down the middle.

Flipped in Rapid 4 and 27: hubris in big waves got me. Felt like Grand Cayon Lite – fun easy big water in an open canyon.

Ran the Canyon to just above Calf Creek, as it looked easiest to climb out just downstream of Imperial Canyon and hike Imperial Valley (kinda cool) to Bobby’s Hole and the Jeep Trail (dull) to Chesler Park (very scenic).

Walked back to Sqaw Camprgound in 11 hours from the river. 45 hours from Spanish Bottom to Squaw by way of Chesler Park and Needles (Awesome!) proper.

A great weekend trip at 6600 cfs. Would do it again, and again, and again if I lived in Moab.

Route out is the thin red line on the map. Thick red line might go, too.

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I’ve spent a bunch of time in there this year.

Two trips at 10,000 ish cfs…

In typical fashion I used Roman’s route (Red Lake - Spanish Bottom - Colorado River - river left above Calf Canyon) except I started and finished at Elephant Hill. I did it in 16 hours. Put a hole in my boat with my metal fire pan that I modified with a pair of vice grips to meet the park specifications ([stupid] I should have just bought the crappy disposable turkey pans instead of my durable metal trash can lid which only has a 1 1/2 inch rim, which is what I have used on the Grand Canyon). Patch and go is awesome. It would be a great trip to start an hour before good light is available (roads are easy). I was moving close to 5mph on the roads, but slowed considerably on the Red Lake Route to reach the river at 2 hrs 45 min. Only scouted Big Drop 3 (short but severe consequences). The hike out the scree field, up higher and onto the road took somewhere around 2 - 3 hrs. I find the Grabens to be very challenging to navigate. I always knew where I was but I did not have total confidence, I used the National Geographic Map and there are a ton of roads there that are not on the map, but mostly they are helpful. Also the National Geographic map incorrectly shows the Red Lake route headed directly down the canyon, when you go over a pass south of the first pouroff. The crux of this trip is getting to somewhere you can walk in the dark easily, which for me, having been there before was the giant stones in the middle of imperial valley. I started at 8 am and finished at midnight the same day.

A few weeks ago Todd Tumolo and entered the river from Island in the sky (river mile 32.5) on the green river. 2 nights in the backcountry. We floated to Gypsum Canyon. Gypsum had some lethal mud banks that we went thigh deep after a couple steps. We needed to sit on our inflated packrafts to pull ourselves out (think quicksand). The hike out Gypsum (the route we took at least) is ridiculous. It took us 7 1/2 hours to get on to the plateau. We took out the second major drainage on the north side of the canyon. It involved short sections of easy 5th class climbing, and required excellent route finding skills. We were lucky and found a spring (big cottonwood trees) otherwise we would have finished the day without water the last 3 or 4 hrs. If one decided to hike Gypsum to Elephant Hill in one day it would take a very similar amount of physical effort, and time as doing the first mentioned route in one day. I think we moved for 17 hrs that day.

A good trip for those comfortable with class II-III whitewater and wanting to avoid the 4th and 5th class scrambles is to take out Cross Canyon. I took a friend who had no previous boating experience there. (you should be comfortable swimming class III big water, and able to read the river).

Canyonlands is becoming an ever popular area for packrafting. The rangers will make a point to check your permit and gear if you see them in the backcountry.

Another option (that I did this April) is to go down big spring canyon out of the needles and float to Spanish Bottom, and exit river right. it’s a great way to access the Maze (a backpacking holy grail). then from the Maze you can put in on the Green upstream a bit and do it again! from there you can hike out Red, Cross, or float Cataract proper.

this was my first real test of the packraft i got last fall and i’m completely hooked. both as access to backpacking and canyoneering spots you couldn’t otherwise get to, and as a small craft that can handle whitewater really well. next year i think the escalante is in order. i have been down it once without a boat, the coyote/stevens area, but this time i want to take the packraft all the way to cathedral in the desert.

thanks for sharing-

It was eight degrees when we arrived at Elephant Hill. The visitor center was closed and it appeared that we were the only ones dumb enough to visit Canyonlands National Park in December. I wondered why we bothered to pay for the permits when a ranger pulled up. I would have hidden our paddles had I known the authorities were lurking about but he spotted them and asked about our plans. He told us that a group of packrafters has been rescued a couple weeks earlier. They’d hiked down Rustler Canyon, floated the Colorado River for a while, and then couldn’t find their way out of the steep cliffs that surrounded them. Fortunately, a family member back home had raised the alarm. A helicopter spotted the group and flew them to safety. They went without food for a couple days; at least that’s the story.

It was a sobering reminder of the fact that we weren’t exactly sure how we were getting out of the canyon ourselves. I’d read from this site that a few people had climbed out just above Calf Canyon. That information alone seemed good enough for us.

We approached the river via Red Lake Canyon, camping at Spanish Bottom. The following day we ran all the rapids above Cross Canyon. Paul flipped once. It was about 35-40 degrees down there mid-day and even though he had a drysuit he got pretty cold. He was able to dry his things over an open fire that night.

The 3rd day started off well until I flipped my packraft right in front a giant recirculating hole. Not good. I was able to flip the raft back upright, but then I glimpsed the maneater directly in front of me. Without hesitation I ditched the raft, swimming like hell away from it. That’s when I slammed my thigh hard into a submerged boulder. Luckily Paul didn’t flip and managed to push my packraft to an eddy. Meanwhile, I was able to catch my paddle and swim to shore. I was exhausted and the swelling in my leg was already causing a limp. I sat on a boulder and tried to regain my strength. Across the river I could see the famous inscription that had been pecked into the rock by prospectors in 1891. It read: “Camp #7, Hell To Pay, No. 1 Sunk & Down.” It appeared that other folks had had some troubles there, too.

After that we were both a little gun shy, neither of us wanting to risk another swim in those temperatures. We ran some of the rapids but we portaged the three Big Drops including Satan’s Gut, all of which were very bony at 4000 CFS. While portaging we hiked with the paddle over our shoulder, the packraft dangling from the paddle behind us. We found it a quick and effective means of carrying an inflated raft when there is no brush or wind to contend with. We began calling it the ‘Huckleberry Finn Method’.

We found the exit out of the canyon, just upstream of Calf Canyon like we’d read. It was a third class scramble on loose boulders and crumbly rock- kinda scary actually. But it went! The rest of the hike was easy, the entire way on good jeep trails. We found a nice camp at Bobby’s Hole.
Overall, a fantastic adventure. Would I do it again in December? Probably not, it was a bit too cold for this Florida boy, but we had amazing scenery, great hiking, and fabulous whitewater. That, and we had the entire National Park to ourselves. What else could a packrafter wish for?

See our vid-

Great video. Thanks.

Just a bit of info for the Imperial Canyon exit:

There are actually two gullies immediately downstream from Imperial Canyon and ~1/2 mile up from Calf Canyon that look like they go. The first heads directly up the face. Yipes! Skip it and take the second (N38.04326 W110.06313), ~100yrds downstream that heads up 1/2 the face to a choke and then left hugging a huge wall on the right. This is the most prominent gully on the face. Head left at the top to gain the saddle. 3rd-4th class, steep, loose blocks but not too sketchy. Then curve down and right, hike into and across a valley, lastly hike up ~400ft to a pass (N38.03706 W110.05628) that’s immediately right of the prominent peak, go overland curving right to the road (N38.03087 W110.04544). ~2hrs. Its another ~9hrs to Elephant Hill at a moderate pace, a long day but very scenic, roads the whole way to Chesler Park.

This exit gets full afternoon sun so best climbed in the AM. Nice small camp on river right across from the gullies.

9K cfs was quite reasonable, maybe even easier that lower levels where rock gardens make some rapids rather technical. Watch out for Big Drop 3!