Ranking the Legends – the Top 8 Rapids of the Colorado River

Where’s the wild water on the mighty Colorado River?


The legendary Colorado River is just another float trip until it crashes into Westwater Canyon just over the Utah/Colorado border and upstream from Moab, UT, says whitewater rafting pioneer Western River Expeditions (http://www.westernriver.com/). After this introductory splash, named by National Geographic as “The West’s best short whitewater run,” the Colorado River gains momentum and a well-earned reputation for some real kick-in-the-butt, whitewater rapids that live deep down in the Canyonlands of Utah (Cataract Canyon) and farther down in the Grand Canyon of Arizona.

While every commercial boatman has his or her own favorite, the team at Western River Expeditions got together and agreed upon their top eight most beloved rapids along the course of the Colorado River. While there’s still time to enjoy a trip this season, reservations are already open for 2016, a year that may experience the best spring runoff on record thanks to the predicted effects of an unusually strong El Niño, adds Brandon Lake, CMO of Western River Expeditions.

8. House Rock Rapid, mile 17, Grand Canyon (rated 8/10 on the Grand Canyon’s 1-10 scale): House Rock is a fun left side run along a sheer canyon wall, with a great hole at the bottom. Rafters can grab as much or as little of the hole as they want. This rapid is a good indicator of what is to come in the way of hits further down river.

7. Skull Rapid, Westwater Canyon (rated Class IV+): Tight canyon walls and a big rock in the middle create a big hole and wave, both obstacles difficult to avoid. Rock of Shock is a canyon wall that splits the current immediately below the initial hole. Billow to the left and you’re done. Billow to right and you enter the “Room of Doom” carved out of the right side wall by the vortex created by the split current from the Rock of Shock.

6. Hance Rapid, mile 76.5, Grand Canyon (rated 10/10): Just before the Colorado River descends into the ‘inner gorge’ of the Grand Canyon, it is strained through a wide rock garden known as Hance Rapid. Smaller boats can sneak a line through the left side between medium sized pour-overs and car sized boulders. The typical run enters from the right then quickly darts toward the ‘Duck Pond’ in the center to avoid the main pull of current that cascades over a mess of house-sized boulders just right of center. Below the duck pond is a wedge run between two pour-overs. Anything outside of that pinball line in the center of the froth leads to holding on tight while possibly banging through sideways or even backwards. From a passenger’s perspective it’s a fun ride like most other rapids, but the guide really sweats it out in Hance!

5. Big Drop 3, Cataract Canyon (rated Class IV): After Big Drop 2 comes Big Drop 3. In high water, Big Drop 2 and 3 basically merge into just one enormous drop. Left of center in Big Drop 3 is a place to avoid called Satan’s Gut. Often the National Park Service will have in high water levels a rescue boat hanging around the Big Drops — for good reason.

4. Big Drop 2, Cataract Canyon (rated Class IV): In the spring, with flows of over 50,000 cubic feet per second, it is perhaps the largest of the largest whitewater in North America — even surpassing that of the Grand Canyon. When a high water year does happen once a decade or so, it is not an overstatement to say the waves in Big Drop 2 and 3 are nearly three stories high. In regular to low water flows the rapids of Cataract Canyon calm down but are exciting none-the-less with difficult rock mazes, punctuated with hard-hitting whitewater. When John Wesley Powell and his men first encountered these gnarly rapids back in late summer of 1869, they lacked the skill and equipment to joyfully navigate them. They lined their boats around all of them, and spoke only of the toil and labor. But today it’s more fun to run them! As rafters set up for Big Drop 2 the river drops out of view. Little Niagara appears on river right; this is a pour over to avoid without dodging too far to the left. The risk is being swallowed by Satan’s Gut where Big Drop 2 flows immediately into Big Drop 3.

3. Hermit Rapid, mile 95, Grand Canyon (rated 8/10): What Hermit Rapid lacks in appellation, it makes up for in pure ride. Roughly eight massive roller-coaster-like waves line up with a ‘sky-is-falling’ crescendo on the last one. Adventurers emerge (soaked) with an adrenaline surge they’ve likely never experienced before. Some smaller boats are compelled to avoid the largest of these rolling compression waves but a good oarsman or kayaker who can match the momentum of the wave may get a smaller craft through without getting flipped. Western’s J-Rig rafts were designed with large water rapids in mind, and the J-Rig really shines in Hermit. The way it flexes over the waves with its two-part frame system enhances the ride like no other raft.

2. Lava Falls Rapid, mile 179, Grand Canyon (rated 10/10): Lava Falls has a big reputation. Before Crystal came along this was the premier drama-maker. This rapid, sometimes called “Vulcan”, is what is left from dinosaur days of a 500-foot-high lava dam across the river. Today the 15-foot-high and 30-foot-wide ledge hole is enough to strip boats of all their inhabitants, gear, frames, straps and inflation. Although some YouTube fame-seekers have tried (and failed) to prove otherwise, there is no middle run through Lava Falls. It is a big run on the right side of the ledge hole through the boat-swallowing V-wave and then through unpredictably rolling seas that build and crash against the house-sized chunk of lava at the bottom right known as “Big Bertha.” There’s a lot of water, a lot of drop and a very dangerous ledge hole at the top. Knowing where to be and where not to be, and knowing where you are in relation to either of those is the key to any rapid. This one can be very deceiving from above. Whether upside-down or right-side up, don’t underestimate “Son of Lava” just downstream of the tail waves. The left-side run is a narrow Vulcan “trick” with some unpleasant consequences if you don’t get the line just right.

1. Crystal Rapid, mile 99, Grand Canyon (rated a 10/10): All Grand Canyon rafting trips are informally measured in two parts, above Crystal and below Crystal. Many “ABC Parties” (Alive Below Crystal) have been celebrated on any one of the beaches below this rapid. Rated a pure 10 (comparable to a class V+ in the international scale) it begins with a long glossy v-shaped tongue that pours directly into one of the biggest waves in the Grand Canyon.

In the catastrophic flood year of 1983 this hole was said to be roughly three stories high from trough to crest. Though considerably smaller today, it is still a factor. The sinewy lateral wave on river right is tough to break through, and many boats prefer to take their chances squaring up to the big wave anyway. Beyond that, much of the current careens for the Slate Creek wall that interrupts the current from the left side, throwing a lateral wave that pitches rafters either squarely into the “Maytag Hole” (so named because it likes to tumble small boats, non-stop, like a washing machine) or spitting them out directly atop Crystal’s acre-sized rock garden. The garden is marked by a large boulder named “Big Red” (a.k.a Shelob) that lies in wait like a giant red-bellied black widow spider for any neophytes unlucky enough to get trapped in her web.

For a copy of Western River Expeditions’ 2015-2016 catalog, questions, availability and reservations call toll-free: 866.904.1160 (Local: 801.942.6669), or visit: http://www.westernriver.com/.

About Western River Expeditions
Western River Expeditions is an adventure travel company headquartered in Salt Lake City, with operations and offices in Moab, Utah and Fredonia, Arizona. Annually from March through October it escorts more people down rivers on professionally guided rafting trips in Utah, Idaho and Arizona than any other company. It is the largest licensed outfitter in the Grand Canyon and the largest single tour provider in Moab, UT, through its division Moab Adventure Center (http://www.moabadventurecenter.com/).

Western River Expeditions, providing Grand Canyon rafting, Utah rafting, and Idaho rafting trips, was founded in 1961 by Colorado River rafting pioneer Jack Currey. It has been named one of the “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth” by the editors of National Geographic Adventure magazine. The company is the proud recipient of the “Best of State” award through Utah’s Premier Recognition and Awards Program for nine consecutive years.

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