Westwater is one of the classic Western Desert whitewater experiences. Much like its upstream neighbor, Ruby Horsethief, it meanders through the deep red sandstone cliffs for about 18 miles with 4 miles of class III/IV fun. This stretch of river cuts deeper into the Precambrian we first saw in Ruby Canyon upstream and the erosion on the rock is other worldly. This run has a lot to offer in the way of history, geology, beautiful scenery, and whitewater. This popular run is permit only for both camping and day trips. This is a popular run for both commercial and private river runners though because of the permits it never really seems too crowded.
Since I live in GJ I’ve definitely driven out, rigged, ran the run to Cisco and derigged and headed home in a day, even at low water. To be honest I don’t really enjoy those trips as much as I do camping in the canyon. If a day permit is all you can get maybe camp at the put in and launch early morning or plan to motor out the last 5 miles.
Lost Horse is the first rapid that you come to near the Miner’s Cabin, it’s relatively mellow at lower flows and just a wave train at higher water. Little D is next about a mile from the entrance to The Gorge. This rapid can be a tricky whirlpool that sucks you into the eddy and makes it hard to get out. I’ve personally had two experiences with Little D and I can say that staying river left and not letting this thing suck you in is the best way to run it. My first experience, I was in a kayak at 7,000cfs and wasn’t far enough left as I got sucked into it. I attempted 4 rolls before swimming only to have the Veteran I was supposed to guiding rescue me. The Second time my brother from CA came out to visit for my Birthday in May when the water was around 22,000cfs. We were in my oar frame, 15ft raft and I was pretty far left but still got sucked into the eddy. The problem with exiting the eddy here is that it gets really shallow at the top making an eddy turn high enough to miss the whirlpool again and again very difficult. I attempted 5 or 6 times before I finally made it out.
About a mile after you pass Little D you enter The Gorge. The Gorge was once called Hades Canyon by locals and it’s where the sometimes ½ mile wide Colorado River gets squeezed down to less than 10-15yrds wide. At different flows different rapids are bigger or smaller with Skull almost always being the biggest though Funnel, Sock-it-to-Me and Last Chance are also challenging. As soon as you get through Sock-it-to-Me get yourself river right as quick as possible to avoid getting sucked into Magnetic Rock, I’ve seen boats stuck here for 5-10 min at lower flows.
At about 9,000 CFS and lower The Gorge is a lot of fun and the Room of Doom can be a fun eddy to play around in. I’ve seen rafts take skull sideways and not flip at these lower flows but I’ve also seen a guy get pinned on the Rock of Shock at 7,000cfs when he flipped exiting the Room of Doom. Around 13k to 18k the Gorge becomes very technical and the danger level rises as well. This is known as the Terrible Teens and only experienced boaters should be in here at these flows. Around 19k to 20k the rapids start to disappear under the flow but the danger is still there, Skull at 22,000cfs is pretty dreadful to look at but easy enough to stay far left of. Around 30k the rapids start to get ridicules again.
The Room of Doom:
Skull at pretty much any flow is the biggest hazard of the run. The danger doesn’t just come from the rapid but in combination with what is below it. If you get dumped out of the boat at Skull you could get flushed into the Rock of Shock which can hold you under or spit you into the Room of Doom or less likely into the main current. At extreme high flows the Room of Doom can hold a raft and even a kayak, forcing one to abandon their gear and hike out. Even at supper low flows I’ve seen people struggle to get out of the Room.
Two things usually contribute to people getting stuck in the Room at lower flows. Skull is at the top of the eddy where you want to exit and paddling towards this can intimidate less experienced boaters. Driftwood and other debris are often circulating at the top of the eddy. These two factors can convince a person to try and eddy out lower and then they don’t have the time to get out far enough and the current takes them back to the Rock of Shock where one must choose to hit the rock or go back in the room. The answer is almost always to paddle up to the top of the eddy and ferry as far out into the current as possible before making your turn. This may mean surfing the back of Skull and/or it may mean plowing through debris. The sooner you just do it the sooner you’ll be out of the Room. Don’t waist too much energy, you still have two more rapids to go.
Spectators Eddy is a great place to watch the carnage, just saying.
As you are approaching the entrance to Westwater Canyon, at the end or the ranch property, some Pictographs can be found on the cliff on river right.
On river left there is an old cabin believed to have been built around 1918 by a family that was here to mine gold. The cabin is a historical landmark now and a reminder of how life was once lived in the wild west. Please look but don’t touch and only take pictures if you visit the cabin.
Little Hole is on river right and it used to be an access point from the rim down to the river by the natives in the past. Petroglyphs can be found of a pack of horned animals believed to be sheep.
Just before you get to the first real rapid on river left the Little Dolores River comes into the Colorado. A hike up the Little D canyon takes you up to a waterfall and some petroglyphs.
The Outlaw Cave is right off the river on river left. It is a man-made cave and was once known as the Counterfeit Cave as it was believed that it was used by some Spanish counterfeiters in the mid-1800s. This cave has a table, a couple of beds, a wood stove and some other artifacts. Please once again take nothing but pictures and don’t touch anything.
About a mile after the last rapid, Last Chance, there is a take out on river right that gives access to Big Hole. Big Hole is an ancient pathway of the Colorado River as it meandered through the sandstone. It’s a beautiful hike.
As you exit Westwater Canyon The Chief awaits you. It’s hard to make out until you pass is but look back at it after you do and it’s easy to make out the shape of a Native American with headdress. If you’ve had a good trip on the river today make sure you snap a salute to the Chief and thank him for a great trip.
Westwater Lost and Found:
In 2004 a local river guide, Mike Milligan, published a book giving a lot of history on the canyon called “Westwater Lost and Found“. If you are only going to have one opportunity to run Westwater, you need to read this book or at the very least make sure someone that will be on your trip has. If you’re local though, I recommend running WW once or twice before you read the book then go run WW again. For me, I ran it several times before I ever heard of the book and when I read it I could visualize all the places he talks about and the next time I ran WW it was like a whole new run. I am in no way affiliated with the book or author, I just have a lot of respect for the book and the history.
Permits and Gear Requirements:
Permits are required for all trips down Westwater, day use and over nights, and they can be hard to obtain. Weekdays are a little easier to get but weekends need to be booked well in advance. The rangers at the put in WILL be checking that you have all of your required gear and that it is in proper working order. I had a trip where the other two boats had dry glue in their patch kit but mine was good so we were allowed to proceed. I’ve seen people not allowed to get on because of old and tattered PFDs. I would not arrive at the put in without double checking that all of your gear is proper and up to date. The rules and regulations change from time to time so I recommend checking for current policies on the BLM page, there is also a link to register for a permit on this page.
Water sports are inherently dangerous sports in which severe injuries or death may occur.
Do not use this website or maps unless you are an expert, have sought out and obtained qualified professional instruction or guidance, are knowledgeable about the risks involved, and are willing to assume personal responsibility for the risks associated with these activities. If you have any doubts in your ability please stay off the water.
DO NOT USE THIS WEBSITE OR MAPS UNLESS YOU ARE WILLING TO ASSUME PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH THE ACTIVITIES DESCRIBED OR DEPICTED!!!