Cataract Canyon Rafting During High Water Season: Expect a Wild Ride

February 8, 2022   2 Comments »

I took off my watch and packed it away, I put my phone on airplane mode. I was officially on an adventure now.

Our OARS guide Dave started explaining what to expect and what our plan was for our first rafting day. I listened as I watched the Colorado River in its muddy brown glory flow swiftly by. It was the beginning of June, which meant it was that unpredictable time when the snow melt from the Rockies was at its height and could make the river swell to the top of its banks and take along any debris with it – including rafters.

Ever since I rafted the Grand Canyon, I had wanted to do it again on the unbridled part of the Colorado River, no dams controlling the flow, just Mother Nature in charge and skilled guides navigating her fury. Canyonlands National Park and Cataract Canyon was just the spot. In fact, it is the last spot really where the Colorado is free flowing.

canyonlands national park rafting

Dave wrapped up his talk, I tightened my life jacket, and hopped in a Dory to begin my day journey rafting through Canyonlands National Park and Cataract Canyon.

The Best Way to See Canyonlands NP
Where is Cataract Canyon
Cataract Canyon Rapids & the Best Time to Go
What to Expect Rafting Canyonlands and Cataract Canyon
Flat Water Section
Hiking in the Canyon
The OARS Difference
Legacy of Rafting Rivers in Dories
Variety of Boats & Rafts
OARS Rafting Guides
Leave it Better Than You Found It
Cataract Canyon Packing List
Who Should Go on This Trip

The Best Way to See Canyonlands Park

This trip traverses the heart of Canyonlands National Park. The 530 square miles of the park contain a variety of canyons, arches, spires, buttes, mesas and a myriad of other spectacular rock formations; it actually has more geological variety than the Grand Canyon. At the heart of the park is the Confluence; where the Green and Colorado rivers meet. Shortly after that, you encounter Cataract Canyon.

There are few roads that go through the park, which makes rafting the best possible way to see the entire park. The Colorado River snakes its way through the park’s 3 regions (Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze ); it’s pretty rare for visitors to get to see all of the areas of the massive, remote park. Experiencing Canyonlands via the river is a unique perspective few people get; you’ll see the deepest, hardest-to-access places in the park via a multi-day rafting trip.

Where is Cataract Canyon

It’s in Canyonlands National Park. The 46 mile long chasm begins at the confluence where the Green River and Colorado River join and doubles its force, carving a deep canyon through the heart of Canyonlands. The canyon used to be much longer, until The lower half of the canyon was submerged beneath Lake Powell due to the Glen Canyon Dam.

How do you get there?

We started out journey at the Potash put in near Moab Utah. There are really no other ways to get into Cataract Canyon other than by raft. And this is the closest put-in.

Cataract Canyon Rapids

Remember, there are no upstream dams, so the water fluctuations can be extreme depending on snow melt and rain. The 14 miles of rapids range anywhere from Class III to V depending on the flow.

I think that’s what makes this rafting trip so much fun (and slightly scary) – it’s unpredictable.

There are 34 rapids in that 14 mile stretch. Cataract Canyon’s most well-known rapids – Big Drop 1, 2, and 3 – can be the toughest whitewater in North America at the high flows. The river drops over 30 feet in less than three-quarters of a mile. And at the highest flows – this all turns into one giant rapid with very little time to get your composure in between.

Even though water flows were above average when we went, it wasn’t super high – so we made it through the Big Drops with no big mistakes (thank you guides!) – and man was it fun!

Best Time to Raft the Cataract Canyon

It depends.

Do you want nail biting adventure? Then go May-June for potential high-water excitement. Keep in mind – high water is never guaranteed – we’ve all heard about the issues of Colorado river levels and a draining Lake Powell. Part of that is because snow melt isn’t what it used to be. So even though I went in June – the water levels were high – but not at its highest flows.

cataract canyon rafting

If you want more moderate rapids (but still tons of fun), then July through September are the best times to go. This is a much more ‘family friendly’ time to be on the river.

What to Expect Rafting Canyonlands and Cataract Canyon

This trip is like a symphony…starting out slow, and then building, building, building to a crescendo of wild rapids over the course of a week. This is what makes this trip so unique from other multi day rafting trips I’ve been on.

Listen to this Podcast on Rafting the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park

I did this podcast interview about the trip with Active Travel Adventures – a podcast for people who want to stay active!

Flat Water

The water is so flat for the first few days…
How flat is it???!

You can SUP on it!

That’s right, our OARS trip not only had a myriad of boats to choose from, but they also had individual flotation devices like stand-up paddle boards and single and double inflatable kayaks. For the first 3 days we all took turns slowly floating down the river on SUPs or kayaks, enjoying the scenery and the quiet. It was pretty zen like.

Often times I felt like I was on the Nile River…just slowly floating along like royalty, dipping a hand in the water occasionally and watching the ripples form…

floating on the colorado river canyonlands

There are about 3 days of super flat water where you can SUP, kayak, and swim – it’s lovely. You might wonder if the water is cold? It’s actually just perfect – about 68– and a great way to cool down in the heat of the day!

The flat water and slow pace provide a relaxing start to let all of that life stress go and become in tune with nature again. It’s the calm – before the storm…


Also expect a fair amount of hiking. There are various opportunities to do short hikes up from the canyon floor. It’s a great way to get even closer to that landscape and ancient rock layers! We did 3 hikes on our trip. I think this varies depending on the trip, flow of the water, and camping spots, etc.

Lathrop Ruins Hike

This was half hike and half time travel through ancient parietal art and village ruins. Adam’s eyes lit up, and he flashed a smile as he started his ‘performance’. I knew immediately that in addition to be an expert paddler and guide, Adam also clearly had a background in theater. He had us look out over the valley below and painted a picture of thousands of years ago when the native people inhabited this area. People tending to crops, children, elders, and adults working with the land and the wildness of the river to stay alive.

In addition, on this hike our head guide, Dave, showed us what time looked like with a little geology lesson. We looked across the river to the various layers of rock; time was laid out in front of us from 160 million to 300 million years ago. The rock was like a layer cake – each layer representing a different climatic event sealing its place in the landscape.

lathrop ruins hike canyonlands
Layers of time

The Loop Hike

This was one of the few (if not only) opportunities to do a point-to-point hike on this trip. Most of the time you are doing out and backs since you have to get back to your boats on the river to continue on your trip. However this trail called ‘the Loop’ climbs up and over a low point in the canyon wall, while the rafts travel a full four river miles to reach the same place and pick you up. This is possible thanks to an incredible double oxbow curve in the river at this point.

oxbow loop colorado river

This was my favorite hike by far – the views from the top were incredible and you could see how the river winds around the landscape – something you don’t really notice or appreciate when you are in the rafts. You’ll also find some petroglyphs along this hike too.

Hiking and Scouting the Big Drops

You can also choose to do short little scrambles with the guides and view the Big Drop rapids. The guides were scouting the water and planning their routes, and I was busy wondering how in the world we were going to survive!

scouting the big drops
Scouting the Big Drops

Clearwater Canyon Hike

This was after we finished the rapids and was a great break to have a bit of a zen moment after all surviving the rapids – for guests as well as guides. Dave led the way with his guitar through the canyon as it became more and more narrow. We went past little trickles of water and standing puddles which made me think about how wild this slot canyon could get when it rained.

Dave found a narrow spot where the rock overhung and provided a bit of shade. We took off our packs, sat down and listed to Dave play incredible, mellow tunes as we all laid back on the cool red rock, closed our eyes and just listened. This was a magical place where the music echoed off the canyon walls and everyone just oozed with relaxation.

It’s these types of moments that make the trip.

Camping on the Colorado River

The bird symphony along the river starts around 5am…and as I lay in my tent listening to the complex layering of bird calls. I’m all cozy, enjoying that feeling of cool air outside and cuddling up underneath my sleeping quilt. I try to single each bird call out in my brain and appreciate the unique tweets, twirps, and whistles for a bit. Then I let my mind listen to them in unison as if the orchestra just went full crescendo all at once.

I become aware of the wispy clouds in the sky as they go from being barely visible to glowing pink, it’s like watching cotton candy being made. Suddenly there is a soft, glob of pink coming alive in the sky. I start to hear the stir from the boats where the guides sleep. No tents for them- they just sleep under the stars on their rafts- giving me the feeling that they are bonded to their vessel.

I hear the burner of the propane stove start – the first sound of the manmade world startles me a bit- but I know what that sound leads to…coffee. There’s something about camp coffee – it’s so much better than anything Starbucks could ever produce. I rub my eyes, and get distracted by the layer of sand on my skin for a moment.

The bird symphony slowly fades to the background as nearby sounds take over: people rustling in tents, zippers, the clanking of pots, people talking softly. Finally, the sounds build and my sense of smell is awakened with the smell of bacon. And another day on the river has officially begun.
–Excerpt from my journal

cataract canyon camping

This isn’t just a rafting trip – it’s a camping trip. And mornings at camp were always my favorite time of day. And that says a lot from someone who isn’t a morning person!

We had a number of beautiful campsites right along the river, however I had a few of my favorites.

Rafting the Cataract Canyon through Canyonlands National Park

The Confluence Camp

The guides never uttered the word ‘W-I-N-D’, instead they refer to it as ‘Uncle Gusty’. This was the first of many guide superstitions that I learned about. When we arrived at the Confluence, it was a pretty momentous occasion. After all, this is where the two mighty rivers join, becoming even more powerful.

Confluence green and colorado river aerial
The Confluence from above (taken on our flight back to Moab). Our camp was that little itty bitty strip of sand you see along the curve.

It also happened to be where Uncle Gusty showed up. The wind whipped through the canyon with a fury. We made our way across the confluence where the current really picked up and stopped at the beach right at the confluence to camp.

It was a beautiful, big sand beach. However thanks to Uncle Gusty, it felt like you were in the Sahara with the wind blowing the sand across the ground. We all just landed and took cover for a while!

When the wind did die down, this camp was incredible. I think I was mostly just in awe of being able to camp at this important and powerful confluence.

Penguin Camp

Named after the penguin looking rock formation at the top of the canyon, this was our last camp of the trip, and for me the most beautiful. The canyon walls seemed to be bathed in pinks and oranges at all times. And the sunrise was particularly spectacular.

penguin camp cataract canyon

There was a great area to sit in the water and stay cool, a nice place to bathe in the river, and we could pitch the tents further away from the kitchen area. But I think why I loved it the most was because I had found a perfect spot for me to put up my tent on a small hill above the river giving me the best views in the whole camp.

Rafting the Cataract Canyon through Canyonlands National Park

The OARS Difference

There are a lot of rafting companies out there, and many specifically who operate out of Moab and do the Cataract Canyon. But ever since my Grand Canyon rafting trip with OARS, I have been a big believer in the ‘OARS Difference’. They are one of the best rafting companies in the US, and they do all of the major rivers. I have found that there are a few things that really set them apart above the other companies.

How can you can take this 6 Day OARS Cataract Canyon Trip?
Learn More Here
Plus – see their current promotions on this trip! Save 15% on their October 10th 2021 trip when you book online with promo code SUMMER1521 or call 855-419-1929. Premier Pricing: Save $200 per person when you are one of the first four to book a 2022 departure by March 31, 2022 and reference “Premier Pricing” at time of booking.

The Legacy of Rafting Rivers in Dories

OARS is the only company rafting the Cataract Canyon in Dories. Dories are like the Porsche of boats, and OARS is tightly linked with the history of Dories used for rafting.

dory on cataract canyon

OARS founder, George Wendt, took over the reins of Grand Canyon Dories in 1988 under two conditions: That the company would exclusively run dories and that the trips would always be oar-powered. Wendt, a longtime conservationist, who like Martin Litton (founder of Grand Canyon Dories) had fought to help protect the Grand Canyon from dams in the 1960’s and had also been guiding commercial river trips on the Colorado River and other rivers of the West since 1969, happily signed on.

Grand Canyon Dories, which is now part of the OARS Family of Companies, was and still is the only commercial outfitter to guide the Grand Canyon exclusively in dories. Read about the whole OARS dory story here.

OARS has transitioned Dories to other routes, like Canyonlands when the water levels are conducive to using them.

What Makes a Rafting in a Dory so Special?

This small wooden boat has high sides, a flat bottom and sharp bows. For centuries, dories have been used as traditional fishing boats, both in coastal waters and in the open sea.

Our guide Adam explained rowing a dory to me in a somewhat poetic way,

“It’s a is the perfect marriage of man and craft. It’s an ultimate exaggeration machine where if you have the perfect line, it feels more perfect than perfect. Mathematically, it’s like you’re riding that parabolic wave.”

Cataract Canyon Big Drop Rapids in a Dory

We didn’t have a dory on my Grand Canyon trip, so I was really excited to see what the fuss was about on this trip. We had 2 dories in our boat lineup so we all had a chance to ride in them. Ours were fiberglass, not wood, but they did have the traditional high sides and sharp bows.

OARS describes it as “ It’s a bucking bronco in the rapids. In the flatwater, it’s sleek and graceful.”

The first time I went through rapids it was immediately evident to me that it was different than a raft. I felt like a bowl bobbing in the waves – rocking, rolling, shooting out of the water and slicing up over the waves. The action is much greater and faster than regular raft. Everything felt more exaggerated.

Not only was it fun being a passenger, but I was in awe of the guides who were manning this powerful, precise crafts. I took pictures of them on a couple of rapids and I was absolutely amazed at the composure and focus Dave and Toby had at the helm of the dories.

Note: Dories aren’t always available in lower water flow under 8000, but you can request them and oars will do their best.

Variety of Cataract Canyon Boats/Rafts

It was so fun to look downriver at our little floating group made up of SUP’s, kayaks, big pack rafts, dories, a paddle raft, and a big motorized raft. Yes – this was the biggest variety of rafts on the river and it’s only available from OARS on the Cataract Canyon. Each of these different rafts have different rides and throughout the week you could try all of them out! And in the rapids we also switched around frequently so that everyone could try a Dory experience, or paddles their own way through on a 6 person paddle raft, or on the easier rapids take a kayak through.

Oars cataract canyon rafting boats
Kayaks, paddle rafts, dories, SUPS, and big paddle boats

Note: Oars only takes paddle rafts on this trip if water levels are safe enough to do so.

OARS Rafting Guides

We were awakened by Adam on ‘rapid day’ yelling out this:

I told you he was a bit theatrical!

The excitement was palpable at breakfast that morning.

As we loaded up the rafts and dories, for the first time I saw the normally easy-going guides be really focused and serious. Before we all got in our boats, another guide, Quigley, read us The Boatman’s Prayer. It was completely moving and reminded me that yes this was a vacation, but it was a real adventure – anything could happen. We had been lulled into a bit of Disney-like complacency in the last 3 days of flat water, but now things were getting real.

Water powers this trip, and you can never take it for granted.

Oars rafting guides
Our OARS rafting guides

As much as the guides know each rock and rapid in this river, and have studied it over and over, there is still an element of luck to running river rapids. They try to control that luck element with prayers and superstitions. Dave was busy cleaning his boat before we got in, “Clean boat, clean runs,” I always heard him say. During high water Ernie always dips his hands in the water before a run. He said it gives a physical connection to the water.

They are fun loving river guides, but they hold a great responsibility in their hands – your life. They support each other, and they never stop working on a trip like this. On a 9 to 5 job you get to go home and have some time to yourself- even if you work 60 hours a week you get some downtime, but the only downtime the guides have is when they sleep.

Every OARS guide I’ve had has been incredible, caring, social, and extremely competent.

Food and More

“The meals are the only thing we can control on the trip”—Adam

Yes you may be camping for a week and peeing in the river, but you aren’t exactly roughing it – at least you aren’t when it comes to the food.

Each night the guides would whip up a feast on the beach, complete with appetizers, entrees and desserts. And the breakfasts were incredible too.

On the 2nd night we had an incredible night at camp with hamburgers, hotdogs, and carrot cake. We made a camp fire and Dave played his guitar and sang. Dave is so quiet and subdued normally, but give him a guitar and he belts out lyrics with emotion. I listened to his melancholy lyrics echo through camp and lull me to sleep. It was the perfect camp experience.

Leave it Better Than You Found It

OARS is fully committed to the landscapes in which they operate. Leave no trace principles are printed on the back of each of their coffee mugs.

removing invasive plants cataract canyon

At Penguin camp, our last camp, Adam got out a special hoe used to kill the Russian thistle on the beach. The thistle is invasive and quickly takes over the beaches and precious camping space along the river. Adam educated us on the Russian thistle situation and asked each one of us to help. We all took turns hoeing and pulling up thistle plants.

By the time dinner was served – we had reclaimed a 20×20 ft plot of beach from the thistle.

Must Have Gear for this OARS Rafting Trip

OARS furnishes the camping gear you need and all of the food rafting gear, but you still need to make sure you bring along some key items on a multi-day rafting trip like this. Here’s what I recommend for this trip.

Pashmina and Long Sleeve Cotton Shirts for sun protection. I like to take light cotton button up shirts because they cover my arms and protect me from sunburn, but they also are great for dunking in the water and keeping cool. Plus they dry really fast. A pashmina works just as well too – if not better – because you can drape it over your legs too.

I mainly wore my tankini swim tops during the day and then used my cotton shirt to drape over the top when I got too hot or too much sun.

Running shorts were my favorite thing to wear on the rafts each day. Running shorts have panties built in so I could swim in them, they dried fast, and provided more protection than just a swimsuit.

I also LOVED my Title Nine clamber shorts for hiking and being on the raft and at camp. These shorts are so comfortable with the wide elastic waist band and stretchy material. Plus – the fabric they’re made out of repels water so it’s great to take on a trip like this. There’s a pocket that will hold a phone and zipper pockets in back that hold things you can’t lose. These are my go-to hot weather hiking short. I first fell in love with their Clamber Pants and always hike I them – then I found out they had a shorts version…good for every season!

Big brim Wallaroo hat also for sun protection – make sure it has a chin strap as Uncle Gusty can get quite strong at times. My Cabo Wallaroo hat was perfect for this trip.

Book – this is a great trip for starting a new book. You do have a lot of down time in the rafts those first three days – or at camp.

If you plan on going kayaking, consider bringing sun gloves to protect your hands from burning.

Chaco or heavy duty water shoes are absolutely necessary. I basically lived in my Chaco’s for a week…can you tell by my tan?! These are the perfect shoe for water trips like this. Plus I did light hiking in them too because they are rugged enough to use on boulders.

chaco tan

Hiking boots will be necessary for the hikes in the canyon. You can use mid boots or low hiking shoes like my Oboz Sawtooth. These were perfect for this trip as they weren’t as bulky as mid boots, but they provide a great footbed comfort and a great heavy duty sole serving as a barrier to those big rocks and boulders that you often have to scramble over when hiking in canyons.

This is not a trip where you want to get cheap with sun screen. You are in the sun all. The. Time. I prefer a mineral sun screen from Olin on trips like there where you have all day sun exposure.

Bring a lightweight Turtlefur neck tube for dipping in the river, putting back on, and cooling down. Plus it also protects your neck from the sun – a place I always forget to put sunscreen!

Gatorade powder – it’s hot and you need to replace your electrolytes. Granted, OARS normally has Gatorade, but on our trip they had a snafu packing and we only had a small amount leaving me wishing I had brought my own.

Who Should Go on This Trip

During normal flows – this is a great trip for families. The flat water sections where you can kayak and SUP are really great for kids. The rapids at average flows are still fun, but not terrifying.

During high flows, people who are looking for adventure should go on this trip. The trip I did was an ‘adults only’ – which I prefer. We had a really cool mix of people – father/daughter, girlfriends traveling together, couples, family (brothers and their adult kids) – and then there was me…a solo traveler.

I do a lot of solo travel, and I think a multi day rafting trip is one of the best things you can do as a solo traveler. You are NEVER alone…unless you want to be. There is no single supplement; however, you get your own tent. And you get to meet so many great new people and switch around rafts every day spending time with a new group, etc.

A trip like this is amplified even more because of the past year and a half spent in lockdown not socializing. You meet so many new people and get to stretch those social muscles again.

cataract canyon rafting

“It’s the people that really make each trip,” Dave said – in his typical humble tone.

I couldn’t agree more. We had a total of 20 guests and 6 guides on this tour and there was never a dull moment. We bonded, we got soaked, we drank beer, and we all fell in love with rafting Cataract Canyon.


I was hosted by OARS Whitewater Rafting on this trip, however I’ve gone on OARS trips before paying my own way.  All opinions expressed here are my own.

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