Three years ago, I was doing my research on the Green River in Utah. I was enthralled by a river that had no significant rapids. A river that created a deep gash through Canyonlands National Park, and had its back drop of red sandstone cliffs, deep side canyons, amazing buttes and spires, desert landscapes and days of meandering river travel. It sounded like an amazing multi-day wilderness trip for our family.
We were disappointed when we couldn’t make the trip happen that year. My husband got a new job at the same time as we hoped to go. So into the filing cabinet of my brain the idea went – into the folder of must-do-trips……someday. I got over my disappointment fast when I asked the specific question to a friend who had done the trip. “Is there mud?”. I was coming across the reference to it being a boggy mess, in my wanderings around the internet. “Yes” came her reply. That’s IT I thought! I have no desire to take our 3, 5, 7, or 9-year-old on a trip where we are lugging our gear across acres of mud. My 6-month-pregnant brain didn’t seem to be able to cope with that reality. I all of a sudden got happy that the trip wasn’t going to happen that year.
It’s now 2016 and the trip was confirmed. I put the mud out of my head. I didn’t even suggest we bring gumboots. And then the shuttle company said to us, “Embrace the mud. If you don’t, you’ll hate your trip”. Ok, I think he was talking to me, and I think the kids heard!!
I was going to say our adventure began at the put in at Mineral Bottom, but a mission of this nature, with as many kids as we have, doesn’t start at the put-in. The week before, we needed to pack 6 breakfasts, 6 lunches, 5 dinners, 12 snacks, and all of our clothes, camping & canoeing gear. I had organized permits and logistics. That all felt adventurous, without even leaving the house. Add the fact that the Green River is a 16 hour drive from our home.
When we pushed off from shore, with our fully loaded 20ft Esquif Mirimichi canoe it was a continuation of the adventure that we had already begun. We were living our dream. Our plan was to paddle 52 miles from Mineral Bottom, through Stillwater Canyon, to Spanish Bottom on the Colorado River, arriving 6 days later. I was looking forward to getting on the water. The packing and planning can feel crazy, and once we are going, it just seems to get a whole lot easier. The rhythms become simple; paddle, find a campsite, set up camp, play, sleep, pack up camp & repeat with generous servings of food on a regular basis.
The water was high so our pace was quick. After a half hour of paddling, we decided to stop for lunch. That is where the mud bath ensued. I’m so glad we did it then. The river got higher and higher and that was actually the only time we saw mud like that. We cruised along for the rest of the day hoping that we would find a good camp spot. They aren’t designated. In theory you can camp wherever you want, but we were already finding that there wasn’t anything very obvious. We were grateful for the info that a party had given us as we were launching. They told us you get good at spotting sites – they were often literally just a tunnel up through the brush, and if you weren’t watching you would miss them. We decided to stay at Fort Bottom (mile 41) our first night – about a 10 mile paddle from the put-in. There is potential here to explore. This is the easiest place to access an old cabin that was built by an 1890’s rancher, as a well as a hike up to ruins on a knoll, and beyond on a cool looking razor-sharp ridge. We were on a mission to get to the next campsite early in the day (so as not to miss out!) so we didn’t make the time to walk up to the ruins, but we did run across to the cabin. One of the things that I LOVED was the desert wild flowers were in full bloom. I bet we had the best week of the year! The scenery was stunning as we let the current take us past cool rock features – every which direction, the vista’s were magnificent. At around mile 32 we could access the White Rim. The river was too high for there to be a sand bar, so we tied the canoe to some pegs that were drilled in the rock, and hubby and the older 4 went climbing. We had a little one that had fallen asleep at my feet, so I had to stay with her and the canoe, and just had to watch from a distance. That was probably a good thing though. It would have been a bit more crazy to take her, and I got to take pictures of them, so I was all good! We were at our 2nd night’s campsite by lunch. 10 miles had taken about 2 hours to paddle, and we had stopped at a couple of places to have a quick look. With high water, there were none of the sandbars to camp on; campsites were up these little ‘inlets’ that were filling up by the minute with the rising river. This was the water level when we arrived, and by morning was quite a bit fuller. The campsite was an awesome one – Lower Anderson Bottom at Mile 31. The poplar tree’s gave us some shade, and it was also an abandoned meander of the river. The course of the river is shortened by about 2 miles. This made it a neat area to explore. The kids had lots of fun creating in the mud and sand, and some fellow river travellers had told us to walk up the abandoned meander, and take the 2nd turn to the left. It took us into a dead-end canyon, with a huge overhang towering at the top. The walls would have been at least 500ft, and created awesome acoustics for the best echo’s. The boys in our party are particularly into making a lot of noise, and in this case we got to hear everything that they said, twice! One of the National Park requirements is to use a fire-pan. It is such a great idea, because it really gives the feeling that the area’s aren’t well used. No charred rocks, and no fire pits scattered willy-nilly. Our third day was our longest day. 17 miles total. We stopped on route to look at some cliff dwellings at approx mile 25.5. We were lucky we had any lunch left after that excursion! Each day I would take lunch out of the barrel and put it into a fabric bag. I obviously hadn’t closed it well enough and crow’s had eaten half of our tortilla’s!!
We meandered on to Turks Head campsite at mile 21 for lunch. We had thought we might stay there, but with the site being above the river on a ledge that dropped straight into the water, I didn’t want to spend all day making sure our two-year old didn’t wander off it. There is also a neat trail there that visits some old ruins and cliff dwellings, that we had planned to check out, but somehow……we fizzled. It was hot, and seemed too hard. A kid needed to go potty, so we ended up just eating lunch, going for a swim and moving on. We checked out each possible campsite over the next few miles, and none were vacant or they were non-existent because of, again, the high flow. It was nearing 3 o’clock and we hoped we weren’t going to need to paddle even further. The kids were done. We came to Murphy’s Canyon at Mile 15.2. It was another canyon inlet, that was fairly empty of water when we arrived, and significantly higher when we left the next morning. From camp, the kids were able to play around in the canoe in a foot of water. The canyon walls were so close, that the orange color cast created really neat light. We ate well the whole trip. I quite enjoy the challenge of putting together a wilderness menu. I will share some idea’s with you in another post 🙂 Day 4, we decided to check out all the campsites as we paddled by. Horse Canyon was only a mile downstream of Murphy’s. The canyon walls were impressively high, and it had a wide sandy bottom. It was fun to run up there and play a bit. We called it quits after 10 miles of paddling, stopping at Water Canyon (Mile 4.5). We were initially really discouraged. We paddled up the narrow canyon as far as we could, which was about 200 yards but there was nowhere to camp. We came back to the mouth, and the sandbar was only about 1/2 foot above water, which wasn’t going to do. We were confused about why people said it was so great there. I had noticed some ledges above the river a couple hundred yards upstream, and wondered if we could camp there. We decided to paddle back upstream against a fairly swift current. It was steep and muddy out of the river, but there was a couple of good campsites up there. We decided to stay. There were only 4 miles to go to the confluence, and from what we could tell, there wasn’t anywhere great to stay on-route. I needed to have a bit of a break from kids, so hubby paddled back downstream with all of them, and they swam at the mouth of Water Canyon, and then paddled up as far as they could again, and set out on foot. There was a headwall that was safe to scramble, and then it opened up to a really awesome canyon that had a trickle of water. It had created carved out pools that were warm and amazing to sit in. The crew had been gone for a couple of hours, so I decided to see if I could walk and find them somehow. I took the trail above our ledge campsite, and decided to run and see where it would take me. It was easy going, and after a few minutes, I thought I could hear the kids. A few minutes later I popped out into Water Canyon itself, and there were my munchkins lounging in the most beautiful pools of water!! It was so so awesome. And I totally kicked myself that I didn’t take my camera. They would have been some of the best pictures of the trip 🙁
In hindsight I wished we had explored Water Canyon further. Because the river map doesn’t mark or explain any of the hikes, we didn’t know the possibilities. Apparently you can hike out of the canyon (most of the other side canyons you can’t) and get up on the top, and it is also the easiest access to get into the Maze District. If you are going to do the Green River, I highly recommend you explore this area.
On day 5 we got a good start, and were at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers by 11am. Somehow in my dreams the confluence was going to be more gnarly than I wanted for a family adventure. I was imagining strong eddy lines. Maybe even an eddy fence, and I was carrying a little internal stress. It turned out to be oh-so-mellow. I can’t believe I thought it was going to be a big deal. We cruised down the Colorado and pulled out river left to register which campsite at Spanish bottom we were going to use. At the registration board there was a grade 1 rapid with grade 2 eddy lines (at least at those flows), so if you are paddlers with moving water skills rather than whitewater skills, take care here.
We pulled our canoe into Upper Spanish Bottom at midday and set up camp. What a great site!! We could swim in the river, and there were some big rocks, and tree’s for shade, and it was just a neat place to hang out. Like usual, the kids amused themselves with the simplest of games for hours on end. Little sister wanted to brush big brother’s hair, and we had our final campfire. The Dolls House was our backdrop, silhouetted by the fading light. Hiking with our crew of 7 was not as easy as I expected it to be. When we were done paddling for the day, even though it was early usually, they wanted to play play play. I really wanted to hike to the Dolls house, and realized it wasn’t going to be possible with us all. It was about a mile to walk across Spanish Bottom and then another mile with at least 1000ft elevation gain, and we had run out of time. I wistfully shared my disappointment and hubby told me to get up early and go. Yay!! I left camp at 5.45am and ran. It took me 40 mins to get all the way to the Dolls house and I tried to explore as much as I had time for. There was not a soul, and not a sound. I loved the solitude so much. 2 hours and 35 mins later I arrived back at camp, and the daytime view of where I had just been. By 11am, we had our camp dismantled and were waiting patiently for our jet boat shuttle back up the Colorado, to Potash Landing.
TIPS & TRICKS
Stillwater Canyon is located in Canyonlands National Park and is managed by The National Park Service. The NPS requires that you have a river permit in your possession on launch day. YOU MUST GET THIS PERMIT IN ADVANCE OF YOUR SCHEDULED LAUNCH DATE. There is no lottery for river permits in Canyonlands. These permits are available on a first-come, first-served basis no more than four months, and no less than two days prior to the trip/permit start date.
To apply for a river permit, visit the online reservation system. Once your reservation is processed, you will receive an email with instructions for making a payment. Once your payment is received, your permit will be sent to you by email.
The trip requires a “Flat Water” permit. The fees are $30 reservation fee + $20 per person. Maximum group size is 40 (eek! That is way too large in my opinion!)
Conditions of the permit include using a metal fire pan (at least 12″ in diameter, with a 2½” lip around the edge), an extra pfd for each 5 people, a spare paddle, throw line, boat repair kit, bailers, first aid kit, and an approved means to remove ALL solid human waste. We rented a toilet from our shuttle provider. All unburnt firewood needs to be packed out, and of course, garbage.
High water typically runs from May through June, with the peak usually from the middle of May to beginning of June. Our starting flow was 7,000cfs and each day levels rose to reach the maximum we experienced of 15,000cfs. You can find the current and historical levels here. At the flow we experienced, there are no rapids on the Green River, and very little in the way of hazards. The river was flowing swiftly so travelling good distances was easy. Our information from Canyonlands National Park had this to say. “On the Green, there are two areas that are very rocky during low water: Millard Canyon (mile 33.5) and Horse Canyon (mile 14.5). In addition, the section between the Confluence and Spanish Bottom may have powerful eddies and whirlpools during high water”.
River campsites are undesignated and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Though we didn’t experience the river as busy, it would be wise to be looking for camp before 3pm, so as not to miss out. Much of the river corridor is lined with the invasive species, Tamarisk or Salt Cedar. It is impenetrable and it is therefore difficult to find places to access the river bank. Get good at eyeballing the bank for tell-tale signs of a campsite. We used the Belknaps Canyonlands River Guide, and though is is an excellent topographical map there is no campsite locations, or hiking trails marked on it. I noticed at the information box at Mineral Bottom, a list of campsites and quickly scribbled them on a scrap of paper and tucked them in our map. Having this list was invaluable to us, so thought I would share it here too:
Horsethief Canyon Mile 45.5 Right
Upheaval Bottom, Mile 44.5 Left
*Fort Bottom, Mile 41 Left
Tent Bottom, Mile 39.5 Right
Lower Tent Bottom, Mile 39 Right
Hades, Mile 38 Right
White Rim, Mile 36.8 Right
Beavers Bottom, Mile 34.3 Left
Bonita, Mile 31.5 Left
Upper Anderson Bottom, Mile 31.5 Right
*Lower Anderson Bottom, Mile 31 Right
Holeman Canyon, Mile 28 Left
Cabin, Mile 25.3 Right
Turk Head, Mile 21 Right
Deadhorse Canyon, Mile 19.5 Right
Elephant Canyon, Mile 18.4 Right
Pre Horse, Mile 17 Right
*Murphy, Mile 15.2 Left
Island @ Horse Canyon, Mile 14.5
Jasper Canyon, Mile 9.5 Right
Stove, Mile 7 Left
Upper Water, Mile 5 Right
*Water Ledge, Mile 4.5 Right
Mouth of Water, Mile 4.5 Right
Sandars, Mile 4 Left
Powell Canyon, Mile 1 Right
*Upper Spanish Bottom, Mile 213.5 Right
Middle Spanish Bottom, Mile 213.2 Right
Lower Spanish Bottom, Mile 213 Right
Lower Red Lake Canyon, Mile 212.8 Left
Most of these sites were useable at the flows we experienced. Some of them climbed steeply out of the river, and others required paddling up the side canyon. At lower flows there is a whole variety of sandbars that are open for camping also. The one’s we stayed at are marked with an asterisk*.
I loved the time we were here. Our trip was from May 9th to May 14th. With kids, it was nice to have the river moving fairly quickly so the paddling wasn’t long and laborious. There were no bugs (apparently after high water, the bugs can be crazy as the water retreats), mud was minimal, and the wild flowers were in full bloom. We had a couple of cooler days, but generally it was hot and sunny with chilly evenings. High season on the river is April/May and Sept/Oct. Summer months can be very hot, and in winter ice and snow is normal. Our fellow river travellers seemed to have done the trip multiple times, and I asked them questions whenever I had a chance. One guy told me his favourite time was the end of September; it wasn’t so hot and there were more campsites. Bear in mind, that this is when the river is historically at its lowest of the season, so travel would be significantly slower – perhaps 2 or 3 miles per hour.
I was pleasantly surprised that the experience was one of solitude. We saw the same couple of groups as we zigzagged down the river, but it felt like the wilderness. I was imagining huge groups, and motorboats, and we saw none of that 🙂
6 days was a perfect length for our family. Many people use less time, but the more time you have, the more time there is for off-river playing, exploring and hiking.
Wind is the most common risk factor. A couple of days before we got on the river they had 50 mile an hour winds that knocked a party of paddle boarders right off their boards. Avoiding paddling in the afternoons can potentially help with this. Make sure your boat and all gear is secured, to prevent it from being blown away.
Make sure your boat is tied above the high water mark at your campsite.
There are many many spots that would be awesome for cliff jumping. Resist the temptation. The water is so murky you can’t see a thing, which makes any kind of diving/jumping unsafe.
Be aware of flash flood hazard in the side canyons.
If you are paddling onto the Colorado, keep an eye out for Spanish Bottom, the takeout. If you miss it you will encounter grade 4/5 Cataract Canyon. And you probably don’t want that.
In an emergency you may be able to access the White Rim 4X4 road during the first 20 miles. If you can find a high point to get a call out, the Grand County dispatch can be reached at Ph 435-259-4321. Otherwise get to your pick-up location by 11am to hopefully meet a jet boat shuttle. Bear in mind this area is remote, and very difficult to access, and requires a high degree of self sufficiency.
Most parties take all of the drinking and cooking water they will need for the trip. It should be named the Brown River, rather than the Green!! It is very silt laden. Space and weight was at a premium for us, so we opted to take 20 litres of fresh water, plus full water bottles, and use river water for all cooking, and drinking when our fresh ran out. We took extra fuel so we could boil. We found the silt didn’t settle in the pot unless we boiled it. Once it was cooled, we could scoop out cups carefully, and it be *sort of* clean. For cooking I would boil the water for 5 mins before I added the food, and once it came back to a rolling boil it formed brown foamy scum on the top. We laughed because it was kind of gross, but I could skim it off as it cooked and was all good 🙂 I also packed a steripen for backup to boiling.
ACCESS & SHUTTLE
Our original plan was to paddle from Ruby Ranch to Spanish Bottom. That would have been a 10 day trip minimum, and we didn’t have the time. We opted for the more expensive Stillwater Canyon option. We were told that Stillwater had 1/3 of the volume of users – a huge selling point for us, and had more hikes, ruins, & petroglyphs than Labyrinth Canyon. If you plan on Labyrinth Canyon it is a separate permit system which you can find out about here. Labyrinth canyon is cheaper because there is no cost for the required BLM permit, or a jet boat shuttle. There is a small fee to launch at Ruby Ranch.
Stillwater Canyon requires a jet boat shuttle from Spanish Bottom, unless you want to spend at least a week paddling UP the Colorado. When you are paying for a party of 7, that is where is get’s expensive. But worth it in our opinion. We went with Tex’s Riverways because they offered a cheaper option for kids, and discounted for a one way shuttle. Generally the shuttle leaves from Moab and drives you and your gear into Mineral Bottom as well as the jet boat shuttle from Spanish Bottom upriver 2 hours (52 miles) to Potash Landing, and then by bus back to Moab. We were travelling with my parent’s who were able to drop us at Mineral Bottom saving us a little money. Tag-along Adventures also offers a shuttle service and gear rental. The shuttle needs to be organized well in advance.
Phew! That was a long post! I wanted to inspire you, as well as give enough information to plan your own trip. We see it as a once in a lifetime trip for our family, due to the cost (about US$1000 for shuttle, permit and toilet), but as I mentioned above, it is such a great trip that many people do it multiple times. I would too, given the chance.
Our family had such a fabulous time. I can’t say enough great things about getting away like this as a family for this amount of time. I marvel at the way the kids can get along, and how they can play for hours on end. The simple rhythms are so good for our souls. If you have any questions please contact me!