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Outdoor Recreation

Raft Utah’s Biggest Rapids in Cataract Canyon

This 14-mile stretch of the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park will get your heart pounding.

Utah’s biggest whitewater can be found on the Colorado River in the Cataract Canyon section of Canyonlands National Park. The 14-mile section through the park includes up to Class V rapids and is best suited to serious river runners. This rafting trip can be done as a day trip using jet boats to quickly cover the flatwater sections and then switching to paddle boats for the whitewater, or as a longer rafting adventure, launching north of Moab in Potash or Green River. The takeout is usually Hite Marina on Lake Powell.

The Colorado River is mostly undammed until Lake Powell, meaning this is a wild stretch of river. You’ll encounter unpredictable and ever-changing conditions since there’s no dam controlling flows on this stretch. The Big Drops, which are some of the 10 biggest rapids in the U.S., can be found on this section of the Colorado River. These rapids are so big, you may feel like you’re falling off a building. You’ll also encounter the Mile-Long rapids, which is just what it sounds like, a group of seven rapids in a mile-long stretch. Depending on conditions, you may encounter as many as 24 rapids in the 14-mile stretch.

During April through June, the Colorado River is at its highest water levels with the biggest rapids. Water levels begin to lower by July, creating a slightly mellower adventure, though don’t be fooled. Cataract Canyon is always an intense expedition, even in the late summer and fall.

Navigating the rapids in Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park
Navigating the rapids in Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park (Photo: Getty Images)

“You have a new experience every time you go,” Steve Markel, marketing director of guiding company OARS says. “It’s never the same. You’ll have beaches come and go. Hiking becomes accessible and then inaccessible, depending on flows.”

Cataract Canyon begins where the Green River meets the Colorado. You’ll pass under stunning canyon walls that may have you feeling like you’re farther south in Grand Canyon National Park. Depending on the season, the river under your boat can be colored a chocolatey brown or emerald green.

Permits are required for all rafting trips, regardless of length. This is a very challenging stretch of river and is not for the novice rafter who wants to test their nascent skills. If you go with a commercial rafting company, they’ll obtain the permit. Many guiding services, such as OARS, offer guided rafting trips through Cataract Canyon, which is an excellent choice if you’re not a very experienced river runner.

If you are going to go on a self-guided trip, you can get them on a first-come, first-served basis on recreation.gov. Overnight permits for April 14 – Oct. 15 open on Dec. 14. Permits for Oct. 15 – April 13 open on June 15. Day use permits can be obtained up to 24 hours in advance.

If you’re planning an overnight trip, you’ll also need a backcountry camping permit from recreation.gov. Backcountry camping permits open four months in advance of each season. Spring permits open Nov. 10, summer permits open Feb. 10, fall permits open May 10 and winter permits open Aug. 10.