Green River – Desolation & Gray Canyons

Length4 days
WhenJune 2018
Total Distance covered9 miles hike + 57 miles on the river
Departure pointJack Canyon at 39.72372, -110.12512
Boat entry pointJack Canyon Rapid
Boat exit pointSwasey's Boat Ramp
Return to carCar shuttle
PermitsPermits are needed to run this section of the river

My trips often happen as the result of an impromptu internet search whenever a new idea pops up in my mind. In this case, I was planning a three-week trip in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado and I had some free days to fill up with paddling in between two events that I wanted to attend. While perusing the American Whitewater website, I started reading information about the Desolation and Gray canyons of the Green River. Five minutes later, I found an available permit for a launch on May 31st and booked it. A couple days later, I had also found two trip partners through the Utah packrafting Facebook group. I ordered a guidebook online and started planning the trip!

This stretch of the river is very popular with rafters and the usual launch point is at the Sand Wash launch area. We were initially planning to launch from there. Other packrafters pointed out that a more pleasant way to get to the river was to hike down through Jack Canyon, which takes you to the exact point of the river where the fun (i.e. the rapids) start. Not something you could do with a raft, but ideal for packrafters. Someone sent me two trip reports of people who had done that hike and that became our plan. Now we just needed to get BLM to agree to check our gear and sign off our permit somewhere other than at the Sand Wash Launch.

It took multiple calls to be able to speak to a ranger at BLM as they are usually in the field. I finally got to speak to one and they agreed that we could go to the BLM Price office on the day of our launch to have our gear checked. The ranger spent more than fifteen minutes with me on the phone, ensuring that we had all the necessary gear and giving suggestions for some items (turkey pan is fine for the fire pan – especially if you are not planning on using it).

Short video of the river

Day 1 – Hiking Jack Canyon

We camped at Swasey’s Beach the night before our launch date and set out early to get to the BLM Price office when it opened. Someone there checked our gear and signed off on our permit and we were good to go.

I had the Jack Canyon start pinned in my Google Maps and then stupidly decided to rely on the directions from Google Maps instead of following indications from other trip reports. This caused us to drive for almost three hours on backcountry roads with our way being constantly blocked by gates marking the beginning of private land. We eventually met with a rancher who pointed the correct way to get to the head of Jack’s Canyon, which meant we had to drive all the way back to the main road. We lost the whole morning because of my poor planning and I felt super bad. In summary, do not rely on Google Maps in this area! The correct way to get to the parking at the head of Jack’s Canyon is to follow the route to get to the Sand Wash Launch area through the Nine Mile Canyon Road. At some point the road splits in two and the left fork heads towards the Sand Wash Launch. Keep right and from there you can follow Google Map’s directions to Jack Canyon Rd. We parked the car at 39.723737, -110.125328.

Google Maps shows that Jack Canyon Rd continues much further than the coordinates given above. It is not the case and you will need to walk from that point, no matter how off-road-ready your vehicle is.

We finally started hiking around 2.30 pm, not exactly the early start we were hoping for. Hiking down the canyon took about 5 and a half hours. We had heavy packs full of boating gear and around 6 liters of water each making the hike difficult. However, the beautiful canyon made the whole endeavour worth it. The beginning of the hike involves some scrambling, but the going gets easier as you get closer to the river. Luckily for our group, we had a geologist (Sara) in our ranks to keep us entertained with random facts about the geology of the area. Getting to the river this way made us avoid the first 26 miles of the river after Sand Wash, consisting mostly of flat water. We had a late dinner and camped at the mouth of Jack Canyon.

Day 2 – Jack Canyon to Snap Canyon

The next morning, we tried to get on the river early but somehow failed due to some gear-organization issues. The next 10 miles only had class 2 rapids and we got a good taste of what the river would look like. I was meticulously tracking our location in my guidebook because we wanted to scout some of the harder rapids. We stopped to check out the Flat Canyon petroglyphs since the guidebook stated that they were “one of the most impressive collections of rock art in the river corridor.”

Next, we got out of our boats to scout the Steer Ridge rapids, which Sara and I ran but Justin decided to portage. Nothing to worry about, just a big wave train. Still, I was happy to follow Sara since she was more confident than I was; she had paddled the Grand Canyon earlier that year.

Shortly after, we had our first and only swimmer situation. Justin capsized in a wave train before Rock creek. It delayed us a while as Justin’s boat got stuck in an eddy upstream and we could not hike to it. I took a while for me to paddle to it and retrieve it.

We started the hike down Jack’s Canyon on the first day with 6 liters of water each, hoping that was enough to make it to the first reliable source of water at Rock Creek. With little water remaining, we stopped at Rock Creek on the afternoon of day 2, a few miles before we reached our camp for the night. The water there was plentiful and clear, and we filled up to full capacity.

Pulling into the Snap Canyon camp we saw that a person was already camped there. It turned out to be the ranger on duty. He was super generous with us, sharing lots of advice and stories (and beer)!

Day 3 – Snap Canyon to Rattlesnake Canyon

We were able to get a more efficient start on day 3. We knew we would hit all “Big Four” rapids today and that we would probably do a lot of scouting. Shortly after starting down the river we scouted Belknap and Chandler falls, which we ran without issues.

We scouted Joe Hutch Canyon Rapid, one of the most difficult of this section, for a long time before deciding what to do. Justin portaged it completely while Sara and I skipped the first little drop and ran the sneak route on far river right. We later both regretted not paddling the whole thing, but we can always go back.

While scouting the last of the “Big Four” rapids, Coal Creek Rapid, we were worried about two large holes on center-right. Rocks at the top of the rapid prevented a river-left run. We discussed the possibility of a right-to-left run to avoid the holes, but we weren’t sure if we’d be able to paddle left of the holes in time to not get swept into them. A group of rafts and IK’s entered the rapid without scouting, and we watched as they ran a line between the two holes, a line that we couldn’t see from where we were scouting. The line we identified did not look like such a good idea anymore, but threading the needle between the holes also looked terrifying. Sara decided to go for it while Justin and I took a sneak route on the left. Sara managed to do it like a pro!

All campsites that we passed after that were occupied with large groups of rafters. We eventually stopped at the Rattlesnake camp and asked the rafters there if they minded us camping there. Since we were a small group of 3 they agreed right away and even shared beer and snacks with us.

Day 4 – Rattlesnake Canyon to Swasey’s Boat Ramp

This was a short day with only class 2 rapids, none of which we scouted. We got to the boat ramp at 11 am and it was already fully occupied with rafts. Since we don’t need that much space to unload our packrafts we quickly loaded the gear in our cars and headed to town for a well-deserved pizza and ice cream. In the afternoon we drove back to Jack Canyon to retrieve the car that we had left there. On the way we stopped to check out the Great Hunt panel petroglyphs which were very impressive. Sara and I were motivated to keep paddling over the next days. e headed to a truck stop to have a luxurious $12 shower in a loft-size bathroom then headed to Moab to keep the paddling adventures going!


*Many thanks to Sara for edits and improvements to the original text.