How to Experience Moab on the Water

The Moab Daily is one of the most popular rivers to paddle in Utah thanks to easy access and incredible views.
The Moab Daily is one of the most popular rivers to paddle in Utah thanks to easy access and incredible views. Ken Lund
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Despite the cartoons we watched as kids, the concepts of "desert" and “water” are not mutually exclusive. Sure, the delicate ecosystem in Arches National Park is full of cryptobiotic soil (that is, spongy sand filled with water-trapping microorganisms to make life in the high desert possible) and precipitation in the desert is rare enough that a big rainstorm causes flash flooding. In fact, each time it rains, you can see the forces at work on a tiny scale, carving deep canyons in the sandy washes—just as the towering sandstone canyons were created over millions of years by the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Climbing and mountain biking in the Moab area get a lot of the spotlight, but the Colorado River is one of the best and most central places to play here, whether you’re in a raft, a sea kayak, a packraft, a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), or something else entirely. For day trips, you’ll need all the things you’d ordinarily bring on a hike, including the Ten Essentials, plus extra sunscreen and water in the warmer months. On multi-day trips, be ready to adhere to Leave No Trace ethics by packing out all trash and bringing along a river toilet and fire pan, available for rent from most local outfitters if you don’t already have your own.

Check out some of the best ways to enjoy Moab on the water.

Moab Daily

This 13-mile stretch is among the most popular river runs in Utah, and it’s not hard to see why. Beginning at Hittle Bottom, just upriver from the iconic Fisher Towers, the Moab Daily floats by views of the LaSal Mountains, Castle Valley, and, farther down, the boundaries of Arches National Park. The stretch runs along Highway 128, known locally as the River Road, so access for put-in and take-out is easy.

The Moab Daily alternates between flatwater and, at high water (in spring and early summer), rapids up to Class III. It’s a popular outing for local guide outfits, who take oar boats full of passengers down the day-long stretch during the warmer months. Though the rapids offer some excitement, this section of the Colorado is also suitable for kayaks, packrafts, and SUPs.

Labyrinth Canyon

Camp on islands and sandy bottoms at low water in remote Labyrinth Canyon.
Camp on islands and sandy bottoms at low water in remote Labyrinth Canyon. Chris M Morris

The 45-mile stretch of the Green River between Ruby Ranch and Mineral Bottom, aptly known as Labyrinth Canyon, is a gorgeous, remote run. You’ll either have to run a shuttle or hire a local outfitter to get your boat to Ruby Ranch, a private ranch with paid river access just over an hour’s drive from Moab. Plan at least three days to make the trip to Mineral Bottom (it’s better to take your time and do it in four or five), camping on sandy bottoms and, at low water, islands along the way.

This region is steeped in desert history, and you can read all about it in the writings of Major John Wesley Powell, the famed explorer of the Grand Canyon. You’ll also find remnants of early expeditions (and, if you’re lucky, petroglyphs) on countless side-canyon hikes. This stretch is all flatwater except for a few riffles, so it’s appropriate for canoes, sea kayaks, SUPs, and bigger boats.

Stillwater Canyon

The remote Stillwater Canyon offers paddlers the trip of a lifetime.
The remote Stillwater Canyon offers paddlers the trip of a lifetime. Chris M Morris

The Green River enters Canyonlands National Park just downriver from Mineral Bottom, which is also where the Stillwater Canyon designation begins. To continue paddling from Mineral Bottom, you’ll need a permit from the National Park Service ($30/party plus $20/person); a ranger stationed there checks permits during the busy season. Plan your put-in for a day when there hasn’t been much rain lately—the steep switchbacks down the road to Mineral Bottom are impassable when wet.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the tricky access, a paddle down remote Stillwater Canyon is a trip of a lifetime. Plan four or five days for the 52-mile run, which is the last stretch of flatwater before the serious rapids of Cataract Canyon. From the river, you can access Canyonlands destinations like the Doll House and the Maze. At the end of this trip, you’ll have to hire a local outfitter with a jet boat to motor you back up the Colorado to Moab.

The Confluence

The Confluence, at the meeting of the Green and Colorado Rivers, is just above the notoriously difficult Cataract Canyon.
The Confluence, at the meeting of the Green and Colorado Rivers, is just above the notoriously difficult Cataract Canyon. MoabAdventurer

The meeting of the Green and Colorado Rivers, just above notoriously difficult Cataract Canyon, is among the most iconic scenes in the American West. It’s possible to hike to the Confluence via the Needles District’s Confluence Overlook Trail, which lies within the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park, but it’s an incredible experience to paddle there.

Spanish Bottom, the usual take-out for the Stillwater Canyon run, is just past the confluence of the two rivers, allowing paddlers to see them converge before being picked up via jet boat for a trip up the Colorado into Moab. A few local outfitters even run motor tours down the Colorado from Moab to the Confluence and back, allowing visitors to see it on a shorter timetable.

No matter how you like to enjoy the water, you have plenty of options around Moab. With just a little bit of planning you can enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime trip featuring some of the most beautiful terrain in the U.S. Enjoy the ride.

Originally written for Utah Office of Tourism.

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