Into the Labyrinth: Trials and Triumph on the Green River

Labyrinth Canyon is one of the most scenic stretches of the Green River. You’ll want plenty of time to sit back and admire the view.
Labyrinth Canyon is one of the most scenic stretches of the Green River. You’ll want plenty of time to sit back and admire the view. Avery Stonich
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Things go off the rails on the third day of our five-day canoe trip on the Green River in Utah. We just rejected a beautiful, flat campsite at mile 70, nestled at the base of a sheer red cliff, because it offered no relief from the searing sun. Our last camp is 10 miles and five hours behind us, and we thought we were almost done for the day. Now, as the river banks morph from magical rocks to impenetrable thickets, the words of the canoe rental lady come back to haunt me: “Late May will be high water, so it will be a lot harder to find camping spots.”

It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and the river is running at 14,500–16,500 cubic feet per second, lower than full flood mode of 20,000+, but still high enough to cover sand bars and boat-friendly landings. Later in the summer the flow drops, making the river seem more like a lake with miles of beachfront. That’s hard to picture right now because there’s nowhere to land.

In the spring, high water creates shrub-choked shores on the Green River, which can make it tough to find a landing.
In the spring, high water creates shrub-choked shores on the Green River, which can make it tough to find a landing. Avery Stonich

We’re 27 miles into a 47-mile float from Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottom, weaving through Labyrinth Canyon, where the river starts to stack on top of itself in tight bends. It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of the Green, which meanders 730 miles from the Wind River Range in Wyoming to its confluence with the Colorado River in Utah. Here near Moab, the river has carved a deep chasm through the Colorado Plateau, etching giant red cliffs and buttes that nest into one another like layers of a cake, with towering rock spires for candles.

I look down at my empty water bottle and lick my parched lips with a sandpaper tongue. Our 7-gallon jug is lashed at the bottom of the canoe under a pile of dry bags. The relentless heat is starting to get to me.

A scouting mission up the stream in Spring Canyon yielded no campsites.
A scouting mission up the stream in Spring Canyon yielded no campsites. Avery Stonich

We knew this was going to be an adventure. You don’t plan a self-guided river trip through the desert and expect it to be easy. But so far everything had gone without a hitch, and we were feeling a tad smug.

Three days earlier, the four of us had camped at the put-in and launched ahead of the crowds. A stiff headwind kicked white caps over our bow the first day, but we still made it to our campsite at Three Canyons by lunch. High water worked to our advantage, enabling us to paddle up a side stream and find a quiet spot to pitch tents. We cooled off in the water, explored a canyon, and feasted on carne asada washed down with cold beer.

Three Canyon is a popular spot to camp. High water makes it possible to paddle up the side stream to get to a quiet spot.
Three Canyon is a popular spot to camp. High water makes it possible to paddle up the side stream to get to a quiet spot. Avery Stonich

On day two, we floated a mellow 10 miles, hitting our target campsite at Keg Springs Bottom flawlessly. The setting was divine, nestled among giant rocks teetering in ancient piles. We jumped in a swimming hole as other groups drifted past and envied our spot. At nightfall, we lay on our backs at the river's edge for an hour, staring at a magic carpet of stars that draped across the high red-rock canyon walls around us.

And then shit went haywire on day three after we rejected the campsite at mile 70. The camp was in the perfect spot, where the Green River nudges within a quarter of a mile of its own tail before making a sweeping 7-mile diversion around Bowknot Bend. We had hoped to hike a trail that leads up the rocky escarpment to yield two views of the river. But now we’ve floated too far, and we can’t find a landing.

At mile 70, the Green River nudges within ¼ mile of its own tail before making a sweeping 7-mile diversion around Bowknot Bend. Hike to the saddle for two views of the river.
At mile 70, the Green River nudges within ¼ mile of its own tail before making a sweeping 7-mile diversion around Bowknot Bend. Hike to the saddle for two views of the river. Avery Stonich

Zig-zagging across the river in desperation, we scour the shore, which is either too steep or shrouded in shrubs. We whack our way into one thicket and claw up the river bank only to be swarmed by hungry mosquitoes that bite through our clothing. I can hear the buzz of insects. “Too many bugs!” we shout before jumping back in our boats.

Four hours and 7 miles later, when dehydration and exhaustion are making us woozy, we finally find a small sliver of shore with just enough room for a camp. As we pitch our tent in a narrow nook, I look up at the saddle above us and see vultures circling, as if waiting to see if we’ll survive.

When pickings are slim, you might have to slip your tent into a tight site.
When pickings are slim, you might have to slip your tent into a tight site. Avery Stonich

Then it dawns on us. The saddle is the same one that overlooks mile 70, where we wanted to be. We’re just on the other side. We could not have planned this better if we tried.

Night falls quickly, and we collapse in our tents, exhausted but with a plan. We will get a redo.

The next morning we pick our way through rocks up the saddle, lugging our inflatable paddleboards on our backs. The ridge separating the river is just over 400 feet high. From the top, it's easy to see how the river has sculpted this landscape into a masterpiece. In geological time, it won’t be long before it carves through the saddle.

A lightweight inflatable standup paddleboard is key if you want to hike up and over the saddle. We used a BIC SUP.
A lightweight inflatable standup paddleboard is key if you want to hike up and over the saddle. We used a BIC SUP. Avery Stonich

We descend the other side, pump up our paddleboards, and float back downstream. It's 7 miles of sweet victory, with nothing to do but stare at the view and contemplate our last night. Tomorrow we’ll paddle the final stretch to the take-out at Mineral Bottom. Back at camp, we dig the last beers out of the cooler, clink cans, and smile. Sometimes when things go awry, they end up better than you could have planned.

If You Go

Labyrinth Canyon is a fairly easy do-it-yourself trip if you’re up for a little adventure. The 47-mile stretch from Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottom is all flat water, floatable by raft, stand-up paddleboard, canoe, or even rubber ducky. Time of year dictates how hard you have to paddle. During spring runoff, you’ll have plenty of time to kick back and drink beer. Later in the year the water level drops, making you work harder for mileage. Wind frequently kicks up in the afternoon, so plan your paddling for early in the day and spend afternoons exploring side canyons.

Build time into your itinerary to explore. Keg Spring Canyon is a scenic hike that passes pieces of petrified wood.
Build time into your itinerary to explore. Keg Spring Canyon is a scenic hike that passes pieces of petrified wood. Avery Stonich

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Get a book: Belknap’s Waterproof Canyonlands River Guide contains detailed maps to help you scout campsites and side canyons. Labyrinth Canyon River Guide, by Thomas G. Rampton, is another handy resource, with landmarks listed by mileage, plus descriptions of the river at different water levels. Check the USGS gauge to see how it’s flowing.

Get a permit: You need a permit for the section between the town of Green River and Mineral Bottom. It’s free and easy: Just fill out a Labyrinth Canyon permit and submit it to the Bureau of Land Management’s Moab field office.

Get a boat: If you don’t own a boat, rent one from Canyon Voyages in Moab. This shop has a slew of rental gear, from kayaks, canoes, rafts, and paddleboards, to tents, sleeping bags, groovers (er, toilets), coolers, and more.

Get a head start: Ruby Ranch is a perfect put-in, just upstream from the start of Labyrinth Canyon. You can camp on this private land right next to the river for $5 a person. Pitch a tent under gnarled cottonwoods and spend the evening figuring out the best way to lash your gear to your craft. Bring cash for camping, plus the launch fee ($10 per boat plus $5 a person). This BLM map makes Ruby Ranch easy to find.

Get a ride: River trips create a conundrum with cars: how do you have a ride to the put-in and a vehicle waiting at the finish? Coyote Shuttle solves this by shuttling your car for you. If you don’t want to haul your canoe, they’ll do that for you, too.

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