Cataract Canyon

Cataract Canyon is a 46-mile-long (74 km) canyon of the Colorado River located within Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in southern Utah. It begins at the Colorado's confluence with the Green River and its downstream terminus is the confluence with the Dirty Devil River. The lower half of the canyon is submerged beneath Lake Powell when the lake is at its normal high water elevation of 3,700 feet (1,100 m).

Cataract Canyon Sunrise
Cataract Canyon, near the Big Drop Rapids


Canyonlands strat
Stratigraphy of the Canyonlands area, USGS

Cataract Canyon is cut by the Colorado River into the Colorado Plateau, a vast continental uplift comprising much of the American Southwest. Until approximately 80 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau was near sea level. Over millions of years, a series of inland oceans transgressed onto and regressed from the region, resulting in a series of horizontally deposited rock layers. Approximately 70 to 80 million years ago, a series of mountain-building events called the Laramide orogeny uplifted the entire region. The Colorado River subsequently cut through the rock layers, exposing them. The oldest rock layer visible in Cataract Canyon is the Paradox Formation, which was deposited approximately 320 million years ago.[1]


Indigenous peoples, most likely of the Fremont culture, inhabited the Canyonlands area long before European settlers arrived. Rock art and ruins have been found in Cataract Canyon that are at least 800 years old.[2]

Because of the remote location, it was some time before European explorers and settlers reached the area. The Colorado River and its canyons were more of an obstacle to travel than a destination to be explored. The first recorded European to reach Cataract Canyon was a fur trapper named Denis Julien in 1836. Julien carved his name into a rock wall in the lower section of Cataract Canyon, though this inscription is now covered by Lake Powell.[3]

The first organized exploration to travel the entire length of Cataract Canyon was the Powell Expedition in 1869, led by John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who launched in wooden boats near Green River, Wyoming and traveled down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado River at the top of Cataract Canyon. The rapids of Cataract Canyon terrified Powell and his men. The expedition portaged their boats around every rapid in the canyon, a difficult and arduous task. Because of the difficulty of the rapids, Powell named the canyon Cataract Canyon. After exiting Cataract Canyon, Powell continued his trip downstream through Glen Canyon, now submerged by Lake Powell, and ultimately the Grand Canyon before ending his trip near the mouth of the Virgin River.[4]

Other river runners soon followed. Nathanial Galloway made numerous trips through the canyon beginning in 1894. Galloway would later go on to pioneer rowing techniques still used by river runners today. Brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb traveled through the canyon in 1911. The Kolb brothers eventually established a studio on the south rim of the Grand Canyon where they featured videos of their exploits running the rapids of the Colorado River. Buzz Holmstrom made a solo trip through Cataract Canyon and Grand Canyon in 1937, eventually ending at the newly constructed Hoover Dam. The first commercial outfitter to offer trips through Cataract Canyon was Norman Nevills in 1938. The advent of rubber rafts came about in the early 1950s with the availability of surplus rubber rafts from World War II. River runners found the rubber rafts easier to maneuver and much more forgiving than their wooden counterparts. With this newer equipment, many commercial outfitters began running Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon.[5]

Whitewater rafting

Cataract Whitewater
Raft in the Big Drop Rapids, Cataract Canyon

Cataract Canyon remains a popular whitewater rafting destination today. The rapids in the canyon are generally considered "big water", with a character similar to those found in Grand Canyon. Cataract Canyon is rated on the Class I-VI International Scale of River Difficulty, unlike the Grand Canyon which is rated on a scale of one to ten. Also unlike Grand Canyon, the flow of the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon is far enough downstream from a dam that it is generally unregulated. The river can reach extreme levels during the spring runoff in years following plentiful snow throughout the Colorado River watershed. During an average spring runoff, the Colorado River will peak at approximately 52,000 cu ft/s (1,500 m3/s). The maximum recorded flow of 114,900 cu ft/s (3,250 m3/s) occurred on May 27, 1984.[6] The rapids of Cataract Canyon become difficult at flows above 30,000 cu ft/s (850 m3/s) and extreme at flows above 50,000 cu ft/s (1,400 m3/s).[7]

Most rapids in Cataract Canyon are simply named from upstream to downstream as Rapid 1, Rapid 2, etc. However, some rapids within the canyon have separate names due to their location or notoriety. Particularly notorious are the "Big Drops", a set of three rapids in short succession named "Big Drop 1", "Big Drop 2" and "Big Drop 3". During high water, these three rapids essentially run together to form one very large rapid. These rapids contain many large hydraulic features including "Little Niagara", "Satan's Gut", and "The Claw".[7] During times of high runoff, the National Park Service sometimes establishes a camp below the big drops and uses a jetboat to facilitate rescues of capsized rafts and their passengers. However, it is generally understood that all river runners attempting Cataract Canyon at any river level should be capable of self-rescue and not depend on the NPS for support.

Spanish Bottom Sunrise
Calm water during sunrise at Spanish Bottom, Cataract Canyon

Cataract Canyon historically contained several rapids which are currently submerged beneath Lake Powell and have been buried in lake sediment. "Gypsum Canyon Rapid" and "Dark Canyon Rapid" in particular were considered very difficult rapids to navigate.

River trips which run Cataract Canyon must also run one of the flatwater sections above the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Most groups launch at Potash (on the Colorado River) or Mineral Bottom (on the Green River) and spend up to five days on the river before entering Cataract Canyon. Motorized trips can make the trip into Cataract Canyon in substantially less time, often one day. In addition to the flatwater at the beginning of the trip, all groups must traverse Lake Powell before reaching the take-out at the Dirty Devil River or Hite Marina. Depending on the water level in Lake Powell, up to 35 miles (56 km) of lake water may be encountered by groups exiting the canyon.

A number of commercial outfitters offer guided trips through Cataract Canyon. These trips vary in length between one and six days and utilize both motorized and non-motorized vessels. Private groups are required to obtain a permit from the National Park Service prior to embarking on a Cataract Canyon trip.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Geology of Canyonlands National Park Archived 2009-10-30 at the Wayback Machine (USGS)
  2. ^ Native American History of Canyonlands (National Park Service)
  3. ^ Canyonlands European Explorers (National Park Service)
  4. ^ Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon, by Edward Dolnick, Harper Perennial, 2002, ISBN 978-0-06-095586-1
  5. ^ History of Cataract Canyon Archived 2010-07-03 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Historic Flows in Cataract Canyon National Park Service, Retrieved 2009-10-27
  7. ^ a b High water videos of Cataract Canyon National Park Service, Retrieved 2009-10-27
  8. ^ Canyonlands National Park Permit Information Retrieved 2009-10-27

External links

Coordinates: 37°52′39″N 110°17′38″W / 37.87750°N 110.29389°W

Buzz Holmstrom

Haldane "Buzz" Holmstrom (1909–1946) was a pioneer of running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He was the first person to float all the way from Green River, Wyoming to Boulder Dam solo. He built his own rowboats, often of his own design, to run whitewater rivers.

Born on May 10, 1909, in southern Oregon, he was raised in Coquille, Oregon. Buzz's father worked as a logger and died when Buzz was twenty. As a young man, he worked in a filling station. He began building his flat-bottomed boats in 1934, running the Rogue River in southwest Oregon. He ran the Rogue again in 1935 and the Main Salmon in Idaho in 1936. On October 25, 1937, he began his most famous feat, his solo run of the Colorado from Green River, Wyoming, down through Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. At the end of his run through the Grand Canyon, the motorboats refused to give him a tow across Lake Mead, so he rowed the distance in four and a half days. Symbolically, he touched the newly built Boulder Dam with his boat at the end of his journey on November 20. However, Colorado River historian Otis "Dock" Marston wrote that he actually went to the base of the dam at the end of his following trip. The second trip in 1938 included Amos Burg and Willis Johnson. This trip was captured in Burg's short movie, Conquering the Colorado. Buzz received no financial gain from the film.Despite the ground-breaking nature of Holmstrom's feat, his river-running was characterized not by bravado, but by humility and awe at his surroundings.When the United States entered World War II, Holmstrom enlisted in the Navy, where he served in the European Theater and Kiriwina Island in the South Pacific. Upon his discharge in 1945, he went back to work for the Bureau of Reclamation, where he had worked for two years prior to the war.

Holmstrom died of a gunshot wound to the head on May 18, 1946, on the second day of a surveying trip for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. His body was discovered on a game trail downriver of Rondowa, the confluence of the Wallowa River and the Grande Ronde River. The motivation for his apparent suicide is not known. Buzz is buried at the Masonic Cemetery in Coquille, alongside his brother Carl and mother Frances.

Byers Canyon

Byers Canyon is a short gorge on the upper Colorado River in Grand County, Colorado in the United States. The canyon is approximately 8 miles (13 km) long and is located in the headwaters region of the Colorado between Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. U.S. Highway 40 passes through the canyon between Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. The Union Pacific Railroad's Moffat Route also travels through the short canyon.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is an American national park located in southeastern Utah near the town of Moab. The park preserves a colorful landscape eroded into numerous canyons, mesas, and buttes by the Colorado River, the Green River, and their respective tributaries. Legislation creating the park was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on September 12, 1964.The park is divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the combined rivers—the Green and Colorado—which carved two large canyons into the Colorado Plateau. While these areas share a primitive desert atmosphere, each retains its own character. Author Edward Abbey, a frequent visitor, described the Canyonlands as "the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere."

De Beque Canyon

De Beque Canyon is a narrow canyon on the Colorado River in western Colorado in the United States. It is approximately 15 miles (24 km) long, located on the river downstream from the town of De Beque, in eastern Mesa County. The canyon forms a narrow passage where the river passes along the western end of the Grand Mesa. At its lower end, the canyon opens out on the eastern end of the Grand Valley at the town of Palisade, approximately 10 miles (16 km) east of Grand Junction. Interstate 70 follows the river through the canyon.

Geologically the canyon walls are stairstep cliffs of Mesaverde Group, shoreline sands deposited during the Cretaceous. The sedimentary rock layers contain several low-sulfur coal seams that thicken to as much as 50 feet (15 m) at the Cameo Mine near Mile 46 on Interstate 70. The coal is typically soft bituminous coal, since it has never been compressed by overlying rocks to the degree that would be required to form harder coal.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (shortened to Glen Canyon NRA or GCNRA) is a recreation and conservation unit of the National Park Service (USA) that encompasses the area around Lake Powell and lower Cataract Canyon in Utah and Arizona, covering 1,254,429 acres (5,076 km2) of mostly desert. The recreation area borders Capitol Reef National Park and Canyonlands National Park on the north, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on the west, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and the northeasternmost reaches of Grand Canyon National Park on the southwest, and the Navajo Nation on the southeast.

The Glen Canyon NRA was established in 1972 "to provide for public use and enjoyment and to preserve the area's scientific, historic, and scenic features."

The stated purpose of Glen Canyon NRA is for recreation as well as preservation (whereas a national park

may carry more emphasis on natural preservation). As such, the area has been developed for access to Lake Powell via 5 marinas, 4 camping grounds, two small airports, and houseboat rental concessions.

The southwestern end of Glen Canyon NRA in Arizona can be accessed via U.S. Route 89 and State Route 98. State Route 95 and State Route 276 lead to the northeastern end of the recreation area in Utah.

The current Lake Powell lies above Glen Canyon, which was flooded by the Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966.

Havasupai Indian Reservation

The Havasupai Indian Reservation is a Native American reservation for the Havasupai people, surrounded entirely by the Grand Canyon National Park, in Coconino county in Arizona, United States. It is considered one of America's most remote Indian reservations. The reservation is governed by a seven-member tribal council, led by a chairman who is elected from among the members of the council. The capital of the reservation is Supai, situated at the bottom of Cataract Canyon, one of the tributary canyons of the Grand Canyon. Havasupai is a combination of the words Havasu (meaning "blue-green water") and pai (meaning "people"), thus meaning "people of the blue-green waters".

Hite Crossing Bridge

The Hite Crossing Bridge is an arch bridge that carries Utah State Route 95 across the Colorado River northwest of Blanding, Utah, United States. The bridge informally marks the upstream limit of Lake Powell and the end of Cataract Canyon of the Colorado River, but when the lake is at normal water elevation, the water can back up over 30 miles (48 km) upstream into Cataract Canyon. The bridge is the only automobile bridge spanning the Colorado River between the Glen Canyon Bridge, 185 miles (298 km) downstream near the Glen Canyon Dam and the U.S. Route 191 bridge 110 miles (180 km) upstream near Moab. The bridge is near Hite Marina on Lake Powell, and a small airstrip is immediately adjacent to the north side of the bridge.

Imperial Reservoir

The Imperial Reservoir is an artificial lake formed by the construction of the Imperial Diversion Dam across the Colorado River in the Lower Colorado River Valley of Imperial County, California, and Yuma County, Arizona. A component of the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, the reservoir is 16 miles (26 km) northeast of Yuma, Arizona.

Kanab Creek

Kanab Creek ( kə-NAB) is one of the many tributaries of the Grand Canyon. It begins in Kane County, Utah, just south of the watershed to the Great Basin and flows 125 miles (201 km) south to the Colorado River. It passes Kanab, Utah, crossing the border to Arizona near Fredonia. It flows through the Kaibab Indian Reservation of the Paiute people and the 1984-designated Kanab Creek Wilderness, a wilderness area, before its mouth in the Grand Canyon National Park.

The valley of Kanab Creek was settled by Basketmaker and Anasazi Indians. Ruins of their buildings and artifacts are found along its course.

Kolb Brothers "Cat Camp" Inscription

The Kolb Brothers "Cat Camp" Inscription is a 5-foot (1.5 m) by 9-foot (2.7 m) painted inscription on a vertical rock face in Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park, created by Emery and Ellsworth Kolb at one of their campsites during a 1911 exploration of the Colorado River. The inscription reads "E.C. & E.L. Kolb Cat Camp 2 10-28-1911." The Kolb brothers' expedition began on September 28, 1911 at Green River, Wyoming and ended on November 11 at Needles, California. The Kolbs documented their journey with movies and photographs, which they sold at their studio in Grand Canyon National Park. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 7, 1988.

Lake Powell

Lake Powell is a reservoir on the Colorado River, straddling the border between Utah and Arizona, United States. Most of Lake Powell, along with Rainbow Bridge National Monument, is located in Utah. It is a major vacation spot that around two million people visit every year. It is the second largest man-made reservoir by maximum water capacity in the United States behind Lake Mead, storing 24,322,000 acre feet (3.0001×1010 m3) of water when full. However, due to high water withdrawals for human and agricultural consumption, and because of subsequent droughts in the area, Lake Mead has fallen below Lake Powell in size several times during the 21st century in terms of volume of water, depth and surface area.

Lake Powell was created by the flooding of Glen Canyon by the Glen Canyon Dam, which also led to the creation of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a popular summer destination. The reservoir is named for explorer John Wesley Powell, a one-armed American Civil War veteran who explored the river via three wooden boats in 1869. In 1972, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was established. It is public land managed by the National Park Service, and available to the public for recreational purposes. It lies in parts of Garfield, Kane, and San Juan counties in southern Utah, and Coconino County in northern Arizona. The northern limits of the lake extend at least as far as the Hite Crossing Bridge.

Lake Powell is a water storage facility for the Upper Basin states of the Colorado River Compact (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico). The Compact specifies that the Upper Basin states are to provide a minimum annual flow of 7,500,000 acre feet (9.3 km3) to the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California).

List of tributaries of the Colorado River

The principal tributaries of the Colorado River of North America are the Gila River, the San Juan River, the Green River, and the Gunnison River.

List of whitewater rivers

A whitewater river is any river where its gradient and/or flow create rapids or whitewater turbulence. This list only focuses on rivers which are suitable for whitewater sports such as canoeing, kayaking, and rafting.

Major Powell (screw)

Major Powell was a 3 ton, twin screw driven steamboat built and launched in 1891 on the Green River at Green River, Utah, in August 1891. Its owner was the Green Grand & Colorado River Navigation Company headed by B. S. Ross. The company was formed to run a line of excursion steamers down the Green River to its conjunction with the Colorado River and four miles down the Colorado as far as the first cataract at the head of Cataract Canyon, to a hotel to be built for tourists. The Major Powell was 35 feet long and 8 feet abeam, with a 26 inch draft. It had an open deck covered by a canvas canopy. Its two 6 horsepower steam engines were coal-fired, each driving one of the twin screws.

At first a failure on its first trial run after its launch due to the screws being struck by rocks in the fast moving and shallow water, the screws were afterward protected by iron guards, which enabled its success in its first voyage under the command of a local rancher Arthur Wheeler. Leaving April 15, 1882 the Major Powell descended to the Colorado River on the Green River, through Labyrinth Canyon and Stillwater Canyon and then down to the first cataract below the confluence with the Green River. Under-powered it barely made headway against the current of the Green River on its return journey on this first voyage and ran low on coal, forcing the crew to tie it up at Wheeler's ranch, 22 miles below Green River on the river and travel over land to announce their success at that town on July 3, 1892.A second voyage down river was made, after the Major Powell was converted to using wood for fuel. This voyage took a month to complete, however it took only 4 days of that time to make the round trip on the river between Wheeler's ranch and the first cataract of the Colorado. Much of the rest of the time was spent obtaining the cottonwood logs to fire the engine. However despite these two successes, the Major Powell was dismantled in 1894 for its machinery, its hull left, to be washed away in the next flood.

Otis R. Marston

Otis Reed "Dock" Marston (February 11, 1894 – August 30, 1979) was an American author, historian, and Grand Canyon river runner who participated in a large number of river-running firsts. Marston was the eighty-third person to successfully complete the water transit of the Grand Canyon. He spent the last thirty years of his life writing his magnum opus on the history of the first 100 Grand Canyon river runners. In researching his book, he amassed a vast collection of material on early river runners in the American Southwest, especially runners of the Green and Colorado Rivers. His collection is housed in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Pyramid Canyon

Pyramid Canyon is the canyon on the Colorado River where Davis Dam was built on the state line between Nevada and Arizona. The canyon is located on the Colorado River, between Cottonwood Valley on the north and the Mohave Valley to the south. To the west of the canyon are the Newberry Mountains, and to the east are the Black Mountains of Arizona. Originally a deep canyon between the two ranges containing the free flowing Colorado River, Pyramid Canyon is now filled by the lower reach of Lake Mohave a reservoir formed by Davis Dam.

Ruby Canyon

Ruby Canyon is a roughly 25 mile (40 km) long canyon on the Colorado River located on the Colorado-Utah border in the western United States, and is a popular destination for rafting. The canyon takes its name from the red sandstone cliffs which line the canyon walls.

The only access to the canyon outside of rafting is provided by Union Pacific Railroad (formerly Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad) between Mack, Colorado, and Westwater, Utah. Amtrak's California Zephyr follows this route through Ruby Canyon between Grand Junction, Colorado, and Thompson Springs, Utah. A popular attraction along the route are the words "Utah | Colorado" painted on the canyon wall at the border between the two states next to the Utaline Siding.

Williams Fork (Colorado River tributary)

The Williams Fork is a tributary of the Colorado River, approximately 33.8 miles (54.4 km) long, in north central Colorado in the United States. It flows through Grand County between the valleys of the Fraser River and the Blue River. It rises at the juncture of McQueary and Bobtail creeks just west of the Continental Divide 8 miles (13 km) west of Berthoud Pass and 7 miles (11 km) north of the Eisenhower Tunnel in the Arapaho National Forest. It flows north-northwest to the Williams Fork Reservoir, then turns northeast and joins the Colorado at Parshall.

Yampa River State Park

Yampa River State Park is a Colorado state park located along the Yampa River in Routt and Moffat Counties in northwestern Colorado in the United States.

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