Rollin' on the River
Maybe you've come to Grand Junction for a first-hand look at the Colorado's city's bounty of art galleries and distinctive boutiques, or perhaps you're here to sample a Riesling or Merlot from one of the region's esteemed wineries. There's plenty to see and do in this mountain-studded community on Colorado's Western Slope. But one of the most memorable ways to soak up the region's unparalleled beauty is by paddling through it. This is one of the West's premier whitewater rafting destinations and the roiling rapids of the Colorado River, as they course through Westwater Canyon into Utah, offer some of the area's most thrilling adventures.
Where Eagles Soar
The Colorado River runs just south of downtown Grand Junction, but it's the Westwater Canyon stretch -- about 30 miles down river from Grand Junction -- where the region's most popular whitewater rafting trips commence. This 17-mile run (starting at the Westwater BLM Ranger Station and ending at the Cisco, UT boat ramp) is like an appetizer to the famous stretch of the Colorado River coursing through the Grand Canyon.
Westwater is one of the most accessible stretches of Class III and IV rapids in the West. For a fraction of the cost and time required to raft the Grand Canyon, you can shoot the Westwater rapids with a BLM-permitted outfitter, enjoying red-rock canyon country, spectacular views of billion-year-old Precambrian rock formations and heart-thumping rapids.
From the seat of your raft you can gaze up at vermillion-hued cliffs rising as high as 1,200 feet above the river. Keep your eyes peeled to sight desert bighorn sheep, which sometimes amble along the cliffs, and the occasional bald eagle, peregrine falcon or turkey vulture circling above. At beaches along the Colorado River, you can hike trails once used by nomadic Fremont Indians, who left behind numerous pictographs, and inspect a historic stone cabin used by ornery outlaws, cattle rustlers and bootleggers.
Westwater Canyon starts (and ends) with stretches of placid water, where views can be enjoyed, side canyons explored and preparations made for the big water ahead. Westwater is sometimes broiling at high water, more technical at lower flows, and it offers evocatively named rapids including "Funnel Falls", "Bowling Alley", "Sock it to Me" and "Skull" (with its aptly named "Room of Doom" eddy). Most of the major rapids are packed into an Inner Gorge where scouting rapids (especially at high flows) is challenging and the drops come with a rush. Then you can settle back to savor the last of the Canyon's spectacular scenery.
Going With the Pros
The simplest way to plan a rafting trip in Western Colorado is through outstanding local outfitters. Adventure Bound River Expeditions (800-423-4668, www.adventureboundusa.com) offers one- and two-day Westwater Canyon trips. A great thing about rafting with Adventure Bound is that you have the option of riding in a traditional raft or paddling in an inflatable kayak, which can maneuver some of the river's most challenging rapids, allowing for an even wilder experience. Adventure Bound will also lead you on three- to seven-day River trips through Cataract Canyon on the Colorado, or on the Yampa or the Green Rivers through Dinosaur National Monument and Desolation Canyon. One-day easy float trips are also available on the Colorado River in Ruby Canyon through McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.
A Riot of Rivers
Although Westwater Canyon is the region's most famous run, you'll find several other excellent rafting areas nearby. Closer to Grand Junction, the Ruby-Horsethief Canyon section of the Colorado, with tame Class I and II rapids, is ideal for float trips, canoeing and kayaking. Or venture about 40 miles southwest to Gateway to reach the Dolores River, a rugged stretch of Class II to IV rapids. Rimrock Adventures (888-712-9555, www.rradventures.com) offers half-, one-, two- and three-day rafting expeditions (as well as float trips) on three area rivers. You can float through Ruby-Horsethief Canyon as well as dramatic Westwater Canyon, or take a three-day whitewater tour along the Dolores River through Paradox and Mesa canyons.
A More Leisurely Approach
While splashing down rapids is exciting, there are ways to enjoy an afternoon on the river without the adrenaline rush. For a relaxing trip on the water (and maybe a cocktail or two along the way), Palisade Wine Country Float Trips are the perfect way to experience the Colorado River. The two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hour trip offers exceptional views of Colorado's wine country as you peacefully drift past orchards and vineyards. Choose from kayaks or rafts and be sure to wear your bathing suit: It's a great way to beat the summer heat and soak up some unbeatable Grand Valley scenery.
Something for Everyone
While there are rafting and floating trips around the Grand Junction area to fit every skill level, novice to expert, there are also specialty trips for individuals with physical or mental disabilities available through Colorado Discover Ability (970-257-1222, coloradodiscoverability.org). Dedicated to the idea that the outdoors offer an amazing opportunities for self-exploration, building self-confidence and challenging one's self, Discover Ability's trips are specially designed to to make the great outdoors more accessible. Their trained and experienced guides are experts at delivering unique, adaptive outdoor adventures for people with disabilities.
Grand Junction is also a hub for do-it-yourself rafting trips. You can rent gear at Whitewater West (970-241-0441) or Rimrock Adventures (888-712-9555, www.rradventures.com). And you can check with the Colorado Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Grand Junction Field Office (970-244-3000, www.blm.gov/co) for advice on where to raft and how swiftly the area's rivers are flowing. Generally, the best season for rafting in these parts is March through October, but weather permitting, it's possible to enjoy the region's rapids year 'round.
Keep in mind that if you're planning your own rafting trip, it's important that you have the proper gear and experience to negotiate these waters. The rivers around Grand Junction offer everything from placid to some of the most dizzyingly exciting whitewater rafting in the West. Plan prudently and follow local BLM regulations, and you're sure to end up wet in only the happiest sense of the word!
If you are not using a local commercial operator (listed above), a permit is required on Westwater Canyon and on some sections of the Dolores during the spring and summer months. There is limited availability, especially on weekends, so consider a mid-week trip or dates out of the peak May-to-August period. For information on Westwater Canyon permits, contact the Utah BLM at 435-259-7012 (8 a.m. to noon MT, Monday to Friday) or visit https://www.blm.gov/utah.