First appeared in Canoe & Kayak March 2008
Words by Eugene Buchanan
So you blew it. You didn’t get your river permit applications in on time, or maybe you did and Lady Luck closed her doors like a pair of laterals in Lava Falls. Either way, you’re not floating any of the big-name rivers this year. That could be a good thing.
We may be so fixated on the rare chance at rivers like the Middle Fork, Colorado, and Selway, we neglect to discover lesser-known gems like the hassle-free multi-day runs on this list.
Jarbridge/Bruneau rivers, Idaho
A few years ago, my friend Dan scored a rare (1 in 27) Middle Fork of the Salmon permit, a regular on “world’s best” river trips lists. But then the river flooded and the Forest Service cancelled our trip, leaving us high and dry in Idaho, boats loaded down with gear and beer. We quickly settled on southern Idaho’s Bruneau, picking up a free permit at the BLM office on the way to the put-in, and enjoyed one of the best runs in the American West. The Bruneau and it’s tributary, the Jarbridge, boast as much whitewater and wilderness as any lower-48 stretch, not to mention hot springs and Rhyolite pillars (called “hoodoos”) around every bend. For the 69-mile stretch starting on the Jarbridge, plan on five days, treat Class IV Sevy Falls and Wally’s Wallow with respect, and portage Class V+ Jarbridge Falls. The 40-mile Bruneau trip culminates in a long Class III-IV whitewater fiesta called Five Mile Rapids. Hint: This is a narrow river best suited to smaller rafts and kayaks—and be sure to pack the calamine lotion. Info: (208) 736-2350, blm.gov
Labyrinth/Stillwater Canyons, Green River, Utah
Float and bloat with the spirit of Edward Abbey, and enjoy your own desert solitaire on the Green River. No permit is required to float Labyrinth Canyon, a 68-mile stretch of serpentine flatwater from Green River, Utah to the Canyonlands National Park boundary at Mineral Bottom. Permits for Stillwater Canyon, the 52-mile section from there to the Green’s confluence with the Colorado, are yours for the asking (but be sure to book a jet-boat shuttle up the Colorado River to Moab, as you can only float Cataract canyon, the Class IV stretch below, with a lottery permit. With an average gradient of just 1.5 feet per mile, each of these deep, meandering desert canyons makes an ideal four- or five-day trip in rafts, sea kayaks, or canoes. Info: (435) 259-4285, nps.gov/cany
Dolores River, Colorado
Starting 10 miles below McPhee Dam, the Dolores serves up a paddler’s smorgasbord. Everything from a three-day whitewater feast to a 14-day, 174-mile float is on the menu. Most popular are the 47 miles to Slick Rock, and the ensuing 50-mile stretch to Bed Rock. You’ll progressing from forests of fir and pine flanking red sandstone cliffs to groves of oak, cottonwood, and juniper abutting desert slickrock. Expect read-and-run Class II-III whitewater, save for Class IV Snaggletooth, and Anaszi ruins on both stretches. The Bureau of Reclamation controls flows, with average years providing boatable levels in April and May. Simply sign up at the put-in to run the upper 97 miles. If floating into Utah, call or visit the BLM Web site for a free permit. Info: (970) 882-6817, blm.gov
Owyhee River, Oregon
Getting a permit is the easiest part of running the Owyhee, which knifes through a high desert canyon to join the Snake in southeast Oregon. Launch dates are unlimited; it’s the water levels during the river’s April to June season that are unpredictable. Catch it at prime levels, and you’ll be rewarded with a gem of scenery, solitude, and swirly whitewater. Run the 37-mile Middle section from Three Forks to Rome, or the mellower 48-mile Lower portion down to Birch Creek. Cutting through a broad volcanic plateau, the Middle dishes up three or four days worth of Class III-IV pool-drop as well as Class V Widowmaker, which almost everyone portages. The Lower offers four days of mellower Class III whitewater, plus hot springs that will have you saying ooo-ee on the Owyhee. Info: (541) 473-3144.
Rio Grande River, Texas
Badges? You don’t need no stinkin’ badges to run the Rio Grande. Well, you do need permits, but they’re available year-round for the asking, whether you’re paddling Colorado Canyon upstream or the many canyons (Madera, St. Elena, Marsical, San Vicente, Hot Springs, and Boquillas) of Big Bend National Park. Reach for the sky yourself on one of the country’s most dramatic canyon runs, offering up to 150 miles of whitewater and wilderness along the Texas-Mexico border, including the lower 83-mile float from La Linda to Dryden Crossing. The Rio Grande is best run during the spring high water, but determined canoeists can usually run year-round. Info: Colorado Canyon (Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area): (915) 358-4444; Big Bend National Park: (915) 477-2251.
Black Canyon of the Colorado River, Arizona/Nevada
You’re guaranteed to have a good dam time on the Black Canyon of the Colorado. Why? Because you’ll put in at the base of 726-foot Hoover Dam. While Lake Mead submerged much of the canyon’s jet-black, andesite gorge, there are still 12 miles to float to the take-out at Willow Beach, offering hot springs, wildlife, and side canyons. It’s a perfect overnight for canoes, sea kayaks, or rafts. Ringbolt, a Class 1+ riffle named for an iron ring used to winch steamboats upstream in the early days, is the only rapid. Call an outfitter beforehand to obtain a permit and arrange a shuttle to the restricted-access put-in at the base of the dam. FYI: You don’t need any permit to put in at Willow Beach and paddle upstream to the dam. That, my friends, is how you stick it to The Man. Info: Boulder City Outfitters (702) 293-1190; Desert Adventures (702) 510-4746; nps.gov/lame.