Cataract Canyon History

Cataract Canyon History

Cataract Canyon History Fun Facts:

  • River: The Colorado River

  • Rapid Rating: Class III-V(depending on Water Levels)

  • Put in (Colorado River): Potash Boat Ramp (30 minute drive west of Moab, Utah)

  • Put in (Green River): Mineral Bottom (1 hour drive west of Moab, Utah)

  • Take-out location: Hite Marina on Lake Powell boat ramp (3 ½ hours southwest of Moab, Utah)

  • River Miles: 96 from Potash, 98 from Mineral Bottom

  • Number of rapids: 28

  • First to run Cataract Canyon: John Wesley Powell Expedition in 1869

More Cataract Canyon Rafting Information

Map of Cataract Canyon


Cataract Canyon RaftingCataract Canyon lies in the heart of Canyonlands National Park 65 miles down the Colorado River from Moab, Utah and 110 miles down the Green River from the town of Green River, Utah. These two powerful rivers meet at the Confluence and combine to make some of the most commanding and famous rapids in North America. Cataract Canyon's rapids caused more damage and created more fear in early river runners than those of the Grand Canyon. Cataract's rapids are only part of the amazing story about this section of the Colorado River. Cataract and Canyonlands also has amazing human, and natural history, along with classical river running stories and adventures.


Canyonlands National ParkSurrounded by uplifts, canyons, and cliffs, Canyonlands is at the heart of the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is a vast highland with an average elevation of 5000 feet, incorporating the four corners states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The Plateau is set between the Great Basin to the west, the Uinta Mountains to the North and the Rocky Mountains to the east.

1000-foot cliffs of Wingate and Chinle sandstone are around every meandering turn. Wingate Sandstone is preserved sand dunes formed in a desert environment and makes up the predominate cliffs in the Canyonlands area. Chinle Sandstone is formed from meandering streams and shallow lake bottoms. Petrified wood and uranium are often found in its layers. Many other layers are visible in Cataract including Cutler Undivided, White Rim and Cedar Mesa Sandstone, along with the Elephant Canyon Formation and the Honaker Trail Formation.

Human History

John Wesley Powell Pre-historic Native Americas (probably Fremont) left 800 year old rock art and ruins all along the canyon walls. Little is known about the Fremont culture because they were nomadic, and other than their rock art and small dwellings left very little behind. Cataract Canyon has an abundance of granaries and small habitations along many of it's side canyons.

The first European explorers in the area were Franciscan friars Dominguez and Escalante in 1776. Because of the deep canyon they decided not to cross. In 1836 a French fur trapper named Denis Julien left his initials in Cataract Canyon. Very little human activity happened in Cataract Canyon because of the remote location. In 1869 John Wesley Powell traveled from Green River, Wyoming to Virgin River, Nevada on the Colorado and Green Rivers. Few river runners attempted the dangerous rapids of Cataract before the 1950's when surplus rubber military rafts became available for much cheaper than the previous wooden boats.

A few of the early River Runners:

  • Nathanial Galloway does the first solo trip through Cataract Canyon in 1894

  • Emery and Ellsworth Kolb traveled from Green River, Wyoming to the Sea of Cortez in 1911 on the Green and Colorado Rivers

  • Julius Stone Expedition runs cataract in 1909

  • "Buzz" Holmstrom makes a solo run of the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1937

  • Norman Nevills runs the first commercial River trip through Cataract Canyon in 1938

Congress established Canyonlands National Park in 1964 after a long history of "potential" development in Cataract Canyon. Before 1921 the Colorado River was know as the Grand River. Congress changed the name under pressure from the state of Colorado in the Colorado Compact, which also designated water rights to the sates that border the Colorado River. The Rio Grande Railroad tried to build a railroad from Denver to LA following the Colorado River in 1889. In the early 1900's steamboats carried mining supplies, fruits, and cattle between Green River and Moab using the Colorado and Green Rivers. There was also an attempted dam site at the Confluence in the early 1900's. The amount of sediment at this location made it nearly impossible to build.

Books about Cataract Canyon and the Moab Area

  • Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons ~ John Wesley Powell

  • Cataract Canyon: A Human and Environmental History of the Rivers in Canyonlands ~ Robert H. Webb

  • The Doing of the Thing: The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom ~ Vince Welch

  • Canyonlands River Guide ~ Bill Belknap

  • Desert Solitaire ~ Edward Abbey

  • Ancient Ruins of the Southwest: An Archaeological Guide ~ David Grant Noble, Brad Melton

  • Legacy on Stone: Rock Art of the Colorado Plateau and Four Corners Region ~ Sally J. Cole

  • Stone Desert: A Naturalist's Exploration of Canyonlands National Park ~ Craig Childs