Paddles Up: Water Adventures in Utah

Utah’s landscape is often imagined as a desert, bone dry and starkly beautiful. However, the towering cliffs and towers, the deep, winding canyons and the hoodoos and arches that are admired around the world, are all the result of a common denominator—water. It was rivers, long-gone lakes, rains and floods that sculpted these wonders over millions of years and continue to shape and transform them. The water still flows and every spring and summer the river rats emerge from hibernation to challenge themselves on daring whitewater runs and, between those thrills, float quietly with a hard-won perspective that allows them to admire Utah’s wonders from deep down inside the canyons where the rivers run and the river rats go to play. Check out our top picks for water adventures in Utah!

The Mighty San Juan River 

A mix of whitewater and flatwater, offers beginners next-level training

The 57-mile trip from Mexican Hat to Clay Hill provides you with unique desert scenery, opportunities to peep wildlife and explore archeological sites. Known to boaters for it’s mix of scenic flatwater and thrilling whitewater, the San Juan’s most famed rapid is Government Rapids (pictured left) named after a boating accident that occurred in 1921 during a United States Geological Survey expedition.

The Zion Narrows 

One of Zion National Park’s treasures, up the Virgin River below towering cliffs

Photo Courtesy of Adobe Stock

This “hike” is one of the bucket list destinations in Zion National Park. It is however, less of a hike than a slog over round rocks in the Virgin River into an increasingly narrowing Zion Canyon. The less intrepid will walk a short way up but the adventurous are rewarded with narrower and narrower sections that defy our human senses of scale. Although summer is the most popular time to wander into the narrows, it is also possible to explore year-round with the help of insulated dry-suits and waders from a nearby outfitter. Either way you choose, the Narrows are an essential Utah experience. 

The Mighty Colorado River

Take a run on the ‘Daily’ outside of Moab for a taste of the river’s whitewater

Photo Courtesy of the Utah Office of Tourism/Austen Diamond

For river rats who love the thrills of whitewater the Colorado is a storied river that runs through world-famous sections like Cataract Canyon and, of course, the Grand Canyon, neither of which are for the faint of heart or novice boaters. The Daily, however, is an 14-mile float that starts at Hittle Bottom, just outside of Moab, and travels through the beautiful scenery including a long stretch beneath Castleton Tower. There are, however, also four stretches of whitewater that will get your heart pumping. The third, White’s Rapid, is the trickiest, so stay sharp.

The Mighty Green River 

Run the Labyrinth section and enjoy one of Utah’s most scenic and placid floats

Utah Water Adventure

Photo by Jeremy Pugh

Before the Green meets the Colorado in Cataract section lies the Labyrinth, a calm section of river with ample sandbar camping from canoe or raft. The section is one of the most scenic and is so named because of its winding path through towering red rock canyons. 

The Mighty Yampa River

The Yampa is the last wild and free-flowing river in the Colorado Basin

Utah Water Adventure
Photo by Tim Roberts

The wild ride begins in Colorado and takes you through Dinosaur National Monument and all its wonders before the Yampa’s confluence with the Green. The river tests boaters with Class II and III rapids and one big daddy—the Class IV Warm Springs Rapid with a prominent wave that has flipped many a raft. Scouting this section is strongly recommended. 

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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