Desolation Canyon: 84 miles of Wilderness, Wildlife & History

photo by lindkathi

by Dylan Holt

Into the Wild

For those of us that live in Salt Lake City, Utah there are many good options for multi-day rafting trips.  Most are about 4-5 hours of driving away.  The Desolation Canyon section of the Green River is the exception.  It lies about 3.5 hours to the put in from downtown SLC.  The road into Sand Wash put in is notorious for popping tires and thrashing trailers so make sure to have good spares.  Shuttle companies won’t shuttle your car if you don’t.  The put in at Sand Wash is also notorious for being just about the worst place on the planet for mosquitoes.  Okay, maybe not the worst on the planet, but it’s bad.  During late May and June plan on the bugs being horrible and do yourself a favor, if camping the night at Sand Wash, reserve the tented cabins.

The view in the heart of Desolation Canyon

The Name Desolation

The 84 mile section of Wilderness River that flows through Desolation canyon, named by John Wesley Powell due to its inhospitable nature, cuts through a canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon at Angel Point.  The canyon is known for its amazing beach camps underneath old groves of cottonwood trees. 

The Ancient Inhabitants

The petroglyph panel at Flat Canyon

As well as multiple archaeological sites left by the ancient Fremont Indian culture.  The entire left side of the river is the Ute Indian Reservation and a permit is required and can be purchased from the tribe to camp and hike on their land.  Please be respectful of Native American artifacts and sites, leave them as you found them. 

Rapids & Calm

Joe Hutch or “Cow Swim” Rapid at low water in Sept 2014

The trip through the canyon is punctuated by amazing scenery and class III rapids that will challenge novice boaters and provide fun for all.  Typically, this stretch of the Green River takes 5 or 6 days minimum to float, and during low water years the first 25 miles can be quite slow.  So slow that some decide to bring a motor for the first part as well as to fight the notorious headwinds that can form in the canyon. 

The view from Upper Wire Fence Camp after a storm cleared

Wildlife & Nature

There is abundant wildlife in the canyon ranging from eagles, snakes, lizards, mountain lions, big horn sheep and bears. Desolation canyon is well known for bear activity and river runners should keep food contained and not left out overnight.  Keep a clean camp and you shouldn’t have a problem. 

The Take Out Point

The take out at Swasey’s ramp is a nice large concrete ramp with toilets and a large parking lot.  Please only take up one lane on the ramp and be as quick as possible de-rigging. 

The drive into Green River, UT is a quick one and most boaters ritualistically hit up Ray’s Tavern, a local whitewater burger joint, before heading back home. 

The run is controlled during the prime season (May 1-Sept 30) through an online lottery on  However it can be quite easy to obtain a permit in the off season.  If you decide to go in the spring make sure that the river is ice free as there is potential for ice damns to form as the ice breaks up in March.   

Miles: 84

Days: 5-8

Class: III

Put In: Sand Wash, UT

Take Out: Swasey’s Boat Ramp, UT

Gauge: USGS Green River at Green River, UT

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