A Love Letter to Cataract Canyon

8 Min. Read
A lone person stands along the the Colorado River with the walls of Cataract Canyon towering above them

It Doesn’t Get Any Better than Grand Canyon, or Does It?

I embarked on my first overnight river trip from Whitmore Wash to Pearce Ferry in Grand Canyon in 2022. It was a short trip by motor down the mighty Colorado, but it was all I needed. By the end of day one, I was in love. I remember staring up at the surreal canyon walls at camp, having just waited out an early evening thunderstorm that briefly threatened the need for a tent, and thinking, “This is it. This is where I’m meant to be.” I was truly happy, and in the short amount of time I was with her, the river had invigorated my soul.

Two weeks later, I returned to Grand Canyon to run Lees Ferry to Whitmore Wash with my dad, thereby completing the full 280-mile stretch of the Colorado River through the canyon and one of the biggest bucket list adventures on the planet. It was as magical as everyone claims it is—a sundry of scenery that makes you feel like you’re traveling through the Old West one day and floating down a river in Middle Earth the next; rapids like Hermit and Lava Falls that have you begging your guides to take you back upstream to do it again; hikes up side canyons to waterfalls that have you convinced you’ve traveled through a portal and stepped into a fairy tale. I was in constant awe, and with each day that passed, I found myself thoroughly settling into river time and growing even more attached to the ways of river life.

By the final day of the trip, I knew something inside of me had shifted. Having dedicated 25 years to the stage as an actor, I never thought it possible to find something I could love more. But here I was, standing on a sandy beach at the bottom of Grand Canyon, howling at the moon with my fellow river rats, and I was home. “Surely,” I thought, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

I could not have been more wrong.

A van with a boat hitched to the back drives the road to the Mineral Bottom put-in on the Colorado River
The road to the Mineral Bottom put-in on the Green River | Photo: Mike Walton

The Center of the Universe

Back in April, I was asked if I would be interested in jumping on a Stillwater & Cataract Canyon Hiker trip to assist with a film project. “It’s gonna be big water,” they told me. No doubt. Everyone in the industry was aware that this was going to be an epic year for whitewater rafting in the West. I wasn’t just going to be running some of the best whitewater in the country, I was going to be running two of the world’s most legendary rapids at high water. I was excited. I was scared. But even with a healthy amount of fear, I couldn’t wait to get on the water. I headed to Moab, and before I knew it, we were loaded up at Mineral Bottom and pushing off. 

After a couple of lovely, leisurely days floating down the Green River and exploring Stillwater Canyon, we arrived at the Confluence, a.k.a. The Center of the Universe. We had reached Cataract Canyon, fed by a wild, undammed Colorado River. You could feel the energy shift as we made our way through The Center of the Universe; the guides were excited, the river was roaring, and this is what we were all here for. After consulting The Oracle for our campsites, we started our descent through one of the most magical places on Earth (take a hike, Disneyland).

We set up camp at Lower Spanish Bottom for our first two nights in “Cat,” allowing for a layover day for the group to take on the Dollhouse hike. Usually a huck to get the gear up to the main camp area, we were able to step right off the boats and were there. The guides couldn’t get over how high the river was; you could feel the anticipation for our big day growing. 

Rafters on the Colorado River
Rafters on the Colorado River | Photo: Mike Walton

Daring the Big Drops

The energy at camp on the morning of day four was a little different than it had been on previous days. The guides were intensely focused. Everyone seemed a little quieter than normal. It was like the calm before the storm. We donned our wetsuits, splash tops, PFDs, and helmets, loaded up, and headed out. 

We ran Brown Betty, the first rapid of Cataract Canyon, and continued down through the Mile Longs, plowing through wave after incredible wave. The river was pulsing at about 40,000 cfs, and the Big Drops were upon us. I held on tight and readied myself for the wildest ride of my life. Big Drop 1: Boom. Big Drop 2: Boom! Big Drop 3: BOOM! We had done it! We just ran the Big Drops at 40 grand and made it out upright! It was time to celebrate. But then I heard my guide yell, “Oh s***, we’re running Brahmas!” 

Brahmas is a wave feature out of Big Drop 3 that rears its ugly head during high water. For the most part, boaters try to avoid this feature because that devil Brahmas likes to flip boats and cause carnage. I watched as a wall of beautiful, silty brown water came up against us that should have sent us straight into the Cataract Canyon Swim Club. But we weren’t in the hands of just any guide, we were in the hands of a river rockstar. We came crashing through that wave and—after the initial shock of what we had just experienced wore off—we lost our minds. I’m certain our cheers and hootin’ and hollerin’ could be heard miles away, even over the roaring river. I had never felt more alive.

When we arrived at Ten Cent Beach for camp, the stoke was palpable. Our entire motley crew of river runners had just put their lives in the hands of Mother Nature and were rewarded for it. Our guides—our incredibly skilled, remarkable guides—were walking on air. I’ve never seen a group of guides so happy and vivacious after running rapids. This was when I realized how truly special a Cataract Canyon rafting trip really is, and I felt in my heart of hearts that Grand Canyon just doesn’t compare. When I looked at the bewitching canyon surrounding me, I felt like I had returned to a home long since lost to me. 

Grand Canyon is older than Cataract Canyon, and yet there is a primeval energy in Cat that I never felt in Grand. When I was in Grand, I saw the faces of the ancestors staring down from the canyon walls, watching over us as we made our way through the deep chasm. But Cat is filled with Titans, primordial giants that laid down to rest and never got back up. I saw them in their ancient slumber everywhere I looked, some of their features so eerily distinct that I kept expecting them to open their eyes and speak to me. 

Campsiste along the Colorado River in Cataract Canayon at night
Ten Cent camp in Cataract Canyon | Photo: Mike Walton

Something is Different Down Here

This night at Ten Cent, I stayed up after everyone had gone to bed and went down to the beach to watch the nearly-full moon rise over the canyon walls. I gazed in wonder as the moon’s brilliant light revealed secrets in the canyon previously hidden in the daylight. There before me, with the Earth pulled up tight around his shoulders, was a bearded, sleeping Titan that could have been Oceanus himself. 

Did the father of the Potamoi choose this stretch of wild river as his final resting place? Is that why everything feels so different down here? Previously, when I commented on the intensity of the energy I was feeling in Cat, the guides attributed it to the free-flowing nature of the river. While I know there’s definitely something to that, I’d like to think that maybe…just maybe…there might be something more going on. 

The remainder of the trip continued to blow my mind—the Returning Rapids, the unending mystical beauty of Cataract, the incredible group of people I was experiencing it all with, and the food (oh! the food).

On my last night, I knew that I’d have to return to the rim world the next day, and I wasn’t ready. I tried my best to shake the feeling of sadness off, but leaving this river was hitting me harder than any of my previous trips. I felt like I was being torn from a warm and comforting embrace. 

When I stepped off the boat at our take-out at North Wash, there was one thing I could say with absolute certainty: Cataract Canyon stole my heart. Gone are the days when I boast about my trip through Grand Canyon. Now, I tell this story. And while I do believe that everyone should experience a Grand Canyon rafting trip once in their life, I would advise you to become intimately familiar with the secrets of Cataract Canyon.

Kate Rhoswen

Kate Rhoswen is the Marketing Assistant for OARS. A storyteller through many mediums, she loves writing about the river and sharing her experiences with the world.

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