Fluctuating water levels of the Green River are key to what you can see and do — and tolerate — in Labyrinth Canyon
The most sensible travelers canoe the Labyrinth Canyon of the Green River in the fall when the mosquitoes are gone and the air is cool. But that’s exactly why I canoe it in late spring and August—for the bug hatch that bursts during the high water of spring runoff and the insufferable full-on heat during the low water of late summer.
After all, if the intrepid explorer John Wesley Powell could run the Green in summer in 1869 and 1871 with one arm and no cold beer, then surely the rest of us can endure a few days of harsh elements. But why would we want to?
Let me explain
Simply, the hiking and viewing opportunities differ depending on the water level. During high water, paddlers can access the upper reaches of canyons by simply padding there – into mosquitoes. During low water, the opportunities are closer to the main stem of the Green – but in high heat.
The Green River is the longest flat water stretch in the central Rockies. It runs from Green River, Utah, toward the confluence of the Colorado River and the entrance to Canyonlands National Park. Along its scenic course, it provides plenty of outdoor excitement, adventurous hikes, and the best wilderness attributes of silence, solitude, and darkness.
With either high or low water, we put in at Crystal Geyser after a night in Moab and a shuttle past the abandoned missile launch sites south of Green River. During the Cold War, technicians pointed Athena missiles to the south from these sites, unwittingly putting Canyonlands hikers in their path. The fact that components from a launched missile could separate, fall and flatten hikers did not occur to the generals in charge. The National Park Service protested, but stopping the program took a while.
The first stretch of canoeable water passes terrain that easily earns the derogatory terms of barren desert, worthless wasteland, sheep-scarred landscape or, as Edward Abbey would say, “cow-burnt.” Lunch can be a hot layover among dead or dying cottonwoods. By afternoon the country gets more interesting among mesas and buttes, where evening campsites and unimpeded sunsets brighten the trip. As beers are open, tents go up and dinner gets started, the rhythms of the river set in and river time flows into twilight.
The morning of the second day, paddlers pass The Anvil or Dellenbaugh Butte named after 17-year-old artist Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, who accompanied Powell on the 1871 expedition and wrote about it in his classic account, A Canyon Voyage: The Narrative of the Second Powell Expedition. By noon, Ruby Ranch appears on river left. The canyons begin to deepen and the cliff walls shine a delightful pinkish hue. Great blue herons glide through the sky. Ruby Ranch is the last private property and road access to the river for miles. Past the thumping, pulsating sound of irrigation pumps, the San Rafael River joins in on river right and we begin to look for another camp.
After breakfast, we launch into a stretch where three canyons come together at Trin-Alcove Bend. It’s worth stopping to climb up and see the Fremont-era petroglyphs etched on the sandstone cliffs 800 years ago. Here is where the river levels begin to make a difference. At high water, paddlers can gently glide deeper up the canyons and camp off the Green’s main stem. Hiking to explore the canyons is a special treat thanks to access afforded by the high water.
At low water, sandy beaches are exposed for wide, dry, level camps, but hiking access diminishes. I’ve done it both ways and either way appreciated the opportunities to see something new. As the canyons deepen, the Kayenta formation becomes clear and then Wingate sandstone.
About the time the afternoon heat tips toward hot, the rocks of the River Register appear, showing decades of inscriptions including some interesting river glyphs of a skyscraper, or perhaps a Mormon temple, a bull’s head, and a large baby-like figure working on his backstroke, swimming sideways on a red sandstone cliff.
On one high-water trip, we camped in Hey Joe Canyon and hiked to the Hey Joe uranium mine. I’ll never forget the vintage 1950s bulldozer, blade down, levers ready, just waiting for fresh diesel fuel and an operator to turn the key and get the tracks in motion.
Labyrinth Canyon and its branch canyons are rife with prehistoric sites from 800 to 1,000 years old. Strewn among them are uranium mining sites from the 1950s when Moab proudly proclaimed itself the “uranium mining capital of the world.”
In one of the last great mineral rushes in the American West, thousands of Americans rushed the Colorado Plateau in Army surplus jeeps, Geiger counters clicking. The Cold War had begun. The Russians and other communist nations were our enemies and nuclear weapons were paramount to keep the peace.
Some of the best-preserved remnants of the uranium frenzy are found in Labyrinth Canyon. Scattered shacks, drill holes, two-track roads up sheer cliffs, and unplugged mine adits, or entryways. As historic sites, they are protected by law on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. But when the law isn’t around, the mosquitos are, helping to keep visits short.
Breezes on the Green River keep the bugs away, but just try to muscle through the thick belts of tamarisk and Russian olive along the river’s edge to get to the old mining sites located several hundred feet above in the Chinle formation. Squadrons of skeeters await, ready to pounce on any exposed flesh. At low water, sandbars in the middle of the river are ideal spots to serve lunch away from mosquitoes – mostly.
“16 mai 1836”
Below Hey Joe are two important historic inscriptions from decidedly different eras of Green River history. It took a few years to find the French-American fur trapper Denis Julien’s “16 mai 1836” inscription, but persistence pays. I found it one afternoon by paddling upstream from camp to a point I could tie off and search. I’ve tracked Julien up and down the Green and found other inscriptions of his in Whirlpool Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument and in Hell Roaring Canyon.
If a beaver fur trapper making his way upstream in his French pirogue in the 1830s has my attention, I’m even more fascinated by steamboats that plied the Green at the turn of the 20th century. Julien’s inscriptions can be found most easily at high water levels. At low water, the 1909 inscription with names of the steamboat crew of the Marguerite can be more easily accessed, and seen etched in stone.
Before asphalt and paved roads, cargo arrived to Moab by steamboat. Rather than teams of horses pulling wagons pulling through miles of sagebrush, flat-bottomed, shallow-draft steamboats received wholesale goods off the railroad at Green River, then floated the Green through Labyrinth Canyon to the confluence with the Colorado River where they steamed upstream to Moab. Steamboats in desert canyons seems beyond improbable, but the inscriptions with dates don’t lie. Another proof of the steamboat river trade can be found in black painted lettering on a cliff face etched with these distinctive words: “Howland Bros. Divided skirts and pantywear.”
A few river miles further and paddlers enter Bowknot Bend. Here the river makes a long sinuous arc before winding back almost where it started. “We sweep another great bend of the left, nine miles, and come back to within 600 yards of the beginning of the bend. The men call it a ‘bowknot’ of river; so we name it Bowknot Bend,” Powell wrote on July 15, 1891.
In high water it is possible to paddle up Horseshoe Canyon and camp. Fremont rock art panels can be found, but also stacked stone defensive sites. I have yet to hike the canyon all the way to the Great Gallery, a rock art site of an even older culture: the Barrier Canyon. These hunter-gatherers frequented these canyons perhaps as far back as 9,000 years ago. So much to discover. So many hikes to take.
But it was our last night in Labyrinth Canyon. That morning, the pleasure of an early launch made use of shade and shadow in paddling beneath hundreds of feet of sandstone. We enjoyed a cool breeze before the sun rose higher. And higher.
After a long, blistering episode of paddling in 100-degree temperatures, we sat comatose under a shade shelter secured with canoe paddles and water jugs. I told a few stories. Beers came out. In time – a long time – the hot merciless sun dipped below canyon walls.
At last the sun was down, twilight over. Time to turn into our tent. No need for a rain fly. My wife is already on the pillow, lying naked atop a sheet – anything to stay cool. The stars and planets shone above, sparkling, moving with the Milky Way and a thousand galaxies. No moonlight, just tall black sandstone canyons and the soft edge of infinity.
I knelt in the sand, looking up. A rhythm of water lapped our canoes. The hours of heat no longer mattered. Nothing mattered. Days of canyon canoeing had brought us to this beach and above us a river of stars.
ANDREW GULLIFORD is an award-winning editor and author and professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango.