Rafting Utah’s Desolation Canyon in Search of Ancient Secrets

So you’ve run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon on a private trip, after waiting a decade for a permit, then jockeying with the hordes of other rafters for prime campsites. Or you’ve done the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Or maybe the Chattooga, as you fantasized about the fate of the four Georgia buddies in Deliverance. Maybe you’ve trundled down the Allagash in Maine in an Old Town Canoe. Or you were brave enough to tackle the Alsek as it thunders past subarctic glaciers in Alaska.

But have you thought about Deso?

Listen to the names that cowboys and river rats bestowed over the decades on this 85-mile stretch of the Green River in Utah, a litany out of Zane Grey, with a touch of Tolkien: Moonwater Rapids, Firewater Rapids, Last Chance Rapids, Lion Hollow, Cow Swim, Little Horse Bottom, Beaver Slide Bottom, Gold Hole, Duches Hole, Lighthouse Rock, Nefertiti Rock, Log Cabin Rapids, Stone Canyon Rapids, Chandler Falls, Fretwater Falls. The lyricism of that nomenclature owes almost nothing to the men who first ran this stretch of the Green in 1869. John Wesley’s Powell’s crew were spooked by the place, and after a few days under its soaring walls, as Powell later wrote, “We are minded to call this the Canyon of Desolation.”

Desolation Canyon it remains today, or Deso, in the river runners’ fond shorthand. To my mind, and to those of my seven companions, there was nothing at all desolate about the canyon—it seemed instead a paradise. During nine days this May, we floated Deso under the expert supervision of Sheri Griffith Expeditions, a river-running company out of Moab. Our three guides rowed the rafts, set up camp, cooked our sumptuous meals, regaled us with shaggy river tales, and cleaned the shores spic-and-span every morning. It was I, however, who designed the trip, so that we could spend every minute off the boats hiking the side canyons, in search of the little-known structures and rock art left behind more than seven centuries ago by the Fremont, those mysterious northern neighbors of the Anasazi.

In carving Deso, the Green cuts a meandering gorge through the lofty, convoluted Tavaputs Plateau. At its most profound, near the mouth of Rock Creek, the defile is as deep as the Grand Canyon. The left bank belongs to the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Reservation, the second-largest in the country. On the right spill the rugged side canyons known to few except the ranchers who ran their cattle there starting in the 1890s. A true wilderness—and every jaunt we made away from the rafts yielded unexpected discoveries.

Our trip leader, Marshall Dvorscak, was a tall, fit 32-year-old who, growing up in Cody, Wyoming, knew from his first inner-tube floats at age ten on Sage Creek that all he wanted to do in life was be a river guide. He’d run Deso about a dozen times before our trip, but showed no signs of getting jaded. “It’s about the clients,” he told me. “I get to hang out with people I’d never normally meet.”

Forty-year-old Utah native Brenda Milligan, the company’s operations manager, had been down Deso forty or fifty times before, but she too was jazzed about the unusual design of our trip. After college, she had thought she’d wangle a “real job,” but, as she said, “I had to do a couple more river trips, then a couple more. Pretty soon I knew I was in it for the long run.” A pivotal moment in her life came when she dreamed that she was cruising down the Green and (in her words) not respecting the river. A river god appeared out of nowhere, took away her rafts, and told her she had to hike out. But the god relented, gave her her boats back, and let her finish the trip. This May, “respecting the river” was Brenda’s constant mantra, a state of mind and spirit she managed to impart to even the most skeptical of our gang of eight.

Twenty-two-year-old Stephanie Berg, from upstate New York, had drawn the assignment of training on this trip to become a trip leader. Her calm demeanor leavened the sometimes manic bonhomie of our camps.

The rapids in Deso aren’t as serious as those in Cataract Canyon or Grand Canyon, but they gave me pause, in large part because I have never learned how to swim. In the middle of Joe Hutch Canyon Rapids, pulling hard, Marshall broke an oar. “Hold on!” he yelled, while he deftly unslung a spare, slotted it into the oar lock, and cranked us to safety. “We always could have high-sided,” he mused.

On our eighth day, we scouted Coal Creek Rapids, as Marshall and Brenda plotted the narrow line between a hole on the right and dangerous rocks on the left. “If we go into the hole,” said Brenda, “we’d wrap for sure, maybe flip.” Holding on for dear life, I saw only frothing whitecaps as we bounced and glided through the maelstrom—the three rafts taking three different lines, as we emerged wet but unscathed.

Sheri Griffith runs a classy operation. Our camps on sandbars were cheered late into the night with fire-pan blazes of store-bought pine logs mixed with driftwood sticks. The last two nights, we played horseshoes, with Marshall proving himself—pun intended—a ringer at the sport. For dinners, our tireless waitpersons served us lasagna and barbecued chicken; for breakfast, French toast and omelettes; for lunch, hoagies, wraps, and chef’s salad. Desserts ranged from banana cream pie to pineapple upside-down cake. The rafts had so much storage space that we were able to lug and consume beer and wine in quantities that it would embarrass me to confess in print. The holds kept ice frozen long enough so that on our last night, the Tecates were cold and the steaks were fresh. And oh, yes: 115 gallons of drinking water, since the Green is too brown to drink except out of desperation.

Gliding from one new vista to the next, on the first day alone we spotted wild horses, a juvenile bighorn sheep, majestic blue herons, gaggles of geese and ducks, and a flock of eight pelicans that we chased downstream. Swifts and swallows flitted overhead. A dead bison—Marshall speculated that it might have broken through the ice attempting a winter crossing—floated down the river with us, lapping and being lapped by our rafts.

The BLM limits launches in Deso to six teams per day in summer, two per day in late spring and early fall. Most of the time, we had the Green to ourselves and could camp wherever we fancied. The bread and butter of the rafting companies in Deso is midsummer floats lasting four or five days, mostly with families, with an emphasis on splashing through rapids and bobbing in life jackets beside the boats. Only the most accessible ruins and rock art panels get visited, and it’s rare for clients to stroll more than a quarter mile away from the river.

The central focus of our own trip, on the other hand, lay in prowling up the side canyons and from ledge to cliff ledge in search of Fremont wonders.I had come armed with a finding aid—a redacted survey report that Jerry Spangler’s Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance teams had compiled over the course of five grueling seasons in the field. I promised Spangler, whom I had interviewed for a previous article, that I would give away the locations of none of the vulnerable Desolation sites that our group was lucky enough to find.”

So we spent day after day forging up the tributaries, searching for obscure prehistoric wonders. The Fremont are far less well understood than the Anasazi, and what Spangler calls the local Tavaputs Adaptation embodies conundrums no one has yet solved. We found many granaries—top-loading cists made of sandstone slabs and mud mortar—in which the ancients stored their corn, beans, squash, and wild seeds. But unlike the Anasazi, the Fremont hid their granaries in all but invisible nooks. Each site, then, posed a quest. And while we failed to find some of Spangler’s granaries, we stumbled upon others that his surveyors had never discovered.

In nine days, however, we found only two possible living structures—a faint grid of three pithouses on an open shelf, and a butte-top lookout tower with hyper-defensive dry-laid walls. And we found but a single tiny potsherd, a nondescript chunk of Emery grayware.

That’s the puzzle of the Tavaputs Adaptation—why so many granaries, some of them huge, and yet almost no pottery? (How else would the Fremont have carried and cooked their corn?) Why so many granaries, and so few places to live? Three of the granaries, in particular, seemed almost impossible to get to. Only master climbers risking their lives daily could have gotten into those eyries, let alone built structures and stored their food there.

What, indeed, was going on in Deso between AD 900 and 1250?

The rock art was dazzling—chimerical panels dense with snakes, trapezoidal humanoids wearing chest pendants and carrying shields or the severed “trophy heads” of their enemies, bighorn sheep, hunters wielding bows and arrows, and provocative abstract designs whose lost meaning pulses from the carved rock walls. All of Deso is a complex art gallery, whose catalogue remains undeciphered.

Unfazed by the rigor of their non-stop camp chores, Brenda and Marshall threw themselves into our sleuthing, and burst into exclamations of delight at each new find. Despite her forty-plus trips down Deso, most of the Fremont sites we visited Brenda had never seen before.

Around AD 1000, hundreds, maybe thousands, of men, women, and children lived in Desolation Canyon. But in 2013, no one lives there. For us, just as haunting as the Fremont presence were the ruins of the two great ranches that flourished in the canyon from the 1910s through the 1960s—the Rock Creek Ranch at the mouth of a crystalline sidestream, and, fourteen miles downriver, the Cradle M Ranch at the mouth of Florence Creek. Strolling by the half-collapsed buildings, touching nothing, we marveled at the stonework of a hired hand named Frenchy, who built even chicken coops with the care of a Machu Picchu mason.

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Waldo Wilcox had spent the first eleven years of his life at the Cradle M. As an adult, for fifty years he had fiercely guarded his ranch up Range Creek in the West Tavaputs plateau, leaving all the “Indian stuff” in place, so that when he finally sold his spread to the state of Utah, the archaeologists were stunned to discover the most pristine prehistoric landscape in all the Southwest. I had written about Waldo for National Geographic Adventure (see “The Cowboy’s Indians,” March 2007), and he had become both a friend and the object of my admiration. Before our trip last May, Waldo told me many a story about Deso that even Jerry Spangler knew nothing about.

About Tabyago, for whom a side canyon is named, a Ute Indian who went insane. (Said Waldo, “They long-roped him to a tree and he died there. Them Utes was real superstitious about crazy men.”) About old Ben Morris, who ran a still in Firewater Canyon during Prohibition. (“Quite a character. Left Oklahoma for his health. They would’ve hanged him if he stayed.”) About his great-uncles, who drowned crossing the Green. (“They tried to go too straight, got flipped off. Only their dog came home.”) About the supposed Ute burial that river runners show their clients. (“I camped in that cave back in the ‘forties. There wasn’t no burial there then. I think the boaters put it there. Show folks a dead Indian.”) About his grandfather’s coziness with the outlaws. (“Grand-dad said Butch Cassidy never died in South America. He seen him up here.”)

All too soon, our nine days were coming to an end. On the last evening, our guides pulled out a duffel bag full of halloween costumes and thrift-shop throwaways and encouraged us to dress up. Within minutes, we looked (and acted) like extras from a forgettable B-movie: Animal House meets Blame It on Rio, perhaps.

Heraclitus was right: you can’t raft the same river twice. “Every flash flood in a side canyon,” Marshall told me, “spills big boulders into the Green. They change the rapids completely.” As for the Tavaputs itself—the Fremont knew the place better than we ever will. In nine days of zealous searching, we had found fewer than one-tenth of the sites Spangler had surveyed, and no doubt not even one-hundredth of what the ancients had left behind.

Several afternoons, as I lay on my back and gazed at the craggy ridges soaring as high as two thousand feet above our shoreline camps, I thought, It would take many lifetimes to explore this wilderness. This May, I was happy to spend just a small part of the only lifetime I’ll have scratching the surface of Desolation Canyon.

Sheri Griffith Expeditions runs 2-5 day rafting trips on Labyrinth, Cataract, Westwater, the Yampa, and Gates of Lodore Canyons, as well as Desolation. (Because of the unfortunate connotations of “Desolation,” the trip from Sand Wash to Swasey’s Landing on the Green River is listed as “Majestic Canyons” in the Griffith catalogue.)

For further information, contact

Sheri Griffith River Expeditions
P. O. Box 1324
Moab, UT 84532
800-332-2439 (toll free)
435-259-8229 (local)

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