Paddle the Parks of Powell's Expedition

Splash through some of America's finest national parks at the heart of the Colorado Plateau.
Dinosaur National Monument - OARS / James Kaiser

In 1869, Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell set out on one of the greatest American adventures in history– the first scientific exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons.

Vintage photograph of John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell, circa 1869

NPS Photo

With four wooden boats and enough rations to last 10 months, Powell and his crew of nine men left Green River, Wyoming behind on May 24, 1869 intent on traveling some 1,000 miles by river through the vast Grand Canyon. As part of the exploration, the men planned to take important measurements and observations with the goal of mapping this region of the West. 

Through journals the men kept, letters, and newspaper archives, there have been many attempts to piece together the story of this incredible endeavor. In the end, the expedition lasted 98 days, but only six men and two boats would complete the journey.

A Scientific Exploration in the Wilderness

Vintage photograph of John Wesley Powell's chair strapped into a small rowboat, among the ridges and cliffs of Marble Canyon

John Wesley Powell's armchair in a boat on his second 1872 expedition, Marble Canyon in Grand Canyon National Park

NPS Photo

“It enters the range by a flaming, brilliant red gorge, that may be seen from the north a score of miles away,” wrote Powell just a few days into the expedition. This impressive sight, which he named Flaming Gorge, was the first of the mysterious canyons along the Green River the explorers faced.

Within this canyon, the inexperienced river runners successfully navigated their first set of mild rapids, which gave them a short-lived confidence boost.

In Lodore Canyon, however, the crew’s skills were tested when they encountered the first stretch of truly unruly wilderness. They lost one of their four boats in the whitewater of Disaster Falls. The crew emerged on an island downstream – a miracle, given they had no lifejackets. A few days later, a fire broke out in camp and the men were forced to flee hastily, losing everything they couldn’t carry, including most of their kitchen supplies.

Single rafts paddling on the Green River through Lodore Canyon

Lodore Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument

OARS / James Kaiser

“This had been a chapter of disasters and toils, but the cañon of Lodore was not devoid of scenic interest,” wrote Powell. “It’s walls and cliffs, its peaks and crags, its amphitheaters and alcoves told a story that I hear yet, and shall hear … of beauty and grandeur.” 

Emerging from the scarlet slot canyons and yawning valleys of Lodore, an area that is now protected within Dinosaur National Monument, the men continued downstream for several days before camping at the foot of the Uinta Mountains. They stayed here for more than a week to rest and walk to the Uinta Indian Reservation, where they sent an update of their journey back home. Here, one of the members of the crew decided to leave the expedition on account of losing most of his clothing and other possessions in the camp fire. 

Continuing down the Green River, the group entered a “region of the wildest desolation,” and Powell aptly named it Desolation Canyon. Within this rugged and intriguing canyon, the men encountered seemingly endless stretches of whitewater. “A succession of rapids, or rather a continuous rapid with a succession of cataracts, for 20 miles kept our nerves drawn up to their greatest tension,” wrote crew member George Bradley. 

Orange and red cliff face in the sunlight

Cliff face, Canyonlands National Park

NPS Photo / Mackenzie Reed

By mid-July, more than 50 days into their journey, the men reached the confluence of Grand River, known today as the Colorado. From here, the Colorado River twisted its way through a spectacular land and towering walls, bright orange mesas, bluffs, pinnacles, and buttes. This surreal landscape — which is now protected within Canyonlands National Park — mesmerized Powell and his crew. But as the river turned from calm to furious, the group was challenged with the most formidable whitewater of the trip yet.

“We come at once to difficult rapids and falls, that in many places are more abrupt than in any of the canyons through which we have passed, and we decide to name this Cataract Canyon,” recounted Powell in his journal. “From morning until noon the course of the river is to the west; the scenery is grand, with rapids and falls below, and walls above, best with crags and pinnacles.” 

A raft on the Colorado River, surrounded by orange-red canyon cliffs

Cataract Canyon, Canyonlands National Park

OARS / James Kaiser

As the temperatures soared and the rations began to dwindle, the group was forced to portage their boats through the bulk of the rapids. As they approached Glen Canyon, the group passed some easier miles.

The first week of August, Powell and his men reached Marble Canyon. “With some feeling of anxiety we enter a new canyon this morning,” understated Powell. The men entered present-day Grand Canyon National Park and immediately faced several days of boat-breaking rapids. Rations were dangerously low and the group’s morale started to crumble.

Downstream of the Little Colorado, the expedition approached what it known today as Granite Gorge. “We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown,” Powell famously said in his written account of the journey. “We are three quarters of a mile into the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above … We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore.”

Long distance photograph of rafts on the Colorado, surrounded by the massive canyon cliffs at Grand Canyon National Park

Rafting at Grand Canyon National Park

OARS / James Kaiser

As they continued downstream through the heart of the inner gorge, anxiety plagued the crew. In the depths of the canyon, they couldn’t see ahead and were forced to run a number of unrelenting rapids that there was no way to portage. On the brink of completely running out of food, three of the crew members balked when they faced another must-run rapid and decided to leave. They were never seen again.

Just two days later, the remaining men emerged from Grand Wash Cliffs, having successfully completed the first-ever descent of Grand Canyon and exploration of the Colorado Plateau.

Raft Through the Hidden Canyons of our National Parks

Two rafts with groups in lifejackets paddle along the river through Gates of Lodore, surrounded by large stony ridges

Gates of Lodore, Dinosaur National Monument

OARS / Josh Miller

Looking to see the route for yourself? Permits for private river trips are available in many parts of the journey through the National Park Service, but if you don’t have the gear or the experience to tackle it solo, trips with an authorized concessioner like National Park Foundation partner OARS are ideal. With OARS, you can follow in the wake of these great explorers on a rafting trip that spans the entire stretch of the historic Powell expedition. The only difference is that these trips include top-notch guides and equipment, gourmet cooking, and hassle-free camping. 

Today, the spirit of adventure is still alive and well within the walls of these magnificent red rock labyrinths and modern-day national parks. Discover spectacular scenery, disconnect from daily life as you know it and splash through some of America’s finest national parks at the heart of the Colorado Plateau. This time around, the journey is yours


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