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Colorado River, Utah
Report by Marc W. McCord

Cisco to Moab
~ 47 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Colorado River is a major water source for the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, California, Arizona and Nevada, draining a significant amount of snowmelt water all along the western half of Colorado. The river begins at an elevation of about 10,000 feet MSL in the Rocky Mountains of Grand County, Colorado near Silver Creek on the western edge of Arapaho National Recreation Area northwest of Denver. From its headwaters the Colorado River flows west through Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, into Utah then down to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, where it begins to cut the Grand Canyon. The river then flows through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border before heading south along the Arizona-California border to its mouth at the Sea of Cortez. Along the way, the Colorado River flows more than 1,400 miles, mostly through three deserts.

From SH 128, the Cisco access where Westwater runs end, down to Moab is a splendid and majestic Class I to III, high desert run of about 47 miles from Rose Ranch to Professor Valley. Scenery all around the Colorado River is a feast for the eyes. Signs of nature's handiwork are everywhere you look, from tall, sandstone canyon walls and flattop plateaus to distant mesas overlooking the desert floor below to the big blue skies above. The river is a ride on a slow, but usually steady current on a very shallow gradient of about 5 fpm as it leaves the mountains far behind and descends toward Moab on its way to its final destination at the Sea of Cortez. Much of this run is flatwater, and it may freeze in winter, though the river is generally otherwise navigable year-round.

This section could be run in about 2-3 by avid paddlers, but most will take 3-5 days to complete the trip, allowing time to explore some of the side canyons or just lounge around by the riverside taking in the wonders of this river. It is very well suited for trips in canoes, kayaks and rafts, though rafts will be slow. Paddlers have the option of stopping their trips at Moab, or even continuing downriver to Lake Powell or destinations in Arizona, providing they have the skills, permits, adequate supplies and the time to make the run. Permits are required for runs below the Green River confluence, and may be obtained from the Canyonlands National Park office at 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab, UT 84532-8000, (435) 259-4351.


Grand County in far eastern Utah, northeast of Moab. To the east lies the Grand Mesa National Forest and Grand Junction, and to the southeast is Uncompahgre National Forest. Situated due south is the Manti La Sal National Forest of eastern Utah. IH 70 is the major road leading to the Westwater put-in.

Distance from major cities

Salt Lake City 250 miles; Moab 80 miles; Durango 218 miles; Grand Junction 45 miles; Denver 290 miles; Albuquerque 448 miles; Phoenix 548 miles; Oklahoma City 965 miles; Dallas 1,020 miles; Austin 1,140 miles; San Antonio 1,175 miles; Houston 1,258 miles; El Paso 710 miles; Little Rock 1,250 miles; Springfield 1,055 miles; St. Louis 1,138 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

This section of the Colorado River usually flows slow and somewhat muddy red in color due to the sandstone particulate in the water, but much warmer than the mountain valley water in sections above. The water is not drinkable without purification, and may not be drinkable even after purification. It is best to take along plenty of drinking water.

Best time to go

This section of the Colorado River has a year-round flow that is almost always adequate for paddle trips in this high desert region. Paddlers should expect cool nights in summer months and cool to cold nights in other seasons. Winter days will be cold, but much more tolerable than the mountainous sections above in Colorado. Flatwater sections of the river may freeze in winter. Summer days can be downright hot, by Utah standards. Be sure to bring clothing for hot, cold, wet and dry conditions.

Hazards to navigation

The first 24 miles are generally hazard-free at low to normal water levels. Below Hittle Bottom there are several routine Class I to III drops in an 18-mile reach that require little more than attentiveness and good paddling technique when flows are normal or lower. At flows above normal this reach gets a little more difficult to negotiate. Canoeists and kayakers should have good intermediate or higher level whitewater skills to safely boat these drops, especially at higher flows.

Emergency Services

The Grand County Sheriff's Office, (435) 259-8115, has search and rescue jurisdiction for this reach of the Colorado River. When an injury or illness is not life-threatening and transportation would not result in further injury, it is usually best to continue downstream to the takeout and drive the individual(s) to medical assistance. If the illness or injury is life-threatening, such as when body movement must be constrained, helicopter evacuation should be considered. In most cases, the injured party is billed for this service. Helicopter evacuation can be initiated by contacting either Life Flight - St. Mary's Hospital, Grand Junction, CO (800) 525-4224, Flight for Life, University of Utah Medical Center, Salt Lake City, UT (800) 662-0050, or Intermountain Life Flight, Intermountain Medical Center, Murray, UT (800) 321-1911. The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation (435) 259-3750 should be notified of any major incidents that occur on the river.

River Access Points

Put in southeast of Cisco on Fish Ford Road (N 38° 55' 21.48" / W 109° 14' 49.26") on river right at 0.0 miles; Dewey Bridge Access (N 38° 48'43.12" / W 109° 18' 15.23") just below the bridge on river right at about 11.0 miles; Hittle Bottom Access (N 38° 45' 36.80" / W 109° 19' 32.95") on river left at about 17.8 miles; Rocky Rapid Acess, aka Ida Gulch, (N 38° 41' 45.32" / W 109° 24' 47.20") on river left at about 25.3 miles; Castle Creek Access (N 38° 41' 00.72" / W 109° 27' 07.01") on river left at about 28.0 miles; Sandy Beach Access (N 38° 40' 58.52" / W 109° 28' 38.71") at about 29.5 miles; Take-out Beach Access (N 38° 39' 42.52" / W 109° 30' 02.95") on river left at about 31.6 miles; Big Bend Access (N 38° 38' 54.44" / W 109° 28' 54.65") on river left at about 34.2 miles; US Highway 191 at SH 198 Access (N 38° 36' 17.01" / W 109° 34' 51.82") in Moab on river right at about 42.0 miles. There are no other access points for this section of the Colorado River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

The BLM operates a campground at the Westwater launch site about 22.54 river miles above the start of this run. Many primitive campsites can be found all along the river. On river left, camping is allowed only at BLM-improved recreation sites with overnight facilities. On river right, camping is allowed at undeveloped sites only between Dewey Bridge and Salt Wash (the boundary of Arches National Park.) When camping along river right, you must:

  • Use a washable, reusable toilet system that allows for carry-out and proper disposal of solid human waste
  • Pack out all trash and dispose of it properly
  • Use a durable metal fire pan to contain fire. Check on local fire restrictions prior to your trip.
  • Hittle Bottom, at about 17.8 miles, offers campsites, restrooms and a launch ramp. Big Bend Recreation Area, at about 34.2 miles, offers campsites, restrooms and a launch ramp. Visitors are strongly urged to take every precaution to preserve the natural environment, including the use of firepans, packing out everything you pack in (including human and pet waste), avoiding soap or debris entering the river, avoiding damage to plants, animals or geology, and leaving only footprints as a trace of your having been there.

    Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

    There are no known liveries or shuttle services located on or near this section of the Colorado River. However, there are many State of Utah-licensed outfitters in Utah and other states who regularly run guided trips at Westwater, and who may be able to provide rentals, outfitting and shuttles. Ask local paddlers or BLM rangers (435-259-2100) for advice.

    Reviewer's comments

    The Cisco to Moab run does not have rapids quite a large as the Westwater run above, but it is still a very interesting and beautiful paddle trip that almost anybody can enjoy, depending upon the type of boat they are paddling. People in rafts need little or no previous experience, though canoeists and kayakers should have at least intermediate level whitewater skills to handle rapids, small holes and occasionally small standing waves. This is definitely a place to bring your camera. The canyons are gorgeous, and create a magnificent backdrop to a fantastic river that offers much for the outdoor adventurer. Natural campsites are available all along the river. If you paddled Westwater, but still have another few days you can spend on the water, then the Cisco to Moab run should provide the entertainment you need. Paddlers also have the option of continuing on downriver below Moab to Lake Powell, but Canyonlands National Park permits are required for runs below the Green River confluence, so be sure to check with the Moab office before planning or departing for trips to the Colorado River in Utah. See the Moab to Lake Powell section (next) for specific permit information.

    Technical Data
    Class Rating II to III
    Length 47 miles
    Minimum Flow 2,000 cfs
    Optimum Flow 5,000-10,000 cfs
    Maximum Flow 15,000 cfs
    First Put-in Fish Ford Access ( Lower Cisco)
    Lat. / Long. N 38° 55' 21.48" / W 109° 14' 49.26"
    Last Take-out US Highway 191 at SH 198 in Moab
    Lat. / Long. N 38° 36' 17.01" / W 109° 34' 51.82"
    Elevation 4,139 - 3,966 feet msl
    Gradient 4.12 fpm average
    USGS Gauge Web: Cisco
    Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
    Season Year-round, weather permitting
    Permits No

    Colorado River map - Cisco to Moab

    Canoeman River Guide Services offers river trips, trip planning and instruction on rivers in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

    Utah Whitewater Club - Canoeing, Kayaking and Rafting

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