In preparation for battling the next round of Class IV rapids, Bill puts a watermelon rind on his head, which somehow seemed appropriate, as the temperature was at least 95 degrees on the shadeless shore where our flotilla had landed for lunch. Indeed, I think at least a few folks in our party wished they’d thought of it first. Fruit as head protection may seem a little strange in most circumstances, but not here. I guess what they say is true: on the river, anything goes.
My old friend Bill and I are in our mid-30s and have completed multiple outdoor adventures together previously, but last July’s odyssey was the first multiday river trip ever for both of us. And while it had only been three days since our 20-person gaggle of guests and guides had floated away from the boat ramp and civilization at the Gates of Lodore—two 1,000-foot-high cliffs rising out of the canyon near Dinosaur National Monument’s northern boundary—I already understood the lure of river travel.
Life on the water is so simple. There are no iPhones, Instagram, or deadlines. The vessels used by commercial outfitters (six-person oar boats, eight-person paddle boats, and two-person inflatable kayaks, typically) can easily carry all the food and cold beer a person could want. And evenings are filled with lawn games, riverside cocktail hours, and sing-alongs.
This year, the National Park Service is celebrating the 100th anniversary of what writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called “America’s best idea,” its 84 million acres of national monuments, parks, historic sites, and seashores. Utahns are uniquely fortunate in terms of the number and quality of these, of course, but there are better and worse ways of experiencing them. For my part, when it comes to taking in the natural beauty, wildlife, and restorative properties of Dinosaur National Monument, none is better than floating through it by way of the Green River.
How It All Began
Anniversary aside, America’s desire to preserve its open lands didn’t begin a hundred years ago. Things really got going in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. A worldwide national park and open lands movement followed, leading to the designation of monuments, the National Register of Historic Places, wildlife refuges, and more.
What did happen a century ago—on August 25, 1916—was President Woodrow Wilson’s signing of the National Park Service Organic Act, dedicated to protecting the nation’s then-35 national parks and monuments, as well as those yet to be established. Now there are 409 of them, all charged with fostering community-based recreation, conservation, and historic preservation programs, along with thousands of designated open land areas (which are held in trust for the citizenry by the federal government and managed on a local or national level). From the vast Western expanses of the Bureau of Land Management to your local state park, all have been set aside for the express purpose of recreation.
According to Bob Ratcliffe, NPS’s chief of conservation and outdoor recreation, this year’s centennial is less about celebrating past accomplishments than looking ahead to the next 100 years. “It really is quite profound to think about the legacy and heritage of parks and what they mean to us,” Ratcliffe mused while in Utah last January for the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show. “Society is increasingly recognizing—and medical science is documenting—that these places are linked to human health and well-being, and I think that we’ll see an increased demand for protection or conservation of open lands for recreation and spiritual benefits.”
Though his job now keeps him in Washington, D.C., most of the time, Ratcliffe has run rivers in the West for more than 40 years, including time spent as a river guide and eventually a backcountry ranger on the Green and Colorado Rivers. “In my opinion, rivers are the best way to experience what the park system has to offer,” he says. “Rivers are magical. You are literally immersed in an environment that you can’t get to unless you float through it. I’ve seen people have really transformative experiences on the river.”
Meanwhile, Back on the Green
The 44-mile journey from the Gates of Lodore to Split Mountain is the ne plus ultra of river trips. It’s one stunning vista after another, plus rapids that range from mellow (Class II) to thrilling (Class IV), and side hikes galore—all just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Park City.
Our jaunt through the Gates came courtesy of Sheri Griffith Expeditions (800.332.2439, griffithexp.com), a Dinosaur National Monument authorized licensed concessionaire. Traveling 10 to 15 miles a day, the Vernal-based expert guides navigated the river while relating historical and geological anecdotes aplenty. Taking a commercial river trip (as opposed to doing it on your own) lets a rafter focus on what’s really important: taking in the surroundings, watching the river go by, and having that “transformative” experience Ratcliffe talked about.
When we landed each afternoon, our guides would busy themselves with setting up camp and cooking for Bill, me, and our fellow glampers. Meals on the river are a far cry from what you’d expect on a backpacking trip. Our guides whipped up tasty grilled salmon, barbacoa tacos, and Dutch oven brownies. Everything tastes better while camping, of course, but these dishes would be five-star anywhere. Other pluses: we never had to deal with the logistics of the groover (the portable toilet), rarely cleaned our dishes, and the coffee was ready as soon as we rolled out of our tents each morning. (Why isn’t life always like that?)
Having been cautioned by our guides that a watermelon is not ideal protection, Bill groaned as he exchanged his rind for a plastic helmet, but the mood didn’t last. On the river, it’s quite impossible to be angry for very long. Just before we boarded the oarboats, paddleboats, and inflatable kayaks, I looked southward, watching the Green River winding toward its confluence with the Colorado River. Ahead of us were rapids and, farther along, glassy expanses of river before the take-out just outside of Jensen, Utah. For a bit longer I gazed at the sandstone cliffs that soared to the heavens and echoed the sounds of our laughter. This, I thought, is bliss.
Whatever your ideal multiday river trip—super glamp or über rustic—following are items for getting the most out of the journey. (And remember, if you love it, leave it at home; if you like it, be sure to tie it down; and no matter how many times you wash it afterwards, the silt-laden Green River never comes out of your river clothes.)
Park City Brewery Boogie Water Brown
If you’re the thirsty type, pack at least a sixer of cans per day for most river trips (the days are long out there). This balanced and complex brown ale is perfect for days spent paddling. $8 per six pack. (Park City Brewery & Taproom, 2720 Rasmussen Rd, 435.200.8906)
Petzl Tikka XP Headlamp
A reliable headlamp goes a long way on the river. You can use the 180 lumens in the Tikka XP for late-night explorations or for illuminating your after-dark lawn games, reading, or midnight trips to the groover. Its spot and flood beams offer versatility, and the red LEDs are excellent for night vision. $50 (White Pine Touring, 1790 Bonanza Dr, 435.649.8710)
Sun Bum Water-Resistant Sunscreen
Stay protected for hours of water play. This chemical- and fragrance-free sunscreen is made by a small group of outdoor-loving recreationalists in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and is endorsed by The Skin Care Foundation. $14 (Cole Sport, 1615 Park Ave, 435.649.4806)
Chaco Outcross Evo 1 - Men’s and Women’s
A new evolution in lightweight, packable, and protective toe shoes, the Chaco Outcross Evo 1 is best suited for when your amphibious activities take you to the land. $66 (White Pine Touring, 1790 Bonanza Dr, 435.649.8710)
Chums Neo Megafloat
Sunglasses have a tendency to fly off your face at the most inopportune times. Stay on top of your game with an eyewear retainer that will stay on top of the water. The Neo Megafloat is Chums’ highest-rated floating option. It’s also large enough to slip over most sizes of eyewear. $10 (White Pine Touring, 1790 Bonanza Dr, 435.649.8710)
Olympus TG-4 Waterproof Camera
Don’t settle for your smartphone’s camera (or the constant reminders of social media and email). Not only is the Olympus TG-4 waterproof camera rugged and durable enough to take a beating, its fast autofocusing makes for bright and bold pictures. $380 (Pixel’s Foto & Frame, 8934 S. State St, Sandy, 801.233.9090)