All You Need to Know About Rafting Cataract Canyon vs. The Grand Canyon

November 16, 2018 by Matt Gontram

Cataract Canyon and the Grand Canyon create the two biggest and wildest sections of the Colorado River, famous for being the “lifeblood” of the Southwest. In fact, Cataract Canyon lies just one canyon upstream form the Grand Canyon. The canyon that separates the two, Glen Canyon, has been underwater beneath Lake Powell for the last 55 years. Both of these incredible river sections traverse iconic national parks: Grand Canyon National Park and Canyonlands National Park. While many people flock from all over the world to experience the stunning vistas and desert flora and fauna, few get to experience these parks from the greatest perspective—river level.

A question I hear often is, “How do I choose which trip to do?” The answer is, “How do you choose which trip to do first?” Here are a few things to consider when planning your next Colorado River adventure.

Cataract Canyon

The main distinction of a Cataract Canyon trip is length. This trip can be done in as little as 4 days on the water or as many as 10. Of course, having a family of my own, this is a big factor for me when planning my next river trip. How much time can you afford to take for your Colorado River trip? Do you have kids, how long do they want to be camping on the river? This is truly a magical place with incredible natural and human history, desert wildlife, as well as stunning geology and let’s not forget the whitewater. If you’re time or budget are a more limited, I would be planning my next Cataract Canyon trip right now.

Did I mention whitewater? In terms of water volume, Cataract canyon is the most unique section of the entire Colorado River system. There is close to 700 miles of the river that is un-dammed between Lake Granby and Lake Powell. Not to mention the entire Green River between Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the confluence with the Colorado. That means that in the early summer, during the peak runoff, you are able to see the highest volume of water and virtually the most difficult rapids on the entire Colorado River. On the other hand, in the later summer months, Cataract Canyon’s water levels drop to much lower flows than you normally see in Grand Canyon. This makes for one of the best, family friendly desert river trips in the Southwest. All the while uncovering football-field sized beach camps as well an overall amazing experience for kids.

Grand Canyon

There is no question that the Grand Canyon is an amazing river trip. The canyon itself is deeper and older than Cataract Canyon as well as much longer. If you have 12 to 16 days to head downstream, look no further. This is truly the trip of a lifetime and not to be missed. The rapids are much tamer than Cataract Canyon at high water, however, much bigger than Cataract canyon at low water. So it’s perfect for older kids and adventurers looking for a balance of both. Various Class III-IV rapids dot your journey through a canyon that is equally ripe with natural and human history. Of course, along with Cataract, there is a wide variety of desert wildlife to spot on this trip. From birds of prey to Desert Bighorn Sheep to a wide variety of reptiles, you will be amazed at what you might encounter.

Even though this trip has spectacular rapids rich with river running history, the true gem to discover is the side canyons. Each day you will float past numerous side canyons that beacon to be explored.  From rugged fault lines to towering waterfalls nurturing ferns growing from the rock walls. The hiking opportunities in Grand Canyon are truly magnificent.

Now you can see that both of these trips must be experienced in everyone’s lifetime. Most people opt to ‘get their feet wet’ in Cataract Canyon first and then plan their journey down the Grand Canyon later.  If you ask me, it’s ‘6’s’. However, if whitewater is your thing, then don’t forget to see a true spring runoff by running Cataract Canyon in June on a big year. Trust me, you will never forget it!

Interested in rafting Cataract Canyon? Check out all of our rafting adventures here.

About Matt Gontram

Matthew GontramMatt started rafting and kayaking in Colorado at the age of 18. Since that first summer on the rivers of the southwest, he has pursued his passion for running rivers around the globe. He has worked as a guide and led expeditions in numerous locations and can never seem to get enough. After founding two different rafting companies in the US and abroad, he is thrilled to be a part of the rich river running history of MT Sobek. When not working on the river or in the office, you can find Matt chasing his daughter, Scout, uphill or downstream.

About the Author Matt Gontram

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