Have you ever dreamed of following in the footsteps of John Wesley Powell and setting off in a raft to explore the great American canyons of the southwest? Well, today, that opportunity presents itself all over Utah. Powell started by floating down the Green River so why not do the same? The stretch that flows through Dinosaur National Monument along the Colorado and Utah border is gorgeous. The river cuts its way through Lodore, Whirlpool, and Split Mountain Canyons. The historic rock layers tower up to 2,000′ overhead for 40 miles. For experienced rafters, it is possible to secure your own permits and float the river on your own, but this post is for those of us who prefer to go with an expert team. Here is what you need to know and expect when rafting the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions.
Rafting the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions
While rafting the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions you should expect an amazing and mostly relaxing float trip through the iconic western landscape. Along the way there will be class II to IV whitewater rapids, but do not expect a non-stop thrill ride. There are long stretches of flat water and the views remain gorgeous throughout.
Layers of History
According to the Parks Service, Dinosaur National Monument has 23 layers of exposed rock which reveals about 1.2 billion years of earth’s history. The full array of colorful layers can only be seen from the river itself making a float trip down the Green River the best way to fully explore the 210,000-acre park.
Memories, Friendships, and Adventure
Expect sightings of amazing wildlife, unique guided hikes, and world-class fishing opportunities. You will meet like-minded people of all ages and from all walks of life who have a sense of adventure and put a premium on amazing experiences. If you had a group like ours, you will not only walk away with new friends but an expanded bucket list of must-see places and must-do adventures.
The Route for Rafting the Gates of Lodore
Starting from Vernal, Utah we packed into two vans with a trailer full of supplies and two drivers in each vehicle. The river guides left well before us and were ready for us with the rafts inflated and ready to be packed with our gear upon our arrival. Just getting to the Gates of Lodore boat ramp is a 100-mile journey from Vernal. The drive took us north over the Unita Mountains, across the Flaming Gorge Dam, and crossed briefly into Wyoming before roughly following the flow of the Green River into Colorado. Along the way, we saw deer, pronghorns, osprey, and a moose.
Once we made our way onto the river we began our float trip through the Gates of Lodore and into the 2,000′ deep canyon. The majority of Lodore Canyon has an amazing deep maroon color with basically vertical walls rising on either side of the river. Lodore runs for nearly half of the entire distance emerging 18-miles downriver at Echo Park. Echo Park is where the Green River is joined by the Yampa River. Steamboat Rock towers over the confluence. Amazingly, the one-armed Powell summited the steep cliffs of Steamboat with the assistance of one of his men.
Leaving Echo Park the river enters Whirlpool Canyon which is wider than Lodore and consists primarily of lighter yellow rock. The Mitten Park Fault is one of the highlights of this area where the layers of rock were uplifted by some geologic force into a vertical arch. The river sliced through the layers of rock revealing the colorful arched palate of jagged rock as if it was a layered cake. It is an amazing area to behold and the river slices through the fault in at least four separate locations.
After about 10 miles Whirlpool Canyon gives way to Island Park. This stretch of river is flat and exposed. The river meanders back and forth on long u-shaped traverses through the calm shallow waters. You will really feel for your guides as they pump the oars in an attempt to keep the raft from running aground on the shallow sand bars.
Split Mountain Canyon
The final 5-mile stretch of the journey passes through the very scenic and fun Split Mountain Canyon. While not as narrow as Lodore this stretch of the river has towering spires and rock formations. The river itself is one of the most enjoyable sections as it crashes through one class III rapid after another. Make sure you are in a ducky to get the most out of this wild ride.
Unfortunately, at the end of Split Mountain Canyon, the ride comes to an end and we packed back into our two vans for the return to Vernal, Utah. We left behind our guides who stayed to pack and clean the boats. However, we left the river with memories that would last a lifetime.
Safety when Rafting the Gates of Lodore
The river is much safer than in Powell’s day. The Flaming Gorge Dam regulates the flow of water and the modern inflatable boats are far superior to the wooden rafts used on the 1869 expedition. The guides know the river well and put a priority on your safety. We never felt unsafe even when one of our boats was lodged on a rock in Hell’s Half-Mile. The guide kept calm and instructed the boat on how to shift the weight to dislodge the rig.
Make sure to keep a clean campsite and do not store food in your tent. While large predators are rare in Dinosaur National Monument, bears and mountain lions have been known to venture into the park.
Season & Weather
The commercial rafting season in Dinosaur National Monument runs from May to mid-September and almost every type of weather is possible during this short season.
The temperatures in May to mid-June can be a mixed bag of cold to warm weather. It is not unheard of to be snowed on early in the season. During this time the river tends to be at its highest while the past winter’s snow melts and fills the canyons.
Late June to mid-August will range from warm to blazing hot. Temperatures inside the canyon can soar to more than 100ºF. The good news is that the river water remains cool even on the hottest days, providing relief from the heat. Just keep in mind that you still need to sleep and the canyon retains the day’s heat well past sunset. I would personally avoid this part of the season.
Cooler temperatures return in late August through mid-September. The days remain warm typically in the high 80s but the nights can be cold dipping into the 40s. This is perhaps the most pleasant time for rafting the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions.
Time Needed to Raft the Gates of Lodore
Most outfitters, including the Dinosaur River Expeditions, provide either a 4-day or 5-day option for rafting the Gates of Lodore. We recommend choosing the 4-day journey as it is a bit cheaper and it provides full days on the river. If you seek more downtime in the evenings for lounging around the campsite go for the 5-day. But we prefer our vacations to be full of adventure from sun up to sundown. Make sure when planning your journey for rafting the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions that you plan to arrive by 5:00 PM the night before your trip. The company has a meet and greet where they go over the logistics for the trip. This is also where you will get your dry bags for packing up your gear.
Why Dinosaur River Expeditions
Dinosaur River Expeditions is the only locally owned and operated outfitter based in Vernal, Utah. They are competitively priced with the big national outfitters. However, they are focused solely on running trips through this area of Utah. They employ local guides almost exclusively from Utah. Many of whom were born and raised in Vernal. They are experienced, informed, and have a service industry mentality.
We had five amazing guides (Jacoby, Ethan, Payton, Ben, and Emily) on our river trip. Each guide was well trained, self-reliant, and adventurous. They also had a passion for their jobs that was obvious and they did an amazing job of serving our group from start to finish. The Dinosaur River crew is a hard-working bunch. They pack the boats every day, are the sole rowers throughout the entire 40-mile journey, educate their guests on the geology and animals found along the river, set up camp every evening, and cook every meal. This is an exhaustive, adventurous service industry that they understand and excel at.
Dinosaur River Expeditions uses 18′ long inflatable rafts with a double oar design. These rafts are perfectly designed to float down the river and maneuver nimbly through the rapids. The front is splashy and the back tends to buck through the rapids. We actually found ourselves preferring the back where we would sit in reverse with our back leaning against the packed bags. Perfect back support and very relaxing as the oars crashed repetitively through the water. It reminded me of being on a gondola in Venice but our guides didn’t know how to sing in Italian.
Cruising down the river for 40-miles while someone else does all the rowing might sound a bit too relaxing for the adventurous type. Not to worry, Dinosaur River Expeditions also provides several inflatable kayaks known as duckies. Our trip had a tandem and a single available. The duckies were deployed after the class IV rapids of Hell’s Half-Mile on the second day. I was honestly concerned I wouldn’t get enough time in one of the kayaks with a group of 16 guests but most people are intimidated by the class III rapids. Jennifer and I, along with several other guests, were able to get lots of paddle time.
I tried my hand at both the tandem and the single and had a blast in both. The natural state of the single is to float down the river in reverse so it takes more effort to keep straight than the tandem. The tandem takes more cooperation and the joke amongst the guides is that it tests friendships and marriages alike.
The river campsites inside Dinosaur National Monument are assigned by the park’s service through a lottery system. Therefore the sites that are used and the distance covered each day will vary from trip to trip. Each campsite seems to have its pros and cons. Apparently, Jones Hole is one of the least desirable sites as it is known for being frequented by skunks. The river guides like to sleep under the stars on their boats and they told a horror story about a guide waking up with a skunk on his face. If you do draw this site make sure you have a tent instead of just sleeping on the ground.
We camped at Kolb, Seacliff, and The Cove. All three of these areas were amazing with a lot of established flat spots to set up the tent. Kolb and Seacliff even had big enough juniper trees that we were able to string up a hammock.
Upon arriving at each campsite the Dinosaur River Expeditions guides unload all the gear, including our large camping dry bags. While we pick out a spot and set up camp they set up a full outdoor kitchen, the toilet area, and a communal sitting area complete with camping chairs and a gas fire pit. Open campfires were banned by the park during our journey as the risk of forest fires was too high in the dry climate, but it was nice to have a propane-fueled fire each night.
Kolb is located on a small sandy shelf deep inside Lodore Canyon with the towering red rocks rising out of the river on the opposite shore. We were lucky enough to not only catch a glimpse of a playful mink but also a herd of bighorn sheep scaling the walls of the canyon after coming down for a drink of water.
The Seacliff area is located on a steep sandy beach. The campsites are found running to the west. Many in our group threw out their tents directly on the sand but we found a bit of shelter further down the river in the trees. The ground was rocky but there are a few sites to choose from. This was one of our favorite sites as we were able to string up the hammock directly behind our tent where we laid in the shade and watched the water rush downriver.
The Cove Campsite
The Cove is found just as the river exits Whirlpool Canyon and enters into the flat Island Park area of the journey. The shoreline is very muddy and the beach area is tiny. The camping area is found above the river in a very wide sprawling area covered in small juniper trees too small to hang a hammock from. This was our least favorite site on our trip because of the fire ants that also call the camping area home. However, we spotted a beaver in the river from this site and a herd of bighorn sheep greeted us when we arrived. We had some adventurous young boys in our group who chased the herd up the adjacent mountainside. The boys were good climbers but had no hope of catching the agile sheep.
Similar to the campsites the dedicated hikes can change based on the itinerary and how much distance needs to be covered each day. That being said I asked one of our guides and he said these three were the ones they did most often. Honestly, the hikes are hit and miss.
Our first hike while Rafting the Gates of Lodore came on the first day about an hour after starting our float trip. The trail is short but somewhat steep and challenging. The destination is a hanging garden located on the verticle cliff walls of Lodore Canyon inside a notch. The most challenging section of the hike requires climbing up a small 4′ ledge with the assistance of a tree trunk and then crawling through a small hole underneath a wedged boulder. To my surprise, while intimidating everyone in our group, young and old alike made this journey and did it in a variety of footwear not designed for this rough terrain. Make sure you bring and ask for your hiking shoes before setting off on this adventure.
I call this a “hanging garden” because we’ve hiked to so many areas that use that moniker for this kind of environment. It is simply a small ecosystem that clings to the walls of the canyon and thrives on the small amount of water that seeps through the walls. The garden consists of mostly mosses and small creatures that rely on the oasis for food.
Rippling Brook Falls
Our second day’s hike was to Rippling Brook Falls. This trailhead is located about 12-miles into Ladore Canyon. This is a hike that is similar to the Hanging Garden as it climbs into a notch in the canyon walls. While slightly longer than the previous day’s hike, I found it to be more beautiful and easier. The hike climbs up the canyon walls on a steep but well-established trail. There are no technical challenges like the Hanging Garden. There are a few spectacular viewpoints overlooking the Green River along the way that alone would be worth the hike. The destination is a trickle of a waterfall plunging 30′ or so from atop a ledge. The waterfall is spring-fed and extremely cold. It is a refreshing shower on a hot day. I recommend hiking with your water shoes so you can enjoy the waterfall and keep your hiking shoes dry.
Jones Hole Trail to Butt Plug Falls (AKA: Ely Creek Falls)
The third day’s hike was without a doubt our favorite. It is a long 5.5-mile round trip hike with about 560′ of elevation gain. Our group was warned about the distance but Jennifer and I found this trail to be very easy. It is very exposed to the sun and I could see where it would be much more difficult on a hot day. However, the destination is a unique waterfall that is pure fun. The water crashes down a smooth 12′ cliff face from a foot-wide channel. The flow is strong but can be plugged from above with your butt. We took turns sitting in the channel above the falls damming the water. When the water was nearly overflowing the plug would stand and release a torrent of water to crash down on a fellow traveler below. Almost everyone in our party took a turn.
After enjoying the natural waterpark that is Ely Creek Falls a second destination awaited us just around the bend. A dozen or more Fremont Native American petroglyphs decorate the cliff wall. These are great examples of the native art form. Not much is known for certain about the tribe or why they disappeared but our guide did a great job explaining the prevailing theories. One of which is that the Ute tribe moved into the area about the time that the Fremont disappeared giving credence to the idea that they were slaughtered and assimilated.
On most of our adventure trips, we lose a few pounds while dining on a freeze-dried meal at the end of a long backpacking day. This is most certainly not the case when Dinosaur River Expeditions is cooking. They provide hardy food and lots of it. We dined on steak tacos, spaghetti with meatballs, and chicken with rice. Lunches were hearty meat platters with all the fixings for constructing massive sandwiches, chicken caesar salad wrap, and pasta salad. Breakfasts were my favorite meals of the day—blueberry pancakes and sausage, french toast and bacon, and English muffins with fried eggs and ham. Yogurt was also available every morning. Every meal had a selection of fruit as well as an assortment of other snacks like m&ms, trail mix, nuts, and chips.
The crew of the Dinosaur River Expeditions company makes sure water is readily available at every stop along the river. Coffee is served every morning along with orange juice. Tea, hot chocolate, and lemonade were also available during breakfast and dinner. Each raft has a cooler so there is plenty of space for your own beverages like beer and Gatorade. These are also used to keep medication cold if you are in need of that.
The only manual activity that our guides requested of us was washing our own dishes. This is a four-bucket process set up by the guides for dinner and breakfast. Lunch typically is finger foods and no utensils or plates were provided. The last day was the only exception and the guides packed up everything which they cleaned after the trip. The four buckets included a preliminary rinse bucket, a soap bucket for scrubbing, a second rinse bucket for removing the soap, and a final bucket with a light bleach mix for final sanitation. This does have a tendency to dry out your skin so bring some lotion.
A Commitment to Leave No Trace
The remote river campsites in Dinosaur National Monument are pristine. This is a testament to the park and the outfitters that ply these waters. Dinosaur River Expeditions puts a priority on stressing the fundamentals of Leave No Trace principles. No scrap of food or garbage is left on the shore of the river. Food scraps are mostly packed up and carried out but feeding the fishies a piece or two isn’t frowned upon.
When Nature Calls
Rafting the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions through Dinosaur National Monument is full of unique experiences and the toilet situation is no different. All urine is ultimately placed in the river. This is an easy process for guys but women do have a bit more of a challenge. Most women either squat along the bank or wade into the water. At camp, the guides set up a 5-gallon pee bucket complete with a toilet seat.
All solid waste (poop) must be carried out and thankfully the Dinosaur River Expedition crew takes care of this as well. However, the catch is that you must do your business in the morning or evening at camp. If you need to go during the day a wag bag awaits you. The only exception is a stop at Echo Park where a pit toilet is located. At camp, the crew sets up what is known as a “groover” toilet which is basically an aluminum port-o-potty.
Apparently, in the old days, river expeditions used ammo cans for toilets. The thin sidewalls of the ammo can would leave grooves in your backside and thus the name “groover.” The bathroom is set up in remote areas of the camping areas away from the tents. Typically they have amazing views. The crew provides a red/green board that is flipped to inform fellow guests when the toilet is occupied.
At each campsite and lunch spot, our river guides would set up a handwashing station. This consists of one bucket atop another. The lower bucket houses clean river water with just a touch of bleach. A small faucet is mounted atop the second bucket with a foot pump used to transfer water between the lower bucket and the faucet. Hand soap is also provided. Again this bleach water will dry your hands out so bring lotion. At camp, one of these sanitation stations is set up in the dining area as well as the toilet area.
Camping Gear & Clothing for Rafting the Gates of Lodore
Like any good backcountry adventure, flexibility is key when packing for a trip rafting the Gates of Lodore. Dinosaur River Expeditions provides a massive dry bag (I’m guessing they are 100L+ in size) to each of their guests. This large dry bag is where you will pack your camping gear, clothing, and other essential campsite gear. Although we were easily able to pack all our gear in the provided bags the company also brings along a communal dry bag just for tents so that they aren’t taking up space in your main bag. Along with this communal bag, the company has another communal bag for hiking shoes so that it is easy to access everyone’s shoes at each destination.
In addition to your large (massive) dry bag, an additional small dry bag is provided. I believe it is a 12L bag but I never saw a measurement. This bag will be kept near you on the boat at all times. It is a small bag capable of holding your rain jacket, sunscreen, snacks, and a small camera. I found it very difficult to squeeze my holster camera bag inside a single dry bag and wish I had brought my own 20L dry along with me. I didn’t because I wasn’t sure there would be space in the raft. There was plenty of space.
Snacks are recommended by the company but we found that the provided food was more than enough for us.
Camera – A waterproof is recommended but I found it easy to shoot with my Canon RP for most of the jounrey. During the rougher whitewater I would pack it into the dry bag and shoot with my GoPro.
Dinosaur River Expeditions recommends bringing biodegradable soap for bathing in the river at camp. We did this but it isn’t great. The guides make you wear a life vest when swimming and bathing in the river which makes it very difficult to get clean. Add in that the river is very muddy and we left feeling nearly as dirty as when we started. Biodegradable soap is also expensive. An easier solution to staying clean while rafting the Gates of Lodore is to bring a pack of baby wipes to clean up with. I recommend three a day for each person and a baggy to pack out the used ones in.
The Cost of Rafting the Gates of Lodore
We are typically big on cheap but amazing experiences. While amazing, rafting the Gates of Lodore is not a cheap journey. We found Dinosaur River Expeditions to be competitively priced with their competition. In 2021 this trip cost us nearly $1,000/person plus tips. The recommended gratuity was an additional 12%. The guides work exceptionally hard and the experience is worth every penny.
After Rafting the Gates of Lodore
Dinosaur National Monument is an amazing and still mostly hidden corner of the world that is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts. Make sure that you schedule some time to fully explore the area before or after rafting the Gates of Lodore.
Jade Lion – I’m not a fan of American Chinese food but this is an affordable spot recommended by our guides.
McCoy Flat – Traveling in a self-contained rig? Check out McCoy Flats located just to the west of Vernal. It is quiet and free.
Green River Campground – This beautiful campsite on the shore of the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument makes a great base camp for exploring the park and surrounding area before or after your journey.
Fossil Valley RV Park – If you prefer to camp in town with full hookups then this is the campground for you. The staff is very friendly and you can easily explore the quirky town full of dinosaurs from this location off of the main drag.
Dinosaur Inn – Need a room for a night or two? Check out the Dinosaur Inn. This locally owned hotel is a great spot to explore the area from and they have a partnership with Dinosaur River Expeditions. This is where your group will meet up on the morning of your trip and where vehicles will be left. They will even hold onto your keys for you so they don’t end up at the bottom of the river.
Fossil Valley RV Park – This campground allows those of us who prefer boondocking to use their coin-operated showers. Stop by the front desk and ask them for permission. They will give you a code for the restrooms and then you can feed the machine a few quarters.
Steinaker State Park – Another option is to use the showers at Steinaker State Park located to the north of Vernal. In 2021, the entrance fee was $10 per vehicle that covers up to 8 people making this a very affordable option for large families.
Rafting the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions
A float trip through Dinosaur National Monument is an amazing experience where modern-day explorers can follow in the footsteps of the legendary John Wesley Powell. It is a journey full of beauty and excitement and the best way to get the most out of the journey is by rafting the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions. They reveal the mysteries of the canyon and make the journey fun and relaxing.
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