Green River


In 1972, Frank Buono and Herm Hoops proposed to the Department of Interior that the river segment from Ouray to Green River, Utah, become the Green River Wilderness National Monument, including a wild river designation. Now, through the work of many people, two jewels have been added to the Green River’s crown. The designation prohibits activities that would harm the river’s character, bans new dams and protects about a quarter-mile of public land along the river banks, allowing one to feel the land much like John Wesley Powell and his crew experienced in 1869.

With additional protection from the Green Wilderness to the west, the 5.3-mile segment of the river from Rattlesnake Canyon to the Nefertiti Boat Ramp has been designated as wild and 8.5 miles from Nefertiti to the Swasey’s Boat Ramp as a recreational river. In addition, a 49.2-mile segment below the town of Green River, from Bull Bottom to the Wayne County line, designated as a scenic river, is also protected by the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness on the West. Combined with the recent addition of a boat passage at Tuscher Wash, it is possible to boat over 350 miles from Flaming Gorge Dam to the confluence with the Colorado River.

Now, these segments of the river protect secretive places where the Anasazi and Fremont Indians left signs of the earliest habitation. The crisp light of a billion stars pierce the night sky, and overwhelming silence clasps one like a blanket as the river winds through the sparsely inhabited land. Here, the call of a wren, howl of coyotes, or splash of a beaver are the only sounds that echo above the flowing water’s whisper. Four endangered fishes recover within the waters, while black bears and mountain lions prowl the banks and mule deer hide in the willows. Early cowboy, rustler and homestead history await discovery to share their tales.

The canyons Desolation and Labyrinth were named by the geographic expedition party lead by John Wesley Powell in July 1869.

The Bureau of Land Management is in the process of determining all the “outstandingly remarkable values” of the Green River. Preliminarily, the BLM has found these values as likely to be outstanding on the river: culture, ecology, fish, geology, history, recreation, scenery, and wildlife. Ongoing planning efforts may further identify or clarify outstandingly remarkable values on this river.

A section of the river through Labyrinth Canyon, from Swasey’s Rapid south to the Emery/Wayne county line, is owned and managed by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, up to the ordinary high water mark.

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Designated Reach

From the boundary of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, south to Swasey’s Boat Ramp. From Bull Bottom south to the Emery-Wayne county line.

Outstandingly Remarkable Values

Preliminary Finding

Preliminary Finding – Culture

The river corridor provides evidence of significant occupation and use by prehistoric peoples, and it includes rock art and other features that remain significant to some Native American populations today. The prehistoric use represents more than one cultural period (Archaic, Fremont, and Numic). The sites have been largely isolated, retaining their integrity, and are important for interpreting regional prehistory. Many of the sites are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Flat Canyon Archaeological District within Desolation Canyon is already listed.

The river corridor also includes some of the area of study used by Noel Morss in defining the Fremont Culture.

Preliminary Finding

Preliminary Finding – Ecology

The Green River hosts a variety of avian, terrestrial, and aquatic species populations. The river and its properly functioning riparian area provide a corridor of habitat through an otherwise arid region for many sensitive and federally listed species of birds and fish. Additionally, throughout the year, the area supports a diverse assemblage of more commonly observed species, like migratory birds, raptors, bighorn sheep, mule deer, mountain lion, beaver, and black bear, providing them with a corridor through the desert and supporting the mix of species essential to a diverse and resilient ecosystem.

Desolation & Gray Canyons

In addition to the cottonwood and willow riparian galleries along the river, the myriad upland vegetation communities showcase the floral diversity of the Colorado Plateau. Rare plant species, like the recently discovered species of columbine flower, Desolation columbine, which is named for the area, as well as BLM sensitives, such as the Jones indigo bush and habitat for the federally endangered Jones cycladenia, lie within the corridor as well, add to the diverse ecology of this desert riparian habitat.

The stability and regional rarity of this ecosystem, largely unchanged since the passage of John Wesley Powell, contributed to the designation of Desolation Canyon National Historic Landmark.

Labyrinth Canyon

This portion of the river is considered habitat for twelve federally listed species of plants and animals and is within designated critical habitat for two endangered fish.

Preliminary Finding

Preliminary Finding – Fish

In terms of fisheries, the Green River is important in comparison with other rivers in the Colorado River Basin region because of the uniqueness of fish species and connectivity within the river system. The Green River is also recognized on a national level due to the high level of fish migration through its river system and can be called a “superhighway for fish.” This river is considered regionally important for the recovery of four federally listed species (the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker, bonytail chub), three conservation agreement species (roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, flannelmouth sucker), and two other native species (mottled sculpin, speckled dace). These fish species have overlapping needs and occupy different habitat in different stretches along the river as they migrate through the river system.

Desolation Canyon

Desolation Canyon is one of the few segments in the upper Colorado River Basin that contains critical habitat, as designated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for all for federally listed fish. Notably, this segment is also the home to one of the five remaining populations of humpback chub. This population is dispersed throughout Desolation Canyon with consistent captures in the Coal Creek area.

Gray Canyon

Like Desolation Canyon, Gray Canyon contains critical habitat for all four federally listed fish.

Labyrinth Canyon

Labyrinth contains critical habitat for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker. This segment is unique in that its gravel bars provide important spawning habitat, while the lower gradient’s meandering character provides critical slackwater nursery habitats (e.g., backwaters, side channels) for larval and young-of-year Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

Preliminary Finding

Preliminary Finding – Geology

The Green River in Desolation and Gray Canyons is an outstanding illustration of an antecedent river. The river wound its way downstream before the occurrence of the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, and as the uplift elevated the landscape around it, the Green River maintained its course and cut down through the Cretaceous stratigraphy, creating the steep-sided gorges that exist today. The Green River corridor in this stretch contains excellent examples of fluvial geology created in a sinuous meandering stream system with prominent reattachment bars and separation bars. Sedimentary features, such as arches and hoodoos, can be seen along the river as well as the exposed stratigraphy of Cretaceous sedimentary rocks.

Preliminary Finding

Preliminary Finding – History

Much of the river corridor in Desolation and Gray Canyons is a National Historic Landmark because of its recognition as the least changed of the river corridors associated with John Wesley Powell and the exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Other historic values within all three canyons are associated with early exploration, settlement, farming/ranching, mining, prohibition, recreational river running, waterworks, and reclamation. Sites have been largely isolated and therefore retain their original character.

Within Labyrinth Canyon, early river exploration and uses include the two Powell expeditions of 1869 and 1871. Other historical uses included fur trapping, as exemplified by Denis Julien in the 1830’s, several steamboat operations (most of relatively short duration) in the years shortly before and after 1900, and early recreational boating including the Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon filming fame. Several of the “bottoms” along the river are sites of late 19th and early 20th century ranching operations, historic stock trails, and remnants of waterworks.  Surviving evidence of historic exploration and uses include the above, as well as two Denis Julien inscriptions from 1834, the 1909 Launch Marguerite (steamboat) inscription, and the “River Runner Register” on top of Bowknot Bend.

Preliminary Finding

Preliminary Finding – Recreation

A trip though Desolation and Gray Canyons of the Green River is a premier, world-renowned wilderness recreation experience. This pristine section of the Green River gives visitors a chance to experience and see things very similar to what John Wesley Powell saw during his two expeditions through this canyon.

Desolation Canyon

This river segment is located in one of Utah’s deepest canyons and bordered by Desolation Canyon Wilderness on river left and Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area on river right.  It offers outstanding whitewater boating with several rapids and riffles, with this section in particular offering five Class II and Class III rapids in only 5.3 miles. An indication of this section’s popularity with recreationists is that only 10% of private user applications for permits have been successful in recent years.  Although most of Desolation Canyon itself lies upstream of the wild segment of the river, the permit system and the lack of road access to the wild segment (considered by itself) renders the recreation experience in lower Desolation Canyon integral to the overall much longer canyon experience. There are also opportunities for visitors to hike and explore the side canyons, as well as participate in activities such as watching wildlife, cultural/historic site viewing, photography, and star gazing at some of the best river beach camps the west has to offer. In addition to river access, a hiking/pack trail extends the entire length of the wild segment on the east side of the canyon.

Gray Canyon

This section of the Green River offers an opportunity for boaters to enjoy the bottom 8.5 miles of Gray Canyon without the need to obtain a permit through a lottery system. This section of the Green River offers outstanding opportunities for whitewater rafting, viewing wildlife, cultural/historic site viewing, photography, equestrian use, hiking, and camping. This section offers recreational facilities, such as boat ramps, trash collection, developed camping, parking areas, and an access road that runs adjacent to the river. While there are more developments and more unrestricted access, this section of the Green River is still bordered by wilderness and wilderness study areas and offers an opportunity to find solitude as visitors venture away from the main access road. Walking a very short distance from this road to the river can provide the average visitor an experience similar to what John Wesley Powell might have felt during his two journeys down this stretch of the Green River. In addition to the road access, the west bank of this segment has a historic pack trail enjoyed by equestrians and hikers seeking a more primitive recreation experience.

Labyrinth Canyon

Labyrinth Canyon of the Green River is approximately 68 miles in length, with the designated “scenic” segment 49.2 miles of that total. The character of this canyon is completely different from that of Desolation Canyon and most other canyons in the region of comparison. This stretch of river has no rapids, making it an excellent experience for canoe paddlers of all abilities. It provides a four-to-seven-day backcountry paddling experience in a wilderness-quality setting.  The entire west bank of the river lies in the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness, enhancing the wilderness flavor of the canyon. Much of the canyon appears to the average visitor essentially unchanged from the Powell explorations of 1869-71. There are also great opportunities for dispersed camping and hiking to cultural sites, unique geologic features, and other attractions. Approximately 10,000 people per year enjoy this popular trip. The section is also suitable for powerboat use at some water levels. Labyrinth Canyon has been widely reported on in newspapers from coast to coast as well as in specialty publications such as Paddler Magazine.

Preliminary Finding

Preliminary Finding – Scenery

Desolation Canyon

The wild segment of the Green River is located at the southern end of Desolation Canyon. Although most of Desolation Canyon lies above the designated wild segment, the scenic experience and value continues throughout the canyon’s length. At more than one mile deep, Desolation Canyon is Utah’s deepest canyon, cutting through the youngest exposed strata on the Colorado Plateau. Desolation and Gray Canyons consist of complexes of many canyons draining to the Green River. Outstanding scenic values are dictated primarily by the domination of geologic features. In addition to canyon walls rising thousands of feet, there are also many interesting rock formations, such as arches and hoodoos. Although the landscape is mostly dry and austere, pleasing contrasts are found in the green ribbon of life along the river and the hanging gardens and pockets of huge fir trees scattered within the cliffs.  John Wesley Powell had a similar impression:

After dinner, we pass through a region of the wildest desolation. The canon is very tortuous, the river very rapid, and many lateral canons enter on either side. These usually have their branches, so that the region is cut into a wilderness of gray and brown cliffs. In several places, these lateral canons are only separated from each other by narrow walls, often hundreds of feet high, but so narrow in places that where softer rocks are found below, they have crumbled away, and left holes in the wall, forming passages from one canon into another. These we often call natural bridges; but they were never intended to span streams. They had better, perhaps, be called side doors between canon chambers. Piles of broken rock lie against these walls; crags and tower shaped peaks are seen everywhere; and away above them, long lines of broken cliffs, and above and beyond the cliffs are pine forests, of which we obtain occasional glimpses, as we look up through a vista of rocks. The walls are almost without vegetation; a few dwarf bushes are seen here and there, clinging to the rocks, and cedars grow from the crevices not like the cedars of a land refreshed with rains, great cones bedecked with spray, but ugly clumps, like war clubs, beset with spines. We are minded to call this the Canon of Desolation.

Although describing the entire canyon, his words and impressions are also applicable to the wild segment. Desolation Canyon, including the wild segment, is inventoried by BLM as being Class “A” or VRI 1 scenic quality under the BLM’s Visual Resource Management system.

Gray Canyon

Gray Canyon consist of complexes of many canyons draining to the Green River. Outstanding scenic values are dictated primarily by the domination of geologic features. Although not as deep as Desolation Canyon, this segment is still characterized by towering cliffs.  Slightly broader than Desolation Canyon, this segment boasts deep side canyons, such as the Price River and Butler Canyons. This segment is marked by sandy beaches flanked by cottonwood groves, including one of the largest natural beaches found in the intermountain West (Swazey’s Beach). John Wesley Powell spoke glowingly of the scenic values of Gray Canyon:

This morning, we have an exhilarating ride. The river is swift, and there are many smooth rapids. I stand on deck, keeping careful watch ahead, and we glide along, mile after mile, plying strokes now on the right, and then on the left, just sufficient to guide our boats past the rocks into smooth water. At noon we emerge from Gray Canon, as we have named it, and camp, for dinner, under a cottonwood tree, standing on the left bank. Extensive sand plains extend back from the immediate river valley, as far as we can see, on either side. These naked, drifting sands gleam brilliantly in the midday sun of July. The reflected heat from the glaring surface, produces a curious motion of the atmosphere; little currents are generated, and the whole seems to be trembling and moving about in many directions, or, failing to see that the movement is in the atmosphere, it gives the impression of an unstable land. Plains, arid hills, and cliffs, and distant mountains seem vaguely to be floating about in a trembling, wave rocked sea, and patches of-landscape will seem to float away, and be lost, and then re-appear. Just opposite, there are buttes, that are outliers of cliffs to the left. Below, they are composed of shales and marls of light blue and slate colors; and above, the rocks are buff and gray, and then brown. The buttes are buttressed below, where the azure rocks are seen, and terraced above through the gray and brown beds. A long line of cliffs or rock escarpments separate the table lands, through which Gray Canon is cut, from the lower plain. The eye can trace these azure beds and cliffs, on either side of the river, in a long line, extending across its course, until they fade away in the perspective. These cliffs are many miles in length, and hundreds of feet high; and all these buttes great mountain-masses of rock are dancing and fading away, and re-appearing, softly moving about, or so they seem to the eye, as seen through the shifting atmosphere.

Gray Canyon is inventoried by BLM as being Class “A” or VRI 1 scenic quality under the BLM’s Visual Resource Management system.

Labyrinth Canyon

Scenic values in Labyrinth Canyonare largely a product of the geology. The Green River meanders through a deeply incised canyon. Explorer John Wesley Powell named the canyon for its many intricate twists and turns. At Bowknot Bend, one travels seven river miles to end up within a quarter mile of one's start. Varnished cliffs are cut in places by the narrow mouths of shaded side canyons where mature cottonwood trees are harbored. In the lower parts of the canyon, vertical cliffs of Wingate sandstone rise 1,000 feet above the river.

In his journal, John Wesley Powell wrote glowingly about the scenic wonders of Labyrinth Canyon. He wrote extensively about Trin Alcove Canyon (aka Three Canyon), too long to reprint here. After camping near Bowknot Bend, Powell wrote:

There is an exquisite charm in our ride to-day down this beautiful canon. It gradually grows deeper with every mile of travel; the walls are symmetrically curved, and grandly arched; of a beautiful color, and reflected in the quiet waters in many places, so as to almost deceive the eye, and suggest the thought, to the beholder, that he is looking into profound depths. We are all in fine spirits, feel very gay, and the badinage of the men is echoed from wall to wall. Now and then we whistle, or shout, or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs.

The entire length of the “scenic” segment is bordered on the west by Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness, managed to preserve its Class 1 scenic values. The east side of the canyon is marked by deep side drainages, including Ten Mile, Spring, Hell-Roaring, and Mineral Canyons. The wild and scenic river corridor has been drawn to offer maximum protection to the scenic vistas afforded into these drainages from river level. The BLM has classified the scenery in Labyrinth Canyon as Class 2, corresponding to Visual Resource Management category 2, allowing for only limited changes to the landscape.

Preliminary Finding

Preliminary Finding – Wildlife

Desolation and Gray Canyons

These portions of the Green River is considered to have remarkable value for both avian and terrestrial wildlife populations. With regard to avian species, this river corridor is regionally significant, both for its diversity of avian species and for supporting habitats for migratory, federally listed, and BLM Sensitive avian species.

BLM Sensitive Species known to occur include golden and bald eagles. The river corridor is presently used by bald eagles during the winter but is also considered potential nesting habitat. The area also supports monarch butterflies, Townsend’s big-eared bats, and high-value breeding habitat for migratory birds.  Mexican spotted owls have been verified nesting within the river corridor, north of this segment, in designated critical habitat for Mexican spotted owls. The river corridor, including this section, can serve as connecting habitat between the designated crucial habitat upstream in Range Creek and designated critical habitat farther downstream in the Canyonlands region.  

This segment is also important for big game species, providing crucial habitat throughout the year for bighorn sheep, substantial habitat throughout the year for mule deer, and substantial habitat for elk during the winter. The entire corridor is considered regionally significant for the quantity and quality of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep lambing habitat is found there.

The federally listed southwestern willow flycatcher has been confirmed within Desolation Canyon, and federally listed species confirmed to be present in Gray Canyon include western yellow-billed cuckoo at

Labyrinth Canyon

The Labyrinth Canyon portion of the Green River is considered to have remarkable value for avian and terrestrial wildlife populations, wildlife viewing, and the historic importance of wildlife. This section of the river travels through a variety of habitats with riparian galleries, hugging the base of sheer cliff walls hundreds of feet high as the river winds through a rugged terrain preferentially used by the resident desert bighorn sheep herd. The array of habitat types, their importance to wildlife, and the relative ease of access to this remote area make this section of the river corridor regionally significant for its wildlife viewing, diversity and abundance of raptors and migratory birds, and importance to Utah’s only remaining native herd of desert bighorn sheep.

The area is considered habitat for the federally threatened Mexican spotted owl and western yellow-billed cuckoo and has confirmed sightings of the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and Mexican spotted owl nesting in the adjacent canyons. BLM Sensitive Species known to utilize the corridor include golden eagles, monarch butterflies, and Townsend’s big-eared bats. Though no longer federally listed or a BLM sensitive, the formerly endangered peregrine falcon is abundant in this section due to the excellent cliff habitat found there.

This segment is remarkably important for big game species, providing crucial habitat throughout the year for pronghorn, substantial habitat throughout the year for mule deer, and crucial habitat throughout the year for Utah’s only native desert bighorn sheep herd, most importantly during the fall rut and spring lambing periods. This desert bighorn sheep herd is important both culturally and historically as it provides a tangible link to rock art found within the river corridor and to the way of life that informed that art. Historically, the herd is outstanding as a lesson in conservation, as it illustrates both the damage that can be done when we don’t prioritize native biological communities and the good that can be done when we do.


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Recreational Scenic Wild
Recreational — 8.5 miles; Scenic — 49.2 miles; Wild — 5.3 miles; Total — 63 miles.
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On Utah's Wild and Scenic Green River, Adventure Scientists volunteers Lindsay Hunt and Sean Tropsa share why they love adventuring for science and what it's like to collect water quality data that will help protect Wild and Scenic rivers into the future. Learn more about our Wild and Scenic Rivers project and how you can volunteer at