For my 36th birthday trip, I reserved a spot on the OARS Cataract Canyon trip – 4 days rafting through Canyonlands National Park from Moab, followed by a sweet Cessna ride back to Moab. The rafting trip started on a Tuesday, so I had plenty of time to drive out from Illinois to Moab.
I left Illinois on a Friday afternoon and drove 5 hours to Omaha, where I had a hotel room for the night. I often stay at Holiday Inn Express hotels, largely due to the dog-friendly policies, and a continental breakfast that makes it easy to get on the road in the morning. So my first night was at the Holiday Inn Express in Gretna, NE, just past Omaha. This hotel was brand new and in a great location for travelers – right off the interstate, next to a Wal-Mart, gas station and a cluster of restaurants.
The next day I drove through Nebraska and Colorado, stopping at the Holiday Inn Express in Silt, CO. Another nice surprise! If there’s one thing I love, it’s having a balcony in my hotel room. This room had a large balcony overlooking the Colorado River….the same river I’d be rafting in a few days! The only downside to this place is there is NOTHING there – I had to get back on the Interstate and go up one exit to Rifle for dinner, which I brought back to enjoy on my balcony.
Now that the long miles were out of the way, it was time to slow down and start enjoying the scenery. I still had two days to explore Moab before reporting for my rafting trip. I had a campsite at Devil’s Garden Campground in Arches National Park for the next two nights.
This was my first visit to Arches, and being solo, I had planned several short hikes instead of any longer ones. First, I took the short (paved) trail to Windows Arches.
Then over to Double Arch
And then on to world famous Delicate Arch – you’ve no doubt seen photos of this one before. There was a shorter hike with nice viewpoints of the arch. Seeing the hordes of people at the arch itself, I declined to hike all the way out. I guess the good photographers must come in the off season…or just Photoshop all the people out!
After this, it was back to camp to make dinner and rest up. After washing my dishes at the bathroom, I came back to find my tent….missing! It had blown up into a nearby juniper tree. Staking out a tent in the desert doesn’t quite work the same was as it does back in the Midwest. Too tired to re-stake everything, I crawled into the car (all my cars get the “sleep test” before I buy – can I comfortably fold down the back seats to sleep?) After a night of rest in the Subaru Forester, it was time for a quick breakfast from my favorite trail food company, Packit Gourmet. Some Migas del Sol to fill me up for another day of hiking.
I had a reserved spot on the ranger-led tour of the Fiery Furnace – a maze of sand spires and canyons. It’s highly recommended to go on the ranger tour, as navigation here can be quite tricky! Before this, I had a short window of time to explore the Devil’s Garden trail. The Devil’s Garden is an easy walking trail that takes you past several arches and sandstone formations. I didn’t have time for the whole trail, but what I saw was so beautiful!
The Fiery Furnace tour was incredible – it is like being on another planet. I don’t know how many times it would take to learn the trails like the ranger – I would definitely get lost if I tried this on my own!
After the Fiery Furnace tour, I wanted to check out nearby Canyonlands National Park. I was surprised, it looked a lot like the Grand Canyon! This small glimpse from the visitor center got me very excited for the rafting trip!
The night before the trip, we met our guides and fellow travelers in Moab, got our OARS-issued dry bags, and received final instructions for the next day. In the morning, we all met at the OARS warehouse, enjoyed one final flush toilet and then packed into a van that took us to our put-in on the Colorado River. I can’t even begin to describe the excitement and butterflies I had leading up to this trip!
At the put-in, we got some basic paddling instruction and hung around the beach while our guides got everything loaded up and ready to go. I was surprised to see that we’d be using a motor for parts of the trip. It makes sense, as it’s not 90 miles of all rapids, so the motor was used on the slower parts, including most of Day 1. We started out with our 3 boats lashed together and had a relaxing float for most of the day.
Each day on the trip started with a yummy breakfast, taking down camp, loading the boats, usually a stop for a hike somewhere along the way, another stop for lunch, and then finding a campsite with plenty of leisure time before dinner.
On the hikes, we saw old pictographs, like these:
The campsites were quite large, with room for the kitchen, a living room area where we would socialize (no campfires, though!) and tents scattered around. Another important location was the bathroom – we had a few very scenic groover spots (Groover is what they call the toilet on the river)
I can’t even describe how good the food was on this trip – I know, everything tastes better outdoors, but the guides were amazing – cooking outdoors, using whatever they had packed in the boats and we had 3 delicious meals each day. Even the quick lunches they threw together on the beach were delicious! One night we had salmon, wild rice and veggies, followed by a delicious dessert of strawberry shortcake. Another night we had bacon wrapped filet mignon, mashed potatoes and caesar salad. And did I mention the 3 hot men doing all this cooking and cleaning for us?
Day 2 and 3 we really started hitting some rapids – no more loafing about the boat – time to put on the helmets and life jackets and paddle for your life! Ok, maybe not…we did have one lady pop right out of the boat in a rapid (she probably weighed 90 pounds) – and our guide, with one hand still on his oar to keep us in the right direction, just reached over and grabbed her with one hand, and plopped her right back in her seat….it was quite impressive! I guess that’s what these guys train for. So, lunch stops also gave us a chance to dry out our clothes
Our last day on the river had a sad feeling – it was all ending way too soon. It was another lazy river day with fewer rapids, and we would end at Lake Powell, where our charter flight awaits.
I’m not gonna lie, I was terrified of this plane. At one point, I had looked into having my car shuttled down here, but it was too expensive. So I was stuck. OMG, am I glad I did this! This was absolutely a case of “fake it ’til you make it” – I plastered a smile on my face, kept my eyes glued through my camera viewfinder and took about 400 pictures. It was incredible, though! I’ve since grown fond of small planes.
Here’s Lake Powell:
And the confluence of the Green River and Colorado River – this was the start of Cataract Canyon and the point at which we had to don lifejackets and helmets on the river.
When we landed in Moab, we were shuttled back to our cars at the OARS warehouse. It was such a strange feeling, but I really was sad to see that river trip end. It was easily the most magical 4 days of my life. And I was with a bunch of strangers! I knew this was going to be the first of many OARS rafting trips for me….I was sold! After a short drive, I got a motel room in Monticello, UT for the night. I hadn’t showered since before the river trip, so I was overdue!
The next day I stopped at Hovenweep National Monument and then on to Mesa Verde National Park, where I met my mom, who was on a road trip of her own. We explored various ruins along the Petroglyph trail and then checked in to our room at the Far View Lodge. We were given a Kiva room, which had gorgeous hand-crafted wood furniture. We also had a delicious meal at the Metate Room, and watched several bus tours come in and completely take over. (You may want to call ahead for reservations)
The next day we drove to Telluride, for the Blues & Brews Festival featuring Willie Nelson. What a setting for a festival! I love little ski towns, and Telluride was no exception – I would LOVE to go back someday! All the hotels in town were either booked or outrageously expensive, so we stayed in Norwood at the Backcountry Inn. What a gem of a find in this tiny town! I probably wouldn’t want to drive those crazy roads in the winter, but it was a great place to stay close to Telluride.
Willie Nelson did not disappoint, I heard “Roll me up and smoke me when I die” for the first time – I sure do love Willie and hope to see him many more times in concert.
The next day I began the long drive back to Illinois, full of memories and excitement to get home and book my next OARS vacation!