For an introductory whitewater experience packed with scenery, sweet campsites, and the ability to bring your four-legged, furry friends, look no further than Ruby Horsethief Canyon on the Colorado River. The mostly flatwater 25-mile stretch runs through the red sandstone canyons of McInnis Canyon National Conservation Area, which borders Colorado and Utah. The run offers day hike opportunities, wildlife viewing, and keeps things exciting through a handful of Class I and Class II rapids. After a day on the river, paddlers can sleep on a sandy beach under the stars surrounded by 1.7-billion-year-old rocks.
There are a few options for floating this section of the river. During high water, the river is moving at a pretty good pace, so you could avoid camping fees, put in at the Loma boat ramp, and float the 25 miles to the takeout in Westwater all in one long day.
But to truly take advantage of all the river has to offer, load up everything but the kitchen sink, travel in style, and spend a night or two paddling, camping, and exploring the area. You can either start at the Loma put-in just off I-70 where it meets the Colorado River or, to extend the trip by 5 miles, you can begin at Fruita State Park. Going with the latter option will set you back a fee of $7 per day at the state park, but the park offers a more secure place to leave your vehicle unattended during your trip. By increasing the trip by 5 miles for a total of 30, you can wave at cars traveling on eastbound I-70 as you begin happy hour on the river. Shuttling to Westwater and back is a breeze at just 45 minutes each way.
For most of the 30-mile stretch, the Colorado River lazily meanders around bends in the canyon walls, but the sound of mellow whitewater gets louder as your boats start rocking in the gentle waves. While larger rafts plow through the Class I and II rapids like a tank, smaller watercraft like duckies, playboats, and stand-up paddleboards are in for a ride through the splash zone before all becomes serene again. Other than a couple of fallen trees along the way, there are no major obstacles or rocks to navigate around, so the paddling is considered non-technical. While floating down the river, keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, mule deer, blue herons, bald eagles, and falcons. Also watch for passing trains on the railroad tracks that parallel the river for most of the trip.
After crossing into Utah, the canyons open up into the dry desert landscape that the eastern part of the state is known for. The take-out in Westwater is a major rafting hub, where paddlers leave Ruby Horsethief and others enter Westwater Canyon and its Class III and Class V rapids and Moab downriver. From the takeout, load up the gear and return to Fruita State Park to retrieve your other vehicle, return the groover, then celebrate a successful float down the Colorado River with pizza and a pint at the funky, bike-themed Hot Tomato in Fruita.
Important trip logistics: Reserve a campsite permit for a night or two and ensure everyone in your group abides by BLM regulations. Keep in mind that this is a very busy stretch of water from May to October. To ensure the camps you want are available, book well in advance or visit during off-peak seasons when there are no camping fees, only the $10 reservation fee. Fees per night are based on group size (a maximum of two dogs per group are included in group size as well).
Once reservations are made, reference the rules and regulations page to ensure all members of your group have necessary equipment like the permit, repair kits, personal flotation device, fire pan, extra paddle, throw bag, and everyone’s favorite, the groover. All parties are responsible for bringing a washable, leak-proof, reusable toilet system to pack out human waste in a responsible manner. The groover is often an ammo box and gets its name from the grooves each side of the box leaves on one’s backside as he or she is occupying the throne. Outfitters like Rimrock Adventures in Fruita will rent groovers for a fee, and luckily they come with a comfortable, traditional toilet seat. Then they do all the cleaning after your trip. Groovy! Keep in mind that cell service is generally non-existent for all carriers while on the river. In addition to first aid, you’ll also want to pack in all your drinking water, since the river is too silty to filter.
So, you’ve got your reservations, regulations and rentals squared away. But which campsites are the best? They all have their pros and cons, so it depends on how you want to customize your trip. If you want to check out the second-highest concentration of natural arches behind Arches National Park, then stay at Rattlesnake the first night. Although the camp is small and without a beach, it lies at the trailhead for the 7-mile scramble up to explore nine sandstone arches. If you’re traveling with a larger group and prefer some space with trees to shade everyone, look into one of the five Cottonwood campsites. Want your own island for a night? Book a night on Dog Island. For a truly memorable night, camp at one of nine Black Rocks campsites and surround yourself with an ancient geologic landscape known as Vishnu schist that dates back 1.7 billion years. If the small rapids featured on the river aren’t enough of a thrill, take the plunge into the cold waters of the Colorado from 15-feet above at a notable cliff-diving spot between Black Rocks 4 and 5. Regardless which of the 35 campsites you pick, each one is an ecological wonderland surrounded by the red canyons displaying their fiery glow at sunset.
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