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River of Sorrows: The Dolores River

Slick Rock Canyon | Big Gypsum Valley to Bedrock
Friday – Saturday, June 14-15, 2019

Early Spanish explorers called it El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, or the River of Our Lady of Sorrows translated into English. Today it’s known as the Dolores River, which begins as snowmelt high up in the San Juan Mountains near Bolam Pass and empties into the Colorado River in Utah after traveling through the canyon country of western Colorado. For a long time I have wanted to float the Dolores River through Slick Rock Canyon, which begins at Big Gypsum Valley and ends at Paradox Valley, but since the water of the river is usually siphoned off at the McPhee Reservoir upstream there is typically only a very short window of time to actually do it, if there is any opportunity at all! So far I had never been able to make the timing work for a trip, however, with the high snowpack in the San Juan Mountains this year it looked like I was finally going to be able to get my chance!

I followed the website of the Dolores Water Conservancy District closely to keep an eye on their release schedule and it looked like there was going to be at least a few weeks with enough water this month. My best available weekend for the trip was June 15-16 and according to their original predictions, it looked like they would be releasing around 1,200cfs during that time which would have been a great level to get on the Dolores River.

However, after some warm temperatures in the high country and higher than expected water levels flowing into the reservoir, they ended up pushing the release up to 3,400cfs a few days before our scheduled trip. It was definitely more water than I was hoping for, but I didn’t think it was going to be a problem for us, so we decided to carry on with the trip.

Since the opportunity to float the Dolores River isn’t very frequent, I also knew that the river was going to be very busy, especially on a weekend. This was my only opportunity to go, so I decided to keep our group small and planned for just me and Diane to go together and we would treat it like a backpacking trip so it would hopefully be easier for us to find a small campsite along the way. Since I only own one inflatable kayak and we would have too much gear to share it, I borrowed another one from my friend Jackson so we would each have our own boat.

We left after work on Friday, grabbed a quick dinner and then drove over to the boat ramp near Bedrock to drop off Diane’s car. As expected, there were a lot of vehicles parked there! Then we finished the drive into Big Gypsum Valley and arrived shortly after sunset. There were a lot of people and boats ready to get on the river the following morning, but we managed to find a small campsite nearby. As soon as we got out of my Jeep we found that the mosquitos were horrendous! We quickly put on long sleeves, bug spray and got the tent setup as fast as we could. Then I started rigging our boats so we could get an early start on Saturday morning. When I was done with that I got in the tent, put in my earplugs and went to bed around 10:00pm.

Ready to take off from the Big Gypsum Valley Boat Launch on Saturday morning. We were the first ones on the river…

Big Gypsum Valley Boat Launch

On Saturday morning we woke up at 6:00am, finished rigging up the boats, made sure we had everything we needed and were on the water by 7:00am. At 3400cfs the water was high and out of the main channel into the vegetation and moving pretty fast. After crossing under the only bridge over this stretch of the river we entered Slick Rock Canyon on our way back to Bedrock.

The very tops of the La Sal Mountains were barely visible as we started our float down the Dolores River this morning.

Off We Go

A nice early morning float through Little Gypsum Valley.

Morning Float

After floating under this bridge we left Big Gypsum Valley behind and entered Slick Rock Canyon and the Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area.

Leaving Big Gypsum Valley

It wasn’t very long until we made our first stop of the day to visit a large alcove with a nice pictograph panel and a few faint petroglyphs. I actually hiked to this site a few years ago with my friend Marty.

Rock Art Stop

The Rain Man, a nice Barrier Canyon Style pictograph panel.

The Rain Man

A couple of hard-to-see petroglyphs nearby.

Alcove Petroglyphs

After getting around the next bend in the river we paddled a short distance up Bull Canyon to go on another short hike.

Bull Canyon

I liked the look of this sandstone wall in Bull Canyon.

Bull Canyon Wall

Back on the river again…

Swiftly Floating

Dolores River Canyon

Dolores River Canyon

Shadows & Curves

Shadows & Curves

Floating Slick Rock Canyon

Floating Slick Rock Canyon

After leaving Bull Canyon there were a few small rapids along the way that we had to paddle through. Everything was going great until I was unable to square up with a wave coming off a large boulder in the river and I managed to flip my boat. I remember seeing the wave come over the right side of the front of my boat and the next thing I knew was that I was underwater and my boat was above me! It happened so fast! I grabbed onto my boat and watched my hat float away never to be seen again. I quickly looked around for my paddle, but it was nowhere to be seen either. The cold water had caused both of my calves to cramp up and I quickly floated down the river for a little way until my feet finally touched the bottom. Then I was able to pull my boat and myself into shallower water near the shore and flip my boat back right-side-up. I got out my spare paddle and was able to get across the river to meet back up with Diane where she had pulled over and stopped. A group that passed by us spotted my paddle with some driftwood further downstream, so I bushwhacked along the shore and was able to retrieve it.

It’s at this point that I should mention that Diane was a little nervous about being on the river in her own boat and now that I had flipped mine she was even more freaked out about the rest of the trip. If she could have gotten off the river and out of the canyon right there, I’m pretty sure she would have. Unfortunately, she didn’t have that option so we carried on, but she was not looking forward to the rest of the trip.

After getting back on the river we made a quick stop to check out The Grotto, which is a large alcove along the river that is also a popular campsite, so Diane could take a break from the water for a little bit. After stopping along the shore we got yelled at by a large rafting group who was planning on camping there for stealing their eddy that they wanted to move their boats into. I explained that Diane needed to get off the water right away and we wouldn’t be long, and then they backed off a little bit.

The Grotto

Downstream

Diane floats below The Notch.

Below The Notch

After floating under a clear blue sky all morning, clouds started to fill the sky in the afternoon which looked great above the red sandstone canyon walls.

Beautiful Canyon

Floating Ahead

Canyon Scenery

I had hoped to find a campsite somewhere in the last ten miles of the canyon before the takeout, but with the high water and all of the other people in the canyon we had not seen a decent campsite that wasn’t already occupied, so it looked like our overnight trip was going to turn into a day-trip. Since I knew Diane wasn’t really enjoying the trip and wanted to get off the river as soon as possible, it probably wasn’t a bad thing for her. Luckily the fast-moving water made that an option for us this time.

The Dolores River

Floating around the curve of Muleshoe Bend reminded me of Bowknot Bend in Labyrinth Canyon.

Muleshoe Bend

Looking back at the notch of Muleshoe Bend from the other side. I would have liked to have been able to hike to that saddle, but there were groups camped there an no place to stop, so we continued on.

Muleshoe Bend Notch

Nice light and clouds in Slick Rock Canyon.

Slick Rock Canyon

When Paradox Valley came into view we knew we were almost back to the takeout near Bedrock. At this point we heard a few rumbles of thunder echo through the canyon and looking back I could see that it was raining behind us over the canyon. We had just missed the storm that came through!

Almost To Paradox

Leaving Slick Rock Canyon

Leaving Slick Rock Canyon

Diane paddles the last few feet to the boat ramp and is glad to be off the river. We arrived at around 6:00pm and had spent 11 hours on the river and travelled 36 miles.

Back To Bedrock

We loaded the boats and our gear into Diane’s car and then headed back to Big Gypsum Valley to pick up my Jeep. We stopped at this nice petroglyph panel on the way.

Boulder Petroglyphs

One last view of the Dolores River shortly before sunset.

Raging River

After picking up my Jeep we were planning on driving home and sleeping in our own bed, but during the drive I came down with some sort of allergic reaction to something (I have no idea what since I don’t have allergies), and my eyes were watering and hurting pretty bad, plus I got stuffed up and my nose wouldn’t stop running. I was feeling pretty miserable and was definitely in no condition to continue driving. I stopped near Uravan and found a place to camp for the night while Diane continued driving home since she was feeling fine. I fell right asleep and didn’t wake up again until 5:00am. I was feeling fine again and was able to finish the drive back home without any more issues. It was definitely a strange weekend of ups and downs for me…

>> Slick Rock Canyon Photo Gallery

2 Comments

  1. Dan Reynolds
    Dan Reynolds June 24, 2019

    Love your stories, thanks for the blog and the great pictures

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