Clearwater Canyon is a rugged side canyon of Cataract Canyon. Cataract Canyon is well known to white water rafting enthusiast, but receives almost zero climbing and hiking use. Cataract Canyon itself is very rugged and there are few routes in and out of the gorge. What few routes there are at least 4th class in difficulty and usually take several days. If there is a more rugged area anywhere in the Lower 48 States, I have yet to see it. We spent one 5 day trip traversing the benches and side canyons of Cataract Canyon, and all days were long and strenuous. We ended up covering only 11 miles in those five days.
Clearwater Canyon is a beauty and a beast. The canyon is an oasis in the desert and is laced with permanent waterfalls, hanging gardens and other fantastic greenery, spectacular 2000 foot walls, and beautiful crystal clear pools of water. Solitude is assured as very few groups have ever been known to descend the canyon. That is the beauty. The beast? The route and difficulty of travel is the beast. There’s a reason so few people have ever seen the canyon. The descent is a trial. Seldom can the passage be described as even remotely easy. You rappel into and swim a huge icy cold pool of water, scramble through countless boulders, and rappel off several waterfalls, including a 322 foot overhanging falls. There are several downclimbs up to 5.6 in difficulty. The exit chute is also a trial. You must boulderhop up river along a tedious route before reaching the exit chute. The exit chute is a boulder and scree laced merciless chute, 5th class in several sections, with 2200 feet of steep elevation gain. Usually it is exposed to full sunlight, and really nasty in hot weather.
Steve Allen, Harvey Halpern, Jim Finch, and Joe Wrona made the first passage through Clearwater Canyon in the late 1990’s. They succeeded in traversing the canyon, but somehow found a bypass around the section with the huge drop. From the canyon mouth, they swam down river to an incredibly difficult exit chute (5th class and 2500 feet) and climbed out of Cataract Canyon. We looked for several days, but did not find any indication of a viable route out of Cataract Canyon down river from Clearwater Canyon. Even though Easter Pasture Canyon makes a difficult end to the trip, it seems to be the only practical way out of Cataract Canyon unless you can arrange a boat pick up. I don't know of the location of the route Joe Wrona, Harvey Halpern, Jim Finch, and Steve Allen used, other than it is down Cataract Canyon and is used by bighorn sheep.
Rapping into the freezing cold swimming hole.
The turnoff for the road is near Hite Utah along Highway 95. From along Highway 95 between the Dirty Devil and Colorado Rivers (Lake Powell at high water), turn north on the dirt road between mile post 46 and 47. This is the Hite Road. The road is a 4wd road, but not that rough by 4wd road standards. Using a map, drive along this road to the head of Clearwater Canyon near Willow Tanks. This is about 28 miles along the 4wd road. If you have two vehicles available, drive the second one to the head of Waterholes Canyon. The road to the head of Waterholes Canyon branches off the Hite Road just past Willow Tanks. The road branches to the right and ends at a stock pond.
Hiking along Cataract Canyon after completing Clearwater Canyon.
Clean Canyoneering Ethics
The canyons in this area are very pristine. Bolts are not needed to descend this canyon, and would detract from the incredibly pristine setting of this wild canyon. There are plenty of chockstones to wrap slings around for anchors. Try to leave as little behind as possible. This trip is certainly not for beginners; canyoneering techniques must be practiced before going on this trip.
Preparing to rap off one of the waterfalls.
See the ROUTE PAGE
for more details. The below is only an overview.
Note: The route description on the route page is intentionally brief. If you don’t have the skills to read a map, route-find, set up rap stations in very awkward locations with natural anchors, climb exposed 5th class pitches (up to 5.6) with no protection
, and disconnect from a rappel while treading water, then this is not the trip for you!
The route begins by following the drainage from Willow Tanks. There are several 5th class downclimbs, and then here are five more rappels of various lengths, but none are over 100 feet except the last one. The narrows are all short. One of the rappels has a floating disconnect into a large (and cold)over your head pool. This one will always be a swimmer. Other rappels and downclimbs are next to flowing waterfalls. The section of the canyon below Waterholes Canyon and the big drop is really nice with several waterfalls and huge pools of water. Eventually you will find yourself looking over a 322 feet high waterfall. This is one of the highest permanent (though sometimes it has a low flow) waterfalls on the Colorado Plateau. This is the final obstacle in the canyon.
The exit route is via Cataract Canyon and Easter Pasture Canyon. The route will be low 5th class (5.2), but if you search around it may be possible to find a 4th (maybe even 3rd?) class route out of this extremely steep canyon. From the rim, you will follow the map carefully and hike up the drainage and back to your car at Chaffins Camp at the head of Waterholes Canyon.
This is an extremely difficult route with lots of technical climbing. Go well prepared and read the rotue page carefully.
Mark McCray, below; myself on the wall. Final obstacle is a 322 foot rappel.
The canyon lies on the border of the Orange Cliffs Section of Glen Canyon NRA and is under administration (but outside the borders of) Canyonlands National Park-Maze District. This is my suggestion: Since Clearwater Canyon is on the border you shouldn’t need a permit. You will have to park your vehicle in the Orange Cliffs section of the NRA, but call the Hans Flat Ranger Station at 435-259-2652 and let them know you want to leave a vehicle at Waterholes Flat, but are not camping in the area. Tell them you are hiking up Cataract Canyon and exiting Easter Pasture, but will camp outside the permit area. I suggest doing all this because you should inform the NPS about parking a vehicle in the area lest they think the vehicle is abandoned. Also, don’t bother asking for any info on the route or Clearwater Canyon. The NPS is totally un-familiar with the area and if they are even vaguely familiar with the area at all, and the only thing they will tell you is that this route is completely impossible!
Looking down Clearwater Canyon at the Clearwater/Cataract confluence.
A wetsuit should not be needed for the one pool unless the weather is very cool. Other than that one cold swim, the hike can be very hot. You will need two 100 meter ropes and at least one 60 and a few other short ropes. Avoid using the 100 meter rope until the last drop, because many of the drops are overhanging and rough on ropes. You wouldn't want to risk damaging the long ropes on a short drop. Many of
the rappels are free hanging.
ooking up Clearwater Canyon from the rim. For a sense of scale, the dropoff/waterfall seen lower center is 322 feet high.
When To Climb
The best months for doing the canyon would be April and October. Earlier than April and later than October, the water would be very cold for the swim. May through September can be extremely hot on the 2200 feet elevation gain 5th class exit chute.
Weather and climate data for the Hanksville is below. *National Weather Service Data 1912-2004.
|MONTH||AVE HIGH||AVE LOW||REC HIGH||REC LOW||AVE PRECIP (in)|
You may camp at the trailhead or any area south on the Hite Road. There are good, but small campsites in Clearwater Canyon.
Mountain ConditionsWEATHER FORECAST
There are no other links available to the canyon, in fact this page is the only place where there is any information on the canyon at all.