Character of run:
Pools and drops in a spectacular canyon, the Virgin River Gorge is the little sister of the Grand Canyon, 50 miles to the south. The canyon walls are the same geologic sequence as the Grand Canyon (with some variations) and most of the rapids form at canyon mouths, as they do in the Big Ditch. The banks are lined with tamarisk and grape vines. Barrel, paddle, and cholla cactii, century and yucca plants, mesquite, Joshua trees, and an array of desert wildflowers cover the slopes back from the river. Since 1986 the flows from Quail Lake Reservoir have kept water in the channel all summer and the tamarisk growing onto the sandbars have narrowed and deepened the channel in most places, allowing boating on lower flows.. The Virgin Gorge does not have boatable water every year. .At low water (250 - 600 cfs) the stream has moderate current with some good holes. Medium water (700 - 1,500 cfs) has the best kayaking. At high flows (2,000 cfs and up) the current becomes very swift with almost no eddies or calm water, and some boat-flipping holes develop. A swim at high water will probably be a long one. Larger rafts (14 to 16 ft) like this level.
Put in: Most river runners put-in where I-15 crosses the Virgin at mile 23. Parking on the highway is not legal and Arizona Highway Patrol has been known to send boaters to Cedar Pockets rest area to put-in. If you do decide to use this launch spot, be aware that trucks accelerate down grade and around a blind corner approaching the parking spot. Be sure to get entirely off the road and that no traffic is coming up from behind as you approach the pull-out, which is a bare shoulder against a vertical road cut, just before the bridge guard rail. Do not leave your vehicle here during your run. Park across the bridge on the right or go to the rest area, turn back on northbound I-15, drive back across the bridge. Just where the hill on the right ends just before the green 23 mile marker, dirt tracks lead back west to the top of the hill overlooking the bridge. Again, be careful about trailing traffic and pull off the road well before the turn onto the dirt tracks. Park at the top of the hill and walk down to the river under the bridge.Take-out: Cedar Pockets Rest Area. Several access trails to the river lead down from the southern ends of the two road loops.The day-use area is a BLM fee area ($1/day in 2001). When you first see the chain-link fence from the river, you are still a mile upstream of the take-out. Wait until the river turns to the west to begin looking for the trails out. The lower road loop has the shortest carry, but has a steep slope leading to the parking area. This take-out is just downstream of a rock cliff on river right with fencing running along the skyline. At flows above 500 cfs, Lunch Counter surf hole forms at the point of the cliff.
Downstream of Aztec Canyon
The run begins directly beneath the I-15 highway bridge. This is the only contact with the highway until the rest area, although there are several hike-out points along the run. Just past the bridge is a good surf spot known as the Pothole-- OK at low levels, and a destination play hole at 1,000 cfs and above. L.A. Freeway-- a Class II bony riffle--sits on the first bend. The tamis have grown in tight below this and a quick move is needed for rafts here. A couple of more bends brings on a really rocky, but short drop leading into a wall. The river bends back to the left, and the entrance to Table Top rapid appears. Table Top is usually run left. At high flows the namesake rock forms a big hole which more than a few boaters wished they hadn't blundered into. At more reasonable water levels there are two good surf holes on the left run, the lower one with eddies on both sides. The river keeps up a good current below Table Top. A few mid-channel boulders provide surf opportunities. A triple highway culvert on the right (obscured by tamis, May 2001) marks By-the-Pipe rapid, a short and rocky drop with a folding surf hole at the bottom. At high flows the river powers into a sandstone wall at the base of the rapid and has given some rafters an unintentional baptism in the Virgin's waters. A half-mile downstream of By-the-Pipe a broken-up wall on the left and an obvious canyon entrance mark the top of Keyhole (Grapevine) Rapid, another canyon mouth debris fan, rocky at most levels.
When the river swings right agianst highway fill on a broad left-hand bend and and a pair of concrete drainage gutters show on the fill slope, New Forest Circus Follies is just downstream. The river used to flow down the left side of this part of the canyon, but was forcibly relocated to the right side by the Quail Creek flood. The 60,000 ft flood peak occurred the night of January 1, 1989 and left debris which can still be found 30 ft above the river. Forest Circus got its name more than 20 years ago when a group of Forest Service people decided to have a go at the river and found themselves floundering through the old 4-foot drop. Observing this spectacle were the Yakkaderros, a group of ex-bikers turned sport yakkers from Kanab, who had a howling good time watching the Feds stumble through. They christened the rapid and the name stuck. New Forest Circus is a narrowing of the river that has several good holes leading to a "rock of shock" and a smart move to the left at the rock.
A couple of meanders leads to rising limestone ledges forming the steep-walled Aztec Canyon. Here the canyon is narrow and deep. Turtle Rapid sits in the upper third of the canyon. Just upstream of Turtle is a side canyon on the left that leads to ledges and the top of the canyon, a worthwhile side hike. Turtle is a straight drop center left, with a surf hole at the bottom. Sand waves, a hallmark of Virgin Gorge boating, often form in the mile downstream of Turtle. Look up on the right bank slopes near the mouth of Aztec Canyon to see a cactus garden. In April and May this slope may be in full bloom, an amazing sight.
As the canyon ends, Grand Wash Fault ( the same fault that forms the end of Grand Canyon) crosses the river and the canyon opens. Go-for-the-Hole rapid, another outwash boulder field with several good holes, and Tree Rapid, a move to the inside of a right-hand bend, are in the next mile. A swath of Joshua trees covers the slopes on both sides of the river here.
A couple of miles of riffles, gravel bars, and some surf holes lead to the rest area take-out.
Other Sections of the Virgin:Virgin, N. Fork— Sinawava to South Campground (Zion NP) UtahVirgin— 1) South Campground (Zion NP) or Springdale to Virgin UtahVirgin— 2) Timpoweap Canyon: Virgin to LaVerkin UtahVirgin— 3) LaVerkin to Hurricane UtahVirgin— 5) Lower Gorge: I-15 at Cedar Pockets Rest Area to Littlefield Arizona
Other Information Sources: Virgin River Campground BLM area.Virgin River Runners CoalitionFalcon Guide description of I-15 at Weather.com
Virgin River Gorge; Boundary between the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin in northwestern Arizona - Geology Society article. Abstract | PDF (723K)
Put in at Sun River in St. George and took out at First I-15 Bridge in Gorge. 9.5 miles. Class II with a couple short class III sections. There is a large diversion dam with a 4 foot drop that we portaged about 5 miles down stream from put in. Area is remote and options for bailing out early are difficult due to distance back to pavement. River at 400 CFS.
There is also a gauge in the gorge above the narrows. With the next AW website update this gauge will be better integrated.
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
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Since 2007 the US Forest Service has been conducting a statewide study of all rivers in Utah’s National Forests to decide which are suitable to become Wild and Scenic Rivers. In the fall of 2008 the Forest Service is planning to release a Final Environmental Impact Statement, which will include the Forest Service’s recommendation on which of all the rivers in Utah’s National Forests the Forest Service recommends should become Wild and Scenic Rivers.
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Virgin River Gorge, Arizona -
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