Virgin, Arizona, US
|Usual Difficulty||IV (for normal flows)|
|Avg. Gradient||30 fpm|
|VIRGIN RIVER NEAR ST. GEORGE, UT|
|usgs-09413500||400 - 5000 cfs||IV||00h40m||272 cfs (too low)|
The Virgin River "Flows through spectacular Virgin Canyon with distinct rock stratification; contains one of least disturbed and most unique aquatic and riparian ecosystems in Colorado River System; unusual blending of bird species; diverse mammalian fauna, especially bats; large numbers of reptilian species and the presence of rare, threatened and endangered species." (NPS Rivers and Trails Program.) The river shares the canyon with interstate highway I-15, which offers motorists spectacular views of the canyon and intriguing views of the river. A Dept. of Transportation document states: "I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge is a scenic wonder through a 500 million-year-old gorge. Construction of I-15, which opened in 1973, included re-channeling the Virgin River 12 times." The rock strata visible in the gorge are from the Late Cambrian through Middle Permian periods.
Put-in: Cedar Pockets Rest Area
- Campground, elevation 2,150 ft.. There are trails leading to the river from both road
loops. Most people use the west (lower) loop. This is a BLM fee area ($1/day, 2001).
Take-out: There are no legal take-outs in the gorge downstream of the rest area. Follow I-15 through the gorge. Passing Temple Bar, there is a rural pull-off exit. Take this and turn back east. Dirt tracks will continue along parallel to the freeway. Follow these tracks past one box culvert that goes under the freeway. Turn left down a road that comes out under the second box culvert. There are some side roads off this road--keep on the main track. The parking area is at a turning circle at the end of the road.
The parking area is not visible from the river. About 4(?) miles after leaving the gorge, the river will meander around a broad right-hand bend. A solitary fence post will be visible on a low bluff on the left bank. A palette bridge may be visible in the tamis, just above a bitchin' side-surf hole. There are several short trails that lead up through the tamis to the parking area from this point.
Character of run: The pace and difficulty of the lower gorge pick up a notch from the upper gorge. The character of the canyon changes as the river slices through faulted limestone. The river and highway share an increasingly narrow slot through the mountains, with the river finally running underneath the highway for a mile.
The first mile of river downstream of the rest area is riffles and meanders in an open canyon. Sand waves often form on the straights here. A broad right-hand bend with a rocky riffle marks the beginning of Bovine Bend. The riffle leads into a broad left-hand curve and Labia Cave at Lucky Calf Corner, so-named for a calf that got a kayak rescue by BigE after it tried to swim 1,500 cfs and pulled off 2 feet-in-the-air rolls. Downstream of Bovine Bend a broad, shallow gravel bar gives a bumpy ride until the flows get over 1,000 cfs.
The mouth of Sullivan's Canyon, a large wash entering from river left, is just above Dave's Rock rapid, a short, steep drop past a house-sized boulder on river left. Local boaters sometimes put in here for a shortened run. There is a large highway pullout on the northbound I-15 right at Sullivan's Canyon. A half-mile of quick water and riffles follow Dave's. When the river bends back to the left as the canyon narrows, a window in the shape of a dolphin standing on its tail can be seen in silouhette on the north canyon wall. Dolphin rapid, another short boulder-strewn drop, is just ahead. This is generally run river left. Swift water with some good play holes follow.
The next highway bridge marks the beginning of Big 10, the longest and most demanding run in the canyon. Scouting this run is advised if not familiar with its intricacies. A small eddy just downstream of a vertical cliff on river left below the first bridge gives access to a boulder-strewn shore. A rough trail leads up and left to a view of the rapid. Tamarisks have grown up along the shore, so it may take several probes to the bank to get the full view of the run. Leaving the scout eddy, a boulder garden leads to a hard left turn and a wall on the right. Another boulder garden is below. In 1990, a flash flood from a hanging canyon several hundred feet above the river deposited this boulder debris between the corner and the falls in a few minutes on a summer afternoon. From the corner down, the run generally follows the left shore, going right of the Hound's Tooth rock at the bottom. The right side of the falls has also been run, usually at higher water. Running down the middle is generally a disaster. Boaters swimming through the rocks here come away bruised and battered.
The Back 9, a mile of Class II-III water follows Big 10. A cave on a right-hand corner offers shelter and shade. Warm springs flow into the stream channel from here to Littlefield and can warm the river water appreciably. Careful eyes will find springs issuing directly from the rock walls. The river winds down into the canyon and eventually ends up underneath the highway. Just before it breaks out right into daylight, a wall which once was home to the hardest climb in North America comes into view on the left. A hike out on river left is possible here. The run through the bridge piers gives Pylon Rapid its name. Pylon is a short and turbulent drop through some large boulders. Some calmer waters follow. Surf Alley follows. This is a long, straight stretch and will have sand waves when flows are greater than about 500 cfs.
After surf alley, the river bends back to the left and flows along a limestone wall on the right. A house-sized boulder (the Madame, so named because it blocks the entrance to the Whorehouse below) fell off the left canyon wall during the Quail Creek flood and has formed Let's Make a Deal. Door Number 1 is a blind slot on the left side of the boulder. The slot can be scouted from high on the cliffs, or from the top of the Madame. Door Number 2 is a tight slot on the right side of the boulder not wide enough for a kayak paddle to be held sideways. Door Number 3 on the far right can be run in kayaks when flows are greater than 500 cfs, or in 12-foot rafts when the flows are more than 1,000 cfs. (Door Number 1 had a log wedged in it and Door Number 2 was completely blocked by logs and other flood debris, May 2001). A scout or portage is possible on river right.
The canyon ends abruptly as the limestone dives deep into the Virgin Valley gravel. Whorehouse Rapid starts where the canyon ends and is a boulder garden with many boat-stopping holes. Four drops, Rhona, Mona, Lola, and Jane-- give plenty of Class IV action in the next mile of river. The "Whorehouse effect " can heighten the drama of this rapid, as it is often late in the day's run and kayakers have the sun directly in their eyes, just a hand-width off the horizon.
Bonus Rapid is left just downstream of a sharp left-hand bend and has several good surf holes. The final mile and a half to the take out has great views of the Virgin and Beaver Dam mountains, lots of wildlife and is a perfect way to round out a spectacular river run. A final side surf hole is right at the take-out.
Special Notes: Rocky river bed and fast water can lead to nasty swims. Winds funnelling through the lower gorge can sometimes reach hurricane force.
Other Sections of the Virgin:
Virgin, N. Fork— Sinawava to South Campground (Zion NP) Utah
Virgin— 1) South Campground (Zion NP) or Springdale to Virgin Utah
Virgin— 2) Timpoweap Canyon: Virgin to LaVerkin Utah
Virgin— 3) LaVerkin to Hurricane Utah
Virgin— 4) Upper Gorge: I-15 at mile 23 to Cedar Pockets Rest Area Arizona
Other Information Sources:
Virgin River Campground BLM area.
Virgin River Runners Coalition
Falcon 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)
AW needs Your Feedback on Flows in the Virgin River
June 2, 2014