For most of its thousand-mile-plus tumble and grind toward the Gulf of California, and especially through Utah and Arizona, the Colorado River is entrenched within rugged canyons. Human access is limited, difficult and in many places downright rare except via the river itself.
But three paved byways along a 45-mile stretch near Moab - U-128, U-279 and the Kane Creek Road - give motorists, campers, bikers, hikers and river-runners an unusual opportunity to experience the great stream and its shoreline. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which administers most of the strip from Dewey Bridge on the north to MGM Bottom on the south, has come up with a suitably parklike name for the area: "The Colorado Riverway."Since Moab is a hub for a vast region of scenic wonders and destinations, including Arches and Canyonlands national parks and the LaSal Mountains, the Grand County Travel Council doesn't specifically highlight the river roads when telling visitors what they can see and do, but people often come back singing their praises, said Marian DeLay, the council's executive director.
"We've had a number of people come back (to the Moab Information Center), and inevitably I hear them say, `You guys don't advertize 128 - and it's your best-kept secret!' or `I've never been on such a beautiful drive,' " she said. "We get it from everybody."
In his 1982 edition of "Utah: A Guide to the State," writer Ward Roylance described the river road as "one of the choicest in Utah . . . , providing an ever-changing visual feast of painted cliffs, great buttes and spires, green valleys, lofty peaks and a cluster of most unusual pinnacles known as Fisher Towers."
Besides the Towers, which rise over a campground and a 21/2-mile hiking trail, the roads are lined with striking features, including such photogenic formations as Castle Rock and The Priest and the Nuns and Jug Handle Arch. Other graceful spans, such as Corona Arch and Morning Glory Natural Bridge, are reached via hiking trails.
Bike trails radiate in all directions, including those to Poison Spider Mesa, the Porcupine Rim and, at the old Dewey Bridge, the famed Kokopelli's Trail. Bikers and four-wheelers head off on the Shafer Trail, the winding Onion Creek road, the LaSal Mountain Loop and more. Petroglyphs, pictographs and even primordial dinosaur tracks are visible along the roadsides.
And river-runners - novices and veterans, private and commercial - relish this generally quiet stretch of the Colorado.
World War II led to improvements in rubber and inflatable rafts. "Area rivers had finally met the craft that could readily challenge them," Richard A. Firmage noted in "A History of Grand County," written for the state's 1996 centennial. "From isolated small beginnings, (river-running trips) became increasingly popular, and within a short time adventurous entrepreneurs were taking other adventurous souls down the rivers for a fee, opening an industry that has continued to grow in popularity and economic impact."
"Before mountain biking became so popular, river running was probably by far the biggest outfitter-type activity down here," DeLay said. "People have been rafting that river so long, there are families who have their own rafts and boats and go out once a month" - or more.
The Colorado Riverway may be relatively unknown compared to the renowned parks nearby, but it is not unvisited. Twenty years ago it was less of an attraction or alternative and campers and day-trippers could find solitude enough, even along the roadsides.
But by about a decade ago, recreational pressures had become a problem along the Colorado, said Russ von Koch, a BLM outdoor recreation planner in Moab.
"Things really changed in the late 1980s," he said. "Biking has been a significant factor, especially in the spring and fall. And those are the higher use periods." In particular, people were camping helter-skelter along the river, "pioneering" primitive campgrounds with little heed to where they or their vehicles were going and leaving litter and waste behind them.
Grand County appointed a citizen commission representing different interests in the community to consider the challenges and recreation opportunities around Moab. The panel's recommendations led to a series of guidelines and improvements along the river.
The recommendations, he said, included halting unrestricted vehicle use, preventing further degradation of the area's scenic qualities, dealing with the problem of human waste and providing facilities - campsites and picnic areas, toilets and trash disposal - "to maintain the attractiveness of the areas for both local and visitor use," von Koch said.
The BLM Riverway plan was adopted in 1992, von Koch said, implementing a more intensive management philosophy for the canyons. Information kiosks and bulletin boards alert visitors to regulations affecting various activities. Trailheads and boat launches have been improved.
And formal campsites, "developed primarily for resource protection purposes," he said, now line the riverway roads.
"There are basically two kinds of camping areas," von Koch said. "There are the more traditional campgrounds, with developed road systems, campsites, fire grills, bulletin boards and nicer quality toilets. And then we have our semideveloped campgrounds, which are basically fire rings, fee station and a simple toilet." Modest fees are charged and help pay for the upkeep and services required by such campgrounds.
Few conceptual models were available upon which to base the riverway, von Koch said. "We pretty much came up with a home-grown approach to it. The emphasis was on protection of the area, but to do it in kind of a low-key way."
In other words, something between a highly regulated national park and the basically unfettered back-country. With a little federal seed money to get the campgrounds going and a few grants, the riverway has otherwise paid for itself. Modest fees are charged and basically fund the services and upkeep required, he said.
The BLM has built 168 fee campsites and seven reservable group sites on U-128, the "river road" that heads northeast to Dewey Bridge; U-279, the Potash Scenic Byway from the old uranium mill on U.S. 191 to the potash plant downstream; and along the Kane Creek Road on the south side of the river out of central Moab. Ninety new sites were finished just a summer ago.
"We've done most of the development we had planned and now are going back and looking at restoration of a lot of areas," von Koch said - placing rocks and timber in some places to prevent heavy traffic and planting native vegetation to help the shoreline return to a more natural state.