One of the best sections for a first-time overnight canoe trip on the Colorado River is known as Ruby Horsethief Canyon. When water levels are good here, it is an easy float trip with some mild rapid sections. There are a few put ins along the river in Fruita or Loma, Colorado, and takeout is in Westwater, Utah.
At some of the put ins near Loma, there are a few shuttle businesses that will drive your vehicle to Westwater by your prospective ETA. This is an easy fix to the logistical nightmare that can go hand-in-hand with float trips.
Ruby Horsethief Canyon is 25 miles long and has 34 campsite locations along the river. Nothing feels more exciting than rowing up to a spot of land, pulling the boats in, and setting up camp. The best part… canoes can hold more than a backpack. So, you can *almost* bring everything you’d bring if you were car camping.
To camp along the river, you will need to make a campsite reservation 60 days in advance. No permit is required for day use of the river, only for camping. If you are planning to go during the busy season (April-October), I suggest making reservations as early as you can. You can make changes to your reservation anytime BEFORE you print the permit.
- Each campsite is limited to one group per night.
- Groups are limited to 25 people; dogs are included in this number. Some sights do have a smaller capacity, so if you do have a large group, make sure you pay attention to this when you make reservations.
- Each group can have a maximum of 2 dogs.
- Children under 16 camp for free. When entering your group total, only count adults over 16.
- Unfortunately, dogs are not considered children and need to be counted in your group number.
- You must camp at your designated, reserved campsite. If you miss the campsite, and cannot get back to it, you will have to continue to the takeout in Westwater. This might seem harsh, but you don’t want to be that guy that’s in the wrong campsite when the group assigned to it arrives.
High Use Season and Low Use Season
High Use Season is April 1-October 31 every year. Anytime between these dates, you will have to pay a camping fee per night. When reserving campsites, you will have to pay for the camping fees, and a $6 reservation fee.
Low Use Season is November 1-March 31. During this time, you will still have to reserve your campsite and pay for a reservation fee, but there are no camping fees. The lack of camping fees makes this time pretty enticing to some boaters, but the water can be less than preferred during these months. Be sure to check water levels, weather, and streamflow data before committing to a trip.
Rules, Registration and Permits
While an overnight canoe trip can be a neat expansion to backpacking, being on one of America’s most iconic Rivers does involve a lot more responsibility.
If you are going to lead a trip on the Colorado River, big or small, you will need to do a bit of research to register your vessel, and make sure your vessel is equipped with everything needed. If you are going to obtain a permit for overnight camping, there is a list of rules you will need to comply with while on the river.
- A printed and signed copy of the permit must always be with the group while on the river. If you are stopped by rangers for any reason, you will need to show this permit.
- At least one first aid kit is required per group. The kit must be sufficient for the group size, and able to treat serious injuries. This rule is in place to promote good practice. Cell service is unreliable in Ruby Horsethief, and the nearest takeout is the takeout in Westwater.
- A repair kit(s) that can repair the type of boats used on the trip – in this case a canoe repair kit. If you are rafting, an air pump is required as well.
- A toilet system or engineered human waste bags are required. This is an absolute necessity since there are no facilities at the campsites along the river, and it is prohibited to dumb waste into the river, and on Bureau of Land Management property. This is also just a great Leave No Trace practice, especially in a more sensitive desert landscape. If you will have dogs with you, pack out their poo as well!
- A metal fire pan at least 12 inches in diameter is required to contain a fire and its remains. This is required even if a separate stove is brought for cooking. A fire blanket adds some extra points since this ensures total ash removal.
- Each member of the group must have a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) that is properly fitted for each person. Inflatable life jackets are prohibited. Any child under 13 must always have their PFD on while on the water.
- Each vessel must have an extra paddle, unless you will be in kayaks – then you will need one extra paddle for every three boats.
- A bail bucket or bilge pump is required – kayaks are the exception.
- If your boat is 12 feet or longer, you will need a type IV throwable device or rescue rope with at least 40 feet of line. A horn or whistle is also required for emergency purposes.
Along with these rules, you should always be courteous to other boaters and campers around you. You can find further information about permit rules HERE. For more Leave No Trace (LNT) information, go HERE.
Choosing a Campsite
Although there are 34 campsites along this section of the Colorado, they aren’t all perfect for your specific trip. The first thing you might want to look at is the capacity of the campsite you need. Some sites are restricted to less than the maximum river group capacity of 25. You will also want to consider the distance down river you’ll have to travel to reach the site.
This section of the Colorado can easily be done in 2 days (1 night). You can spread it out further if you wanted to enjoy more time camping along the Colorado River. You’ll also want to consider how long you’ll be driving for after your takeout in Westwater. If your drive is going to be an all-day ordeal, consider a location further down the river to shorten your last day of canoeing.
There is a section of the river known as the Black Rocks Section. This rock is Vishnu Schist and it has been dated to be about 1.7 billion years old! This same rock can be found in parts of the Grand Canyon.
There are 4 campsites right in this section, which I highly recommend simply because of the dramatic views between red canyon walls and the exposed black rock in the river. These sites are 16 miles down the canyon from Loma, so your second day would be significantly shorter than the first.
Highwater and Safety
“Just Around the River-bend” – While Pocahontas made a point of being excited about the unknown, that’s not always the best approach when it comes to trip planning. Do some research about the water you will be travelling on. You should always look up water levels and streamflow information before putting in. Be aware of your own abilities as well as the abilities of the individuals that will be accompanying you.
While this section of the Colorado is beginner friendly, you should still give everyone new to canoeing a general sort of orientation or instruction before getting in the river. There are some whitewater sections that can initially scare some people when they come up to them. Even if tipping is very unlikely, prepare your crew for the worst.
“Inherently, if a person feels well prepared for a situation, they are less likely to panic if it does happen.”
What to Bring
You’ll want to pack everything in drybags to avoid damage or sleeping in a wet sleeping bag. Start with what you’d usually pack for a backpacking trip. Depending on the season, you can trim a few things such as hiking boots, and a heavy sleeping bag. During the summer months, you will not want a sleeping bag rated less than 40 degrees F.
You can even ditch the tent, if you want to. Hammock-camping is a wonderful option at any of the river campsites, and I highly recommend it.
- If you are able to acquire an extra drybag or two, you can bring a full Coleman Stove if you want! Or any other stove to cook on will do.
- Sandals – With a heel strap! The heel strap prevents them from falling off while in the water.
- A waterproof phone case and waterproof camera or camera case. I usually bring a smaller drybag (around 10-18 Liters) for supplies that need to be easily accessible such as the first aid kit, permit, map, compass, phone, knife, camera, snacks, sunscreen, etc.
- Water! This is a desert landscape, and you will have little to no shade while on the river. Bring more water than you think you’ll need, especially if you will have dogs with you.
- All the things your vessel needs to be on the water (see above list of River Rules).
- Food for meals while at camp, and snacks/lunch while on the river. The great thing about canoes is you can most likely fit a cooler for food ingredients (and adult beverages) into your rig.
- You’ll want to bring clothes that are moisture-wicking. As with any trip, bring a packable rain jacket or poncho. UV shirts are very popular among fishermen and are very useful for multi-day river trips. Remember to bring non-synthetic layers to keep warm at night. Since you can store these layers in a drybag, you can safely bring materials you wouldn’t wear on the river. A swimsuit or synthetic underwear will prevent rashing. Bring extra underwear or a drying rack so that you’ll always have a dry pair to change into just in case.
- Sunglasses! The second you walk down to the river on a sunny day to put-in, you’ll know why these are (basically) necessary.
- Webbing/Tie-downs. Everything should be tied down in the boat from the drybags to your water bottle. In the case of a flip, this stops you from losing everything you’ll need on the trip, and from dumbing things into the river.
For a more detailed reference, visit REI’s list of canoe basics.
If you have just purchased a canoe and are psyched about trips like this being in your future, do not be deterred by the registration, rules, and logistics that come with it. Multi-day float trips introduce a type of primitive fun that is very hard to come by these days.
More Colorado fun: 10 Incredible Hikes in Colorado That Will Change Your Life
Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.