You might have one of two two ideas in your head about the color of the Colorado River. You could picture a bright emerald green river (and you wouldn’t be wrong) or you might picture a brown “chocolate milk” color (and you wouldn’t be wrong either). The truth is, the Rio Colorado (Red River) was named in the early 1700s for the red-colored sediment that would flow in the river pre-dam. What color will the water be on your river trip? Who knows! Want to flip a coin? The color of the Colorado River can change season to season, day to day, heck, even hour to hour. Let me explain:
The water in the Grand Canyon gets backed up behind Glen Canyon Dam, some 14 miles upriver from where most of our trips start at Lees Ferry. A lot of the sediment that used to flow freely through the Canyon settles down to the bottom of the lake and gets deposited behind the dam. So generally, the water released from the dam comes out mostly clear.
There are quite a few tributaries below the dam that can change the water color, as they flush sediment (that’s just a fancy word for “dirt”) of their own into the Colorado. The first is the Paria River. You’ll cross the Paria in the first few minutes of rafting (it’ll be on river right). The Paria drainage runs up through Northern Arizona all the way to Utah. If the Paria is flowing, well, then chances are your clear/green river will turn brown in a hurry.
The next major tributary is the Little Colorado River, or LCR. The LCR can run a bright, almost Caribbean blue color. But if there has been any rain upstream and a bunch of desert runoff is coursing down the LC, it’ll turn brown, making the main channel of the Colorado turn brown as well. The drainage for the LCR stretches east through Arizona, mostly through the Navajo Nation.
On your river trip you could go to sleep with a clear/green river and very well wake up with a brown one. Storm systems hundreds of miles away can affect this dynamic ecosystem. Just remember, brown, red, clear, green, purple or blue: you’ll have fun no matter the color.