Some of the Earth’s oldest rocks and some of Wyoming’s most challenging whitewater, can be found just south of Thermopolis in the Wind River Canyon, chiseled by time and gushing water through the Owl Creek Mountains.
Although only about a dozen miles long, the deep, narrow canyon harbors a collection of Class 3 rapids that can quickly grow to tumultuous Class 5 waves under high water flows. Hardcore paddlers relish the thought of tackling such big water, but only unusually high flows generate such big rollers. Still, the Class 3–4 water that normally pounds through rapids, called Sharpnose, Sphincter and Washakie Falls by the Native American-owned Wind River Canyon Whitewater Raft company, won’t disappoint either newcomers or veteran paddlers who prefer to spend their vacations on the water.
Born from the thick, glacial snowpack that blankets the high country of the Wind River Range off to the southwest, the river is temporarily tamed once it reaches Boysen Reservoir at the canyon’s mouth near Shoshone. Once unleashed, however, it turns into a churning rampage plunging downstream through the canyon.
Following a rugged course that drops an impressive 200 feet from the time it enters the Wind River Canyon to the time it exits, the river leaps, bounds and jumps over ledges and swirls around boulders. The result is a stretch of pulsating whitewater unsurpassed in Wyoming, a river with a rat-a-tat-tat series of rapids nicknamed Black Coal, Windy Point, Split Rock, Sacajawea, Glassy Waves and Screamin’ Lizard.
Unlike some bigger, broader rivers that have few obstacles, the Wind River is a technical playground, a sinewy waterway chock full of boulders and rock gardens that require paddlers to carefully thread their way downstream. Quick reactions and strong paddling are needed to weave back and forth across the river to avoid obstacles and set up for the correct entry into rapids.
Those who choose to float through the canyon, whose 2,000-foot-high walls chew down through nearly 3 billion years of earth science, actually wind up paddling two rivers in one. A miscommunication between 19th-century explorers led to the river that enters the canyon being named the Wind, while the one that exits the canyon is called the Big Horn.
Wind River Canyon Whitewater Raft, the only commercial whitewater raft outfitter on the river, offers three alternatives to experience the canyon’s whitewater between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Those without the time for an entire day of floating can choose to run either the upper canyon, a trip of about two hours, or the lower canyon, a trip of about two-and-a-half hours. A full-day adventure that lashes together those two river sections lasts about five hours and includes a barbecue lunch of steak, chicken or vegetarian dishes served at the company’s riverside teepee campsite.
For those who want to mix angling with running rapids, the company also offers guided fishing trips in the river, a blue-ribbon fishery dotted with deep pools where brown and rainbow trout lurk.