Over Land and Water with John Wesley Powell Follow the route of the Western explorer’s first river expedition from Wyoming to Arizona.

john wesley powell route true west magazine
On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell’s first geological survey of the Colorado River system pushed off from the bank of Green River Station in Wyoming Territory with four boats and ten men, but no cameras or photographer. Two years later, Powell returned with 11 men, including photographer E.O. Beaman, who made this photo of the second expedition’s launch on May 22, 1871.
— Photos Courtesy Library of Congress —

A statue of one-armed John Wesley Powell in front of the Sweetwater County Museum in Green River, Wyoming. He is facing south, toward the Green River and Expedition Island, from where he launched his boats on his first expedition to explore the Colorado River system 150 years ago.

Powell and his expedition pushed into the Green River on May 24, 1869. They had four boats: the Emma Dean, a 16-foot pine pilot boat; and three 21-foot oak boats, the Maid of Honor, No Name and Kitty Clyde’s Sister.

john wesley powell route true west magazine
John Wesley Powell.

Preparing for a long journey, they had rations to last 10 months, plus a good amount of gear including sextants, chronometers, barometers, thermometers and compasses—all needed for measurement and topographical calculations.

In the party were Powell’s brother Walter; O.G. Howland and his brother Seneca; Jack Sumner and William Dunn, both experienced Rocky Mountain hunters; plus Andrew Hall, another hunter; George Bradley a former Union soldier; boatman Frank Goodman; and Billy Hawkins, another former Union soldier who served as the cook for the expedition.

The Green River

john wesley powell route true west magazine
John Wesley Powell started his historic expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers in May 1869 because the Union Pacific Railroad was in the final weeks of its multi-year effort to span the continent, and Powell could easily ship supplies—and the four boats he would use—to the location where the river and the railroad intersected.
— Courtesy US Geological —

Our route takes us south from Green River on U.S. Highway 191. The Green River now backs up into Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Follow Utah Route 1364 and Colorado Highway 318 into Browns Park, Colorado, to Gates of Lodore, at the northern side of Dinosaur National Monument.

Powell’s boats approached the Lodore canyon on June 9. Powell, in the lead, saw rough water and pulled his boat to the shore. He signaled the other boats, but the No Name crew continued into the swift current. The rough waters of the Green pummeled the boat against boulders and into the rushing rapids where the boat swamped, throwing the Howland brothers and Goodman into the churning water.

The three men survived, but they lost all their clothes, guns, a large amount of food and all the barometers. These instruments were essential to the expedition and, after a search, the following day the party found the boat wreck and managed to recover the barometers, some thermometers and even a keg of whiskey the men had stashed without Powell’s knowledge.

Explore this country by traveling on Colorado 318 to Sunbeam then turning west on U.S. 40 to Dinosaur. Take a detour to Vernal, Utah, for a visit to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.

Travel south from Rangley, Colorado, on Highway 139 on a route that takes you through Canyon Pintado National Historic Area. The painted canyon route was named in 1776 by Fathers Dominguez and Escalante when they saw dozens of examples of ancient American Indian rock art as they traveled to California on the Old Spanish Trail they forged. The rocks still tell the stories of early people, but our route continues west and south, through Green River, Utah, home of the John Wesley Powell Museum.

Southeastern Utah

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A century and a half after Powell’s first expedition rowed down the uncharted Green River, modern recreationists regularly raft and row the same route from Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Wyoming to Canyonlands National Park (above) in Utah.
— Courtesy NPS.gov —

The confluence of the Green River and the Grand (Colorado) River is southwest of Moab, Utah.

On June 28, 1869, Powell’s three remaining boats were at the mouth of the Uinta (Duchesne) River in Utah. Frank Powell and Andy Hall took letters and headed to Uinta Agency, some 30 miles away. They rejoined the expedition and all set off down the river. They faced unexpected rapids and named the features along the route (now much of it part of Canyonlands National Park): Canyon of Desolation, Dirty Devil River, Sumner’s Ampitheater, Gray Canyon, Stillwater Canyon, Whirlpool Canyon and Bright Angel Creek.

I’m not on a boat, but in a vehicle so I travel south from Moab on U.S. 191 to Bluff, then on U.S. 163 through Monument Valley and to Kayenta, Arizona. Then my route is west on U.S. 160 and Arizona 98 to Page, Arizona.

Like the Green River near the Wyoming-Utah border, the waters of the river, now the main stream of the Colorado River, back up behind Glen Canyon Dam at Page. Lake Powell is named for John Wesley Powell. The lake waters have filled in the canyons and crevasses providing access to areas otherwise difficult (or impossible) to reach. Take a boat tour, or travel overland with Diné guides, to visit such places as the Rainbow Bridge.

The Grand Canyon

john wesley powell boating true west magazine
Mormon pioneer John D. Lee operated Lee’s Ferry from his homestead, Lonely Dell, at the mouth of the Paria River as the primary crossing of the Colorado River from 1872 until he was executed in 1877 for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
— Courtesy NPS.gov —

In Page, visit the Powell Museum and view the exhibits at the Glen Canyon Dam Visitor Center. Take a tour to one of the slot canyons in the region or drive to the outlook for a short hike and view of the Colorado River’s Horseshoe Bend.

lonely dell true west magazine
Lonely Dell.
— Courtesy NPS.gov —

The river changes as it pours out of Lake Powell and toward the Grand Canyon. On August 9, 1869, Powell wrote: “The walls of the canyon…are of marble, of many beautiful colors, often polished by the waves, and sometimes far up the sides, where showers have washed the sands over the cliffs.”

Four days later, on August 13, he noted, “We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown…We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore.”

grand canyon national park museum south rim true west magazine
Visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park’s museum at the
South Rim will be treated to extensive exhibits (below) about Powell’s expeditions and the
Green and Colorado rivers.
— Courtesy NPS.gov —

At what was named Separation Rapid, also called Separation Canyon, the Howland brothers and William Dunn left the expedition. Here Powell abandoned the Emma Dean. The boat was battered and no longer watertight. With fewer men, there were not enough to man the oars, and the supplies had dwindled so there was no need for the boat to haul them. Science was no longer the focus of the journey because all of the instruments were either broken or lost.

On August 29, 1869, Powell’s three-month, 900-mile river journey neared its end when the boats drifted from beneath the Grand Wash Cliffs of the Grand Canyon to country more rolling and mountainous than caverns of cliffs. Powell wrote: “The river rolls by us in silent majesty; the quiet of the camp is sweet; our joy is almost ecstasy.”

Departing from the river two days later, Powell and his remaining men now traveled overland north to Salt Lake City, which they reached in September. Powell would return to the river in 1871, making a second expedition that was far better documented. This time Powell had photographers E.O. Beaman and Jack Hillers as part of the crew.

What do you think?

Candy Moulton

Candy Moulton is a frequent contributor to the Renegade Roads column in True West Magazine. For 17 years, she edited the Western Writers of America’s Roundup Magazine; in 2012, she became WWA’s executive director. The Wyoming native leading the organization has written 13 Western history books (including the Spur-winning biography Chief Joseph), co-edited a short fiction collection and written and produced several documentary films (including the Spur-winning Oregon Trails documentary In Pursuit of a Dream).