If That's Ray's, Then This Must Be Green River

The Quirkiness of Green River

'This is Ray's,' she said. 'You have to order a hamburger.'

Against the better judgment of Laura, I got the teriyaki chicken, which did not even come in burger form, but instead was served as a breast, with a piece of bread and accompanied by a fair-sized baked potato. Though not a burger, I thought it was just fine. It went perfectly with the long summer evening.

John Wesley Powell, when he floated past here in 1869, probably would have been happy with the teriyaki chicken too. When he came by here on what was the first ever scientific expedition to trace the course of the Green River and the Colorado, there was no town of Green River. As late as the 1870s this spot along an easy crossing of the river was little more than a way station for travelers headed on the Spanish Trail to California. In this outpost of the wild West, a post office was not even opened until nearly 1880.

Things in the town of Green River have not changed too much since then. In Green River's early days it served as a convenient crossing point for travelers fording the river, and today it is a midway station for drivers headed from Denver to Las Vegas or Salt Lake City towards Moab.

These days, Green River has only a few hundred people yet boasts a string of motels and restaurants. The town's main road runs parallel to Interstate 70, which here runs through mostly flat desert on its way to the Rockies to the east or the San Rafael Swell to the west. In the heart of town is Ray's.

You know you've made it to Rays' because most afternoons and evenings there is a gaggle of cars and trucks out front, many of them with roof racks carrying canoes, kayaks, rafts, bikes or skis. The huge sign out front says it all for Ray's clientele - 'Welcome Boaters.' Inside, the decor is decidedly a down-home Western bar motif with a heavy emphasis towards river running.

If John Wesley Powell and his spirit embody the heart of town, then the river must obviously be its claim to fame. The Green is one of the West's major rivers. It starts far to the north, in the mountains of Wyoming, then cuts down through the Uinta Mountains and then the Tavaputs Plateau, where it makes a dramatic cut in through Desolation Canyon and then Grays Canyon before breaking out into the flats where it takes a short break before plunging into Labyrinth Canyon and Canyonlands National Park, where it meets the Colorado and flows towards the Grand Canyon. When it flows through town, the river is generally wide and placid, with a few ripples and sandy islands here and there. Nearby, Green River State Park offers river access, while dirt roads head north to Grays Canyon, which is an excellent stretch of river for beginning kayakers.

In Ray's the hungry or thirsty get treated to a surprising selection of beer (surprising, I guess, because of the isolation of the place) and a long wall of some incredible rapids pummeling helpless rafters. Many of these pictures were taken downriver, on the section of the Colorado in a place called Cataract Canyon. Adorning the walls are shirts from local river running companies.

Ray's sports a little-used patio, and it is out here that Laura and I sat a few weeks ago while taking a break from the road to Moab. Agriculture and ranching have always been important in this part of Utah, and Green River is famous for its watermelons, which come into season in September. (Locals say they are the best watermelons in the world.) But while tourism now is the main economic power in Green River, the town has a wonderful indifferent feel to it - expect no t-shirt shops here.

Down the road a bit is the John Wesley Powell River History Museum, which opened in 1990 and attracts visitors from around the world. The museum focuses on Powell's exploration and the area's geology, which is understandably diverse. Powell, who lost one of his arms during the Civil War, navigated, mapped and scientifically dissected the river during an epic 1872 trip down the river in a small flotilla of wooden boats which were thrashed by rapids and in some cases torn apart.

Today, luckily, most of the boats that attempt the Green are rubber and stay together a bit better. That makes places like Ray's a celebration spot for boaters headed home. Judging by the pictures on the wall, they had a great time.

Green River is off Interstate 70 about 70 miles west of the Colorado border and about 50 miles from Moab.

Jeff's Bio

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