Whether you’re in search of raging white water or a stretch of lazy river sporting only minor ripples, do put Utah to the paddle. Really, when it comes to outdoor adventure, Utah has an unfair natural advantage. Endowed with strangely beautiful red rock canyons and brilliant starry nights, it’s hard to ignore the seductive power of a riverine float. Just you, the river, a Class IV tumbler and the sunset. Okay, so you might have to share the scene with a few fellow rafters. But really, there is water here to share, group hug at the end optional.
Utah’s two biggest runs, both in terms of rapid size and popularity, are a short run through Westwater Canyon and a multi-day trip into Cataract Canyon. Both of these are easily accessible from the town of Moab in the southeastern corner of the state. If you’re thinking rafting with young family members in tow, consider mellower runs like a trip through the “Gates of Lodore” or Desolation Canyon on the Green River. At low water, a San Juan River float even welcomes folks as young as four. Finally, there’s the Yampa River, which cuts through a Dinosaur National Monument. A good stretch of this multi-day run is in Colorado, but it usually finishes on the Utah side of the fence, with good rapids and unusual scenery earning it a place on our list. In short: desert scenery, perhaps, but no water shortage for rafters.
Colorado River - Westwater Canyon
This is one of Utah’s most popular runs, in part because it’s more accessible than places like Cataract Canyon but also because it’s the sort of trip you can tackle in a long day if you’re so inclined. As opposed to other whitewater stretches that peak during high water, this one is at its scariest when water levels are mid-level, exposing a good range of Class III-IV tumblers. The one catch to Westwater is that you’ll need permits to run it, whether you are outward bound independently or as part of a commercial operation (they get the permits but there’s a daily cap set on the number of people allowed on the river). Multi-day trips allow for stops to swim, hike, spelunk and spot petroglyphs. Conveniently, there are also a number of shuttle services in Moab that run between the put-in point at Westwater Ranger Station and the take-out at Cisco Landing. Between the scenery, convenience factor and intensity of the run when the water is right it’s not hard to see why this one has been tagged “West’s Best Short Whitewater Trip” by the likes of National Geographic.
Green River - Desolation Canyon Rock art, hiking trails, crumbling historic ranches and outlaw hideouts are the frosting on this whitewater cake. The run through Desolation and Gray Canyons on the Green River is actually fairly tame in terms of scare-your-swimming-apparel off rapids, with mostly Class I-III whitewater suitable even for younger kids (and by younger we mean older than 5). There are a limited number of put-in and take-out points this stretch of river, so you’ll want to plan on spending at least 3-7 days on the water. Any good outfitter will provide food and gear, but rafters are encouraged to explore Native American ruins and Butch Cassidy associations independently.
Colorado River - Cataract Canyon: A rafting run through Cataract Canyon has earned its place in the pantheon of Utah whitewater greats for good reason. Not only does this multi-day trip cut through breath-taking Canyonlands National Park but it can also get downright frothy late May, when spring runoff feeds some pretty serious rollers. The rest of the season, this 100-miler is comparatively mellow, a family friendly multi-day adventure that puts in at Moab and takes out at Lake Powell. Though a sunrise over the river is surely something to write home about, this one also deserves attention for the fascinating Anasazi sites you can visit along the way. You’ll want to throw some hiking gear into your wet bag too, as there are numerous opportunities to do some land-based exploring over the course of a 3-5 day trip.
Children must be at least 8 for this one (16 or older during high water) and trips run May through August.
San Juan River
Don’t expect the river wild here, but do bring along your family for a mellow multi-day experience on the San Juan River as it winds through scenic canyons. Typically, multi-day runs take anywhere from 2 to 7 days as desired, with stops along the way to hunt for fossils,take in petroglyphs (like the fascinating Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel), and visit ancient cliff dwellings. Though this stretch of river at its biggest is mostly Class II there is the occasional sand wave to navigate for a little extra excitement. In short: perfect for families (the minimum age during low water is 4), first-time rafters or those in it for a scenic river float without risk of whitewater-induced panic attack. The season starts early here in the southeast corner of the state, with trip dates available through outfitters starting early March and running well into the summer.
Lodore Canyon - Don Hatch Gates of Lodore
Well it’s not quite “Lord of the Rings”, but there is something magical about a whitewater trip through the “Gates of Lodore” on the Green River. Framed by dramatic cliffs and the sort of scenery Utah is famous for, this multi-day trip stays navigable after some other big name runs have gone dry thanks to regular flow from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Consequently, expect a nice five-month season that runs from mid May to mid September. Keep an eye out for big horn sheep meandering through high desert on a multi-day (3-5) trip down this stretch of river. Rapids don’t get above Class III, so this is another good family option.
Yampa River -
As intermediate runs go, this one gets a nod because it offers the unique opportunity to run a stretch of free-flowing river and see Dinosaur National Monument. A good bit of this trip is actually in Colorado, but since groups often start out of Vernal, Utah, for the put-in at Deerlodge Park and finish well across the Utah border we thought it merited inclusion. At 72 miles in length, this is usually a five day run, but for the time commitment you’ll get the privilege of penetrating a bit of stunning American wilderness otherwise inaccessible. Recommended is a multi-day trip with an outfitter that offers an on-board geologist, the best way to understand the region’s colorful strata and ancient dinosaur bones. The Yampa River is rated a Class III-IV, which means there will be some excitement but you’ll also have time to enjoy the landscape without fear of losing a paddle.