There’s something about the simplicity and flow of a river that transcends time and space. A river always has a beginning and an end. But what happens in the middle is always changing, in flux, moving. This movement and connection with the remarkable – and endangered – wildlands of the most remote and hard-to-reach corners of our planet makes a river adventure one of the best ways to connect with pure nature.

Whitewater rafts and a kayak drift on a calm part of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, as sheer rock walls fill the frame behind.
Rafting the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is the experience of a lifetime © John & Lisa Merrill / Getty Images

The American Southwest is home to some of the best river trips you can find. Cutting across the deserted high plains, these serpentine rifts filled with green water take you deep into vast canyon systems, past ancient petroglyphs, and through some truly rip-roaring whitewater that will leave your heart pumping.

Picking the perfect river will depend on the amount of time you have, who’s going on the trip, what type of experience you’re after, and how you want to travel (canoe, raft, kayak or stand-up paddle board). Crafting your own adventure – especially on flatwater runs – can add a bit of excitement and solitude to your trip. Or, you can opt to head out with a guide; trips can last for just a few hours or several weeks.

Just always remember the power of water. Only experienced boaters should take whitewater trips on their own. With a bit of backcountry skills, the flatwater runs are open to anybody.

White water engulfs a raft as sheer rock walls rise in the background.
The Colorado River can get rough in the Grand Canyon © tonda / Getty Images

The Grand Canyon

Season: April–September

Distance: 188 miles

Days: 6-7 (15 for the whole length)

Rapids: Class III-V

Adventure type: High adventures for adults or families with kids over 12

Nothing tops the Grand Canyon. The canyon itself takes on a new personality from the winding Colorado River below its polychromatic sandstone walls. Trips are marked by solace and solitude, an intimate connection with the vast spirit of the canyon, and some of the best whitewater you could ask for. Take on the whole trip over 15 days, with plenty of stops to visit enchanted waterfalls, Pueblo ruins and other lost corners of the labyrinth of stone, sand, sun and water. A Grand Canyon whitewater trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that most cannot take on by themselves (Class V rapids are big and dangerous, and could have serious consequences). Instead, go with a reputable outfitter.

Campsite with tent and gear in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah.
Choose a river trip in Canyonlands National Park if you want to get away from it all © rchefas / Getty Images

Canyonlands, Utah

Season: May–September

Distance: 100 miles

Days: 4-6 days

Rapids: Class I-V

Adventure type: Multiple adventures suitable for adults, families with young children, and children over 12

There’s a remarkable diversity to the paddling experiences that can be had in Utah’s rough-and-remote Canyonlands National Park. For families, the Green River offers out-of-this-world float trips through Labyrinth and Still Water Canyons. These trips are best in a canoe, and can last anywhere from three to seven days. The water is flat, making this section a great place for families to craft their own adventure. But beware – you need at least basic outdoor survival skills as you will be miles from civilization. The best part: watching shooting stars dart across the desert sky as the moving river washes by. Further down the river, get your kicks on the class III to V whitewater of Cataract Canyon, starting below the impressive confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. The best trips run for four days. Tex’s Riverways rents canoes and does shuttles for DIYers. Try Western River Expeditions for Cataract Canyon – they even have an 18-day trip that tracks the route of John Wesley Powell, the original river rat. Travel back by helicopter or jetboat to add to the adventure.

Several rafts are arranged along the banks of a fairly calm river in the southwest, with dusty hills rising beyond.
Ruby Horsethief Canyon is an easy stretch suitable for almost all ages © Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet

Ruby Horsethief Canyon, Colorado

Season: April–September

Distance: 24 miles

Days: 1-3 days

Rapids: Class I-II

Adventure type: Suitable for DIY adventures and guided trips with the whole family

The quintessential three-day family float, Ruby Horsethief Canyon features gorgeous sandstone cut by the Colorado river. The trip starts in Colorado and ends in Utah. When the water level is low, you can make the run in a canoe but when the water gets high in June you’re better off in a raft or duckie (inflatable kayak). There’s great camping and a few fun side trips along this easy stretch of river. The best part is sitting in the afternoon sun, finding the unique faces and shapes that jump out from the rocks. Kids also love when the Amtrak train rolls by, the only connection to civilization in this otherwise pristine wilderness. Real river rats know that’s when it’s time to pull down your pants and give the rail car passengers a half-moon view to remember. This is the wildness and freedom of the river. Guided trips and rentals are available through Rimrock Adventures. Don’t miss the pull out at the end – you’ll be stuck paddling the fast and wild rapids such as Skull and the Room of Doom in Westwater Canyon (Class III).

Four people and a guide raft down the Arkansas River in Colorado.
It doesn't get much more iconic than a river run on the Arkansas, near Buena Vista, Colorado © Sportstock / Getty Images

Browns Canyon, Colorado

Season: May–August (high water in June)

Distance: 12 miles

Days: 1 day

Rapids: Class III-III+

Adventure type: Families with children over 7 and adults

Buena Vista is Rafting City USA. From here, the Centennial State’s most iconic day trip takes you down the Arkansas River through steep rapids including Pinball, Big Drop, Widowmaker and the signature run down the Class III+ to IV Zoom Flume. It’s a non-stop run with plenty of fun drops everybody in the family will enjoy. While there is a small chance of swimming at lower-flow levels, this is suitable for even children as young as 7. For bigger rapids, consider a trip down the Royal Gorge, with its Class IV and V water (minimum age for this run is generally around 15, depending on flows). Around the beautiful little Colorado town of Salida, the Arkansas offers easier runs and great fishing – there’s even a whitewater course in town you can paddle by inner tube. Try Independent Whitewater in Salida for the Browns Canyon trip – they have a wonderful private dock. Or take on a two-day trip that takes you through the best whitewater of Browns and the Gorge.

Looking straight down on the Rio Grande river from very high at twilight, as a single whitewater raft navigates some rapids.
Rafting on the Rio Grande in New Mexico will sneak up on you © Rob Atkins / Getty Images

Taos Box, New Mexico

Season: May–August (high water in June)

Distance: 16 miles

Days: 1 day

Rapids: Class III-IV

Adventure type: Families with children over 13 and adults

Paddling in New Mexico feels just a little different. You can expect fewer people, a little less pretension, and plenty of whitewater. The 16-mile stretch of the Rio Grande through a canyon known as the Taos Box is the state’s premiere whitewater run. The run starts with some flat water, then gets steeper, narrower and faster by the minute. As you get to the inner gorge, the rapids really pick up on Class IV classics like Power Line Falls, the Rock Garden and the mile-long Rio Bravo section. You can cap the day with drinks and gallery-hopping in the lyrical southwest hamlet of Taos. Try New Mexico River Adventures for guided trips. Families can check out the float on the close-by Rio Chama.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletterCheck out adventure tours for every traveller from our trusted partners.

Explore related stories

RFE, ancient, background, beauty, big, california, coastal, dawn, foliage, forest, green, grove, humboldt, landscape, light, massive, morning, national, nature, old, outdoors, park, path, plants, redwood, redwoods, rising, road, sequoias, state, sun, sunbeam, sunburst, sunlight, sunrise, tall, tallest, trail, travel, tree, trees, trunk, wood, big tree area, national park, united states, Coat, Land, Person, Rainforest, Vegetation, Woodland
Sunrise in the the Redwoods at Redwoods National and State Parks California

National Parks

10 of the best natural wonders in the USA

Jul 6, 2024 • 5 min read