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.
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.
The Colorado River can get rough in the Grand Canyon © tonda / Getty Images
The Grand Canyon
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.
Choose a river trip in Canyonlands National Park if you want to get away from it all © rchefas / Getty Images
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.
Ruby Horsethief Canyon is an easy stretch suitable for almost all ages © Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet
Ruby Horsethief Canyon, Colorado
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).
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.
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.