Nothing beats a cool river under the hot sun. Whether you’re down for a lazy float or up for the challenge of navigating intense rapids - there’s a worthy rafting trip fit for everyone this season. Thanks to last winter’s heavy snowfall, rivers in the Western US are especially prime for a great summer getaway.
Here’s a look at some of the best rivers to drop in.
The Upper Missouri River Near Yellowstone
Although there is no rafting inside Yellowstone, the waterways surrounding the Park are plenty. There’s no match for diversity here. Whether it’s for one day or many nights, look no further than Montana’s iconic backcountry rivers for the ultimate summer trip.
There’s a point along the Missouri River where 1,200 ft. limestone cliffs rise to greet you. You might think the river ran out. That’s what Meriwether Lewis thought at first too and then noted in this journal that the rocks open like “the Gateway of the Rocky Mountains.” For an exhilarating day trip, climb aboard a cruise boat that chugs along six miles of the river gorge. Float up close to ancient Native American pictographs and stop at the Lewis and Clark campsite long enough to swim, picnic and relax along the river banks.
Want a lengthier expedition along the Upper Missouri River? Share a raft with your family or secure a canoe for two and paddle 100 miles of river bordered by cottonwoods, pines and wildlife wonders. Aim your binoculars in on deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, beaver, goats, bald eagles and other wildlife. Proof of nature’s symphony, you’re guaranteed a concert of birdsong by day. At night, stargazers get unparalleled views of the Milky Way stars spanning some of the darkest skies in the country.
Let experience work for you when it comes to planning an adventure near Yellowstone. Not just to get the most bang for your buck (although that’s usually the case): but because expeditions in the area are logistically complicated. Professional guides take care of the details- from where to launch to what’s for lunch. Many companies offer camping gear, outdoor supplies, and prepared meals as part of their services, saving you tremendous time and energy. Wilderness trained and intimately familiar with the lay of the land, expert guides also ensure a safer river experience.
The Snake River In Jackson Hole
World-class skiing brings thousands to Wyoming in the winter. In the summer, the Grand Tetons shed their snowcaps and become the impressive backdrop for scenic trips along the Snake River. Boaters and fisherman share the alpine water with canoes, kayaks, and rafts. No matter how you choose to enjoy the river, your best trip begins in Jackson Hole, floating down 10 of the most stunning miles of the Snake River.
There are plenty of options when it comes to arranging a scenic float and it’s best to reserve space ahead of time, especially for families with younger children. The 2-4 hour experience (for most tours) is a great choice for photographers and anyone that feels like letting their jaws drop and hang out. And plenty of hardcore adventurists will still say that this river is best enjoyed for its tranquil setting that is away from roads, buildings, and civilization.
All “Classes” are in session when it comes to whitewater rafting here. Class I intervals give way to Class IV challenges. Whether you have a weekend or an entire summer to paddle, there’s no shortage of variety. Water levels and weather are constantly changing on the Snake River. Always wear life preservers and think safety first! As you’ll want to pack supplies appropriate to the conditions. This is usually taken care of, or suggested, by tour group leaders or those that may have rented your equipment. If you’re not under anyone's watchful eye, check in with someone (anyone) before any river activity. Let them know where you’re headed and when you’ll be back.
Remoteness comes as no surprise in Wyoming, a massive state, home to barely 600,000 residents. Only 3% of the land around Jackson Hole is privately owned; it isn’t a ghost town but you’re not going to find any big crowds there either. Of course, the rivers are plenty populated! Look out for native game fish like Snake River cutthroat trout and mackinaw lake trout. Above, watch for bald eagles and other rare birdlife.
The Colorado River in Utah
Utah is often misunderstood. Its red rock deserts and National Parks are overlooked in favor of Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Say, “Rocky Mountains” and everyone thinks “Colorado.” Utah shares all the famous features of its neighbor states. Its terrain, landscape, and snowy elevations are comparable if not superior in different ways. Last winter didn’t let up on Northern Utah and the resulting snowmelt is highly anticipated by those planning to visit the Colorado River. (The Utah part of it, of course.)
Fly, drive, bike or hitchhike to Moab, one of the top adventure travel destinations in the world. You’ll arrive in a small city known for Jeeps, stargazing, rock-climbing, mountain biking, camping, and more. Rafting the Colorado near Moab is unlike anywhere - a dramatic display of canyon landscapes and red rock formations.
Inspiration may call for something different. Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) is perfect for late summer when water levels remain high but with less flow (because most of the melt occurs in spring and early summer). Rent your board and paddle in town. If you’re not bringing a guide or instructor along, be aware you’ll have to drive everything to the river yourself. (Paddleboards are long!)
Moab is within a 10-15 minute drive from most launch points. This is where you’ll find shops and rentals for gear, kayaks, canoes, and watercraft. Few companies have designated space along the river. That’s why you’re well advised to shop and select from guides or group tours several days or weeks in advance. That’s also to ensure someone’s waiting for you on the day of. If you’re a multi-day float over many days and nights, group leaders will want to spend time getting to know the group before setting out.