The stigma of adventure travel only being for the most daring is fading away more each day as people of all ages and walks of life have found themselves heading to the outdoors for vacation. Transformative experiences, deep personal connections, and meditative moments await those who choose the outdoors in lieu of a more traditional vacation, such as a beach resort or urban destination. A terrific option for those who want to embark on their first adventure vacation would be one of the many beginner whitewater rafting trips offered across the great states of Utah and Colorado. On the river, people are able to unplug from the bustling world of everyday life and reconnect with the natural world, its rhythm and cycles, and experience a peacefulness most of us had forgotten existed. Leave your apprehensions at home, give in to your sense of adventure, and come experience the beauty of the Western rivers!
To help choose the perfect trip, here is a list of the best river trips for beginners to do in Utah and Colorado. They are listed in order of difficulty based on length of trip, severity of whitewater, level of activity, and usual weather/climate. Whitewater is rated on a Class I-V system, with Class I being small riffles with little risk and Class V being challenging whitewater with higher risk.
Colorado River or Green River Daily Trips
For the best introduction to rafting in the desert without an overnight commitment, check out the scenic and accessible day trips offered on the Colorado and Green Rivers. Both trips launch a short drive from town, each with its own unique character but neither with any challenging whitewater (Class I-II). These are great for the whole family, as children as young as 5 are permitted on both of these trips.
The Colorado River day trip is typically run as a 22-mile float with paddle rafts, oar rafts, inflatable kayaks, and sometimes even stand-up paddleboards. Launching near the historic city of Moab, you will pass through easy, rolling whitewater and be in awe of the sandstone features in the foreground, providing stark contrast to the tall alpine mountains of the La Sals in the distance. Enjoy lunch on a beautiful riverside beach before floating a few more miles and heading back into town to find out all that Moab has to offer.
If you would prefer a trip off the beaten path and a bit more remote, look into the day trip down the Green River, launching near the town of Green River, Utah. The Green River Daily trip is typically 8 miles through the tall, impressive walls of Lower Gray Canyon, with a few miles of flat water and a few miles containing some small (but fun!) rapids. Learn about the outlaws and cattle rustlers of the old west as you float through the country where they roamed, and allow yourself to be transported back in time by the ancient Native American rock art panels. Afterwards, head into town for a burger at the historic Ray’s Tavern and be sure to check out the J.W. Powell River History Museum.
Fisher Towers (Colorado River)
Another great, accessible overnight excursion is the 2-3 day Fisher Towers trip. This section overlaps with the Colorado River Daily trip outside of Moab, but adds a couple extra miles on either end. The name comes from the tall, iconic sandstone towers set in front of the La Sal Mountains visible for most of the float. The area is so gorgeous that many Hollywood movies have been filmed here. The camping is especially incredible, with long sandy beaches and an enormous dark sky for star viewing. The extra time on the river allows for a more relaxed pace and the opportunity to play around in paddleboats, inflatable kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. With beginner level rapids no higher than Class III, most commercial companies maintain an age limit of 5 on the Colorado River through Fisher Tower trip.
Ruby/Horsethief Canyons (Colorado River)
When you’ve decided that camping riverside on a gorgeous beach doesn’t sound half bad, a float down the Colorado River through Ruby and Horsethief Canyons is the perfect place to go! What this stretch lacks in whitewater it makes up for in beauty. The 25-mile trip begins just off of U.S. Highway 70, but before long red and orange sandstone cliff walls engulf you as the Colorado begins its descent into canyon country. As the river winds its way downstream, the land becomes teeming with wildlife, such as desert bighorn sheep, river otter, cliff swallows, and eagles of all varieties. Each of the many side canyons on this stretch offer different adventures… you may head up Rattlesnake Canyon to find the hidden arch, or make your way up McDonald Creek to a Native American rock art panel. The campsites here are beautiful, spacious, and abundant, especially in the area known as “Black Rocks”, where 1.7 billion year old rock create a surreal desert playground. Make sure to hike to one of the many river overlooks and marvel at the engineering needed to build the railroad that runs through the canyons, in some places right next to the river. After a gourmet meal but before drifting off to sleep to the sounds of the river’s current, take a moment to look up and enjoy the sight of the Milky Way filling the night sky.
Commercially, a trip through Ruby/Horsethief is 2-3 days with oar boats, inflatable kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. Given that there is no whitewater, save for a few small riffles, adventurers seeking more thrills will continue on after Ruby/Horsethief and into Westwater Canyon, which follows immediately downstream.
Westwater Canyon (Colorado River)
The Colorado River through Westwater Canyon is the perfect trip for the thrill seekers who want to get away but don’t have much time to spare. Conveniently located in between Denver, Salt Lake City, and Moab, the 17 miles of river that make up Westwater are swift, splashy, and exciting. The pace of this trip offers short, casual days on the water with possible hikes to rock art panels or meandering up side canyons. As the black rock known as Vishnu schist begins to rise and form the steep canyon walls, it’s easy to forget how close to civilization you are and feel as if you’ve been transported to a different world. Historical sites along the way include an old gold miner’s cabin and a cave used as a hideout by outlaws in the early 1900’s. When the river reaches the deepest, most narrow part of the canyon yet, large waves rise over the sides of the boat and so begin seven miles of fun, exhilarating Class III-IV whitewater. Make sure to hold on as the guides navigate rapids with names such as Funnel Falls, Sock-It-To-Me, and Skull Hole!
Most commercial companies have an age limit of around 8 years old for Westwater trips. The canyon lies immediately downstream of Ruby/Horsethief and can be done in addition to that trip (3 days total), or on it’s own as a single day or overnight trip. Overnight excursions will typically use oar boats, while larger groups doing a single day trip may travel in paddle boats.
Desolation/Gray Canyons (Green River)
Despite their names, the canyons of Desolation and Gray are full of life, color, and history. Your trip begins unlike any other; with a breathtaking flight from town over the very river and canyons you are set to float through. After landing on a desert mesa and hiking down to the boats, your real journey begins… 86 river miles of ever-changing scenery, tall Cottonwood trees, and wildlife abound, with whitewater of increasing size that never becomes too intimidating (Class I-III). Serving as host to more than 500 archaeological and historical ranching sites throughout the canyon, the hiking options are limitless in Desolation and Gray Canyons, including stops at the historic Rock Creek Ranch and the Fremont Indian rock art panel and granaries at Flat Canyon. While staying at a few of the most incredible campsites available on any river trip and enjoying some of the darkest skies in the country, you’ll wonder how this place isn’t a world-renowned National Park. This remote stretch of river has the power to provide transformative experiences through the peace, solitude, and natural majesty one feels floating down its corridor.
Given the mileage, the Green River through Desolation Canyon is best enjoyed over 5-6 days in oar boats, inflatable kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. Because of it’s length, remoteness, and long days on the water, this trip finds itself near the end of our list. But don’t be misled: Desolation and Gray Canyons are fantastic places for families who are comfortable camping to explore and grow together.
San Juan River
If you’re looking for a multi-day, family-friendly adventure in a warm desert climate with rich history and plenty of hiking, look no further than the San Juan River rafting trip in Southern Utah. The river is winding and swift with mellow whitewater (Class I-II), which makes it an ideal first trip for any family new to river rafting. Not only does it offer a remarkable and colorful glimpse into the geologic history of the desert environment, the river’s upper and lower canyons are filled with unique Native American archaeological sites spanning multiple cultures and time periods, from the Ancestral Puebloan “River House” to the countless Navajo rock art panels. Other hikes include destinations to swimming holes, awe-inspiring overlooks, and historical mining sites from the 1800’s gold rush. The best time to enjoy this trip is in the spring and early summer months, while the water is still high from the snowmelt but the temperatures are lower than the mid-summer extremes.
Most river outfitters offer three different trips on the San Juan: 3 days exploring the 24-mile upper stretch (Bluff, UT to Mexican Hat, UT), 4 days winding your way through the 59-mile lower stretch (Mexican Hat to Clay Hills, UT), or do both stretches for an 83-mile trip over 5-6 days. The age limit for most companies is 5.
Gates of Lodore (Green River)
Beginning in remote northwest Colorado, a trip on the Green River through the Gates of Lodore is breath-taking at every turn with its crystal clear water, rich vegetation, abundant wildlife, magnificent canyon walls, and gorgeous sandy beaches. With swift current and fun (Class III-IV) whitewater every day, the days on the water can be short, allowing plenty of opportunity to hike to one of the hidden waterfalls, rock art panels, or amazing overlooks that Lodore has to offer. Jones Hole Creek is a small tributary of the Green that is known to be a blue-ribbon fly-fishing location as well as a stunning hike through a desert oasis.
In addition to the Class IV whitewater and the remoteness of the put-in, Lodore falls lower on this list due to the slightly higher chance on inclement weather due to its higher latitude. Late June and July are the best times to do this trip as the cool splashes, tall trees, and steep canyon walls offer plenty of shade from the hot summer sun.
A personal favorite of many veteran river runners, the Yampa River in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument can be a challenge for beginners simply for the early season weather that can be cold and inclement. Commercial trips run from mid-May through June because, being the last major undammed tributary of the Colorado, the Yampa is strictly reliant on snowmelt for water, and the flow gets too low to run trips by July. However, if you are willing to take the risk and prepare appropriately, you will be rewarded with a sublime 46-mile experience through the winding and ever-changing canyon, filled with enormous sandstone amphitheaters, Ponderosa pine trees, and herds of wildlife, such as mule deer and desert bighorn sheep. The current is swift and there are fun, splashy Class III rapids throughout every day of the trip. After making it past the lone Class IV rapid, called Warm Springs, and enjoying a peaceful couple miles of flat water, the Yampa meets up with the Green River, and the remainder of your journey meanders through the lower half of Dinosaur National Monument, with stops at Jones Hole Creek and more beautiful campsites along the way.
The minimum age requirement for the Yampa River Rafting trip is 8 for most commercial river outfitters. The 72-mile trip is done in 4-5 days, almost always before July 1.
Cataract Canyon (Colorado River)
Once you have some experience on the river, feel comfortable floating through its canyons and sleeping with some sand in your tent, you may be ready for a trip down Cataract Canyon. Deep in the heart of Canyonlands National Park, the Green and Colorado Rivers meet to form one mighty river. Once believed to be the center of the world by ancient peoples, the confluence is one of the most remote places in the country and marks the beginning of Cataract Canyon. This is not an ideal beginner trip: temperatures can be high, the hikes long, and the whitewater formidable. It is a harsh, dry environment with long days on the water and little shade. The payoffs are plentiful as well, from the scenic overlook of the Loop hike and awe-inspiring Dollhouse, to the long sandy beaches and ever-changing geology within the tall canyon walls. These rewards, coupled with any adversity experienced, can make for a truly incredible, transformative experience.
Cataract Canyon can be reached from either the Green or Colorado Rivers (the latter being the more common trip). Both rivers hold 50 or so miles of flat water before any rapids. This mileage is usually completed over the first two or three days, making for a relaxing start to the journey with plenty of time for kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding in between hikes to view points and numerous Native American sites. Below the confluence, the current hastens and the canyon morphs from quiet and subdued to loud and thunderous, with more than 30 rapids that come in quick succession. After camping next to the thunder of whitewater (Class III-V), the trip ends on Lake Powell, where the canyon is at its deepest and a millennia of history lies beneath.
Some commercial outfitters offer single day trips through Cataract, with shorter multi-day options of 2-4 days. However, these trips require the use of motors, bringing with them loud, constant noise and the smell of gasoline. To travel through the canyon in such a short time with the intrusiveness of motors inhibits one’s ability to truly experience all the place has to offer. Holiday is the last company to abstain from the use of motors and chooses to row the upper flat-water stretch leading down Cataract. Our guests are able to marvel at the canyon’s majesty, get lost in its magic, and enjoy the peace and quiet of nature. These trips are 5-6 days and the age limit is 8 years old (16 years old during high-water).
By Justin Malloy
Originally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.