A family of first-time paddlers expects certain things: breathtaking scenery, ancient ruins, comfy campgrounds, thrilling (as opposed to, say, terrifying) rapids. Utah’s Cataract Canyon checks all those boxes, and outfitter OARS offers four- and six-day trips through the canyon. The first half of the 98-mile journey is a chill-inducing mellow float that snakes through Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky district, surrounded by 2,000-foot-high red sandstone cliffs, with stops along the way to explore cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and Puebloan granaries. Then at about mile 50, just as your kids are getting restless and annoying, the Colorado and Green rivers converge, and things begin to change: The canyon walls narrow, and the water gets higher and faster. In the distance, the rush of churning whitewater, a hint of what to expect when you set out the next day: A succession of 29 Class III–V rapids, including the famous “Big Drops,” which can make the Grand Canyon’s fiercest water seem tame. The entire brood will emerge wet, waterlogged, blissed out, and ready for the next adventure.
CHECK THE FLOWS: During the river’s high-water season, in May, the trip is closed to kids younger than 16. —Larry Kanter
The Luxe Whitewater Safari
Salmon River, Idaho
Most river trips involve a certain amount of effort at the end of each day to unload the boats and set up camp. And, let’s be honest, they also include a bit of “roughing it.” Not so with Far and Away Adventures’ Middle Fork of the Salmon River float. Every morning, after a hot towel is hand-delivered to your tent—and an indulgent breakfast like pancakes and bacon or frittatas and sausage is served—the outfitter’s giant sweep boat sets off with nearly all the camp gear. When you arrive at the next campsite that afternoon, the tents are set up, dinner is already being prepared, and happy hour is well under way. This leaves you free to relax bankside, fish for an endless supply of cutthroat trout, or scan the surrounding mountains for bald eagles and black bears. During the day, you’ll float 100 miles of high-country forest and granite canyons in some of Idaho’s most storied landscape, full of Native American history and pioneer sites. At night, you can sip wine fireside or hike to the hot springs adjacent to a few of the campsites for midnight dips.
CUSTOMIZE IT: In addition to its general trip, Far and Away offers a custom trip for larger groups, so you can have the whole float to yourself. —Ryan Krogh
The Classic East Coast Trip
Kennebec River, Maine
The Kennebec River, which funnels through the tall granite walls of Kennebec Gorge, is that just-right river trip: not too hard, not too bland, with rugged scenery and big, fun rolling wave trains that will get your adrenaline pumping without real consequences. Unlike the more technical rivers out West, no experience is required to paddle the Kennebec. Plus, the water is warm as early as June. Best done as a day trip, the Kennebec’s first four miles run like a roller-coaster of Class III and IV rapids, then mellow out for swimming and taking in the New England scenery. Some outfitters, like Northern Outdoors, bring inflatable kayaks so guests can try manning their own boats on the easier section.
WHEN TO GO: The Kennebec has an unusually long season—April to October—and it runs at optimal flow the entire time, thanks to consistent water releases from Harris Station dam. Thrill seekers wait until summer, though, for the “turbine test releases,” which generate extra-large rapids. The second-best time to hit it up is fall, when the New England foliage peaks. —Jayme Moye
The Bucket List-Worthy Experience
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in a dory isn’t so much a river trip as it is a spiritual experience. The ultra-maneuverable wooden rowboats with upturned ends are not only the most exhilarating way to run the canyon but also the most visceral. Unlike an inflatable raft— which tends to muffle the river’s power by absorbing its shifts and surges—a dory responds to every riffle, kicking up like bucking broncos in the rapids. Of the several outfitters with dory trips on the Grand Canyon, OARS also offers the biggest variety of trips, ranging from five days on the easiest section of the river to 16 to 18 days on the entire length, from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead; you’ll experience everything the Grand has to offer, from ancient rock walls soaring overhead to the infamous Lava Falls rapid. You’ll also get to disconnect from the world for a week or more and bask in the revelation that the world goes on without you.
THE SKINNY ON THE DORY: Despite their antique appearance, dories are hardy vessels with ample room for four rafters: two in front and two in back. The guide sits in the center, manning two powerful oars. All you do is sit back and hold on while getting a river guide’s view of the canyon. —J.M.
The Thrill Seeker's Escape
Gauley River, West Virginia
Every fall, for seven consecutive weekends beginning the Friday after Labor Day, West Virginia cranks up for Gauley season, that time of the year when the Army Corps of Engineers releases massive discharges of water from Summersville Lake, creating one of the biggest, most challenging whitewater runs on earth. Thirteen miles of the Upper Gauley—stretching through towering rock cliffs and forested slopes— serves up 13 Class IV and six Class V rapids. Paddlers from around the world flock here for the annual event, but what makes the river so special is that it’s an easy weekend getaway for East Coasters. More than a half-dozen major outfitters float the river, and for nervous first timers, you can still get your adrenaline pumping in the smaller, safer whitewater in the Lower Gauley, where the rapids are a less severe Class III–IV.
OVERNIGHT: Adventures on the Gorge runs a trip that tackles both the upper and lower sections of the Gauley in one float, with a night under the stars at Canyon Doors, a riverside campground complete with wood-fired hot tubs. —J.M.
The Secluded Wilderness Cruise
Illinois River, Oregon
It’s not easy to get to the turquoise-green waters of Oregon’s Illinois River, buried deep in the coniferous forests of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, in the southwest corner of the state. But that’s part of the magic. “I’ve seen a total of three people in my last four trips,” says Zachary Collier, the owner of Northwest Rafting Co. Only three commercial outfitters run the Illinois, and each puts in on a different day of the week, meaning paddlers get complete solitude while running this rugged 32-mile swath of Class IV–V whitewater. Collier prefers guests have prior experience, since deep canyons and rock ridges make for challenging paddling. The reward is four days in a wilderness that’s home to black bears, bald eagles, and some 1,800 species of plants—100 of which are found nowhere else in America.
GETTING THERE: The launch point for the Illinois is a five-hour drive from Portland. Alternatively, you can fly into the Rogue Valley airport (MFR), which has direct flights from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. After an overnight at Grants Pass near Medford, you get shuttled 1.5 hours though the middle of nowhere to the put-in. —J.M.
The DIY Expedition
Gunnison River, Colorado
As far as river trips go, the Gunny, as those in the know call it, may be the perfect combination of rollicking whitewater, lazy floats through soaring canyons, and remote campsites on sandy banks. It’s also great for doing on your own, without a guide. That’s because the whitewater is relatively tame, even for rowing novices. Plus, a huge part of the river’s appeal are the big trout chasing oversize flies in it; floating it sans guide allows you to fish at your own pace, preferably taking two or three days to raft the 14 miles. To do it on your own, you’ll need to know the basics of rigging a boat and leave-no-trace camping, but the reward is a self-reliant float through one of the most spectacular canyons in the West.
BOAT RENTALS: Plenty of guides operate on the Gunny, but to float it yourself, you’ll need a raft. You can rent one from Gunnison River Pleasure Park, which is located at the takeout and offers a shuttle service to the put-in. It also rents all the river gear you’ll need. —R.K.