There’s a reason early explorers scoured the West for river passages: access. The middle-of-nowhere places that a river can take you will demand your undivided, awe-inspired attention. And while day trips are splashy fun, desert rivers—muddy waters, trembling cottonwoods and canyon wrens—deserve at least an overnight stay. River pace is fluid—all whitewater rushes and lazing eddy lulls, but give it time to wind you down. Soak it in. You’ll have to.
Raft, ducky, kayak or canoe—get your gear and go! Or hit up the Utah Guides & Outfitters Association for outfitter information.
Bookended by sandstone, Westwater Canyon thunders through an ancient corridor of Precambrian Vishnu schist: startlingly black, shockingly old rock. Floating into this shadowy gorge brings on the butterflies. Luckily, they take flight the second the first rapid hits. You’ll ramble through a few warm-ups before a spectacular flume ride down Funnel Falls. Skull Rapid is a sharp left about-face leaving half the river swirling in the Room of Doom eddy river right, and will strain that smile. But it’s the next in line, Sock-it-to-me, that often gets in a few punches.
Details: 17 miles, one to two days from Westwater to Cisco. Bureau of Land Management camping and rafting permits required. Kids: 10 and older. Crafts of choice: raft, ducky, whitewater kayak.
A little less fun and games and a little more thrill ride, Cataract certainly delivers on whitewater. Just below the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, the rapids roil as the two wrestle for dominance. Who wins? You do. Sizable warm-ups prime you for Mile-Long Rapid, a nonstop torrent churning beneath a neck-craning cathedral of a canyon. You’ll be offered a brief respite before the Big Drops—one, two and three—after which you’ll toast to your survival. And the scenery? Holy canyon country. Short detours or steep, soaring side hikes will escort you to madly magical locales.
Details: 100 miles, one to six days from Moab to Lake Powell. National Park Service permits required. Kids: 7 and older. Crafts of choice: raft, whitewater kayak.
Desolation and Gray canyons
This remote reach is where city-softened adventurers go to rough it. You may see an iceberg or two float by in March, and snow in May is not uncommon. And the mosquitoes? Well, they’re serious. Throw in a healthy population of black bears and one of the last wild horse herds in the United States, and what more do you need? Oh, whitewater? Lucky you; Green River is a largely stress-free fun run, with a few class IIIs (IV at higher flows) and lots of class II boogie water. Petroglyphs and side hikes abound.
Details: 84 miles, three to seven days from Sandwash to Swaseys Rapid. BLM river and Ute Nation camping and hiking (river left only) permits required. Kids: 5 or older. Crafts of choice: raft, ducky, whitewater kayak.
Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons
Every Naughty Kid Wants Chocolate Milk; or so the mnemonic goes. Entrada, Navajo, Kayenta, Windgate, Chinle and Moenkopi are the major rock formations you’ll meander beneath on your way down Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons. The canoe-friendly stretch is perfect for watching the desert world roll by. Absentmindedly marooning yourself on epic sandbars will offer a chance to cool your calves—they’ll definitely be sore from exploring every side canyon in sight.
Details: 122 miles, six to nine days from Green River to the Colorado confluence. NPS permit required. Kids: all ages. Crafts of choice: raft, ducky, canoe.
Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing
San Juan River
Enigmatic sand waves, desert bighorn sheep brigades and petroglyphs galore—the San Juan is the perfect family escape. And those goosenecks! That’s what happens when a really windy river carves passages 1,000 feet deep through the heart of stone. The well-spaced rapids are mostly kid- and canoe-friendly class IIs, and the side hikes are all five stars. Government Rapid (III) can be a little uppity, but it’s easy to scout and portage.
Details: 56 miles, two to seven days from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills. BLM rafting and Navajo Nation camping or hiking (river left only) permit required. Kids: all ages. Crafts of choice: raft, ducky, canoe.