By Cari Morgan – Combine epic scenery, wildlife sightings, splashy rapids, and stories around the campfire with several days of distraction-free time together, and guided multi-day river rafting trips offer families an idyllic outdoor adventure. The best part? You don’t have to plan all the meals, slog all the gear and research an itinerary and activities that will keep everyone entertained.
“For parents, it’s amazingly relaxing,” shared a mom from Rutland, Vermont who took her family on a Green River rafting trip through the Gates of Lodore in Utah. “Why would anyone go to Disney World?”
If you’re ready to trade in theme park thrills for whitewater thrills, these are some of the best family-friendly whitewater river rafting trips out there according to OARS, an outfitter that’s been guiding families on rivers of the West for more than 50 years:
12 Best River Rafting Trips for Families
1. River Rafting Trip on Main Salmon “River of No Return,” Idaho
This 6-day river rafting adventure through Idaho’s pristine wilderness boasts fun, low-stress whitewater, beautiful mountain scenery, abundant wildlife, and big, sandy beaches perfect for camping and nightly river games. The Main Salmon River also offers ideal conditions for a variety of boats and families will appreciate the opportunity to be as relaxed or adventurous as they like on everything from dories and oar rafts to inflatable kayaks and stand up paddleboards, which are a fun choice for older kids who might want to try paddling on their own. Best for: Ages 7 and up (12 during high water*)
2. River Rafting Trip on Green River through Desolation Canyon, Utah
There are few places as wild and untouched as Utah’s Desolation Canyon, and this 5-day rafting trip down a remote stretch of the Green River begins with a scenic flight from Moab to the put-in. If that’s not exciting enough, 50+ fun, Class II-III rapids, and majestic red rock formations that tower as high as Grand Canyon in places, await paddlers downstream. Families will also dig the side hikes and stops along the way that lead to rock art and ruins left behind by the Fremont Indians, abandoned homesteads and even outlaw hideouts. Best for: Ages 7 and up
3. River Rafting Trip in Grand Canyon: Whitmore Wash to Lake Mead, Arizona
This short and fun 5-day Grand Canyon rafting trip is ideal for families who want to explore below the rim and see everything the canyon has to offer—incredible beaches, magical side canyons and spring-fed streams. The adventure begins with a scenic flight from Las Vegas and an overnight stay at a working cattle ranch before being whisked by a helicopter to the Colorado River for 93 miles of whitewater river rafting, camping under the stars and an active exploration of the Lower Grand Canyon. “Seeing the Canyon this way was by far the best,” according to a mom from Tennessee. “The rapids were not super intense, and it is a good intro to whitewater rafting.” Best for: Ages 7 and up
4. River Rafting Trip through the Gorges of the Lower Salmon, Idaho
This is the ultimate beach vacation in an unexpected location–deep in the wilderness of northwest Idaho. A Lower Salmon River rafting trip offers exhilarating Class III rapids through four distinct gorges, and camp life that can’t be beat. Huge sandy beaches in the middle of nowhere offer up the ideal playground for families to swim, start a game of beach volleyball, or once the sun goes down, cozy up together for epic stargazing.
On the water, it’s all about choosing your own adventure. Paddlers can try out paddle rafts, dories, inflatable kayaks and stand up paddleboards on this 4- or 5-day adventure. “My 70-year-old dad is an avid kayaker and my sons, ages 6 and 7, are just starting out on the water and there was plenty for us all to do,” shared a multi-generational traveler from Columbus, Ohio. “The food was delicious and plentiful, accommodations were amazing, and the scenery and wildlife were a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Best for: Ages 7 and up (12 during high water*)
5. River Rafting Trip on San Juan River, Utah
Even families with the youngest paddlers can float through a beautiful red rock labyrinth on this fun and easy river rafting trip in southeastern Utah. Bordering Bears Ears National Monument, the San Juan River offers multiple trip options ranging between 4 and 6 days. Families can venture out on incredible hikes into hidden side canyons, explore fascinating archaeological sites like Moki Stairs that were carved into the cliffs 800 years ago and camp under the stars in one of the darkest regions of the West. Best for: Ages 4 and up (7 during high water*)
6. River Rafting Trip on Yampa River, Colorado/Utah
The Yampa River, situated on the border of Colorado and northeastern Utah, flows right into the heart of Dinosaur National Monument and offers rafters unprecedented access to this under the radar national park gem. Reliant on spring run-off from the Rockies, the Yampa typically comes to life for a short window each season between May and July with exciting Class III-IV whitewater.
Families with older kids can up the adventure level earlier in the season, but this stunningly scenic trip through a geologic and human time capsule typically mellows out by mid-June providing an all-around family-friendly experience with plenty of whitewater excitement, spectacular side hikes and camping in a Dark Sky Park. Best for: Ages 7 and up (12 during high water*)
7. River Rafting Trip on Rogue River, Oregon
With its fun Class III whitewater, beautiful pine-forested canyon scenery, abundant wildlife and picturesque riverside camps, the Rogue River in southern Oregon is the quintessential river experience. Families will love the inflatable kayak fun, hours of beach games, adventurous side hikes and the excitement of iconic rapids like Grave Creek, Rainie Falls and Blossom Bar.
“Watching a 7-year-old fearlessly jump from the rocks, an 11- and 14-year-old paddling the rapids and jumping from rocks, trekking up creeks, trying unfamiliar food, and playing with new friends was so satisfying,” shared another multi-generational traveler from Chatanooga, Tennessee who took her grandchildren, son and daughter-in-law river rafting on the Rogue. “This trip was summed up for me when my adult son remarked that it just might be the best vacation ever.” Best for: Ages 7 and up
8. River Rafting Trip on Green River through the Gates of Lodore, Utah
A Green River Rafting trip through the Gates of Lodore promises picturesque canyon scenery (think towering canyon walls layered in scarlet red, deep oranges and dotted with lush greens), fun Class III whitewater, and incredible hiking. On this 3- to 5-day exploration of Dinosaur National Monument you’ll have the chance to inflatable kayak through fun, splashy wave trains, hike up rippling creeks to side canyon waterfalls and hunt for petroglyphs in the canyon’s open-air archive of billion-year-old geology, dinosaur fossils and ancient Puebloan ruins. Best for: Ages: Ages 7 and up (12 during high water*)
9. River Rafting Trip on Snake River through Hells Canyon, Idaho
Flowing through Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, the Snake River has rugged scenery, a rich human history, incredible trout fishing and some of the most family-friendly big-wave rapids in the West. On this 3- to 5-day adventure you’ll spend several hours each day splashing through whitewater, hiking and exploring early Native American sites and homesteads dotted throughout the canyon, before unwinding in camp. Long summer days and ideal warm water conditions, particularly in July and August, offer families ample time for swimming, casting a line, relaxing or enjoying beach games together. Best for: Ages 7 and up (12 during high water)
10. River Rafting Trip on Lower Klamath River, California
For parents who are eager to get their kids on a river rafting trip, there may be no better experience than the Lower Klamath River in northwestern California. This scenic, forested river trip offers fun, bouncy Class II rapids that are a perfect way to get little ones excited about whitewater. Add warm water ideal for swimming, inflatable kayaking, rock jumping and plenty of beach time, and the whole family will love this adventure. “This is the perfect entry-level river trip, guaranteed to cure anyone suffering from nature deficit disorder or simply looking for some relaxation and family bonding time,” summed up one family from Mariposa, California. Best for: Ages 4 and up
11. River Rafting Trip in Flaming Gorge, Utah
Another river rafting trip that’s fit for the littlest adventurers is Utah’s ultra-scenic Flaming Gorge. Imagine red rock country—vibrant red-hued walls dotted with lush greens—and this is it. A 3-day trip down this stretch of the Green River offers no-stress whitewater, interspersed with calm sections that inspire refreshing swims, wildlife viewing, and fishing. Not to mention, the river’s crystal-clear waters are teeming with trout, which has earned it the reputation as one of the finest trout fishing streams in the country. Best for: Ages 4 and up
12. River Rafting Trip on South Fork of the American River, California
On California’s popular South Fork of the American River, which offers 21 miles of exciting, Class III whitewater, families have options. For a day trip you can run the upper Chili Bar stretch which has approximately nine named rapids and plenty of time in between for swimming. Or, there’s the lower Gorge run where you can warm up on Class II whitewater before the river narrows a bit and paddler’s challenge some of the South Fork’s more rowdy rapids like Satan’s Cesspool and Hospital Bar.
For the ultimate family adventure though, opt to combine both stretches with a night of riverside camping. “I selected the South Fork of the American river for the first whitewater river rafting trip for my 8 and 12-year-old kids… I wanted something that wasn’t tame (and this river definitely wasn’t), yet something that wouldn’t be over their skill level,” shared a dad from Santa Cruz, CA. “My kids had permanent grins for weeks afterward and retold their adventure to everyone they knew.” Best for: Ages 8 and up (12 during high water”)
*The high-water window during peak snowmelt varies from river to river, but typically occurs late-May to mid-June on rivers of the West.
Cari Morgan is the Communications Manager for OARS. An avid outdoor lover, she spends her free time hiking, paddling and camping around California’s Sierra Nevada region with her husband and two wild boys.