You know the Rocky Mountains for soaring peaks, snowy summits, deep forests, and blue lakes, but don't forget about the rivers! Winter's snow has to go somewhere when it melts, and the rugged topography of this complex mountain range funnels into countless streams. These converge into rivers that rage with whitewater higher in the mountains and mellow as they nurture plains and deserts below--offering a wealth of rafting on many different riverscapes.
The Rockies are a chain of nearly continuous mountain ranges that stretch from New Mexico into Northern Canada, comprising land in six states and two provinces. Any trip to the Rockies should certainly include hiking, scenic driving, and biking or climbing or whatever your forte, but it would be a shame to miss out on the water element. Here are 10 of the best rafting trips of the Rocky Mountains that you can experience on your own or with a guide.
The Royal Gorge stands out as one of the greatest whitewater rivers not just in the Rockies, but on the whole continent. The river tumbles through a narrow gorge that is barely 100 feet across in some places with 1,000-foot walls overhead. Class III-IV rapids tumble through this cleft in the earth, so it is suitable only for experienced boaters or groups with professional guides.
The Animas flows through a series of tight canyons and broad valleys on its journey through Southwest Colorado. Its upper sections are for expert boaters only, with Class V in an inaccessible gorge, but the lower sections near Durango are Class II-III, perfect for a half or full-day float among beautiful scenery in the foothills of the San Juan Range.
The Dolores is another spectacularly varied river that begins in the high mountains and flows down to the desert. Multiple canyon sections in a remote region of western Colorado provide options for day or overnight trips.
The mighty Snake River begins in the mountains of Yellowstone National Park and flows toward the plains of western Wyoming, passing by the foot of the Grand Teton along the way. The stretch through Grand Teton National Park is famously photogenic, and the relatively calm flow allows boaters of all abilities to float and fish it. Farther downstream, the river enters Alpine Canyon and steepens into Class III-IV rapids. This section lacks the view of the Tetons but makes up for with whitewater excitement.
Referred to as simply "The Middle Fork" by those who know it well, this large tributary of Idaho's Salmon River is one of the world's most famous wilderness rivers. It's 100-mile length stretches out in inaccessible gorges, and the bounty of Class III-IV rapids necessitates floating this in expedition style over multiple days, taking everything you need securely fastened to rafts. This journey will take you much farther from civilization than most people ever get, deep into one of the largest wilderness areas in the country.
Though not as remote as its Middle Fork tributary, the Main Salmon River provides several classic sections along its extent through Idaho. The most pristine environments in this huge river canyon are found in the 80-mile section from Corn Creek to Carey Creek. The Lower Main Salmon is another 87-mile option with easier access. Both feature wild Idaho scenery, sandy beach campsites, and thrilling whitewater of Class III-IV. A shorter section through an even more dramatic stretch of the gorge is Hells Canyon just across the border with Oregon.
Another of Idaho's whitewater jewels, the Selway River flows clear and pure from the Bitterroot Mountains that separate Idaho and Montana. The 47-mile stretch from Paradise to Race Creek leads through stunning and remote wilderness. Spring flows are excellent for exciting whitewater, while later summer flows are perfect for fishing for native westslope cutthroat trout.
Running alongside Glacier National Park, the Middle Fork of the Flathead River makes an excellent component to any trip in northwestern Montana. Class II-III rapids flow through a forested valley near the Continental Divide, and the waters teem with trout. Many kinds of boats can navigate the whitewater, and guide companies in West Glacier cater to those without the right equipment or experience.
If you'll be visiting Banff or Jasper National Parks, drive over to Golden, B.C. to find the Kicking Horse River for whitewater rafting. The Kicking Horse drops through a huge gorge on its way out of the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia River Valley. It has three distinct sections with unique character. The Upper Canyon is Class II with lazy meanders in the river and views of distant waterfalls in the mountains. The Middle Canyon is the most popular, with nearly continuous Class III-IV whitewater. The Lower Canyon is for experienced boaters only, with full-on Class IV-IV+ rapids stacked one after another.
This river flows through the redrock desert of central Utah, far from what most people associate with the Rockies. Water in the desert has to come from somewhere, however, and the headwaters of the San Rafael are the Wasatch Range, Utah's little piece of the greater Rocky Mountains. What the San Rafael lacks in volume of water it more than makes up for in expanse of scenery. You will float Class I riffles and meanders past huge sandstone cliffs and towers in a canyon that is rarely seen except by intrepid river travelers.
Another desert run, located farther from the Rocky Mountains but fed year round by their melting snow, is Ruby Horsethief Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah. It begins just inside the Colorado border near Grand Junction, and it flows through open desert and huge sandstone cliffs toward Moab. This 25-mile stretch of Class I-II wate is usually done as an easy-paced overnighter. Just downstream, the Westwater Canyon section deals bigger thrills on Class III-IV rapids in a granite gorge.