Seven Rivers, from Wimpy to Wild

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

1999 Family Vacation Guide, Don't Spare the Bubbly

Seven Rivers, from Wimpy to Wild

Green River, Lodore Canyon, Utah
Back in 1869, one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell lost a boat along the Lodore Canyon stretch of the Green River. To commemorate the somewhat catastrophic experience, the crew christened the rapids Disaster Falls. Since Powell's time the river hasn't changed much — but rafts have, making a once life-threatening trip an enjoyable thrill for kids as young as six.

This 44-mile stretch of the Green River flowing through Dinosaur National Monument is canyon country at its finest, with bright red, thousand-foot sandstone walls jutting against blue sky, and willowy green cottonwoods softening the rocky shoreline. Kids love the Green for its sheer expanse of rugged terrain, where campgrounds seem like custom-designed playgrounds with sandy beaches, swimming rocks, and warm-water pools, and day hikes lead to pictographs and caves where it's easy to imagine the Wild Bunch hiding out.

Like most desert rivers, the Green is characterized by long stretches of flatwater interspersed with jumbly, moderate whitewater. Starting at the impressive Gates of Lodore, the beginning of the trip winds 20 miles through bright red cliffs and a succession of seriously fun — but not deadly — rapids, including the above-mentioned Disaster Falls. After Hell's Half Mile, a lengthy, riffly stretch, the river flattens out, flowing through five-mile Echo Park — a long paddle for six-year-old arms. At Whirlpool Canyon the river picks up steam for several miles, then mellows out until it reaches the final leg through Split Mountain Canyon, where a half-dozen Class III rapids make for a splashy finale.

Adventure Bound River Expeditions (800-423-4668) offers three- and four-day trips for $475-$595 for adults and $425-$545 for kids age nine and older. Adrift Adventures (800-824-0150) offers one- to four-day trips (adults, $63-$615; kids under 13, $57-$525; minimum age six). ARTA's four-day trips cost $555 for adults and $455 for kids ages six to 17 (call 800-323-2782).

Rogue River, Oregon
Steve Welch, veteran whitewater guide and general manager of ARTA River Trips, has rafted all over the West with Mac and Sam, his eight- and ten-year-old sons. But the kids' hands-down favorite is the Rogue. Their fascination might have something to do with a certain 12-foot-high rock that Sam has jumped off 45 times in a row, but even without such distractions, the Rogue, with its straightforward rapids, good emergency access, and balmy 65-degree water, is "head and shoulders above any other river on the West Coast for families," says Welch.

The classic Rogue trip is the 35-mile green and leafy Wild and Scenic stretch in the Siskiyou National Forest between Grave Creek and Foster Bar. With two Class III-IV rapids at miles 22 and 25 — the narrow Mule Creek Canyon and the boulder-strewn Blossom Bar — the Rogue contains enough froth to keep things interesting, but the river isn't necessarily beloved for its raging whitewater. Instead, kids remember the clear, free-flowing side creeks with swimming holes every few miles; their first glimpse of a black bear or an osprey, both of which regularly patrol the waters for salmon; and water so warm that it isn't scary when a wave crashes into the boat.

ARTA's four- and five-day camping trips cost $595 and $695 respectively for adults; $495 and $595 for kids ages six to 17 (call 800-323-2782). Orange Torpedo Trips (800-635-2925) offers three-day camping or lodge trips for $495 to $595 per person, with a ten percent discount for kids under 12. Oregon River Experiences (800-827-1358), which specializes in row-your-own rafts, offers three-, four-, and five-day trips for $460, $590, and $715 for adults, and $400, $515, and $625 for kids under 18. The minimum age is seven.

Middle Fork of the Flathead River, Montana
Comprising the southwestern boundary of Glacier National Park, the Middle Fork of the Flathead flows through a glaciated valley, surrounded on all sides by national park, forest, and wilderness. Fed by heavy snowmelt in May, the river is too rambunctious for families until it mellows to a friendly Class II and III in early June, then turns into a moderate flow by summer's end. Though the river is hemmed in by wilderness, the trips are surprisingly accessible; you run the 54-mile stretch from Bear Creek, the uppermost point reachable by road, to a few miles east of West Glacier, the headquarters of Glacier National Park. Anywhere else, the Flathead's lively Class III rapids would be the center of attention. But since the river borders what John Muir called "the best scenery on the continent," the river loses some of its oomph as kids get caught up by the sight of 9,376-foot Mount St. Nicholas looming in the distance; mountain goats, elks, and deer grazing the high-alpine meadows; and grizzlies patrolling the shore for trout.

Montana Raft Company (800-521-7238) offers half-day to three-and-a-half-day trips ranging in price from $38-$430 for adults and $29-$370 for kids 12 and younger. Wild River Adventures (800-700-7056) offers a three-day Middle Fork trip for $360 for adults and $295 for kids age 12 and under.

Upper New River, West Virginia
Having flowed the same course for at least 65 million years, the New River is older than the hills — literally. Fifty-three miles long and running north through the lush, wide New River Gorge, this stretch of river is broken into two sections — the Upper New and the Lower New — and increases in intensity from Class I to Class V rapids the farther you float. Families with young kids will want to start with the Upper New. This riffly, 42-mile stretch from Bluestone Dam to Thurmond, usually rafted in two or three days, starts out with slow, warm, shallow water and gentle ledge drops into big pools, a perfect warm-up before hitting the 14 nicely spaced Class III rapids. Kids love the Upper New because it gives them an easy introduction to the heart-in-your-throat terror of rafting, and parents love it because their kids aren't within an inch of their lives. Off the river, there are waterfall hikes, 1,400-foot cliffs, 350-million-year-old rocks, hardwood forests, and pebbly beaches to explore. And when the Upper New has lost its drama, you need look no further than its Lower counterpart for a step up on the terror scale.

Class VI (800-252-7784) offers one- to three-day trips for $82 to $310. Kids ages six to 16 are half price for a one-day trip, $40 to $45 off for multiday trips. Mountain River Tours (800-822-1386) also runs one- to three-day trips (adults, $70-$250; kids 25-50 percent off). Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited (800-982-7238) offers one- and two-day trips for $58-$217. Kids 14 and under are half price; minimum age is six.

Primrose River, Yukon Territory
Thanks to the Coastal Mountain Range to the west, the Yukon's Primrose River runs through a gloriously bug-free, practically rainless microclimate with 85- to 90-degree summer temperatures and a constant tailwind off the glaciers. These mild northerly conditions make the Primrose an ideal river for an experienced family whose idea of roughing it includes sighting the Yukon's version of the Big Five (moose, bears, bald eagles, wolves, caribou) but draws the line at wearing a mosquito net 24 hours a day.

Though Earth River Expeditions touts its exploratory endeavor as a raft trip, the company uses inflatable kayaks, parafoil kites, paddle rafts, oar rafts, and a helicopter to get clients down the myriad lakes, rivers, and cliffs that comprise this 50-mile wilderness trip. Starting at glacier-lined Primrose Lake, clients set out in inflatable kayaks rigged with hydrofoil kites (younger kids can ride with guides in the oar rafts). At the end of the lake, kayaks are exchanged for paddle rafts for an eight-mile stretch on the Class IV Primrose. After two more lake-to-river transitions, the Primrose flows over a 175-foot waterfall — so a helicopter swoops in, portages the group around the pending danger, and drops everyone off on a spit of sand. The trip ends after the serene paddle across Kusuwa Lake.

Earth River's eight-day trip departs June 22 and costs $1,900. The minimum age is 12. Call 800-643-2784 for details.

Upper Salt River, Arizona
Running through 2,000-foot canyons in the Tonto National Forest at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, southeastern Arizona's Upper Salt River is often referred to as the Colorado's little brother. As is often the case with younger siblings, the Salt is frequently ignored, and therein lies its beauty. Nowhere in the Lower 48 can families find such an unpeopled geologic playground.

Gathering its power from White Mountain snowmelt, the 52-mile Upper Salt is at its best from mid-March to late May, when it crashes down into the Sonoran Desert, creating bubbly froths of Class III and IV rapids. The first in a series of potential raft-flipping whitewater comes three miles after the put-in, at Captain Crunch, a hole within Class III Reforma rapids that has been known to suck boats under like driftwood. If you make it out of Captain Crunch unscathed, you'll be rewarded by a calming stretch of canyon, its sides sprouting with saguaro, cholla, and ocotillo in various stages of crimson, yellow, and purple bloom. In the evenings, there's time to explore hidden nooks like Canyon Creek, with its transparent pink granite pools and hanging gardens.

Since the river is in a strictly regulated wilderness area, the maximum group size allowed is 15. Far Flung Adventures (800-231-7238; minimum age 8-9) offers one- to five-day trips for $75-$650, with a ten percent discount for kids age ten and under. Sun Country Rafting (800-272-3353; minimum age eight) offers one- to five-day trips for $70-$695, with discounts for children under 17. Blue Sky Whitewater (800-425-5253; kids must weigh at least 50 pounds) offers one- to five-day trips for $90-$625.

Clearwater River, Saskatchewan
Famous for wheat fields and NHL hockey stars — not whitewater — Saskatchewan has only one river outfitter in the entire province. Five hundred miles north of Saskatoon, however, flows such a pristine river that you can drink its water sans filter, and only 100 people per year are allowed to raft down it.

With long stretches of Class II to IV+ churning whitewater followed by one pancake-flat section, the Clearwater, designated a Canadian Heritage river, flows from east to west through dense spruce, pine, aspen, and birch forest, and drops lower and lower into limestone, granite, and dolomite canyons as the terrain rises. The eight-day, 81-mile Upper and Lower Clearwater trip starts out slowly, with time to scour the shoreline for bald eagles, wolves, and bears; fish for arctic grayling, walleye, and northern pike; and take side trips to the 40-foot Virgin River Falls and an ancient Dene Indian petroglyph site. But the action gets dicey on the Lower Clearwater, starting with Smoothrock Falls, a Class IV 60-foot drop that must be portaged.

Though the ever-deepening canyons, thick boreal forests, and unpredictable water keep most kids enraptured, guides have an extra trump card to pull on the lazier sections — they can spin tall-sounding tales about the Dene Indians and the eighteenth-century fur trappers. The eight-day trip costs $1,535 (there's also a four-day trip, $1,012) and shouldn't be attempted by kids younger than 12. Call Clearwater Raft Tours at 800-661-7275.
— Stephanie Gregory

Copyright 1999, Outside magazine

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