The Grand Canyon is great if you’ve got three weeks of vacation and $5,000. If you don’t, consider Yampa Canyon, a worthy alternative with 2,500-foot-deep tiger-striped sandstone walls, legendary whitewater, and undisturbed native ruins. Each spring, snowmelt from across northwestern Colorado squeezes through the canyon and flings up ten-foot waves for rafters. But because the Yampa is undammed—unlike the Colorado in the Grand—the fun is over by late June.
To DIY next year, apply for a private-party, five-day permit by January 31 (request Mathers Hole campsite, a giant canyon overhang where tents aren’t even necessary, $200). To float it this year, snag a spot on Holiday River Expeditions’ near daily launches (from $885). The guides will steer you safely down Warm Springs rapid, a notorious boat flipper, set up your tents each night, and fill your plate with salmon filets and fresh baked brownies. You’ll leave almost as awestruck and inspired as you would in the Grand, but you’ll still have vacation days left for another adventure.