It’s that time of the year again—time to start fantasizing about summer river trips. Many of the best stretches of family-friendly whitewater are regulated to prevent overcrowding, and if you want to lead your own multiday trip, rather than go with a commercial outfitter, you need to apply in advance for a government-issued private boater permit. Most river permits are allocated by lottery, and the best strategy for winning a launch is to go in with a couple other families and apply for the same dates. You can typically put in for several dates on the same permit, which also increases your odds. Read the fine print carefully, though, there are lots of caveats and the process can be confusing. Here's a guide to scoring a permit—or at least getting in on the lottery—for the best family whitewater trips in the West. Don't dally: Most applications are due February 1.
Good luck out there!
San Juan River, Utah
Details: The 84-mile stretch from Sand Island to Clay Hills is a serene wilderness float through southeastern Utah’s rugged canyon lands, and with only two Class III rapids—both of which are easily walked around—it’s ideal for families with really young kids. You can apply for the 2-3 day, 27-mile Upper section from Sand Island to the town of Mexican Hat, the lower, 4-5 day, 57-mile section from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills, or the whole enchilada—typically a 7-day run, or eight if you want to leave time for side hikes and layover days. BLM permits are required for the main boating season—April 1 through October 31—and are issued by lottery. If you apply for but don’t win a permit, you can call for cancellations once the whitewater season starts.
Due Date: Postmarked by February 1.
Info & Download:435-587-1544 http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/ut/monticello_fo/recreation.Par.86013.File.dat/2012%20San%20Juan%20River%20Application.pdf;
Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon River, Idaho
Details: The big daddy of Idaho rivers, the 104-mile, free-flowing Middle Fork of the Salmon, through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, is one of the most coveted permits in the West (only about 1 in 20 applications are successful). It’s designated Wild & Scenic for all but one mile, with the only signs of civilization en route a few foot trails, backcountry landing strips, and private ranches. Bigger Class III-IV+ rapids, especially during spring run-off, makes this a better bet for families with teenagers, but it mellows considerably in late summer, when kids as young as 7 or 8 can make the trip. Lottery-issued permits are required for rafting during peak “control” season, June 20-September 7. The 82-mile, Class III-IV stretch of Main Salmon, from Corn Creek to Carey Creek, follows the same regulations.
Due Date: Jan 31
Info & Download: Online applications only—no mail-ins. www.recreation.gov. 877-444-6777
Rio Chama, New Mexico
Details: 31 miles of Class II-III rapids from El Vado Dam to Big Eddy takeout, through high desert red rock canyons and ponderosa pines; 24 miles are designated Wild & Scenic wilderness. The BLM conducts recreational releases most summer weekends from El Vado Dam, but river flows are irregular and never guaranteed, especially mid-week. Lottery-issued permits are required from May 1 through Labor Day.
Due Date: February 1
Download & Info: $6 application fee. 575-758-8851
Yampa River, Colorado
Details: 71 miles of Class III-IV whitewater in Dinosaur National Monument, from Deer Lodge Park to Echo Park, at the confluence with the Green. The last free-flowing major tributary of the Colorado River, the Yampa can run huge during spring run-off but then settles down in the summer, making it a good trip for kids. Dinosaur National Monument permits are required for the high-use season May 14-September 14.
Due date: Received by Feb 1; mail-in only.
Download & Info: $15 application fee; 970-374-2468
Green River, Gates of Lodore, Utah
Details: 44 miles of Class III rapids in Dinosaur National Monument, from Gates of Lodore to Split Mountain. Like the Yampa, permits are issued by lottery by Dinosaur National Monument. Hot tip: Just upstream from Lodore Canyon, the 38-mile run from Flaming Gorge Dam to Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge is a much tamer Class I-III trip through sandstone canyons that does not require advance permits.
Due date: Received by Feb 1; mail-in only.
Download & Info: $15 application fee. http://www.nps.gov/dino/planyourvisit/upload/2012-Lottery-Application-fillable-2.pdf
Green River, Desolation-Gray Canyons, Utah
Details: The 84 miles of Class II-III floating from Sand Wash to Swasey’s Rapids make for a terrific 6-7 day trip for families with younger kids, especially after peak run-off; 900 cubic feet per second is totally adequate to run this section.
Due Date: Reservations approved on a first-call, first-served basis, starting five months before launch date.
Download & Info: $20 application fee;435-636-0975 http://www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/price/recreation/riverinf.html;
Rogue River, Oregon
Details: The 34-mile stretch of the Rogue from Grave Creek to Foster Bar was the first river to be protected under the 1968 Wild & Scenic Rivers Act; this is a Class III-IV section that can be combined with a 27-mile section of Class I-II water just upstream, from Applegate Creek to Grave Creek. BLM private boater permits are required on the Wild & Scenic section for trips scheduled between May 15 and October 15
Deadline: Received by Jan 31
Download & Info: $6 application fee; http://www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/rogue/floatspace-lottery.php; 541-479-3735.