BEGINNER / CHAMA RIVER WILDERNESS, NEW MEXICO
Squirreled away in damn-that's-gorgeous country along the 33-mile stretch of the Chama River between El Vado and Abiquiu Reservoirs are dinosaur tracks, Indian ruins, and old homesteads to explore, plus wild turkeys, bears, deer, cougars, elk, bald eagles, and beavers for the kids to spot. This trip is best run in three leisurely days, ample time to savor the passing vistas of pastel-striped sandstone canyons as you float into the heart of northern New Mexico's Georgia O'Keeffe country. You'll enjoy trout fishing and hiking, as well as tall tales round the camp stove, sweet dreams under the Milky Way, and all the other moments that make families feel like the stars of their own Western movies. There aren't many rapids to speak of, but you will find an occasional Class II during the first day and a half, and a few more Class IIs (and one Class II-III) after passing Christ in the Desert Monastery, in the last three miles of the trip. Try New Wave Rafting in Santa Fe ($400 per person, minimum age: eight; 800-984-1444; www.newwaverafting.com) or Far Flung Adventures in Taos ($450 per adult, minimum age: six; 800-359-2627; www.farflung.com). May and June are the best months to go.
INTERMEDIATE / MIDDLE FORK OF THE SALMON RIVER, IDAHO
This rollicking kid pleaser has it all: happening hikes and steamy hot springs, pulse-quickening Class III-IV rapids that are more exciting than daunting, historic homesteads, river otters, mule deer, and other wildlifeall with a grand backdrop of stunning Western scenery. Outfitters put the rafts in at Boundary Creek, and then you practically fly down 100 miles and 100 or so rapidsdescending 3,000 feet in the processto the take-out at Cache Bar. En route, stop and hike to Rattlesnake Cave and other archaeological sites left behind by the Sheepeater Indians, rejuvenate under the 1,000-foot Veil Falls, soak in the hot springs at Sheepeater and Sunflower Flat, and float trout-teeming waters where you can teach junior how to cast a fly. The first few days offer a dozen or so patches of nonscary whitewater, plenty of time to warm up for the bigger stuff, which comes when you trade alpine scenery for the narrow walls of Impassable Canyon.
Snowmelt off the nearby Sawtooths defines the two seasons of this trip. Until mid-July, the river is too big and too cold for kids under 12, but in late summer, lower river levels and warmer water accommodate kids as young as eight. Either way, the big rapids (Pistol Creek, Rubber, Powerhouse, Tappan Creek, and Velvet Falls) pack in the thrills. Action Whitewater Adventures offers six-day trips that cost $1,495 for adults and $1,255 for kids (800-453-1482; www.riverguide.com).
ADVANCED / COLORADO RIVER THROUGH GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA
More African Queen than Knott's Berry Farm, rafting the gargantuan Grand Canyon is nothing if not intense. You need to work your way up to this Holy Grail of river trips, where eight- to ten-foot waves are normal and the rapids so huge they merit a one-to-ten rating scale of their very own bad selves. Kids should be at least 12, but start planning when they're ten; you often have to wait as long as two years to get on a commercial trip.
Once you're finally afloat, navigating the cafe-au-lait Colorado is unforgettable. It's not all a giant washing machine, and between the mega-rinses and super-spin cycles of legendary rapids such as Crystal, Lava, Granite, Hance, and Horn (rated eights, nines, and tens), you'll find long, langorous drifts and hikes to Anasazi ruins and idyllic waterfalls such as Elves Chasm, Beaver Falls, and Deer Creek. Wildlife encounters are commonbighorn rams butting horns over ewes on the banks, ringtail cats rummaging through your gear at night, and even the occasional scorpion lurking by the groover (the portable toilet named for the creases the sides of the can "groove" into your butt).
Most commercial outfitters put in at Lee's Ferry and run all or most of the 225-mile journey in five to 19 days. Watercraft go well beyond rafts: You can choose among everything from motorized pontoon boats to classic wooden dories, but the most playful option is the 12-day excursion offered by Orange Torpedo Trips ($3,300 per person; 800-635-2925; www.orangetorpedo.com), in which you shoot every rapid (except Lava and Crystal) in your own inflatable orange duckie kayak (which doesn't require the skill of a hard-bodied kayak). This leaves you the option to climb aboard a support raft if you chicken out. When you flip, a guide paddles up, hauls you aboard, and helps you collect your yard sale from the bottom of the rapid.
BEGINNER / CHAMA RIVER WILDERNESS, NEW MEXICO