Our Favorite Places

Family Vacations, Summer 1996

Our Favorite Places

Class I-III

The New River is actually the oldest river in North America, probably second only to the Nile in worldwide antiquity. Its source is in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina; from there it flows north and west, through Virginia and West Virginia, toward the Mississippi. Because the land surrounding it never flooded during the Ice Age, it's a veritable laboratory of natural diversity, with bug and reptile species rarely seen elsewhere. The Upper New is a great beginner whitewater river: Its clear water flows over long, gentle Class I and II rapids, with the occasional III thrown in for excitement. And the stretch through the New River Gorge is among the best whitewater in the East.

Sometimes the disjunction between the roiling whitewater of the Gorge and the gentle rapids of the Upper New has a tendency to split families, with one parent taking teens downriver for an adrenaline rush while the other paddles with the younger kids on calmer stretches upstream. But to keep all family members together and happy on the Upper New, outfitters dole out all manner of river craft, from no-effort, oar-powered rafts to paddle rafts to self-bailing, inflatable "ducky" kayaks to Torrents--extremely responsive hard-shelled kayaks that older kids ride atop, making even Class II foam a thrill.

The 40-mile, pristine river that flows through Prince Canyon, Grand View Canyon, and Surprise Canyon on the Upper New gives outfitters the flexibility of tailoring a day trip to the season or stretching a longer trip over several days, for one of the only overnight raft trips in the East. Class VI River Runners (304-574-0704), ACE Whitewater (800-787-3982), and North American River Runners (800-950-2585) all offer day trips and overnight trips on the river. Kids as young as five can make the trip.

Class II

Norman Nevills pioneered commercial river running on the San Juan in 1938. Setting out from Mexican Hat on a raft made of old outhouse planks, he inaugurated a river that has become perhaps the best introductory trip in the country. This classic spans 83 miles of southeastern Utah, from Sand Island to Clay Hills Crossing on Lake Powell. Running through Navajo lands, it flows past some of the best-preserved Anasazi ruins and petroglyphs in the Southwest.

The San Juan is most famous for a long stretch of meandering river, known as the Goosenecks, that's bound by 2,000-foot sandstone and limestone canyon walls. At one point the river travels seven miles to go only two miles as the crow flies. The current is among the fastest in the country, particularly in the early summer; though that speed doesn't translate into churning rapids, it does account for the intermittent "sand waves" that arise out of no- where, carrying rafts along on their roller-coaster crests. The water temperature in summer settles at 70 degrees or so--perfect for swimming, mud fights, and frolicking.

Holiday River Expeditions (800-624-6323) offers three- and four-day trips in May and June for $447 and $580 for adults, $347 and $480 for children. (The three-day trip launches at Mexican Hat and misses some of the better Anasazi sites upriver.) OARS (800-346-6277) runs three-, four-, and six-day trips throughout the summer, from $495 to $695 for adults, $440 to $640 for kids. Both outfitters will take children as young as five years old.


Class II-III
The Chattooga is most famous as the site of Burt Reynolds's river trip from hell in Deliverance, but don't cue up the dueling banjos just yet: The crazy Class V stuff showcased in the movie is on Section 4 of the Chattooga, which runs along the South Carolina-Georgia border through the Chattahoochee and Sumter National Forests. Upstream on Section 3, the rapids are more manageable and much better suited for a family day trip.

The scenery, though, is still as dramatic as it was in the movie, and the calm patches between rapids leave more time to appreciate the lush mountainsides bursting with mountain laurel and wild rhododendron in the early summer, or fall's changing leaves.
You'll have a choice in how much control you want over your own destiny--either paddle in a guided raft, or pack your family into one of your own (becoming what outfitters call an "unguided missile") and take your chances. Rest assured that when the group hits the raging Class IV Bull Sluice rapid--usually toward the end of the day--guides take turns piloting each raft to safety. On hot days the guides are likely to pull off to the side just below Bull Sluice so the kids can cool off by swimming through a Class II rapid. Nantahala Outdoor Center (800-232-7238) and Wildwater Limited (800-451-9972) both offer day trips for about $60 per person. Minimum age for kids is ten. Call the Stumphouse Ranger Station at 864-638-9568 for more information.

Class II-III

The tremendous sense of isolation and the hugeness in these canyons along the Texas-Mexico border can be almost overpowering at times. And one-upping that sense of awe is your incredulity at stumbling upon signs of long-ago habitation, such as the mysterious ruins of old candelilla (wax-making) operations.

The Rio Grande is relatively calm as it winds through this landscape of cliffs and desert flats, with maybe 12 significant rapids dotting a span of 85 miles. It's thus an ideal river for learning to kayak, for taking time to appreciate the environment's majesty, and for swimming in the warm currents and bathing in the hot springs. "Kids just love to explore down there," says Bill Dvorak of Dvorak's Kayak and Rafting Expeditions. "You see lots of turtles, fish, horses, roadrunners, peregrine falcons." Parents of young children, though, might consider whether they are ready to be so isolated for seven full days.

Summer temperatures in the canyons can become almost unbearable, so it's best to go either before or after the height of summer. Both Dvorak's (800-824-3795) and Far Flung Adventures (800-359-4138) run seven-day trips from $700-$870 per person. If you're looking for a shorter but equally dramatic trip in the same area, Far Flung Adventures offers one- to five-day trips in the Colorado, Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas canyons of Big Bend National Park.

Class II-III

The Chama, a National Wild and Scenic River, is an ideal shorter trip, featuring exciting easy to moderate rapids on a manageable two- or three-day descent from the El Vado Dam through the Chama Canyon to the Abiqui” Reservoir, spanning a high-forest terrain of Douglas firs and ponderosa pines as well as sagebrush desert. The New Mexico air is crisp and clear; in the upper canyon, peregrine falcons and golden eagles fly overhead, with wild turkeys a common sight on the banks. The last third of the run, below Christ in the Desert Monastery, features yellow, red, and green sandstone formations that pop off the canyon walls. Most of the whitewater is packed into the last few miles of the trip, sending the kids off the river thrilled and happy.

Campsites are on huge shelves among thick stands of pine. The three-day trip especially allows for hiking time in the forests, where you can discover ancient Anasazi encampments and other archaeological sites--ask the guides to point out some less-obvious artifacts.

May and June are the best months to go, with higher river volumes and fewer rafting parties to disturb the peace. Far Flung Adventures (800-359-2627) runs two- and three-day rafting trips for $202 and $303. Kokopelli Rafting Adventures (800-879-9035) charges $87 per person for day trips.

Class III

One of the first National Wild and Scenic rivers designated in 1968, the Rogue is a classic family run. As a Class III river, the minimum age for paddlers is a mere seven. However, the rapids--particularly the percolating froth that runs through Mule Creek Canyon, where the river narrows to a width of just 15 feet--are exciting enough to satisfy even the most Nintendo-saturated adolescent synapses. (If not, they can run the canyon in an inflatable kayak to heighten the terror.) Because it's a classic drop-and-pool river, the rapids dump into calmer pools, so even a capsized kayaker isn't going to get flushed too far downstream.

With its family-friendly pedigree, a Rogue trip is more likely than most to have same-age companions for your kids. Most outfitters run the 45-mile section through the Siskiyou National Forest, from Galice to Foster Bar, in four or five days. Many offer lodge-based trips, with the seductive appeal of a nightly sojourn on a real mattress. But the real family option is the camping trip, where you can sit around the campfire at night and trade Bigfoot tales. James Henry (800-786-1830), ARTA (800-323-2782), OARS (800-346-6277), and Outdoor Adventures (800-323-4234) all offer four- and five-day trips, ranging from $560-$690 for adults, $475-$630 for kids.

Class III+

A trip down the Tatshenshini is a journey to a more perfect past, where water can still be drunk, clear and cold, right from the stream, and where the abundant Alaskan brown bears are still wild. It takes ten or 11 days to run the most popular 140 miles: from Dalton Post in the Yukon to Dry Bay on Alaska's southern panhandle, through the largest nonpolar ice fields in the world and forests and valleys dense with bears, moose, and mountain goats. The sight of a bald eagle soaring over the river to land in postage-stamp profile becomes almost commonplace. To let you absorb this scenic overload at your leisure, most outfitters incorporate three or four layover days into the itinerary. Your family will get to tramp around on 10,000-year-old glaciers and kayak in Alsek Bay through a floating sculpture garden of chlorine-blue icebergs.

Even though the rapids rarely roar above a Class III level and subside somewhat after the first day's run through a narrow canyon, this is not a trip outfitters recommend for children under 12. Both James Henry River Journeys (800-786-1830) and Rivers & Oceans (800-360-7238) offer 11-day trips on the Tatshenshini for about $2,300 per person. Call Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (907-697-2230) for more information and a complete list of outfitters.

Class IV

The legendary Middle Fork is really two rivers, depending on when you launch and how much snowpack the winter weather has created for melting and flowing into the river from its source in the Sawtooth Mountains. In the early season--until about mid-July--it's a frigid, high-water behemoth, barreling the 100 miles from Boundary Creek to Cache Bar with intemperate haste and at temperatures as low as 42 degrees. During this period, 12 is usually the minimum age to be on the river. Later, though, the water warms and calms (a bit), and low water often forces the trip to be shortened to 75 miles; under these conditions outfitters have been known to take the occasional six-year-old. "We've had really fun times with kids in the nine- to-12 bracket, teaching them how to fly-fish and how to handle an inflatable kayak," says Jerry Hughes of Hughes River Expeditions.

At either water level, the Class IV rapids--Velvet Falls, Pistol Creek, Powerhouse--are guaranteed to thrill. The Middle Fork drops an average of 27 feet a mile, finally tumbling into the trip-capping whitewater of Impassable Canyon. This is near where Captain Ruben Bernard came with his troops in 1879 to massacre the Sheepeater Indians. It's also the best place to spy bighorn sheep high on the canyon walls--up where Earl Parrot, "the hermit of Impassable Canyon," made his home for 27 years in the early 1900s (his cabins survive to this day).

Surprisingly enough, the rapids often come in second to other pleasures as the high point of a young rafter's vacation. When Ann Despont brought her two daughters down the river last summer, their lasting stories were of sitting around the campfire at night, of showering under the 150-foot spume of Veil Falls, and of bathing in hot springs under the moon.

Hughes River Expeditions (208-262-1882), OARS (800-346-6277), and Hatch River Expeditions (800-342-8243) offer five- and six-day trips on the Middle Fork, for about $1,300 a person.

Class IV

Any whitewater river worth its foam will, over the years, acquire evocative names for its rapids. The Magpie's claim to fame is just the opposite--it is so remote that none of its rapids has a name. The closest road to the put-in on Magpie Lake is 100 miles away. The only way in is by a spectacular 40-minute float-plane flight from the small, French-speaking town of Sept-ðles. The only way out is the six-day float to the St. Lawrence River.

When it isn't churning over the numerous unnamed rapids, the Magpie moves at more of a meander, winding through a northern wilderness of pine forests and foot-deep moss, past rocky driftwood-strewn shores and towering granite cliffs. Toward the end of the trip, the river plunges 80 feet off the Laurentian plateau in a dramatic crescendo of sound and spray that has, in deference to its majesty, been granted a name (albeit an unimaginative one): Magpie Falls. Helicopters carry the boats and baggage around the falls, and groups camp directly across from the roiling monster.

Because of its remoteness and Class IV rapids, the Magpie is best suited for teenagers, although no river-running experience is necessary. Earth River Expeditions, the only commercial outfitter to run the river, offers two trips in August, for $1,400 per person. Call 800-643-2784 for more information.

Class IV+

This is a whitewater trip that families have to earn. "For a family that hikes, camps, maybe does some boardsailing, and feels comfortable in action adventure sports, the T would be a great first choice," says Marty McDonnell of Sierra Mac River Trips. The standard 19-mile run from Meral's Pool to Ward's Ferry, just west of Yosemite National Park, may be the most revered whitewater trip in California. It's certainly a triumph of the Wild and Scenic River system, which bestowed its protection on the river in 1984, saving it from submersion by yet another dam. McDonnell recommends that families make the trip in midsummer, when the waters have quieted a bit but are still kept well-fed by regular releases from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite. Even in midseason, numerous Class IV rapids--Nemesis, Hackamack's Hole, Squeeze, Evangelist--serve as a pounding prelude to the river's main attraction, the legendary 15-foot Clavey Falls, a Class V monster with a raft-swallowing hole at the bottom. (Outfitters love to set up camp just above the falls to heighten their passengers' dread and anticipation, causing some to lose their nerve--or regain their sanity--and skirt the falls on foot.)

Sierra Mac (800-457-2580), Whitewater Voyages (800-488-7238), OARS (800-346-6277), and Outdoor Adventures (800-323-4234) all offer two- and three-day trips for $315-$460 per person. The three-day trips leave enough time for exploring side-canyon water slides and swimming holes. Most outfitters accept kids as young as 12. Call the Stanislaus National Forest (209-962-7825) for information on private rafting permits and a complete list of outfitters.

Copyright 1996, Outside Magazine

More Travel