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Guided Tours

Rafting the Desert West’s Best River Stretches with OARS

Here are tips to incredible raft trips for families, thrill seekers and those just looking for relaxation amid some of the country’s best scenery in Utah and Colorado.

Looking to explore Utah’s iconic red-rock canyons without the crowds this summer? Hop on a boat with OARS, a rafting company with 50 years of experience leading memorable trips across the West. OARS offers world-class trips through Canyonlands National Park and its lesser-known Dinosaur National Monument that sits on the Colorado and Utah border.

Rafting in Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument may be the most breathtaking national park site you know nothing about. Attracting far fewer travelers than, say, Rocky Mountain National Park to its east and Yellowstone to its north, this spectacular monument offers incredible rafting for all levels. For OARS, its three rafting trips through Dinosaur National Monument are only second in popularity to its Grand Canyon river trips.

One-day rafting trip in Dinosaur National Monument through Split Mountain. Copyright OARS Rights Managed Single Use
Rafting from Rainbow Park to Split Mountain Canyon on the Green RiverPhoto by Justin Bailie, © OARS Rights Managed

For a family friendly, one-day trip, Markle recommends Split Mountain Canyon on the Green River. Lined with 2,000-foot-high walls, this river stretch is gorgeous, offering Class II and III rapids. It’s not full of rocks like stretches along the Arkansas River in Colorado or some of the California rivers. Only two outfitters are authorized to run that stretch, and it’s a breathtaking day that includes a riverside lunch.

“It’s one of the most scenic, absolutely spectacular river trips in the country,” OARS marketing director Steve Markle says. “It’s perfect if you’re looking for a one-day experience. It’s splashy and fun.”

Thrilling Ride on the Yampa River

But if you’re looking for a wild, thrilling four or five-day trip, consider the Yampa River rafting excursion. Rafting this stretch of the Yampa River may be one the most sought after private boating permits in the country, and it’s for good reason. It’s the last major free-flowing tributary of the Colorado River, making it more unpredictable and free-flowing than dammed rivers. And it has a short season: May through July.

Rafting the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument. Copyright OARS Rights Managed Single Use
Rafting the Yampa River in Dinosaur National MonumentPhoto by Colleen Miniuk, © OARS Rights Managed

As you pass by tall sandstone walls striated with black lines, you will boat through Class III rapids with one epic Class IV rapid called Warm Springs that will definitely get your adrenaline pumping.

“It’s probably listed in guide books as one of the biggest rapids in the West,” Markle says. “It’s inconsequential if you raft it right, though.”

Gates of Lodore, A Rafting Paradise

Rafting the Green River at Gates of Lodore. Copyright OARS Rights Managed Single Use
Rafting the Green River at Gates of LodorePhoto by Josh Miller, © OARS Rights Managed

On the north side of Dinosaur National Monument is the Gates of Lodore along the Green River, the single best river trip OARS offers for first-time rafters or for those interested in a Grand Canyon trip but don’t have the budget nor the vacation time to commit, according to Markle. Rafting through the Grand Canyon can take up to 25 days versus rafting the Gates of Lodore, which can be a three, four or five-day trip.

“It’s much more budget friendly,” Markle says, referring to the Gates of Lodore multi-day trip. “The scenery is mind-blowing. You have redrock walls. You have a mix of juniper and piñon pine and willow trees, so you have a unique contract of greens and reds.”

Side trip to Gates of Lodore rafting at the McKee Spring Petroglyphs. Copyright OARS Rights Managed Single Use
Side trip to Gates of Lodore rafting at the McKee Spring PetroglyphsPhoto by Josh Miller, © OARS Rights Managed

John Wesley Powell and his expedition crew rafted this stretch through what is now Dinosaur National Monument as part of his 1869 journey down the Colorado River. You’ll go though the Canyon of Lodore, Whirlpool and Split Mountain stretches of the monument on all of the three, four and five-day trips. It’s just that the longer trips allow for more off-river exploration and relaxation time.

“We realize not everyone has five or six days to take off from work when you factor in travel days,” Markle says. “So we try to accommodate time and budget restrictions.”

Just north of Dinosaur National Monument, you can do a one-day or three-day rafting trip on the Green River that’s far more mellow. It starts at the base of the dam for Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. It’s perfect for kids as young as 4 years old since the rapids are Class II and the water below the dam is a beautiful clear green.

Raft Cataract Canyon through Canyonlands

Want to see the heart of Canyonlands National Park by boat? Head to Moab, Utah, where OARS offers three, four or six day trips through the legendary Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. You’ll be on the Colorado River, which is mostly undammed above this stretch, rafting all the way to Lake Powell.

Rafting past the towering canyon walls of Cataract Canyon with OARS
Rafting past the towering canyon walls of Cataract Canyon with OARS (Photo: by James Kaiser, © OARS Rights Managed)

Navigating Class III, IV and maybe even Class V rapids in spring, you’ll feel your adrenaline rise as you approach the Big Drops, notorious Class III rapids that can feel like you’re dropping off a two-story building in highwater, says Markle. The Big Drops are among North America’s top 10 biggest rapids.

Needless to say, this adventurous trip is not for those looking exclusively for flat water to meditate on life amid striking natural beauty. Because the Colorado River is mostly undammed above Cataract Canyon, it’s a far more wild and unpredictable river than dammed rivers with controlled flows.

“You have a new experience every time you go,” Markel says. “It’s never the same. You’ll have beaches come and go. Hiking becomes accessible and then inaccessible, depending on flows.

Having said that, this trip does include 80 miles of flatwater of which the first 50 you will motor through. After you hit the confluence of the Green River and Colorado rivers, you’ll load into paddle boats and brace yourself for a rollicking whitewater ride. But there is time for hikes, exploring ancient ruins and rock art, especially on the six-day trip. When you get to Lake Powell, you’ll load into a plane and retrace your entire river trip by air back to Moab.

“Rafting is the best way to experience Canyonlands,” Markle says. “The river allows you to access parts of the park with jaw-dropping views that would be hard to reach otherwise.”

If you’re looking for a thrilling rafting adventure but only have one-to-three days, consider OARS’ Westwater Canyon, a stretch of Colorado River that offers class III and IV rapids. You’ll meet in Moab before driving east to the Westwater put-in.

Other Utah Rafting Trips

Rafting the San Juan River in Utah. Copyright OARS Rights Managed Single Use
Rafting the San Juan River in UtahPhoto by David Hessell, © OARS Rights Managed

And if all you want is gentle rapids and gorgeous scenery, including views of Monument Valley, drive to Bluff, Utah, where OARS will bring you on a four-to-six day rafting trip down the gorgeous San Juan. Class II rapids offer fun without making your heart thump while stunning ancient Native American ruins dotting the river corridor offer off-river exploration.

“On river trips, there is no wifi and no cell phone service and that’s one of the many beautiful parts of a river trip,” Markle says. “You can just hang out, soak in the scenery and find the rhythm of the river. We all need that.”

For more information:
OARS Rafting Vacations