By “rookie” I don’t necessarily mean kids! There are plenty of adults who haven’t taken a dive into river rafting. It is always best to dip your toe into any new activity first so let’s begin with some descriptions.
River rafting is classified by the ‘class’ system:
- Class I—float trip with very little rapids
- Class II—higher elevated float trip with a few more rapids
- Class III—mild whitewater/rapids with less float
- Class IV—mostly mild whitewater with deeper rapids/holes
- Class V—whitewater with the possibility of rapids tough enough you’ll need to exit the boat to spot your route before taking it on
- Class VI—a whole wash of whitewater, deep holes and for experts only
If you are inexperienced or planning on rafting with small children, I’d recommend not going any further up the Class chain than Class II for your first trip, maybe Class III depending upon the time of year. Key words when talking to river rafting companies are ‘family’ and ‘rookie’ so you don’t end up on a Class V and above river.
Time of Year
Some rivers are so dependent upon snow melt they will turn into speed float trips in the spring and turtle treks in the fall. I once went on a snow melt-fed river so fast and full we had to dive into the boat to avoid hitting our heads on the bottom of a bridge (not recommended ever for a rookie).
Here is a brief, seasonal guideline for wherever snow melt is super critical to flow:
- Spring—fast water, possibly fewer rapids
- Summer—peak rapid time, less float trips
- Fall—slow water, generally easy float trips
Also, logical if you think about it, the tighter the passageway, the more exciting/dangerous the rapids. Most large rivers are not going to have any sections where rapids ‘rapidly’ pile up on one another. Trust me, one rapid after another gets exhausting and could render your first rafting trip a negative one. Make your rafting experience exhilarating, not exasperating, and select a spot that’s right for you!
If it’s a slow river, it can be as low as 6. The faster the water and deeper the holes, the higher the age limit. 12 is a general rule of thumb when Class III rapids are at their peak. But, always call and double-check before going. In fact, always call/text/email first. Get in touch with a reputable river guide company in your chosen RV adventure area to ask about age restrictions, conditions, and to reserve your spot in advance.
The earlier in the season; the colder the water. You may be able to get away with a t-shirt in the late summer or fall, but that’s a no-go for spring. Wear wool to stay warm, but be sure to wear a waterproof jacket over the wool. No cotton; no jeans! You will get wet. As such, reliable, yet worn, tennis shoes are optimal; secure sandals are generally okay. Avoid flip-flops!
It’s not a maybe, it’s a definitely. The bright sun and reflective water is not your skin’s friend.
Here are some of our favorites:
The Rio Grande
This river is floater in many places, but there are also rapids to run for the rookie in three different states.
In Colorado, beginners need to avoid the Upper Box section. The rest of the run through Colorado’s San Juan Mountain range can be very accessible to rookies.
New Mexico is all about the Rio Grande Gorge with nice put-ins in the Taos, New Mexico section.
For Texas, you’ll need to head south to find a section that’s not a simple float trip. Head to Big Bend National Park!
Didn’t you just say ‘go west’ and now we’re in Arkansas? Yes, but no. In regards to exciting river rafting on the Arkansas you need to go where the flow makes for excitement. That’s near the source, and the source is in Colorado.
The Arkansas is a snappy, tricky river. There are quite a few put-in spots where you will get great scenery and a few rapids. There are also quite a few where your diligent research is a must before getting your feet wet. Your best bet for a family trip is to hit Lower Browns Canyon or somewhere on the Arkansas around Canon City that’s not the Royal Gorge. The gorge is too challenging for a beginner!
You may already have in mind rapids with deep holes where the raft could possibly ‘taco’ (where the raft heads straight into the hole, the back-end folds into the front end, creating a huge rubber taco—where all occupants become ingredients).
There are a lot of places where this could happen on the Colorado. However, there are quite a few put-in locations where scenery takes precedence over rapids, notably near Moab, Utah; Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Grand Junction, Colorado; Grand Canyon, Arizona—although the Grand Canyon tends to lean toward multi-day trips.
Confession time. I cheated. The actual Columbia River is a floater. However, the Columbia River Gorge area has a preponderance of rivers flowing into the mighty Columbia that can be very ‘rookie friendly’ with some nice rapids. Tributaries for consideration are the White Salmon, Wind, Klickitat and Tieton.
For the beginner, a vast majority of the Snake River is a great place to start your river rafting adventures. There are lot of calm stretches, but as a warning Hell’s Canyon is not one of them. Best spots to put in? In Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park/Jackson Hole; In Idaho near Twin Falls aka the ‘Middle Snake’ section. (Note: The Middle Snake is very spring run-off dependent).
River rafting can be a blast, but there are inherent dangers so take caution. In this article, we’ve barely dipped my toes into a few family-friendly rivers. If there are any waterways you find to be family-friendly, drop in a comment, we’d love to hear from you!