Best Whitewater Rivers for Family Rafting Trips

Find the right outfitter and best river for your trip

Whitewater river rafting is a wet and wild activity that makes for a quintessential family adventure vacation. The secret of success is choosing a reliable outfitter and a river that provides just the right amount of excitement. 

If you've got young kids and want something very smooth, start off with a Class I float or a late-season Class II. A Class II or III trip will typically deliver mild whitewater with a few thrills, and Class IV and V are much more raucous. Class V trips often require previous rafting experience, and Class VI trips are for experts.

  • 01 of 07

    Utah's Green River

    Family Rafting on Utah's Green River
    ••• OARS

    Class: II to V. ​

    When: April to October.

    The Green River flows through some of Utah's most spectacular high-desert canyon country, including Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands National Park, before meeting up with the Colorado River south of Moab. ​

    Good bet: OARS 5-day trip through Desolation Canyon, featuring miles of Class II and III whitewater, is perfect for families that want something a tad more exciting than a float trip. The landscape is steeped in Butch Cassidy folklore. Minimum age is 6.

  • 02 of 07

    Arizona's Colorado River

    Family Rafting Trip in Grand Canyon
    ••• Western River Expeditions

    Class: I to V.​

    When: May to September.

    On many a bucket list is a trip on Arizona's Colorado River between the massive sandstone cliffs of the Grand Canyon.

    Good bet: Western River Expeditions four-day trip through the Grand Canyon covers 100 miles of Class I to III river and offers the chance to spy eagles and Big Horn sheep. Minimum age is 9.

  • 03 of 07

    West Virginia's Gauley River

    Family Rafting Trips on West Virginia's Gauley River
    ••• New & Gauley River Adventures

    Class: III to V.​

    When: September and October.

    West Virginia's Gauley River is one of the East Coast's most famous whitewaters when the dam is released each fall. While the Upper Gauley is famous for its hairy Class V runs, families with less experienced rafters should steer to the 13-mile Lower Gauley, which still provides plenty of Class III and IV rapids. ​

    Good bet: Full-day trips with New & Gauley River Adventures cover the entire Lower section. Minimum age is 12.

  • 04 of 07

    Idaho's Salmon River

    Family Rafting on the Salmon River
    ••• Canyons River Company

    Class: III to IV. ​

    When: June to August.

    Cutting through the largest roadless wilderness in the lower 48 states, Idaho's Salmon River offers a huge diversity of scenery and wildlife.

    Good bet: Starting on a rushing alpine river and ending in a majestic desert canyon, Canyons River Camping's six-day Middle Fork of the Salmon trip offers the excitement of Class III and IV rapids yet is accessible for beginners. Minimum age is 12 in June, but children can be as young as 6 later in the summer.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Colorado's Arkansas River

    Family Rafting Trip on Colorado's Arkansas River
    ••• Arkansas River Tours

    Class: II to V. ​

    When: May to September.

    The Colorado Rockies provide a scenic backdrop for many whitewater thrills near the source of the Arkansas River. Highlights for families include Class II and III rapids with names such as the Zoom Flume and the Big Drop.

    Good bet: Perfect for first timers, Arkansas River Tours runs two-day overnight trips that combine Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Brown’s Canyon, or the Royal Gorge with camping at a riverside location in Cotopaxi. Minimum age is 8.

  • 06 of 07

    Maine's Kennebec River

    Family Rafting Trips in Maine
    ••• Northern Outdoors

    Class: II to IV.

    When: May to October.

    Maine's Kennebec River is the most popular paddling destination in New England thanks to consistent Class II to IV whitewater rafting all summer and fall.

    Good bet: Northern Outdoors runs full-day trips on the 12-mile stretch of river from its source at Moosehead Lake through a rock-walled gorge in the Upper Kennebec into the easygoing Lower Kennebec. Minimum age is 10 on the Upper Gorge (Class III and IV) and age 8 on the Lower Kennebec (Class II and III).

  • 07 of 07

    Pennsylvania's Youghiogheny River

    Family Rafting on Pennsylvania's Youghiogheny River
    ••• Wilderness Voyageurs

    Class: III and IV.

    When: April to October.

    Looking for a quick rafting day trip in the Mid-Atlantic that's exciting enough to impress teens? The Lower Youghiogheny (pronounced YOK-i-gain-y) delivers eight fun miles of whitewater in southwestern Pennsylvania, about two hours south of Pittsburgh.

    Good bet: Wilderness Voyageurs, located in Ohiopyle State Park, runs trips down Class III and IV rapids that last between three and five hours. Minimum age is 12.

    - Edited by Suzanne Rowan Kelleher