Multi-Day Trips in the West
When it comes to overnight river trips, the Western US has an amazing collection of options, with each state offering something different. Idaho is known as the whitewater state. Arizona has the Grand Canyon. Utah is filled with beautiful desert canyon rivers. California is unparalleled, if you're a class V paddler. But what state offers the most diverse, accessible, roadless options to get out in a raft or dory and sleep under the stars?
I don't think most people outside of Oregon would even place Oregon in the top 3, yet we have more river miles protected under the Wild & Scenic River program than any state other than Alaska. And if you look at the diversity and accessibility, from the Grande Ronde in the NE corner, the Owhyee in the SE corner, and the Illinois in the SW corner, all accessible without a permit (Self issuing at the put in), you see that Oregon is filled with roadless options.
Let’s look at the contenders. “P” denotes a lottery permit being needed, “NP” means no permit or a self-issue permit is needed. With one or two exceptions, I’ve done most of the rivers on this list, so I’m drawing from personal experience. Remember, we’re talking rivers that are regularly done with rafts or dories, done as a multi day trip, and don't have an adjacent road.
- Snake/Hells Canyon(P): Worth doing, but the jet boats, bathtub ring, and lack of shade.
- Grande Ronde(NP): It’s easy to see why Chief Joseph didn't want to leave this Area. Great class 2+ trip with amazing camps. Also a lower run into the Snake, but it’s mostly done for fishing, then only rarely due to a rapid that needs to be lined in a drift boat towards the end.
- Middle Owhyee (NP): Limited season, but a great run if you're ready for a little class 4+
- Lower Owhyee (NP): Limited season. A classic that doesn't get run that often due to it’s remoteness.
- John Day (P): 100+ miles of beautiful high desert with only 1 road crossing.
- Deschutes (Semi permitted, Access fee): Good water all year. The 2 different runs can get a little busy during peak season.
- Upper Klamath (NP): 1-2 day run. Good summer class 4.
- Rogue (P): Classic family overnight trip. One of the original 8 W & S rivers.
- Illinois (NP): Maybe the best class 4/5 overnight raft trip in the west.
- Chetco (NP): The Chetco doesn't meet my own guidelines since I don't know if it’s ever been rafted due to the long hike in, but it is done commercially by Northwest Rafting Company with inflatable kayaks, so it falls in a unique niche. Amazing 3 day trip on the clearest water you’ve ever seen.
Ok, I’ll admit, if you remove the accessibility/permit restrictions on some of Idaho’s best runs, it would probably rank #1. Accessibility has to be taken into account thou on some of these rivers. Examples: I last did the Selway in ’83, and have applied for a permit most years since, and never been lucky to win a launch. I’ve done the Middle Fork a handful of times over the years, but never between 1.5’ & 6’ on the gauge… Getting a peak season launch can be difficult.
- Selway (P): 30 private permits annually. An amazing trip.
- MF Salmon (P): A classic, must do trip, but with thousands of applicants for a few launches, good luck.
- Main Salmon (P): Another great family trip, with good water all summer.
- Snake/Hells Canyon (P): Worth doing, but the jet boats, bathtub ring, and lack of shade.
- Lower Salmon (NP): Good summer family trip. Good camping
- SF Salmon (NP): Great trip, if your skills are up to a class 4+ run.
- Jarbridge/ Brueanu (NP): A classic for those who want to do a little work, and skills are up to the challenge.
Some classic runs, focused on a couple of rivers. Not a lot of diversity.
- Green/Gates of Ladore (P): Great family trip, better in the early season.
- Green/Desolation & Gray (P): Another classic, except for those darn mosquitoes.
- Green/ Stillwater (NP): Beautiful flat stretch of water
- Colorado/Westwater (P): Nice 1-2 day trip with a fun, short canyon.
- Colorado/Cataract (P): Classic big water run. The whitewater section is a little short.
- Dolores (NP): Never paddled here, so I don't have much to add.
- San Juan (P): Multiple sections. I’ve only done the section from Mexican Hat down. One of my kids favorite runs when they were young.
When you have the Colorado thru the Grand Canyon in your state, you’re always going to rank pretty high.
- Colorado/GC: Should count this 3 times due to the length and beauty of this trip. There is the slight problem with accessibility.
- Salt (P?): Never been down the Salt, but it looks beautiful. Limited season.
- Verde(P?): No first hand information. limited season.
A great state to paddle in, but very limited for roadless, overnight trips.
- Yampa (P): Another classic trip.
- Dolores (NP): Never been, but i’ve always wanted to…
Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, California, New Mexico, and Texas
There are a few gems here like the Smith and the MF of the Flathead, Tuolumne, Rio Grande, Missouri, but there are an amazingly few overnight raft runs in these states.
Again, let me state, if you’re a class V kayaker/rafter California is in a league by its self. And when I say class V, I mean California class V, not Utah class V.
Here’s my Ranking
#1 Oregon - It’s obviously #1
#2 Idaho - If I could ever get on the Selway again, it would be #1
#3 Arizona - Grand Canyon. Enough said.
#4 Utah - If every river on your list is compared to the GC, It’s hard to rank you higher
#5 Colorado - Great rivers, just not a lot of multi-day options.