By Candyce H. Stapen, Family Travel Expert
Whitewater rafting is a thrilling and surprisingly family-friendly adventure, giving kids, parents, and grandparents the chance to build teamwork while navigating churning waterways threading through forests, canyons, and other impressive sights. On most outings, no experience is necessary because guides accompany rafters and oversee their paddling.
These mild-to-wild day outings and multiday trips let your crew experience the one-of-a-kind excitement of riding riffles and rapids—and feel the exhilarating hilarity of receiving blasts of whitewater to the face—on some of the most iconic rivers in the United States.
Pictured above: Chattooga River rafting in South Carolina
Case Conti Visuals
Idaho’s Lower Salmon River Canyons
On a multiday Family Magic Rafting Trip from ROW Adventures, a specially trained guide known as a “River Jester” engages kids with activities such as searching for animal tracks, building sandcastles, and sleeping out under the stars. A longtime leader in family-friendly raft trips, ROW schedules these excursions through the canyons of Idaho’s Lower Salmon River. The region’s white sandy beaches and warm, swimmable waters have prompted some to nickname it “the Riviera of the West.”
To journey through the steep canyons and craggy mountains, you can ride in a no-work, oar-powered boat steered by a guide, paddle a raft, or take on the class III rapids in an inflatable kayak. When groups arrive back in camp, they’ll find tents already set up and hors d’oeuvres on the way.
Season: July to September
Minimum age: 5 years (10 years during high water)
Trip duration: 4 nights/5 days
Western River Expeditions
Utah's Desolation Canyon
The thrills on a Desolation Canyon trip with Western River Expeditionsstart with the flight on a small plane from Moab to the put-in point. Below, the canyons unfurl as a ribbon of striated pink and cream mesas among peaks edged by juniper and other evergreen trees.
Once you’re on the raft, stretches of slow-moving flat water separate the class II-III rapids, making the trip fun but not terrifying for first-time river runners. Although guides row the group in 18-foot oar boats, you can take turns paddling two-person kayaks through the Green River. Unlike ice-cold mountain waters, the river's summer temperatures fall in a swimmable range of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
From campsites on sandy beaches, guides lead hikes to ancient petroglyphs. And even though Western River Expeditions provides tents, many families opt to sleep under the dazzling night sky.
Season: June and July
Minimum age: 5 years
Trip duration: 4 nights/5 days
South Carolina's Chattooga River
Raft through a pristine forest on the Chattooga River, a federally designated "Wild and Scenic" waterway where no development mars the surrounding countryside. Among the oldest operators on the Chattooga, Wildwateroffers plenty of options, starting with moderate half- or full-day trips with a chance to get drenched on the mighty Bull Sluice, a class IV rapid (alternatively, you can always opt to get out of the raft and walk around the spot on land).
Wildwater also has zip lines, overnight camping, and lodging in yurts, cabins, and cottages.
Season: March or April to October
Minimum age: 8–12 years, depending on river difficulty
Trip duration: half-day, full-day, overnight
Oregon's Rogue River
On multiday family trips, OARS—a trailblazer in the family rafting game—designates a guide as a “Fun Director” who organizes volleyball games, river swims, and other activities for kids when groups aren’t rafting. For many kids and adults, the Rogue River serves up just the right mix of class III-IV rapids separated by flat water as the river cuts through Oregon’s pine- and oak-covered Siskiyou Mountains.
Along the way, you might spot bald eagles, bears, otters, and deer. OARS uses a mix of inflatable kayaks, oar rafts powered by guides, and paddle rafts in which everyone paddles, overseen by a guide who steers. Ask what’s available on your trip.
Season: May to September
Minimum age: 7 years
Trip duration: 3–5 days
Pennsylvania’s Youghiogheny River
Rated among the best Mid-Atlantic whitewater rivers, the Youghiogheny—or Yough (pronounced “Yok”) for short—flows north from Maryland into Pennsylvania. More easygoing float trip than wild whitewater adventure, the Middle Yough’s class I-II rapids appear between spread-out flat sections. On guide-assisted trips from Wilderness Voyageurs, a pro leads the way from one boat while guests captain their own rafts.
For more octane, families with teens can opt for an outing (either guide-escorted as above or with a guide in every boat) on the class III+ rapids of the Lower Yough. Only experienced rafters should attempt the Upper Yough, with its heart-pounding stretch of class V rapids.
Season: March to October
Minimum ages: 5 years for the Middle Yough, 12 years for the Lower Yough, 16 years for the Upper Yough
Trip duration: full day
Adventures on the Gorge
West Virginia's New River
Raft through the USA’s newest national park with Adventures on the Gorge, which offers trips on West Virginia’s New River. Designated New River Gorge National Park and Preservein 2020, the picturesque landscape surrounds rushing water that pushes you past imposing cliffs, riverbanks overhung with willows, and peaks lush with pine and beech trees.
Options from Adventures on the Gorge range from daylong or multiday trips on the mostly class I and II rapids of the Upper New River (a good choice for young grade-schoolers) to more intense class II–IV rapids on the rugged Lower New River (better for tweens and teens). Off the water, fly through the tree canopy on zip lines, play paintball, and hit the catwalk under the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest steel span in the western hemisphere. If you stay overnight at the 350-acre adventure resort, you can choose from cabins, vacation homes, RV sites, and campgrounds.
Season: April to October
Minimum ages: 6 years for Upper New River, 12 years for Lower New River
Trip duration: 1–3 days
Echo Canyon River Expeditions
Colorado's Arkansas River
Many of the trips operated by Echo Canyon River Expeditionson the Arkansas River flow through Browns Canyon, designated a national monument in 2015. Family rafters appreciate the spot for its mountain scenery, which includes views of some of Colorado’s highest peaks. You can get a good look during the river’s calm stretches between class II-III rapids.
First-timers might want to try rowing in a paddle-assisted oar raft skippered by a guide. More experienced rafters team up to maneuver their own boats through splashy rapids with names like Pinball and Zoom Flume.
Elsewhere along the river, teens in search of a rush will find it in the Royal Gorge, with its roiling class III–V rapids. Younger kids and those into gentler thrills might prefer Bighorn Sheep Canyon, a scenic stretch of mild whitewater with plenty of float time. Afterward, add a zip line experience or scenic rail trip and stay overnight in a cabin or glamping tent.
Season: Memorial Day to Labor Day
Minimum ages: 7 years for Browns Canyon, 14-18 years for Royal Gorge, 4 years for a float trip
Trip duration: half-day, full-day, or overnight
North Country Rivers
Maine's Kennebec and Dead Rivers
Maine lures paddlers with some of the best whitewater in New England. Because of daily dam releases, the Kennebec River (pictured above) consistently challenges rafters with big waves and class II-IV rapids that are fun without requiring tons of expertise. North Country Riversputs a guide in every boat.
If you can handle a tough challenge, consider the Dead River, 16 miles of continuous class III–IV+ whitewater that can be rafted only eight times a season after dam releases. You won’t have time to look for bald eagles and moose on the Dead; pick the Kennebec for wildlife viewing. Choose a day trip on either river or combine a day of each separated by an overnight stay in one of the outfitter’s cabins, RV sites, or campsites. Can’t stand the idea of leaving Maine without seeing a moose? Go ahead and add a moose wildlife safari through the woods.
Season: April to October
Minimum ages: 8–12 years for the Kennebec, 8–10 years for the Dead, depending on water flow
Trip duration: half-day or full-day on the Kennebec, full-day on the Dead; combine both rivers on a 2-day trip with cabin stay