9 Overnight Rafting Trips in the Southwest that will Change Your Life

By Kim Cassels   •   September 29, 2022

9 Overnight Rafting Trips in the Southwest that will Change Your Life

Gates of Lodore Hike - Lodore - Mild to Wild Rafting

If you’ve never taken these overnight rafting trips in the Southwest, or you’ve already indulged in some and are looking for more to explore— huzzah! This is exactly where you need to be.

This list boasts some lesser-known overnight rafting trips in the Southwest, many that people seldom hear about due to their remote and under-the-radar reputations. Each year, people who spend days along these rivers at a time come back with new perspectives, a profound appreciation for the wild places left on our evolving planet, and a passion to protect the vulnerability of their undeniable grandeur.

Like the drastic spectrum of terrain throughout the Southwest, some rivers are better fit for more adventurous and active explorers, while others are perfect for absolute relaxation. Enjoy browsing through each river, and feel free to explore them further for more details, dates, and pricing. All of the trips listed are consolidated on this site.

#1 Salt River – Arizona 

Salt River Rafting Arizona-Mild to Wild

📍Central Arizona 

🌊 Intermediate 

👋 2 – 4 Day Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ March – May

❄️ High Water Season: Mid-April

Nicknamed “The Little Grand Canyon,” the Salt River is an elusive stretch of rugged wilderness, and thus one of the most sought-after overnight rafting trips in the Southwest. Its cult following is definitely one-of-a-kind in the river community. 

The Salt River is elusive due to the capricious nature of the White Mountains that source the waterway. The range usually gets most of its snow at the tail-end of winter, and oftentimes only enough for a brief runoff for rafting in early spring. 

But when the water does come, it promises one of the best rides in Arizona and the region at large. Constant, splashy whitewater satisfies paddle-ready thrill seekers, while being manageable for novice river runners. 

Thanks to the multiple take-outs along the Salt River Canyon, overnight trips can range from 2 – 6 days. Along the way, saguaro and flowering cacti, abundant wildlife, and multicolored cliffs wait to be admired. 

Explore Overnight Salt River Trips


#2 Yampa River – Colorado & Utah 

Yampa River Rafting - Dinosaur National Monument - Mild to Wild Rafting

📍Dinosaur National Monument, CO/UT

🌊 Intermediate 

👋 4 – 5 Day Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ May – July 

❄️ High Water Season: Early June 

The Yampa River is one of the rarest overnight rafting trips in the Southwest, as well as in the United States. It is the last free flowing river in the Colorado River Basin, which has allowed its wilderness areas to thrive for thousands of years without interruption. In a day and age when nearly every major waterway is dammed throughout the world, the Yampa is cherished as the last of the wild ones. 

Throughout this slick rock canyon, imposing alcoves host impressive archeological sites, meadows glitter with high-desert wildflowers, and wildlife scurries across cliffs. It is a remarkable haven for history, biodiversity and tranquility. As the Yampa’s box canyon closes in, rapid sections along the way include a frothy Class IV called Warm Springs, as well as Class III holes like Big Joe and Teepee.

When rafting the Yampa, you’ll greet the Green River in the dwarfing scenery of Echo Park. Here, the muddy waters of the Yampa line up against the Green, adding to the splendor of these two wild rivers. The rest of the trip is spent bounding down through artifact-filled Island Park and splash-tactic Split Mountain.

Learn More about Rafting the Yampa River


#3 Cataract Canyon – Utah 

Cataract Canyon Scenery - Utah - Mild to Wild Rafting

📍Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park 

🌊 Intermediate – Wild 

👋 2 – 6 Days Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ March – October 

❄️ High Water Season: Late May to Early June 

Cataract Canyon is one of the most popular overnight rafting trips in the Southwest, but also in the United States. It’s ferocious whitewater brings adventurers from all over the world to get a piece of its Class V action. 

“Cat” trips aren’t just about the rapids however, as this massive canyon has countless archaeological treasures, majestic side canyons, and looming hikes. The roaring rapid section of Cataract Canyon is only about 15 miles long, where the rest of the 80 miles is glossed with calm waters the reflect the grand scenery above. 

For those looking to check all the boxes on excitement, scenery, and side-adventures, Cataract Canyon is the trip. Keep in mind that the canyon only has 96 miles between the put-in and take-out, so longer trips allow for more time to explore this massive Martian playground. 

Check Out Cataract Canyon Trips


#4 Gate of Lodore – Colorado & Utah 

Gates of Lodore Eddy Out - Lodore - Mild to Wild Rafting

📍Dinosaur National Monument, CO/UT

🌊 Intermediate 

👋 3 – 4 Day Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ May – August 

❄️ High Water Season: Early June 

The Gates of Lodore is a dramatic chasm that ribbons right through a rugged mountain range between Colorado and Utah. It’s diverse and puzzling geologic structure, rich forests, and emerald green waters make it one of the most stunning river canyons on Earth.

Lodore Canyon was formed by the Green River, and is home to a number of pristine petroglyphs and infamous class IV rapids. Disaster Falls, Whirlpool Canyon, and Split Mountain are a few of the whitewater sections that level up the thrills of this trip. 

Sharing Dinosaur National Monument with another ancient river, it eventually meets the Yampa in the jaw dropping confluence of Echo Park. The addition of the Yampa’s flow makes for longer rapid sections and roaring canyons the last half of the trip.

If you are looking for the culmination of history, whitewater, and a landscape melding between desert and mountains, Lodore is a top choice for overnight rafting trips in the Southwest. 

See the hype on Gates of Lodore


#5 Desolation Canyon – Utah

Kayaks And Rafts Scenic View - Desolation Canyon - Mild to Wild Rafting

📍The most remote wilderness study area in the Lower 48, Utah 

🌊 Mild 

👋 4 – 6 Day Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ May – September 

❄️ High Water Season – June 

Desolation Canyon is a highly protected wilderness study area, and is a deeply beloved overnight rafting trip in the river running community. “Deso” is a gargantuan canyon that occasionally plummets farther into the Earth than the Grand Canyon. 

The crumbling scene was carved by the Green River, and is known for its incredibly rich history; prehistoric, indigenous, and Wild West included. Expect plenty of detours to explore old homesteads, failed dam projects, petroglyphs, and fossils. 

Another wonderful attribute to Deso is its frequent Class II and III rapid sections. Most of the rapids are friendly enough for novice kayakers, which is great for those who want to bump up the excitement on their trip. The remote nature of this trip includes a scenic flight into the canyon. Passengers land on top of a mesa overlooking the Green River before hiking down to the boats to start their 83 mile journey. 

Discover the grandeur of Desolation Canyon


#6 Upper Animas – Colorado 

Scenic Upper Animas River - Upper Animas Rafting - Mild to Wild

📍Colorado’s largest wilderness area: Weminuche Wilderness 

🌊 Wild 

👋 2-3 Day Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ June – early August

❄️ High Water Season: Early June 

For adrenaline seekers with a couple of rodeos already under their paddle, the Upper Animas is the premier Southwest Colorado overnight whitewater trip. Nestled over 9,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains, the put-ins and take-outs along the Upper Animas require a shuttle on the historic Durango Silverton train. 

As for the scenery, one would be hard pressed to find a landscape more novelesque. The river thunders through the most pristine alpine in the state with snow capped fourteeners looming in the backdrop the entirety of the trip. One of the most beloved parts of camping along the Upper Animas River is how many peaks loom overhead, framing one of the brightest night skies one could ever lay eyes on. 

If you are looking for some of the best whitewater and mountain scenery for an overnight rafting trip in the Southwest, the Upper Animas River is your go to. Keep in mind, physical fitness is a requirement for this trip. 

Gander adventures on the Upper Animas


#7 Castle Valley – Utah 

Family Rafting Trip Moab Utah

📍Moab’s Stretch of the Colorado River 

🌊 Mild

👋 2-3 Day Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ March – October 

❄️ High Water Season: Late May – Early June 

Castle Valley is the perfect overnight rafting trip in the Southwest for those looking to float through Utah’s most iconic red rock scenery. If you’re looking for a trip to kayak the entire time, this is also the one! 

Aeolian sculptures fill the backdrop from the Colorado River, which are easy to admire for long stretches while playing on a stand up paddleboard or kayak. This trip does come with a few ripples along the way, but the majority of it will be glossed with flat water. 

The large campsites are sprawled across big sandy beaches, which are usually accompanied by mazes of sandstone and short trails to explore. This trip is heavy on the scenery, relaxation, and time to sink into the beauty of what reconnecting with the wilderness has to offer. It’s excellent option for families with young children, large groups, and retreats. 

See how scenic Castle Valley really is


#8 San Miguel River – Colorado 

two boats drifting down the San Miguel River with red cliffs in the background - Mild to Wild

📍South of Telluride, Colorado 

🌊 Intermediate 

👋 2 Day Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ June – July 

❄️ High Water Season – Early June 

The San Miguel is an exciting yet friendly river that flows out of Telluride, Colorado. Its narrow canyons and constant Class II rapids make it a great paddling trip for anyone who wants a piece of the action and a few good splashes to the mug. 

This is a shorter river trip where you get to enjoy a lot more time in camp each night. Groups looking to do  team building activities and other off-river excursions will love this overnight rafting trip. 

The San Miguel is also a great option for those who might not be comfortable being in super remote setting like the other destinations on this list. It follows a small highway (CO 145) for a good portion of the trip— but without being close enough to feel like you’re rafting alongside pavement the whole time. 

Check out the San Miguel Two Day trip


#9 Dolores River – Colorado 

rafting on dolores river through canyon – mild to wild rafting

📍Southwest Colorado

🌊 Intermediate – Wild 

👋 2 – 6 Day Trips 

🚣🏾‍♀️ The Dolores River only fills with enough water for rafting trips every few years in the spring.  

The Dolores River Canyon is the second longest flowing canyon in the United States. The isolated wilderness within this steep canyon is surrounded by dramatic scenery and Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Seldom visited, it is considered one of the most rare and magical canyons of the Southwest. 

The Dolores River lives up to its name, the “River of Sorrow ” due to the limited releases from the McPhee reservoir, leaving the riverbed dry most years. When the winters are generous with snowfall, mother nature overwhelms the heights of this blockage to allow water to cascade through the red rock and gold walls.

When the Dolores does flow, numerous Class IV rapids emerge throughout the lengthy river corridor in between beautifully calm and scenic stretches. You can expect that when the Dolores River fills that the permits and openings go very quickly!  

Explore the rarity of Dolores River trips


More Reading 

What You’ll Learn About Yourself When You Take a Multi-Day Rafting Trip

Why You Should Take Your Group Rafting and How it Makes Your Trip Way Easier 

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