Paddle through the parks

With river season on the rise, a survey of options from around the country

Courtesy of The National Park Service

Floating down western Colorado’s Yampa River is an exercise in opposing forces: stillness and motion. As our raft bobs through gentle currents, our guide draws in her oars, letting the river take us where it will. Newly alert, her head lifts and ours follow; a peregrine falcon soars high above the flesh-toned canyon wall. Later, continuing this quiet way, we spot a mother bighorn sheep with her yearling scrambling up a crumbling rock bank. Beneath the raft, we hear the cackle of sand and watch concentric rings left by surfacing fish.

Although we are floating through the center of popular Dinosaur National Monument, we see few other people. Most of the crowds travel the asphalt, unaware that there is another, wetter byway into the park. As a mode of transport, river running is unsurpassed. It offers access and removal simultaneously; it offers the calmest tranquillity and the most exhilarating excitement.

If the nation’s park units represent the heart of our natural legacy, the rivers flowing through them are the central arteries, the life-blood offering nourishment, habitat, shelter, and, of course, geological beginnings. Best yet for us visitors, they offer fun. As Water Rat says famously to Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

A word on safety: even ‘easy’ river trips can turn unpredictable, as Rat and Mole found out. Only people with extensive outdoor experience, including wilderness first aid certification, swiftwater rescue training and whitewater skills, should attempt ‘private,’ selfguided trips. All of the following desti nations are served by professional guides, and the parks can help provide specific information depending on the type of river trip you’d like.

For more information about the Yampa River, usually run as a five-day wilderness trip, visit the Dinosaur National Monument website at River permits for private trips are issued by lottery several months in advance of the spring and summer season.

Alsek River, Alaska:

Alaska is the land of monuments: big mountains, big rivers and big national parks. The Alsek River embodies all three as it flows from the heart of the St. Elias Mountains, where it drains the largest non-polar ice-cap in the world, to its delta at Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska.

Most people begin their journey on the moderately gentle Tatshenshini River in the Yukon territory, then join up with the Alsek at a breathtaking mountainous confluence just east of the U.S./Canada border. The total 140-mile trip is best taken over 10 or more days, leaving plenty of time to hike the alpine benches above the braided river channel, explore the fresh glacial valleys and study numerous wolf, grizzly and moose tracks.

Together, the Tatshenshini and Alsek flow through the largest protected area on Earth: 23 million acres in Canadian provincial parks, wildlife refuges and U.S. national parks. The Alsek is North America’s only river protected from source to mouth, according toTim Palmer, author of America by Rivers. So overwhelming is the scenery that explorer Edward Glave wrote in his 1890 journal: “There is such an incessant display of scenic grandeur that it becomes tiresome…” The river is still so remote that it requires chartering a plane at the end in Dry Bay in order to return to civilization (there are no roads).

A tightly regulated wilderness, the waiting list for private permits runs approximately two years and costs $100. They must be obtained from Glacier Bay National Park (the river information line is 907-784-3370). Be prepared for rain and cold temperatures throughout the season, which runs from late June through September. Numerous companies offer full-service guided trips, often with no wait list. For a complete list of outfitters, call the park.

Rio Grande River, Texas:

If the Alsek is the great wilderness river trip of the north, the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park is its desert counterpart. Another international river, the Rio Grande slices the enormous cultural chasm between Texas and Mexico. The boat’s eye view, however, is one of unity: Rising from both sides of the river are dramatic buff canyon walls, delicate spindly ocatillo cactus and the lonely soaring of the raven. 

As it flows around the western dip of Texas, the remote stretch of river borders the park for 118 miles. In this distance, it has carved three deep canyons into the Chihuahuan desert: Santa Elena, Boquillas and Mariscal. Many people run all three as popular weeklong wilderness trip, or choose just one or two canyons as a shorter trip. Just downstream, the “lower canyons,” another week’s trip, are so beautiful they are also federally protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1978. In total, the National Park Service administers 245 miles of the Rio Grande, all of which is raftable. Both the upper and lower canyons offer easy to moderate whitewater, extraordinary (though rugged) hiking opportunities in numerous side canyons and, in spring, colorful desert wildflowers. The river can be run year-round, although the most popular time is around spring break.

For private river trips in the park or on the Wild and Scenic River, a free permit must be obtained at any of the ranger stations. No advance reservations are required at this time. For more information, visit the National Park Service website for the Rio Grande River: Local companies rent gear, run shuttles and guide full-service trips: Far Flung Outdoor Center ( and Big Bend River Tours ( 

Snake River, Wyoming:

Perhaps the most photographed mountains in the world, the snowcapped Tetons offer a spectacular companion to the gentle Snake River as it flows 26 miles through Grand Teton National Park. Considered an easy float trip, the river below Jackson Lake Dam is famed for scenery rather than whitewater. Wildlife abounds in this heart of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem; an all-day or half-day trip will likely reveal moose grazing in riverside willows, bald eagles perched on cottonwood branches and great blue herons soaring above gravel bars. Bears and bison also inhabit these reaches.

Several sections are suitable for rafting, the most popular being a 10-mile stretch above the small town of Moose. Ideal for families and novices, the water is nevertheless swift and very cold. In the spring when snow is melting, the river can be swollen, silty and filled with log-jams. Later in the summer, afternoon thunderstorms and strong winds are not uncommon, so private boaters must be experienced and prepared for variable conditions.

Over 70,000 people per season run the river from mid-May to late September. Private boaters will need to obtain a boat permit, which costs $10 and is good for seven days, from one of several ranger stations. Camping and fires are prohibited along the river. For more information, contact Grand Teton National Park, 307-739-3300.

Several rafting companies offer guided trips. A list of providers is available at

Nearby Jackson Hole offers a wide range of restaurants and accommodations. Visit for more information.

New River, West Virginia:

Although the American West provides more than its share of wilderness river experiences, deep in the hills of central Appalachia a big, clear river tries its hardest to offer stiff competition. “In the 50-mile radius of where I’m settin’,” drawls West Virginia raft-guide Tommy Canady, “There’s more whitewater than any enthusiast could ever imagine. It’s all I need, that’s for sure.”

The New River Gorge National River is administered by the Park Service for 53 miles, enough to offer a wide variety of terrain and river-running options to nearly 200,000 people per year.

Don’t let its name fool you; the New River wends through some of the oldest terrain in the world. From its wild headwaters near Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina to its confluence with the Gauley River in West Virginia, the New flows through the spine of the ancient Appalachians, which first uplifted 450 million years ago.

The result today is spectacular. Known as the Grand Canyon of the East, the New River Gorge encases the broiling river in 1,200-foot sandstone canyon walls. One of the most exciting whitewater stretches in the country, the gorge is usually rafted in one day. The run ends with a crescendo of rambunctious rapids, including the famous Double Z just upstream of the New River Gorge Bridge.

For those interested in a less bloodthumping ride, the upper New offers several dozen miles of scenic floating through sun-drenched fields and steepwalled hardwood forests. Here the river can accommodate anything from a oneday canoe or raft trip to a multi-day camping adventure. Several rafting companies, such as New & Gauley River Adventures (800-SKY-RAFT) will cater creative trips to meet a family’s needs. To obtain a complete list of outfitters, as well as primitive camping sites, contact the New River Gorge National River at 304-465-0508. The rafting season runs from early April through October.