We first met my son’s new acquaintance sitting on a log outside of our hotel room. The quartet of families joining our four-day, three-night float trip down the San Juan River had been instructed to gather outside in a few minutes for a little get-to-know-you meeting, but this slender fellow didn’t seem in any hurry. Neither did my five-year-old son, Charlie, who was studying him intently.
“I think his name is Gerald,” Charlie announced.
“Gerald, huh? Well, I suppose that’s as good a name as any for a lizard,” I replied, ushering my little boy toward the group.
We’d booked the rafting excursion six months prior to add some adventure to our summer—adventure of the milder sort. After motoring from Boulder to the blip on the map that is Bluff, Utah, we packed up the dry bags our guides provided, met the other passengers, and reveled in one last night with electricity before hitting the river.
The next morning dawned sunny and hot at what felt like 100 degrees in the shade. Aboard the 18-foot oared rafts, our guides steered us past coyote willow and Russian olive plants and pointed out cliff swallows’ gravity-defying mud nests on the canyon walls. With our minds focused on the area’s natural beauty, the heat was hardly noticeable. And when it was, a jump overboard into the slow-moving, 80-degree water solved the problem.
Fun for Kids, Even Off the Raft
Splashing in the river was a particular highlight for my little guy and the four other kids on the trip, all under age 10. Once we’d set up camp for the night, they returned to the tide pools to make sand pies, selling them to the onlooking parents for exorbitant prices. After dinner, while the adults swapped “What do you dos?” the kids took advantage of their looser reins to hunt for lizards and build rock castles. Crawling into our sleeping bags, I asked Charlie, “Are you having fun?” No answer. He was already asleep.
The following day we floated a few miles downstream before stopping at a spot so dusty and barren it looked uninhabitable for anyone but Gerald. After a brief hike, however, we found ourselves gaping at River House. The kids endured the guides’ history lesson on the two-story Ancestral Puebloan structure and obediently walked a hundred yards further to the midden heap, an ancient dump area for domestic waste. There, a guide picked up a quarter-sized, rust-colored triangle and said, “Check out this piece of pottery. It’s at least 800 years old.”
That caught the kids’ attention. Immediately their eyes were glued to the ground, calling out their finds as they grouped them in a small collection pile. When it was finally time to go, the guides reminded the kids these were not souvenirs and asked them to help re-scatter the remnants. Walking back to the raft, my son rambled on about the treasures he’d found, adding, “It’s good we left them there for other people to see.”
Our third full day on the trip included eagle sightings, otter tracks, and a group of bighorn sheep grazing on the bank opposite camp. Spotting something hairy creeping on a bush, my son called out, “Tarantula!” and fielded questions from his friends about the find.
Final Floating Thoughts
Our final morning on the water went by too quickly, and we soon found ourselves loading into the vans that would drive us back to our starting point in Bluff. The kids (now best friends) all jockeyed for seats near each other. Listening to them crack up at their inside jokes, I wondered what impact the trip might have on my son long-term. A desire to live life to the fullest? Recognition of the importance of not sweating the small stuff? A confidence boost? I was still running through the clichés when we pulled up to the hotel.
As we loaded our car, Charlie went back over to the log, and sure enough, there was Gerald. This time, my son introduced the lizard to his friends, and they watched him—no pestering, just observing—until the adults hollered it was time to leave. We passed around farewells and got my little guy buckled into his car seat. Backing out of the parking spot, Charlie rolled down the window and called, “Bye Gerald! See you next time!”
And I realized it didn’t matter if Charlie walked away from this experience with the kid version of an epiphany. What mattered is that we’d whetted his appetite to do it again.
Float Trip Tips
Veteran OARS guide Dave Garcia offers up these suggestions for parents planning a family outing on the water.
Book around the weather.
When planning where and when to take a float trip, consider how well your kids do in certain conditions. “Maybe your six-year-old likes the heat and can handle it, but I’ve also seen kids completely melt down when it’s 105 degrees,” Garcia says. Many guiding companies offer trips from April through September (OARS trips span March through November), so if possible, select dates where average temperatures will suit your children’s temperaments.
Ready your body.
“[Many] types of people can go on these trips,” Garcia says, noting the river isn’t just for the super adventurous or athletic among us. “If you’re able to get on and off a boat under your own power and generally walk around short distances, then you can go on these trips.” That said, it’s still smart to prepare a little one, especially if you’re going on a multi-day float trip. You certainly don’t have to hit the gym, Garcia says, but consider getting out for a couple short hikes prior to the excursion. A few days before the trip, lay off the fast-food and soda and opt instead for more nutritious fuel and lots of water.
Prepare to soak it in.
Refocus your kids’ expectations ahead of time that this is not a trip where you’ll experience the white-knuckled adrenaline rush of white water. You will see, however, eagles soaring overhead, ancient cliff dwellings, and fossils embedded in canyon walls: “A river trip is a way to get to places that you couldn’t otherwise get to and see things you wouldn’t otherwise see,” Garcia says.
Where To Float
Ready to float? Here are four great trips around Colorado.
Half- or full-day tours through Bighorn Sheep Canyon with Echo Canyon River Expeditions are the perfect way for first-time floaters to get their feet wet. Starting in Cañon City, this jaunt along the Arkansas River includes a few smaller rapids, though most of the trip is calm enough to keep an eye out for the canyon’s namesake mammal. Book a glamp-site with Royal Gorge Cabins and save the drive home for another day.raftecho.com
A half-day trip down the Middle Roaring Fork with Aspen Whitewater Rafting offers smooth sailing with a few mild splashes. Book their “Rafting and Ranching” package, and your float comes with a guided tour of the barnyard at nearby Rock Bottom Ranch. aspenwhitewater.com
Those looking for a full-day float should consider a leisurely ride along the Upper Colorado River with Kodi Rafting, which allows riders as young as age three. Highlights include Gore Canyon’s stunning 1,000-foot walls, a dip in a natural hot spring, and a quick hike to see dinosaur tracks. whitewatercolorado.com
OARS specializes in multi-day river runs across the world. If you want to stay local, check out their three-day float down the Green River. Suitable for kids age seven and up most of the season, the trip winds through three canyons, including the scarlet slots of the Gates of Lodore near Dinosaur National Park. oars.com
While you’ll certainly want to follow your outfitter’s packing list, here are a few time-tested river essentials to have on hand.
The Shoes: Chaco Kid’s Z/1 EcoTread
Read any rafting company’s what-to-wear guidelines and they’ll tell you to wear good river shoes that strap on tight and have decent tread. Leave the flip-flops at home and opt instead for Chaco’s Kid’s Z/1 sandals. Highly durable and machine-washable, these sandals now come in funky, kid-approved colors.
The Shades: Knockaround Kids Sunglasses
Boasting UV400 sun protection and polarized lenses, kids will love Knockaround’s adorable array of sunny Gs. At around $20 a pop, the world won’t end if the glasses get lost in the big drink.
The Hat: Outdoor Research Kids’ Seattle Sombrero
Protect your child’s head, neck, and face with the Seattle Sombrero, featuring UPF 50+ protection. If your crew encounters rainy conditions, its brim will direct water away from little peepers, too.
The Shirt: Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Sun Hoody
It might seem counterintuitive to wear a hoodie on a hot day, but a light, long-sleeved top is a must-have for both sun protection and beating the heat (thank you, evaporative cooling). This recycled polyester jersey comes with odor control technology and a 50+ UPF rating.
The Water Bottle: MiiR 23oz Vacuum Insulated Bottle
Be sure to drink water while out on the water. MiiR’s double-wall vacuum-insulated bottles promise to keep drinks frosty for more than 24 hours, and the proprietary Perfect Seal prevents inopportune leaks.
The Bug Protection: Natrapel
Get 12-hour protection from mosquitoes, ticks, and biting flies with Natrapel’s convenient wipes or spray, which use CDC-approved picaridin as repellent. The DEET-alternative formula is approved for kids age two months and up as well as pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
The Sun Block: Rocky Mountain Sunscreen
When you’re on the water, the sun is not only beating down from above, but it’s also bouncing up from below. This locally developed sunscreen works like moisturizer without clogging pores, while allowing the body to breathe and sweat.