Typically, the beginning of April marks the kick-off of the domestic rafting season for many outfitters in the Western U.S. At OARS, our outposts would normally be buzzing to life with gear checks, new hires, training trips, and our first spring launches. This year, however, as the entire world is in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re unsure of what’s in store for the 2020 whitewater rafting season—our 51st season on the water.
Like so many across the nation and world who are being impacted, our small family-owned business and employees are being hit hard by this. Currently, our April trips have been cancelled and we are considering cancellations of future trips approximately 30 days prior to departure. Despite all of the uncertainties and challenges ahead, we remain optimistic that we’ll be able to get back out on the river and enjoy a 2020 rafting season, albeit a bit delayed.
Right now our airports are nearly empty, some of our most treasured public lands and river corridors have been shut down, and nationwide mandates to shelter in place have been implemented for our own health and safety during the COVID-19 outbreak. A common thread during this unfathomable time, however, is that once some sort of normalcy returns, when it’s safe to hop in our cars and travel again, we’ll all be in need of a good adventure. And is there any better antidote to cabin fever than a wilderness river trip? That’s the silver-lining many rafting outfitters are counting on to get us through the days and weeks ahead. Not to mention, a solid snowpack across much of the West will guarantee some sweet spots for rafting well into fall this year.
The window for people to experience high-water spring rafting trips in 2020 may close before we can get back on the water, but the reliable whitewater favorites—classic river trips that offer a fun escape all season long—will be waiting for paddlers when we get to the other side of this.
What to Expect From the 2020 Whitewater Rafting Season
- Outfitters across the West are staying optimistic for a 2020 rafting season that will run from late spring or early summer through October.
- Whitewater trips with a short runnable window that depend on spring run-off like Oregon’s Owyhee will likely be out of play. However, with snowpack numbers across much of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho holding at average to slightly above average as of April 1 SNOTEL data, there will be ample rafting opportunities for beginner and experienced paddlers alike on beloved stretches of river like the Snake and Salmon in Idaho, the Green River through the Gates of Lodore in Utah, and the Arkansas River in Colorado.
- Adventurous travelers can also look forward to taking advantage of the oft-overlooked and ideal fall rafting conditions in the western U.S., especially on multi-day river trips in Utah like the Green River through Desolation Canyon and Colorado River through Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.
- Despite a below average snowpack in California and southeastern Oregon, dam-controlled rivers like the Tuolumne near Yosemite, American River near Sacramento and the Rogue in Oregon will offer reliable flows into September thanks to healthy upstream reservoir levels carried over from an above average snowpack in these river basins in 2019.
Below, we’ve checked in with our regional managers at OARS outposts throughout the West to get the latest intel and projections about the 2020 rafting season.
Snowpack numbers across northern Utah are currently teetering between average and a bit above average. Classic spring weather here has been going from warm and dry to cooler with some precipitation, so the next few weeks of April will really shape what the final runoff will look like across the region. Still, paddlers can count on a long season for Utah rafting.
In the Upper Green River Basin, the snowpack as of April 1 was sitting at 110% of average, and according to OARS Dinosaur Manager and Risk Management Officer, Bruce Lavoie, the upstream reservoirs are full so we’ll have consistent flows on the Green River this year. That’s good news for trips through Flaming Gorge, Gates of Lodore, and even Desolation Canyon on the Lower Green River.
Lavoie is hopeful about the upcoming season and adds that it should be a great year to explore Lodore which is expected to offer paddlers the “complete multi-day river package” through early September.
“The whitewater is splashy fun, especially in inflatable kayaks, and the hot, dry days are ideal for swimming,” he explains. “Combine that with cool, star-filled nights and it’s an awesome time to camp on the river.”
Conditions in southern Utah are similar, except on the San Juan River Basin which is teetering between average and a bit below average as of early April and is likely to become challenging to run later in the summer.
However, in the Upper Colorado River Basin above Lake Powell, the snowpack is at 107% of average and peak flows on the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon are currently predicted to be around 43,000 cubic feet per second, according to Seth Davis, OARS Moab Regional Manager. Nobody will be missing out on an epic high-water year like we saw in 2011 and got close to in 2019, but the good news here is the fact that the Colorado River will provide ample flows all season long.
“I’m still very much moving forward with getting ready to put trips on the water when the time is appropriate,” says Seth Davis, OARS Moab Regional Manager. “And with the ability to run trips into October, I’m hopeful we’ll still be able to get guests on trips and guides back to work.”
The other perk of moderate flows, like those expected in Utah’s Cataract Canyon and Desolation Canyon this season, are more sandbars available for camping, warmer water for swimming and increased opportunities to enjoy paddle boats and inflatable kayaks, continues Davis.
“After getting through COVID-19, being able to relax and let go with easy paddling and spectacular scenery will be just what everyone needs,” adds Davis.
The Yampa River Basin has a solid snowpack this season and is currently measuring 113% of average, but it’s too early to know whether or not paddlers will be able to take advantage of peak flows on the Yampa this season.
“With the given conditions, we are expected to see the Yampa peak around 10,000 cfs during the last week of May and the first week of June,” says Lavoie.
If we have a mild spring and outfitters are able to get back on the water sooner than later, however, the Yampa could be in play into July depending on how the next few weeks play out. It’s “the good ‘ol waiting game,” according to Lavoie.
Overall, Colorado’s statewide snowpack is average to above average, so paddlers should also be able to turn to popular whitewater rivers like the Arkansas for family-friendly flows through August.
According to OARS Idaho Regional Manager, Curt Chang, the Idaho snowpack as a whole is hanging in there at 90% of normal and more wet and cold weather over the next few weeks is needed to guarantee late summer flows into September on trips like the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Still, he anticipates the last half of the summer to look solid with average flows on the Main Salmon and Lower Salmon Rivers, as well as the Snake River through Hells Canyon.
Like many people in the rafting industry, Chang believes wilderness river trips will be a sought-after reprieve once people can safely travel again.
“I personally feel that getting back to the river will be a necessary part of the recovery process,” says Chang.
After a near-record setting year in 2019, California’s statewide snowpack rebounded slightly in March, but only measured 53% of average after the annual April 1 snow survey. Snowpack numbers in key river basins currently range from 50% of average in the Kern River Basin in the southern Sierra to 78% of average in the Klamath River Basin in the northwestern region of the state. In the Central part of the state, including the American and Tuolumne River Basins, the snowpack is at 56% of average.
The silver lining in California is that many of the most popular and accessible whitewater runs rely on dam-controlled releases from upstream reservoirs, which are still at healthy levels thanks to carryover from last year’s abundant snowpack.
According to Chris Moore, OARS Angels Camp Regional Manager, we’re anticipating standard recreational releases on the Tuolumne with moderate flows in the 1,100 cfs range June through the first week of September.
“With scheduled summer recreational releases, it takes a lot of the guesswork out of which guests might be the best match for this stretch of river, and provides an exceptional experience for a larger demographic,” explains Moore.
He adds that another benefit to later summer trips is the chance to slow down and explore some of the beautiful tributaries of the Tuolumne, which often isn’t possible during spring and early summer trips.
Similarly, on the American River near Sacramento, rafters will be able to rely on average recreational flows on the South Fork and Middle Fork of the American River this season. On the popular, family-friendly South Fork, paddlers can anticipate trips 6 days per week Memorial Day through Labor Day, and potentially several days per week through September. On the Middle Fork, the season typically ramps up by mid-May, with daily trip options anticipated this year through Labor Day, according to the most recent information from the Placer County Water Authority. Outfitters can typically continue to run trips on these stretches into October if there’s interest from paddlers, though availability may be dependent on area water managers planned water releases.
“The American River is close to Sacramento and within a few hour’s drive from the Bay area, which provides the opportunity for adventurous ‘staycations’ close to home this summer,” according to Jess Wallstrom, OARS American River Regional Manager.
Once outfitters are able to return to the river, it will be “business as usual” on the dam-controlled Rogue River. Despite a slightly below average snowpack, paddlers can count on healthy upstream reservoir levels to provide family-friendly whitewater thrills May through September.
On March 24, 2020 outfitters learned that all Grand Canyon river trips were suspended until May 21, 2020 to promote public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the press release from Grand Canyon National Park, “Resumption of river trips will be evaluated in mid-April pending current CDC guidance and options to reschedule trips will be provided at a future date.” While outfitters and private boaters don’t have any specifics on what that means for trips that were cancelled, we’re hopeful that most people who were slated to take their dream trip through the canyon will have the chance to make it happen at a future date.
Photos: Gates of Lodore River Trip in Utah – Josh Miller; Inflatable kayaking on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument – Josh Miller; Cataract Canyon camp in Canyonlands National Park – James Kaiser; Dory trip on Idaho’s Main Salmon River – James Kaiser; Tuolumne River rafting – James Kaiser; Rogue River rafting trip in Oregon – James Kaiser