In Edward Abbey’s book, Desert Solitaire, published in 1968, the author and a friend decided on a whim to float the Colorado River—a kind of spontaneity no longer afforded to river runners today, at least not on the major rivers of the West. These days, for self-guided, private trips, a permit system limits daily access on many of our most sought-after rivers. While a headache, it does protect the wilderness character and ecological health of these pristine wilderness areas. The trick is knowing how the systems work.
Get to Know the River Permit Lottery System for the West’s Most Popular Rafting Trips
1) Middle Fork Salmon – Idaho
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is the quintessential trip for mountain wilderness. Deep in the Frank Church Wilderness, it has nearly everything you could want – whitewater, fly fishing, hot springs, side hikes, petroglyphs and abundant wildlife. The U.S. Forest Service manages access through the Four Rivers Lottery, which is open every year from December 1 to January 31. This is a randomized lottery for coveted summer dates on several of Idaho’s most popular rivers. On the Middle Fork of the Salmon that high-use window is May 28 through September 3. In 2020, the Middle Fork had over 17,000 applications and only 387 permits. That gives you a 1-in-45 chance to win. To improve your odds, bookmark the permit page and stay tuned for the date in mid-March when they release cancelled reservations. Or, consider securing one of seven daily launch reservations available during the pre- or post-season, which are released annually at 8 a.m. MT on October 1.
2) Main Salmon – Idaho
Where the Middle Fork ends, the Main Salmon begins. It has the same wild character as its upstream brethren, but everything’s bigger—the canyon, the rapids, and the beaches. This is the trip for big rapids and sandy campsites. It’s also managed by the U.S. Forest Service in the Four River Lottery Permit system. You have about the same odds as the Middle Fork, but the lottery is for launch dates between June 20 and September 7 . So if you don’t win the lottery, you can score a much easier early season permit as long as you can handle big water.
3) Selway – Idaho
The Selway River is one of the most demanding wilderness whitewater runs in the country. It drops over 28 feet per mile creating long, technical rapids that challenge experts. The difficulty combined with its remote wilderness character makes the Selway a serious undertaking for all boaters. It’s also a Four Rivers permit that allows only one group per day during the high-use season, which is May 15 through July 31. In 2020, only 1-in-122 who applied got one. Because of the challenging nature of the trip, parties frequently back out and their reservations are released on a first-come-first-served basis. If you’re committed to running the Selway, form a group of skilled, trustworthy boaters who can mobilize at the drop of a hat.
4) Snake – Idaho
The Snake River through Hells Canyon travels through the deepest gorge in North America. It’s a powerful river with a few high-volume rapids, but it also has tranquil sections to enjoy the frequent warm weather and incredible scenery. It’s the last of the Four Rivers permits, so you’re still playing the lottery for summer trips from the Friday before Memorial Day to September 10. The good news is less people apply for the Snake than the other Four Rivers, yet they issue a generous number of permits. Your odds are about 1-in-17, making it the easiest of the Four Rivers Permits to win. If you want to increase your odds even more, convince your group to apply individually for the same dates and you’ll stand a pretty good chance of scoring a permit for the Snake.
5) Yampa – Colorado
The Yampa River is the last wild, large river in the Colorado River watershed. It bounces down fun rapids and around bends through a canyon of tiger-striped sandstone walls in Dinosaur National Monument. The National Park Service manages the Yampa lottery, which is one of the most competitive in the country. Of 10,000 applicants, only 300 permits are issued for the high-season window between late May to mid-July. So you’ve got about a 2% chance of winning the lottery. As with all of the river permit lotteries, apply December/January and check for cancellations in March, but for the Yampa consider a pre- or post-lottery trip. If you’re prepared with rafts for big water in spring or kayaks for a low-water summer trip, you’ll have a much better chance of floating through one of the most spectacular canyons on Earth.
6) Green – Utah
The Green River through the Gates of Lodore makes you feel like you’re on a river expedition with John Wesley Powell. The lush riparian corridor and sandy beaches contrast with the 2,000-foot cliffs towering above. Numerous side canyons lead to side hikes filled with surprises – cold plunge pools, petroglyph panels, and incredible views. The National Park Service runs the permit lottery for this stretch through Dinosaur National Monument along with the Yampa River. Scoring a permit is as highly competitive as the Yampa, but since the Green is dam-regulated, it has a longer paddling season. Lottery permits are granted for launches between mid-May to mid-September. Your best bet, like other rivers on this list, is to play the lotto, be ready to snag cancelled reservations in March, and if those don’t work, keep checking the calendar. Last-minute cancellations do happen.
7) Rogue – Oregon
The Rogue River is one of the original eight Wild and Scenic Rivers designated in 1968. It’s easy to see why. The wilderness stretch from Grave Creek to Foster Bar is 34 miles of classic rapids, idyllic camps, and fascinating natural and cultural history. The Bureau of Land Management runs a lottery for private launches from May 15 to October 15. They allow 120 people to launch per day making it one of the easiest river permit lotteries to win. Even if you don’t win, they also offer a competitive call-in for “Float Space Openings.” These openings account for the commercial outfitters who have permits for a certain number of people each day, and when those trips are not completely filled, the spaces become available to private boaters. Early birds at the Smullin Visitor Center can also score day-of permits. The easier access combined with challenging, yet forgiving rapids makes the Rogue one of the best whitewater wilderness trips for adventurous families and first-timers.
8) Salt – Arizona
The Upper Salt River is the unsung hero of Arizona rafting. It’s a study in contradictions—a solid Class III-IV river that flows past saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert. It’s free-flowing with a short season that in dry years isn’t even boatable. The Tonto National Forest runs a lottery for launches from March 1 to May 15. They only allow four private permits to launch each day, so the lottery is very competitive. That combined with a fickle desert river makes it a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The trick to getting out there is scoring a permit when rafters are forced to cancel their trips due to low water. If you’re able to travel lightly with inflatable kayaks or packrafts, you can increase your odds of floating through one of the most dramatic deserts in North America.
9) San Juan – Utah
The San Juan River travels back in time through the Colorado Plateau. After leaving the put-in, signs of modern civilization give way to petroglyph panels, kivas and stone dwellings. The river meanders through a labyrinth of horseshoe bends beneath towering red cliffs. Last year, over 6,000 people applied to the San Juan River permit lottery for the high-use window between mid-April and mid-July. About 7% of applicants scored. Your chances go down if you apply to run the entire stretch, from Sand Island to Clay Hills, so choose to run either the upper or lower sections independently for slightly better odds. Similar to other desert rivers, your odds also increase later in the season. No matter when you go, you’re in for a treat of mellow rapids, beautiful camps and an incredible window into ancient civilizations.
10) Grand Canyon – Arizona
The Colorado River through Grand Canyon is the ultimate river trip. It’s one of the longest trips, with the biggest whitewater, in the most dramatic setting. And no surprise, it’s also the toughest private river permit to snag. The National Park Service manages the permits and they changed their first-come-first-serve waiting list in 2006 because people were waiting over 20 years for a permit. Thankfully, they now use a weighted lottery system. It works on a point system so the more often you apply and don’t win, the better your odds become. The Grand Canyon river permit strategy which we’ve previously outlined in full, is to apply every year, choose potential alternate trip leaders (PATL), and have a group of people that have never gone before (more points).
If you completely strike out during the private river permit lottery season, buddy up to someone who did win and try to get invited on their trip. It helps if you have your own gear, can cook, and are eager to do whatever it takes to help a trip run smoothly.
And if private river trips are something you’ve always dreamed of doing, but don’t have the know-how, check out these rowing clinic opportunities led by professional guides which will teach you everything from basic rowing techniques and the essentials of whitewater safety to how to rig a boat and cook for a group.