Colorado River Rafting

Boat navigating rapids in the Colorado River.

Everything You Need to Know About Rafting the Colorado River

From the peaks of the Rockies to the depths of Grand Canyon and beyond, the Colorado is the West’s most iconic river. At more than 1,400 miles in length—passing through seven U.S. States and 11 national parks and monuments—it’s not only the lifeline of the Colorado Plateau, the Colorado River is one of the best whitewater rafting destinations in the world.

Inhabited for centuries by the Navajo, Mojave, Ute, and many other tribes, as well as their native predecessors, the Colorado River Basin provided rich grounds for hunting, fishing, and gathering. The lush riparian areas helped native communities flourish, and the wide flows allowed them to travel up and downstream.

It wasn’t until John Wesley Powell’s harrowing 1869 exploration of a large section of the river that the hidden canyons and raging rapids of the Colorado were put on the map. After that, it didn’t take long for other explorers and early river-running pioneers to follow in Powell’s footsteps.

Today, despite dams and development restraining the free flow of the river in many places, much of the Colorado’s wild and rugged beauty remains and is now protected. Though flows are carefully regulated, Colorado River rafting trips consistently provide world-class whitewater and the adventure of a lifetime.

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Where is the Best Colorado River Rafting?

As the Colorado River flows through southeastern Utah and Arizona, it snakes its way through some of the West’s most dramatic canyon country, including Canyonlands National Park and Grand Canyon National Park.

Some of the best Colorado River rafting opportunities are easily accessible from the adventure hubs of Moab, UT, and Flagstaff, AZ, including three of the most stunning and exciting sections of whitewater: Westwater Canyon, Cataract Canyon, and Grand Canyon.

How Long are Rafting Trips on the Colorado River?

Depending on how much time you have, OARS offers a variety of rafting trips on the Colorado River ranging anywhere from 2 days to 18 days.

In Westwater Canyon, 2- to 3-day options are the norm, with 3 days providing a more laid-back experience and more exploring. Slightly longer trips ranging from 4 to 6 days are available through Cataract Canyon, where you can enjoy incredible backstage access to Canyonlands National Park.

The longest Colorado River rafting trips available are full Grand Canyon rafting and dory expeditions, which float the entire 280-mile stretch of the Colorado River from Lees Ferry to Pearce Ferry and typically last 14 to 18 days. Partial canyon trips normally range between 6 to 12 days.

When is the Best Time to Raft the Colorado River?

Guided rafting trips on the Colorado River are generally offered April through October, but conditions can vary greatly depending on when you decide to go. The best time to raft the Colorado River really depends on individual preferences, like desired adventure level, boat preference, and other factors, like threshold for extreme weather both hot and cold.

Spring Trips

Trips early in the commercial rafting season offer fun, average flows for rafters, typically during April and early May before the spring melt begins in full force. Wildflowers are blooming, conditions are ideal for hiking, and there are fewer people on the water. However, paddlers need to be prepared for frigid water and unpredictable weather that can go from warm and sunny to raining, or even snowing, on the same day.

Later in spring, often mid-May through mid-June, snowmelt runoff from the Rocky Mountains adds abundant amounts of water to the river. “High-water trips” on the more free-flowing and untamed stretches of the Colorado River, like Cataract Canyon, during these peak flows are best for thrill seekers and the most adventurous rafters. A raft flip or cold water swim should be anticipated. At the same time, rapids in narrower sections of the Colorado River, like Westwater Canyon, tend to wash out completely during high water. As a result, OARS doesn’t offer Westwater trips during the peak-flow window, since it can be a disappointing experience for paddlers.

Summer/Early-Fall Trips

As Colorado River flows return to normal by late June to early-July most seasons, both Cataract Canyon and Westwater Canyon offer splashy, reliable flows for rafters into the late summer/early fall.

Westwater Canyon rafting trips typically conclude by the end of September, since the water levels can become more challenging for rafts to navigate later in the season, while Cataract Canyon trips are often available into mid-October, depending on the outfitter.

During this time, we’re generally able to offer a wider selection of crafts to try out on calmer stretches of the river, like stand-up paddleboards or inflatable kayaks, and the heat of summer is a welcome invitation to swim in the brisk Colorado. Rafters aren’t immune to unpredictable weather in the summer, though. During monsoon season (July through September), rafters can anticipate frequent afternoon thunderstorms.

Grand Canyon Considerations

The best time to raft Grand Canyon is a bit of a different scenario. Before the Colorado River flows through Grand Canyon, it hits Lake Powell. As a result, Grand Canyon rafting trips rely on dam-controlled water releases from the upstream reservoir all year long. This means rafters won’t necessarily see drastic changes in water levels during spring snowmelt season, but the big legendary whitewater that Grand Canyon is known for is guaranteed throughout the Colorado River rafting season. Arguably, the months of April and October are considered the best time for Grand Canyon rafting trips, because there are fewer people in the canyon, temperatures are milder, and the conditions are ideal for side hikes and exploring.

Why Colorado River Rafting with OARS?

OARS has been offering Colorado River rafting trips since 1969 and was selected as the first exclusively oar-powered rafting outfitter authorized to run trips on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon in 1972. Since then, our offerings have expanded to include some of the most iconic stretches of river throughout the West and the world.

With 50-plus years in the business, we’ve earned a reputation for maintaining the gold standard for river trips by hiring only the best guides in the industry, using the best equipment, and maintaining the kind of personal service that can only come from a second generation, family-owned and operated business.

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Group rafting down the Colorado River.

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