Grand Valley Family: Rafting 101

Photo by Jen Foster

Photo by Jen Foster

When the sun shines hot and the clouds float high, it’s a good time to get on the river. With numerous public boat launches and 30 miles of floating between Palisade and Loma, the Colorado River is flat, wide, and relatively easy to navigate. All this makes it perfect for families new to river rafting. 

Ready to get started?

1. Hire A Guide or Bribe a Friend

For families that have never rafted before, Kate Belknap — a 20-year rafting instructor, river guide, and ranger — suggests starting with a commercial one-day trip.

    “When you go with a professional, you’re with someone who knows their way around and knows how to do everything,” she explains. “This will help you get a feel for whitewater rafting and decide if you like the sport well enough to pursue it.”

    Two options for first-time whitewater adventure are Glenwood Canyon and Westwater Canyon in Utah. Closer to home, Palisade River Trips (aka Rapid Creek Cycles) offers guided float trips from Palisade to Grand Junction.


2. Rent a Raft

So you’ve tried rafting, and you love it. Your kids love it. You’re ready to strike out independently. Rather than investing in a literal boatload of equipment, Belknap recommends going with experienced friends, or renting a raft (see sidebar for sources) and floating through the valley.

    Good first-time excursions include putting in at Palisade and taking out at Corn Lake or putting in at Redlands Parkway and taking out in Fruita. River miles take longer than you might expect, so don’t plan to go very far the first time out.

    In addition to personal floatation devices (PFDs), don’t forget food, water, sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses. Laura Gall is a Grand Junction mom who, with her husband Andy, began rafting when their two children were in grade school. She suggests bringing along squirt guns, duckies (inflatable kayaks), inner tubes, and stand up paddle boards (SUPs), depending upon your kids’ ages and interests.

    “Floating through the Grand Valley is peaceful and relaxing,” shares Gall. “It’s quality family time. Kids love it because they can sit on the raft, they can row, they can float in a tube, or paddle a SUP.”

    “Just don’t ever go without life jackets,” she warns.


3. Spend a Night (or Two)

Once you’ve got the daytrip dialed in, it’s time to try an overnight, multi-day adventure. Gall and Belknap both recommend Ruby/Horsethief Canyon. Beginning at Loma and ending 25 miles downriver at Westwater, Ruby/Horsethief features towering red rock canyons, abundant wildlife, and a mixture of flatwater and small class I and II rapids.

    While permits are not required to float Ruby/Horsethief, they are required to camp and are available on a first-come, first-served basis from A good river map that shows mileage and campsites can help you plan and provide information about your location while on the river. As for the gear you’ll need to bring, turn to experienced friends or local experts (like the staff at any of the local businesses listed in the sidebar).

    Belknap recommends starting with a three-day/two-night trip. While Ruby/Horsethief can be done in two days and one night, Belknap prefers taking a bit more time to relax. “The hardest working days on river trips are the put-in day and the take-out day. So why would you put them both together?” she asks.

    With regard to kids, most commercial outfitters recommend a minimum age of five, depending upon the river. Belknap has rafted with kids as young as three, but recommends eight as a good minimum age for less-experienced families.

    Gall looks at it from a practical point of view. “When the kids are little, rafting is a lot of work. But as they get older, they enjoy taking on more responsibility and can help you set up the camp, row, and so on. Like most things, the experience evolves.”


4. Go All In

If you enjoy rafting but plan to go only once a year, it’s best to keep renting. If you’re planning to do at least two to four raft trips per year, investing in a raft and equipment may make sense.

    To figure what you need, start by talking to your friends. Find out what they use, what they deem essential, and what they can do without. Then, turn to local experts like the staff at Whitewater West and Palisade River Trips. Both of these shops are excellent resources and will help you choose a set-up specific to your needs.

    In addition to investing in gear, Belknap suggests taking a swiftwater rescue course to learn skills like how to safely get someone back in a boat and how to right a flipped raft. She also suggests a first-aid course. Cell service is poor to nonexistent on the river, so you should always be prepared. 

Local Rafting Resources

Outdoor Program at CMU ents rafting, kayaking, and SUP equipment. You do not have to be affiliated with the university to rent gear. 970.248.1428.

Palisade River Trips offers Grand Valley float trips, and rents inflatable kayaks and SUPs. Among their most popular offerings is a one-day wine tasting/float trip combination. If you’re ready to invest in equipment, they will design a custom rafting package to fit your needs. Rafting, inflatable kayak, and SUP instruction is available. 237 Main Street, Palisade. 970.260.5848.

Rimrock Adventures rovides guided raft trips ranging from 1.5 hours to multi-day adventures on the Gunnison, Dolores, and Colorado Rivers (including Ruby/Horsethief and Westwater Canyons). Rimrock also rents rafts and has a shuttle service. Looking for something unique? Spend a day rafting and horseback riding with Rimrock. 927 Highway 340, Fruita. 970.858.9555.

Whitewater West sells rafts, canoes, kayaks, river apparel, PFDs, and river shoes, as well as other rafting necessities and accessories. 418 South 7 Street, Grand Junction. 970.241.0441.