Take to the water if you want a high-adrenaline alternative to the Great American Road Trip. Forget cruising down Route 66 in an open-top Corvette. Instead, climb into a raft or canoe and experience white-water and wild camping on one of the great rivers.
Adventures tend to be small group holidays with up to 16 guests and at least two raft guides who run each night’s camp, prepare the food and pass on their love for the landscapes and wildlife you will encounter.
Tours start with safety briefings in hotels where you’re given waterproof bags for everything you’re taking on the river (the rest of your luggage is stored by the hotel) plus compulsory lifejackets and helmets for white-water trips. Tents, camping equipment and all meals are provided. Here are three of the very best river trips to try.
THE COLORADO AND GRAND CANYON
The breathtaking scenery along the Colorado River. America’s National Park Service puts strict limits on the number of people who can hit the white water and raft through the Grand Canyon
Only one thing beats the view from the top of Arizona’s Grand Canyon: it’s the view back up from the Colorado River on the canyon floor. From there, the rich reds, oranges and browns of the ancient rocks lean in on you, enveloping you in a private paradise out of phone signals’ reach and where precious few fellow travellers ever get to go.
America’s National Park Service puts strict limits on the number of people who can hit the white-water and raft through the Grand Canyon, so you’re in an exclusive club the moment you sign up. We picked the six-day All-Paddle, Upper Canyon tour where the safety briefing takes place in the sporty, student-filled town of Flagstaff, Arizona. All-paddle means there are no motors to switch on if you get tired.
Upper Canyon means we’re driven north on the first day to hit the river just before the canyon begins. It was the right choice: paddling into the gorge, you see the walls rise higher with every passing mile. The Colorado is a ‘helmet-on’ white-water river, but there’s a guide on every raft (with half a dozen guests) who tells us how to stay safe in the wilder waters. And for all the adrenaline, some of the most magical memories are made when you get off the rafts.
The Colorado doesn’t have fixed camp sites. Every afternoon the guides choose a sandy spot for the night. Better still, because insects are rare and summer temperatures high, we leave our tents on the rafts and sleep on mats under Arizona’s incredible night skies.
The Colorado doesn’t have fixed camp sites and guides – just pick a sandy spot on the river bank and bed down for the night
It is an early-to-bed trip, not least because we’re woken at dawn when the guides blow a conch shell to signal that coffee is brewing. We fill our mugs as the first baby-pink rays of sun stretch out over the canyon rim – and the crew prepare treats such as blueberry pancakes or French toast for breakfast. All three daily meals are incredible.
The final day sees us in the depths of the canyon, from where we face a long, hard hike back up to civilisation at Grand Canyon Village.
But there’s a reward when you get back among the ordinary tourists at the canyon rim. For you can join them looking down at the Colorado River far below. And you can smile and say: ‘I’ve been there.’
For more information visit azraft.com, which has five-night all-paddle trips in 2020 from £1,900pp.
THE SNAKE RIVER, IDAHO
The Snake River, pictured, is in Idaho. It is described as a white-water paradise
Don’t think the Grand Canyon is quite exciting enough? Then earn serious bragging rights by rafting through the deeper, steeper Hell’s Canyon on the border between Idaho and Oregon.
You’ll be shooting along the Snake River and the canyon is as wild as its name suggests. Boulders litter the riverbed, turning it into a white-water paradise. At our safety briefing in Cambridge, Idaho, we’re told soakings are guaranteed and unexpected swims can’t be ruled out.
On day one we breakfast in a classic diner on the two-hour drive to our put-in point on the Snake near a sign saying: ‘Hell’s Canyon – Go Where Few Have Dared.’ We soon find out why. The first sets of rapids come before lunch and we hit bigger ones in the afternoon. Between them there are sections of relative calm where we drift past snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Hell’s Canyon, pictured, is on the border between Idaho and Oregon
We’re on a five-day trip with three well-trained guides looking after our nine-strong group – and the big advantage on the Snake is that one guide often goes ahead to set up camp so we have less heavy lifting to do ourselves. At night we have steaks, salads or burgers round the campfire before playing horseshoes and gazing at the stars.
Coffee and full breakfast is ready at first light. Lunches are often prepared on white sandy beaches after hikes where our guides point out pictographs, petroglyphs and other Native American rock art.
As the days pass and the miles add up, we often enter stretches of warmer, more mellow water where we jump in and float alongside the rafts – and fish from the back of them. It’s blissful, though the adrenaline floods back when the nearby Salmon River joins the Snake and we pick up the pace towards journey’s end. ‘You’ve been to Hell and back,’ our guides say at the farewell dinner. We loved every minute.
Visit rowadventures.com, which has four-night trips in 2020 from £1,035pp.
THE YUKON RIVER, CANADA
The huge Lake Laberge, which is part of a canoeing tour along the Yukon in Canada
This is the trip for the wilderness lover. At nearly 2,000 miles long, the Yukon is one of the mightiest rivers with a history to match. A century ago our patch of it was Klondike Gold Rush territory, where thousands tried to find their fortunes.
We picked a six-night tour and our group of 12 and two crew took to the water in a mini-flotilla of seven double canoes just outside the ‘wilderness city’ of Whitehorse. It was an easy first day, with the Yukon’s current helping power our strokes as we left civilisation behind.
The next two days were more challenging, as the current disappears on the huge Lake Laberge. Picking it up again when we rejoin the Yukon on day four was a joy. As was the sharp, fresh air and the incredible landscape.
Nature feels raw in the heart of the Yukon and wildlife abounds. We see beavers, eagles and bear tracks – the latter worryingly fresh and right by our camp one night.
Beavers, eagles and bear tracks can all be seen on a trip along the Yukon
We also see the Northern Lights – at 3am one morning our guide wakes us, as promised, when he sees the colours start to dance in the skies overhead. In the day we take breaks to explore ruined goldrush settlements.
Taking a canoe down the Yukon was tougher than the other river adventures. The food and toilet facilities were more rudimentary. And the weather can be harsh.
We had paddled more than 200 miles before climbing into a bus to be taken down the old Klondike Highway to Whitehorse. The sense of achievement? Immense.
See GrandAmericanAdventures.com, which has six-night trips in 2020 from £989pp.
RIVER TRIPS: ARE THEY FOR ME?
No experience on a raft or a canoe is needed for a river trip as you get instruction before setting off and the guides are there to give advice as the tour progresses. You do, of course, need to be able to swim.
Most trips include a mixture of singles, couples and small groups of friends. You normally have to be over 16 and while the average guest is between 30 and 55, there are no maximum ages. Slightly more men than women tend to sign up, possibly because some firms also run women-only trips.
Best advice is to read pre-trip packing lists carefully. There’s limited space for personal possessions and having the wrong kit can be dangerous. If you’ve not camped for a while, the good news is modern tents are easy to put up and pack away.
If you’ve never been wild-camping before, be ready to pitch in and rough it a bit. Toilet facilities are basic and showers non-existent. After that, guides say there are only two other things you need: a sense of adventure, and a waterproof camera for the most stunning photos you will ever take.