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A High-Water Year for River Rafting

Midmorning on the Dolores River, you could feel how recently the water had been snow. “It’s probably about 48 degrees right now,” our guide Samy said, as she carefully angled the boat so the paddlers in front got wet and she stayed dry in the back. The white water was splashy and rolling without being scary, but it picked up speed as we headed downstream.

We were in Colorado’s Ponderosa Gorge, along the line where the Rockies slip into the red edge of the desert. Sky-scraping pines sent off a dusty cinnamon smell, and there was a shock of new green growth on the red-rock cliffs. The canyon got deeper, redder and more angular as the day went on. I kept taking off my sunglasses to make sure the colors were real.

We were on a single-day trip with Mild2Wild Rafting, based in Durango, Colo., but from the launch where we pushed our rafts into the river, you can float for 173 miles, and 10-ish days, uninterrupted, until the Dolores, named the River of Sorrows by the Spanish explorers who came across it in 1776, runs into the Colorado River, right over the Utah state line.

In the rapid-strewn red-rock canyon, boaters float past the remnants of granaries built by Ancestral Puebloans and panels of petroglyphs and pictographs. There are bear scratches on the big ponderosas and river otters in the eddies. Threatened native fish thread up into the headwaters, and blooming fendlerbush dot the banks. The river is a ribbon of connectivity, and it carves through one of the largest untouched landscapes left in Colorado. In 1975 it was the first waterway in the state to be studied for Wild and Scenic designation.

But it’s runnable only when there’s enough water, and these days the river channel is dry more often than it’s not. Because of over-allocated water rights, McPhee Dam, upstream of the gorge, releases water only in years when there’s more than enough inflow to fulfill legal obligations to rights holders. Before this spring, the river last ran in 2019, and conditions are predicted to keep getting hotter and drier.

“Any time you can get on the Dolores it’s special,” said Alex Mickel, 53, the president of Mild2Wild Rafting. “There’s no other river I know that offers so many different environments; it makes for a pretty unparalleled multiday trip. It breaks your heart that it only runs rarely.”

My trip was in June, and the Dolores’s season was over by early July.

But after an exceptionally snowy winter across most of the West, rivers that don’t normally run at raftable levels this late in the year — or run at all — are cranking this summer. And as heat domes sit across much of the country, breaking temperature records, it’s a relief to be able to get wet. Here are five rivers that are having notable seasons, and which you’ll still be able to run into the fall.


After a three-year stretch when it was impossible to run the Kern River — “Covid then drought then more drought,” said Matt Volper, 35, who runs Kern River Outfitters — this season’s high flow broke the benchmark set 40 years ago, and the river is still running.

“We will have good river flows on the Kern River until Thanksgiving and possibly even later this year,” Mr. Volpert said. “We’ve never seen anything like this season; it’s been pretty remarkable.”

The river, which is within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, runs out of the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, and cuts through glacier-carved granite canyons. In white-water sports, rapids are graded between Class 1 and Class 6, with 1 being flat water and 6 being too dangerous to run. Experienced paddlers can raft the 17-mile, Class 5 Forks of the Kern section into August this year, which is notable because the stretch typically stops being runnable by early June. The more moderate Lower Kern, where swimming holes and rocks to jump off are interspersed between the rapids, will be running through August, too. Mr. Volper said the company’s two-day Lower Kern trip is its most popular option, starting at $419.

“I think the big news from this season is how long the rivers without upstream dams will continue to be raftable this year,” said Bob Ferguson, 76, owner and founder of Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions, based in Columbia, Calif. Dam releases can give rafters steady flows over the summer, while flows in undammed rivers are at the mercy of upstream weather. Mr. Ferguson said that his company will be paddling free-flowing rivers like the Merced, which flows through Yosemite Valley, into September, thanks to the record-breaking snowpack that’s still melting out of the mountains.

Mr. Ferguson said that’s extremely special and rare. The company’s last trip on the Merced in 2022 was in mid-June, because the river was so low, while this year, the National Park Service had to close the gates of Yosemite National Park because the river peaked high above its banks. Now it’s back down to safe rafting flows, and there’s still water coming downstream.

The river is so beautiful that Congress designated it as Wild and Scenic in 1987, but its value is more than just visual. It’s also home to abundant wildlife, including the limestone salamander, which isn’t found anywhere else in the world. Half-day trips are $113.


This season is bittersweet on the upper Klamath River, according to Pete Wallstrom, 50, owner of Momentum River Expeditions. After more than 20 years of negotiations, four dams on the Klamath are coming down in 2024, restoring fisheries and tribal water rights, but rendering the popular Hell’s Corner section unraftable because the water flow will be inconsistent. This will be the last season for trips on it.

“It’s the right thing to do. The dam removal will create a healthier ecosystem, but it’s also one of the best rivers in the country to introduce people to white water, so we’re sad to lose it. Rarely are things black and white,” Mr. Wallstrom said. The upper Klamath carves through a high-desert basalt canyon, and the 17-mile Hell’s Corner section starts with mellow Class 2 rapids before escalating into continuous Class 4 white water. It covers 30 rapids over the course of a single-day trip. Your last chance to run Hell’s Corner is this summer, and there are guaranteed flows through Labor Day. Day trips start at $220.


The Grand Canyon might have better name recognition, but clued-in boaters know that some of the biggest rapids on the Colorado River are upstream, in 46-mile Cataract Canyon, which runs out of Canyonlands National Park and flows into the north end of Lake Powell. The sky-high red-rock walls hold the infamous Big Drop Rapids, which include Satan’s Gut and Little Niagara. John Wesley Powell is said to have named the canyon Cataract, because the rapids looked like waterfalls.

Because Cataract is upstream of the biggest dams and reservoirs on the river, flows can be seasonally variable, and this year they’ve been running high after a winter in which Utah broke its 40-year snowpack record and received as much snow in one season as the past two years combined. Companies like Mild2Wild will run trips through at least October, and you can spend up to six days in the canyon for $1,499.


Blue Mesa Reservoir, outside Gunnison, Colo., is up nearly 50 feet from last year, and the water level is 20 percent higher than average, which is a welcome reprieve for the area, and for the Gunnison River downstream. The spectacular 14-mile Gunnison Gorge, just downstream from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, holds 1.7 billion years of geologic history in its dark, narrow walls.

The trip would be worth it for the scenery alone, but the gorge is also home to world-famous trout fishing, and the river hits more than one rapid per mile as it flows downstream. Despite its highlights, it tends to be uncrowded, thanks in part to a short hike to the put-in, but the reward is well worth the walk. Guided trips will run through September with outfitters like Gunnison River Expeditions, and day trips start at $155.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.

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