We could hear the roar of the first rapid on the Wenatchee before we arrived. The teens in their “duckies,” single-person inflatable kayaks, lined up in the calm water above the rapid. A guide in his own duck gave last reminders and led the chain into the thick of the waves. Those of us on the raft tried to watch, but our guide, “Buddha,” urged us to start paddling so we didn’t end up on a rock ourselves.
Our paddling synced up, the waves splashed in, and the boat went up and crashed down. Yes! This was fun! Really fun! The kids were not falling out of the raft; the teens in their duckies were still upright; and we were all cheering and hooting. Not a single member of our group was thinking about deadlines, messy rooms, budgets, homework or carpool schedules.
Whether you’re looking for big thrills, gorgeous landscapes or family fun in the sun, the Pacific Northwest has the perfect summer rafting experience for you. The quintessential family trip is a midseason run down the mighty Wenatchee River, near Leavenworth, Wash.
I guided this stretch of river for nearly a decade before having kids. Now, with our two daughters, ages 11 and 14, we return every year to find new adventures. The Wenatchee boasts heart-pumping Class IV rapids around Memorial Day; big, exciting waves in June and early July; and fun, calmer floats in late July and August.
We took this particular trip early last August, along with old family friends from Texas. Our three-family group included kids ages 8–13.
We booked our trip with a local outfitter, RiverRider.com, several weeks in advance.
On the morning of our adventure, we arrived at its headquarters on Highway 2, a few miles east of Leavenworth, to discover friendly river guides waving us into convenient parking and then directing us to a little shack at the top of the parking area.
At the shack, we signed release waivers and got a quick lecture on what to bring (sunscreen, drinking water, cheap sunglasses, things you don’t mind losing) and what not to bring (car keys, expensive electronics, things you do mind losing). I was at first disappointed to discover that the river was a little low. We would be rafting the upper stretch of the Wenatchee, starting six miles upstream in Leavenworth and working our way back. I had been hoping for the adventure I was more familiar with, a trip downstream through legendary rapids like “Gorilla” and “Snowblind.”
But there was a silver lining! Teens and adults could choose to paddle their own inflatable kayak (the duckies), providing independence and adventure, the perfect teenage combination. We counted out who wanted what sort of boat and then moved on to wardrobe: wetsuits and not-so-stylish wetsuit booties.
Soon everyone was dressed and down by the river, staring at calm but fast-moving water and heating up in our rubber suits. We strapped on life jackets (tight!), paddles and helmets for folks in kayaks. Some sort of industrial garden hose emerged to cool us as we boarded the bus to take us upstream. Yikes!
Everybody was screaming and laughing, and we hadn’t even started.
No turning back
At the launch point we could see our boats, waiting patiently at the edge of the river. Giggles calmed during “the safety talk.” We all piled into the boats and kayaks, and the next thing we knew, we were floating downstream.
Once the boat leaves the shore, you’re committed to the voyage. We had seen the calm water at the end and we were in calm water at the beginning, but we had no idea what the middle of the river might hold.
The scenery stilled everyone’s nerves: bright blue eastern Washington sky over a scattering of colorful rafts on water that twinkled in the sun. The sun was hot enough to make us wish for a dip in the river; the river was cold enough (50–55 degrees) to make us appreciate the sun.
We practiced our paddle strokes and working as a team. The teens figured out how to steer their little boats — and how to use their paddles as weapons for splashing each other as well as parents and siblings in the raft. Buddha told us stories about past rafting adventures — at least a few were true.
The scenery changed as we entered the steeper part of the river, where the banks closed in. After we shot that first exciting rapid, we paddled on to an amazingly wide stretch of the river in which the water seemed to flow sideways. Underwater slabs of rock ran perpendicular to the river banks, and we had to navigate our way across the expanse, getting caught in funny currents and avoiding being pulled downstream into a huge pile of rocks, which seemed to unnerve even Buddha a bit.
Next stop was for swimming — in a rapid! The guides had picked out a perfect little “eddy,” a calm spot at the edge of the river. At the side of the eddy was a churning stream of whitewater. We waded up through the calm pool, climbed a little rock and jumped into the fray. Woosh! Brrrr! After getting swept downstream a short way, we had to swim aggressively toward shore. A few guides stood guard at the bottom. Most kids went two or three times before we boarded our boats again and headed downstream.
More sun, more waves, more rapids, more water fighting. After about five miles, we landed on a sandy beach, where we snacked on fresh fruit and cookies, took photographs and swam in deep water. For the final stretch of river, some of the younger kids tried the duckies and some of us older “kids” gave up on paddling, lay down on the raft tubes and soaked up the sun and waves.
We arrived back at RiverRider.com headquarters to discover a catered lunch. We had forgotten that our trip included lunch! We quickly stripped off our stylish wetsuits and feasted on grilled chicken dripping in barbecue sauce, hot dogs, vegetables, fresh fruit and lemonade.
The kids clamored to go again in the afternoon. Pleeeease! But it was better to leave them wanting more. Leavenworth, with its outdoor Bavarian music and old-fashioned sweet shoppes, was waiting.
Ashley Steel and her husband, Bill Richards, are a Seattle-based family-travel writing team who wrote and published Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids. Ashley was a professional river guide for more than a decade. In the Northwest, she guided for RiverRider.com as well as several other local companies.
Next in our guide:
Take me to the river: Our favorite trips and when to go
The trip you choose will depend on the ages of your kids and the level of excitement you’re seeking. Outfitters generally start taking kids on the calmest stretches of rivers (or the lowest water levels) at 5 years old. You can take kids on trips with bigger rapids when they’re about 8. More risky stretches of river (or very high water levels) may be limited to teens and adults.
You can expect to pay between $35 and $75 per person per day for a trip booked through an outfitter with a professional guide. Prices depend on the length of the trip, the equipment included and whether or not lunch is provided.
Here are some of our favorite river trips in Washington and Oregon, with tips on when to go. Established, reputable outfitters that run most or all of the Washington rivers below include RiverRider.com, Blue Sky Outfitters, Osprey, Alpine Adventures, River Recreation and Orion.
- Wenatchee River, near Leavenworth, Wash. Discover enormous waves from May into June (sometimes into July) on this big, wide eastern Washington classic. Toward the end of August, you can rent an inner tube for a quick trip downstream — no skill needed, just splash and giggle all the way.
- Methow River, near Pateros, Wash. The Methow is another big river with even more stunning desert scenery and, often, even bigger waves. The highlight is the “Black Canyon,” a Class IV rapid nestled between steep rock walls, best in May and June.
- White Salmon River, near White Salmon, Wash. A trip on this Class III-IV river includes a spectacular gorge with exciting rapids and a waterfall, Husum Falls, which is runnable at lower water levels. For the biggest thrills, try the White Salmon around Memorial Day.
- Tieton River, near Naches, Wash. The Tieton is a dam-released river that provides nearly nonstop Class III-IV action in September (the only time to run it). It’s narrow, rarely slows down and delivers breathtaking views of pine forests and rock canyons.
- McKenzie River, Ore. This world-famous fly-fishing river in central Oregon, runnable from late June through September, is an idyllic place for families with kids ages 5 and older to discover rafting. The water is clear and blue, running through lush old-growth forests. Try Horse Creek Outdoors, a small outfitter in McKenzie Bridge that also rents cabins (horse-creek.com/local-attractions/river-rafting).
- Rogue River, southern Oregon. Famous for its wild and scenic landscapes, the Rogue River has relatively warm water and regulated flows that provide dependable whitewater all summer long. Try Northwest Rafting Company for a multiday, family-friendly expedition for ages 7 and older.
- The Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon. Take your teens on the ultimate whitewater adventure, a 5- to 18-day trip through the Grand Canyon, complete with enormous rapids and unparalleled scenery. Explore more at O.A.R.S., one of the first oar-powered outfitters in the Grand Canyon.
Next in our guide:
Oars in: 8 safe trip tips
1. Wear bathing suits under clothes so it’s easy to change into the wetsuit. Bring a complete set of dry clothes to leave in the car for after the trip.
2. Don’t wear cotton. Cotton is wet and heavy. For extra layers, bring synthetics such as polypropylene or polyester. Wool works well for cold days, too.
3. Call the outfitter two or three days ahead to ask about water levels and weather forecasts, to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature has in store.
4. Figure out if you need a helmet. You should protect your head from rocks and paddles with a helmet if you will be in any sort of kayak. Helmets are also recommended for rafters on particularly rocky stretches of river. Most professional outfitters supply helmets where needed.
5. Go with people who know what they’re doing. Find a reputable outfitter (for tips, see parentmap.com/rafting). Friends with rafts can be a great resource or a dangerous prospect.
6. Protect your eyes from the sun with cheap UV sunglasses and baseball caps. Keep them on your head by tying them to your life jacket with a piece of string.
7. To capture the fun in pictures, bring disposable waterproof cameras on board or tuck a nicer camera into the guide’s dry bag.
8. “If you enjoyed your ride, tip your guide,” as signs in whitewater shuttle vehicles often say. Tips are not required, but they’re a nice way to show your appreciation for a job well done — $5–$10 per person is about average.
Next in our guide:
Finding an outfitter for a rafting trip: 8 questions to ask
Outfitters range widely in quality and experience. Ask outfitters the questions below; look for established, reputable organizations; and be skeptical. Generally, you get what you pay for.
1. What gear do you provide? Rivers are cold in the Pacific Northwest, even in summer. Make sure that wetsuits are available, particularly for kids. Also ask about helmets, if they will are needed.
2. How old do children need to be and do you have child-size gear? Some outfitters take kids, but don’t really have wetsuits and life jackets that fit them properly. Avoid this situation.
3. What is this stretch of river usually like at this time of year? Are there huge waves that frequently knock folks out of the raft? Although paddlers can fall out on any trip, it’s nice to understand what you’re signing on for.
4. How long have you been in business and how long have you been running this particular stretch of river? You’re looking for an established business. If in doubt, ask about their guides. How many guides do they employ in the summer and how long have they been working as professional river guides?
5. What other rivers do you run and what are they like? You’re making sure the guides have a wide range of experience.
6. Do you provide refunds if we want to cancel due to weather or water levels? Most outfitters do not. Rafting is plenty of fun in the rain, and businesses couldn’t survive if folks canceled every time the river went up or down unexpectedly.
7. Do you provide dry bags for carrying personal items down the river? Can we bring our own? Most of the time, this is unnecessary, but it can be nice to bring extra shirts or snacks. Note that even dry bags get lost, so they are not the place for your diamond jewelry and expensive camera.