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Rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with family has been on my bucket list for years. Problem is, with limited permits and so much demand, the endeavor can cost several thousand dollars per person and up to two years on a waiting list.

While it will happen someday, this year I booked my family on the next best thing—white water rafting with Wild Expeditions on Utah’s Lower San Juan River, which is quietly gaining a reputation as a Grand Canyon-like multi-day rafting trip without the prohibitive costs or wait times of running the Colorado.

As a bonus, the San Juan’s class III rapids make it a more beginner-friendly, but still thrilling ride for young children and adults alike. After a recent four-day, three-night float with my family, my only regret is that we didn’t book the full seven day tour. Here’s why:

Jumping for joy along the San Juan River. | PHOTO: Blake Snow

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Great outdoors

The San Juan River runs through Goosenecks State Park. Rafting and camping through Goosenecks Canyon is a stunning, intimate, and refreshing experience. While floating the chocolate waters of the San Juan River, you’ll be exposed to 1,500-foot cliff walls (often on all four sides), superb swimming in hot summer months, and several exhilarating rides such as Government Rapids. 

My son Max enjoying the calm and refreshing water. | PHOTO: Blake Snow

On our multi-day trip, we also hiked parts of the Honaker Trail, Slickhorn, and other unnamed canyons that would send travel photographers into a frenzy. Not far from the dark skies and underdeveloped area of Bears Ears National Monument, we also glimpsed the Milky Way on all three nights while sleeping under the stars, which was an unexpected treat. 

Hybrid “glamping”

Glamorous camping can defeat the point of sleeping outdoors but primitive camping can also be a pain. Here along the San Juan River, Wild Expeditions treated us to the best of both worlds. 

We ate several three-course meals worth writing home about (blue cheese pear salad, Mexican lasagna, and homemade apple pie to name a few), the provided dry bags never failed us and our four guides set up and took down everything (including bathrooms, kitchen, living room, shade cover and dishes) except our tents and sleeping pads. This hybrid approach let us connect with nature while still enjoying a family vacation. 

Well-connected guides

Wild Expeditions was the first outfitter to commercially float the San Juan River and has been doing so since 1957. Because of that history, we enjoyed special status, namely first pick of the best campsites, preferential treatment from rangers and a lifetime of guiding expertise to help us get the most from our adventure. 

Our guide Marly in all his glory. PHOTO: Blake Snow

In short, guides Louie, Marly, Spencer and Hannah were wonderful to my family. Upon realizing our fondness for one particular section of rapids and swimming hole, they broke protocol and even let us raft it again and linger a little longer with the help of some fresh cut watermelon. 

Family memories

I’ve been lucky to experience some truly amazing outdoor experiences with my family over the years, but the San Juan River unexpectedly found a special place in my heart this summer. I may have booked it as a stop-gap towards something bigger, but I can’t stop thinking about it, reliving the memories we shared there, and I can’t wait to return someday. The San Juan is the coolest river expedition you’ve never heard of. 

Where to stay

Looking for nearby accommodations for before and after your river adventure? The highly-rated and brand-new Bluff Dwellings Resort is beautifully nestled into a nearby canyon, has locally decorated rooms, and a pool you won’t want to leave.

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Tagged: Utah

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Blake Snow

Blake Snow

Blake writes for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a seasoned writer-for-hire and energetic travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his loving family and loyal dog, and hopes to visit all seven continents someday.

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