In Colorado, the moment the snow stops, the rafts come out. Wide-brimmed sun hats are replacing knit caps, and everyone is heading out to enjoy the warmer temperatures.
But even though I grew up in Colorado, I’ve never been what you’d call a “rafter”. Sure, I did a couple of multi-day raft trips as a kid, but as an adult, I always seem to end up at home, enviously watching the neighbors break out their river gear for a little fun.
This year, he was determined to make a change. Thanks to my ambitious brother (hey, Paul), my non-rafting family became one, at least for one long weekend. The 11 of us, including a nine-month-old baby, a dog, and two pre-teens, spent three days and two nights in the Ruby-Horsethief Canyon section of the Colorado River.
TL; DR: It was amazing. Ready to plan your own fall rafting adventure? Here’s how we did it as newbies, and how you can too.
what to expect
If you are new to this, you have come to the right place. Ruby-Horsethief Canyon is a great stretch of river for people with little or no rafting experience. The water is flat and slow-moving, and the “rapids” are small, almost non-existent. Most people hike the 25-mile stretch of river in two days, but you can add a day or two (we did three days) to give yourself time for some side adventures – you’ll pass lots of swimming holes, hikes, and little islands that They are perfect for a midday picnic.
The ride begins at the Loma Boat Ramp, outside of Fruita, Colorado, and ends at the Westwater Boat Ramp in Westwater, Utah. You will need to drop off one car in Westwater so you have a way to get your other vehicle(s) in Loma when the trip is over. It takes just over an hour to drive a car to Westwater and back to Loma for the launch.
what to pack
If you’re like me, you don’t have a giant raft in your garage. For our group of 11, we rented two 18-foot rafts with paddles and an inflatable kayak (also known as a “duck”) from Rimrock Adventures in Fruita, Colorado. The rafts came with two giant ice chests and two folding tables. We also rent life jackets, dry bags to store our gear, and most importantly, the groover (also known as the toilet).
Rimrock Adventures delivered everything to the Loma Boat Ramp on the day of our departure and met us at the Westwater Boat Ramp for pick up which made for a seamless effort. The only trick is to set a pick-up time that gives you enough time to enjoy your last day, but not so long that you spend hours at the Westwater boat ramp.
To give us some shade on the raft, we brought a giant umbrella that we tied to the raft with bungee cords. You’ll be in the sun all day, so a wide-brimmed sun hat, sun shirt, and sunglasses (I brought my Dragon DRAC sunglasses, which float) are essential. You’ll also want a pair of Tevas, Chacos, or some kind of sandal that won’t fall off when you jump in and out of the water.
You’ll need a sun shelter to cook and hang out at camp and all the standard camping gear (tent, sleeping bag, camp chair, etc.). You will also need to take into account the season and the weather. We were battling bugs, sun and heat when we went in mid July. But in the winter and spring, you may need things like wool socks, gloves, and down jackets. The good thing about rafting is that you don’t have to worry about weight and there is plenty of space. When in doubt, take it.
where to camp
Booking campsites is the most complicated part. Which sites are “good” depends on everything from the weather to the size of the group. Some sites have perks like a hiking trail, cliff jumping, or even a beach.
We had a dog and a baby for the trip, so the shady, dog-friendly campsites were a must. We stayed at Rattlesnake Camp the first night, just 3 miles from the Loma Boat Ramp. There was shade, a clay beach, cliff jumping, and a hiking trail up Rattlesnake Canyon. We continue with a night on Dog Island, a dog-friendly island in the middle of the river. (Be careful: there is minimal shade on the island.)
Other great campsites include Mee Corner (we stopped there briefly and saw desert bighorn sheep) and all of the Black Rock sites, which are on the most beautiful section of the river but offer little to no shade. For a full camp rundown, check out the full list of Go Rafting destinations.
what to see
The best part about being on this stretch of the river is the slow pace, canyon views, and wildlife sightings. We saw eagles and blue herons every day and even ran into a family of desert bighorn sheep.
On the second day, we floated under the route’s iconic red rock cliffs, and on our final day, we stopped at the Black Rocks section of the river and cliff jumped. The rock dates back about 1.7 billion years, making you feel like you’re wandering through history in the water.
What to know and when to go
Ruby-Horsethief is remote so cell service does not exist. You will need to pack out all your trash and follow Leave No Trace policies. There is usually a fire ban from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Please note that the weather on the river can change quickly. Rafters can have a hot and muggy day, followed by snow and strong winds; you have to be prepared for anything. Most rafters do the Ruby-Horsethief between May and October, but it’s doable in the winter (and camping permits are free); you’ll just want to bring proper camping gear and plenty of warm layers. The weather is changeable in the spring, and in the summer things can get really hot with the odd violent rain storm. Fall tends to be the best time for Ruby-Horsethief rafting: days are still warm, nights are cool, and rain is infrequent.
How to get a permit
If you want to spend a night or two on the river, you’ll need to apply for a permit at Recreation.gov. You can reserve your camping permits two months in advance at a daily rolling window. Reservations open daily at 8am MT.