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Looking for a place that is easily accessible, overwhelmingly beautiful and your entire family can get in some fantastic river time? Look no farther than the Snake River just outside of Jackson, WY.
Jackson is hands down one of my favorite places on earth. It’s the gateway to 2 national parks (Grand Teton and Yellowstone), is gorgeous beyond compare and has awesome access to just about any outdoor sport you can think of.
Throughout college, I lived and worked here as the summer as a river guide. Long days, hard work, and so much fun – I think I loved every minute of it.
Now, we obviously “bring the kids” (hum, have you heard that anywhere before?). In fact, we bring the kids here every year, and it has become one of our most anticipated yearly traditions. I could go on and on and on (you know that I can too), but today, I’m going to keep this focused on rafting.
Each year when we head up to Jackson, we invite a lot of people. I think that our group this year had about 27 people ranging from age 1 to 83 – not bad eh? The Snake River is unique in that there is easy access to a good variety of different runs, with quick shuttles, which will allow you to pack in multiple trips each day. Here are some of our favorites:
The Snake River offers some of the most beautiful stretches of flat water that I’ve ever seen. This area is home to one of the largest populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and also a huge population of osprey as well. I’m not exaggerating one bit when I say that there have been times that I’ve seen over 20 eagles in a 3 hour stretch – it’s amazing. Add in the awesome scenery and you have a trip so perfect that even the biggest adrenaline junkie won’t mind slowing down for a while on these trips. Here are some of our favorite sections:
Deadmans Bar to Moose
This stretch covers 10 miles and is right in the heart of Grand Teton National Park. If you’re looking for some Ansel Adams views, this is the trip for you. Wildlife spottings are very common along this stretch as well. Although the river is flat here, this can be a dangerous section if you do not know what you are doing. Make sure to read the water well to avoid strainers and log jams as both of those can be very dangerous (although completely avoidable, so just know your stuff). Since you are in the National Park, you will need a permit to float on your own here which is currently $10 for a 7-day pass that can be purchased at the visitors center in Moose. This run will average about 2.5-3 hours.
Wilson to South Park
This run is perfect for those staying in town or the eager fisherman in your group. Starting near the base of Teton pass at Wilson bridge, this 13 mile float continues until South Park bridge, a few miles south of town. Another epicly beautiful trip, simply look north for stunning views of the Teton’s. Wildlife is also common here, though not as much as in the National Park. Also, this is likely the most technical section on the Snake River near Jackson. As the river meanders along the valley floor, there are a seemingly unending number of side channels that are often full of strainers, log jams, or even some that split so many times that you’ll have a difficult time getting a boat all the way through them. Be smart and stick to the main channel and you should be fine as long as you avoid the strainers (which are commonly near the banks and are quite obvious). This is probably the best place for bird watching as well. Plan on about 3 hours for floating this depending on flows.
Astoria or Pritchard to Elbow or East Table
This is the perfect option if you’re pairing your float trip with some whitewater, since it’s in the canyon right next to the faster section. Although you will be lacking the stunning mountain views that the other runs offer, this is great because it’s not really technical and it’s convenient to other sections. This is our go-to section whenever we are floating here in the summer. It gives us a good chance to break up the day and take the kids on a run or two and then follow that up with something more adventurous down the canyon for the older crowd. It’s about 8-10 miles depending on where you start and end and takes about 2 hours. All of the boat launches in this area are easily identifiable with large parking lots and lots of signage.
The classic whitewater trip in Jackson is from West Table to Sheep Gulch.. It’s 8 miles long and takes about 2 hours. It’s a fantastic trip for people of all comfort levels with it’s class II and III rapids. The first half of the trip is primarily class II water with a III or two thrown in as well. At about mile 4, you are going to have about 1/2 mile of flat water followed by the biggest rapids on the river.
The first is the Big Kahuna which is the highest at low water (washed out at high water) and is essentially 2 huge waves that you have to punch through. It’s easy to miss if you’re timid, but I wouldn’t recommend it as it’s one of the best hits you’ll find on this stretch. Make sure to set up early for this one, hitting it from left to right, as the current on the right side can often make you miss a lot of this one.
Immediately after Big Kahuna is Lunch Counter. Here the river is channeled in between two rock ledges making it a churning crazy rapid at high water. At flows over 16,000, flipping becomes very common and this rapid is completely unavoidable. Luckily, there is a large calm section below it to pick up all of your swimmers and regroup before continuing down the canyon (be careful of the crazy strong eddy lines in here though). This is a short rapid of about 6 waves that’s not-technical but you’ve got to hit those waves right on or you’ll swim. I suggest hitting the first 2 waves on the left and then quickly turning right to hit the rest of the wave-train.
After these 2 rapids, you’ll have a few more fun runs including ropes, champagne falls (not really a falls though), and cottonwood (which is really really long and can get awesomely big at high water). As you will quickly notice when you get here, this is a very popular section to run. Although it is a class III, remember that it can be dangerous and you need to have some good experience before you attempt this on your own (no tubing does NOT count). Most of the rapids are pretty straight forward, though the eddy lines in here are intense. I’ve seen eddy lines flip boats in flat water here and others that have kept people down for 30 seconds. If you don’t have the experience, but want to do it, there are several commercial companies that will take you down for a great price (Teton Whitewater has the best prices I’m aware of). Permits are not required for groups of 15 or less (free permits for groups of 16+ can be obtained here).
The Snake River’s flows are dam controlled so although you will still get high runoff in the early summer, the flows are usually sustained throughout August making it a perfect river for the whole summer.
If you’re looking for more intense whitewater, check out the Gros Ventre, Hoback, and Greys rivers. All of these offer some great kayaking when the water flows are high (think June).
There is a lot of camping near the Snake River that can make your trip completely awesome and unique. For the most convenient places (which are totally worth it), check out one of the many campgrounds. If you want to get more off the beaten path, here’s some info on dispersed camping in the area.
In the canyon:
For a good whitewater, and flat trip combo, camp right in the Snake River Canyon. There are several campgrounds (that all fill fast especially on holidays and weekends), that give easy and quick access without much driving. It’s also really convenient if there are smaller kids who won’t be going on the whitewater since it’s easy to just leave someone back at camp with them. Our personal favorite is the East Table campground since you can walk right down to the river. Check out all your options here. Playing at the East Table Campground
If you’re just doing a float trip closer to the National Parks, there are fewer campgrounds and they’re more off the beaten path, but still beautiful and great to camp at. Check them out here or here.
Now for the question I’m sure you all have – what can I take my kids on? On float trips, we take everyone. All of our kids have floated the Snake as infants (usually asleep in one of our arms).
Jimmy’s morning river nap
With whitewater, that completely depends on your skills, the kids age, and the kids comfort level. We don’t push rafting on our kids at all – if they want to go AWESOME and if not, we’re fine with them sitting out and waiting until they really want to go (since we don’t want to scare them off from it at a young age). Assuming you know your stuff, 6 is probably a good age for flows 12,000cfs or under and 8 or 10 when the flows are really high 15,000-30,000cfs. That being said, Mason who has a lot of experience rafting with us and is really comfortable ran this section at 10,000cfs when he was 5 and loved it.
(Ultimately remember that this is supposed to be fun and you’re trying to get your kids to love this for the rest of their lives. Don’t put them in a situation that you or they are not comfortable with or it will likely backfire.)