Whitewater rafting is fun any time of year, but it's particularly enjoyable when the temperature allows you to show up in just a swimsuit and some sturdy sandals. That happens a lot on the Lower Deschutes River, where warm weather begins early and ends late, creating the longest sunny season in Oregon. Our own Sam Stites, a former whitewater guide on the Lower Deschutes, tells us how to have a great trip.
Where to go: Grab your friends and a bottle of SPF and head out to Maupin, Oregon’s whitewater capital, where more than a dozen outfitters offer half-, full-, and multiday trips beginning in late spring and lasting through early fall. Pricing for day trips varies between $50 and $130 per person depending on length, and from $400 to upward of $1,200 for multiday trips depending on the number of days and experience you seek. Your outfitter will likely take care of all the logistics, including meals and personal flotation devices. Just bring your own beer.
Day trip options: The Maupin day trip section begins at Harpham Flat about five miles upstream of the town. Rafters float for 10 miles through several class II and III rapids on their way to the take-out at Sandy Beach. Half-day trips typically last around three to four hours, while full-day trips take about five to six hours and usually include lunch. One of the best parts about taking a guided trip is that you don’t have to worry about any of the logistics or gear; all you need to do is show up and be stoked. Your outfitter will take care of shuttling you to and from the put-in/takeout, and ensure you’ve got a paddle and personal flotation device that will fit correctly and keep you safe. You can also request a splash jacket or wetsuit if the weather isn’t warm or you’re worried about the water being cold; just know that your guides are judging you, and they’re mad about having to clean that extra stuff later.
Multiday trip options: Multiday trips are a different beast entirely. These 3-5 day trips typically begin at Warm Springs or Buckhollow just below Sherars Falls, and can soak up a different tone on the raging section of river eight miles downstream from Maupin, where the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs hold fishing rights to a raging section of the river eight miles downstream from Maupin. Watching tribal members fish from platforms built into the river can be inspiring, but remember to be respectful of their land and property.
If you're hungry for whitewater action, the float from Warm Springs to Sandy Beach includes some of the best rapids; if you're seeking a more scenic jaunt, opt for floating from Buckhollow to the mouth of the Deschutes at the Columbia River. Both sections are great choices for first timers seeking a fun, mellow multiday experience.
Going it without a guide: Already been on a guided multiday? Don’t let the guides have all the fun; there are plenty of options to rent and row your own raft. Several outfitters in Maupin will even drop off your raft and gear at the put-in of your choosing. They might even shuttle your vehicle to the takeout so it’s ready at the end of your trip. (If not, there are plenty of local shuttle services that will move your vehicle downstream for $50 to $115.) Just make sure you’ve got your boating permits through Recreation.gov for each section you plan to float through.
Be respectful: Leave no trace is a key principle on the river, and be mindful that the Deschutes is a tinder box in the summer, meaning no fires from June 1 through October 15. If you're parking, pay the day-use fees in parking lots.
Which River Outfitter Is Right for You?
You're A Weekend Warrior
You’re looking for something family friendly and affordable, and not too long. You want a great experience out on the river with a guide who will make you feel safe and crack a few jokes along the way. They might tell you that Boxcar is named for the Campbell’s Soup train that crashed there back in the 1950s creating the rapid you’re about to hit. You believe them. Ouzel Outfitters / River Drifters / Sun Country Tours
You're A Party Animal
You’re two beers deep (Busch heavies, exclusively) and ready to slay some rapids and then continue the day raging back at your campsite. You’re stoked to find out your guide did this same run in the pitch-black last night, naked, and without any paddles. Imperial River Co / River Trails
You're A Sunflower
You woke up at your tidy campsite with a rushing river and birds singing. You did your morning yoga flow before eating a light breakfast of granola and Greek yogurt. You’ve rafted before, maybe a few times, but don’t consider yourself a pro. You’ve been raving to your friends about how fun and splashy the Deschutes is. Row Adventures / Sage Canyon River Co / Oregon River Experiences*
You're an Adventure Seeker
You’ve been there, you’ve done that. It’s time to take Oregon’s state motto to heart and fly with your own wings, or is it float with your own oars? Either way, you’re ready to crush a multiday excursion with your best buds all on your own. You’ve been training for this for years. You know every rapid and maneuver like the back of your hand. Get behind the oars and have a blast navigating your group downriver. Deschutes River Adventures / Deschutes U-Boat 541-395-2503
Here's a list of rapids to watch for in the Maupin day trip section, from Harpham Flat to Sandy Beach.
This rapid features a massive rock in the middle and two fun lines on either side for maximum splash-age. Just pick a side and commit because indecision means you’re hitting the rock and flipping.
One of the most fun to navigate, a hard right turn pours over into a large wave that’s known for taking passengers for a little swim. Not to worry, there’s a big pool right after in which your guide can recover you.
Not technically a rapid, but this standing wave is a great surf spot and fun splash on hot days. Your guide might go through sideways just to see if you’re awake and paying attention, thus filling the raft with water.
Less of a rapid and more of a maneuver between a few islands and around rocks as you set up for Oak Springs.
Just beneath the surface of this rapid is razor-sharp volcanic rock that is ready to turn your cheeks into finely shredded cheddar. You really don’t want to fall out here, but, lucky for you, your guide has it handled. Just make sure you lean in and grab that T-grip so it doesn’t knock out your buddy’s incisors, effectively giving them “summer teeth”—some ’r’ in your mouth, some ’r’ in the water.
A small wave train where the White River meets the Deschutes—one of the few places in Oregon where you can stand and see the headwaters and mouth of a river at the same time (if it's a clear day). Ask your guide if there’s time to hike up to the natural waterslide.
A series of splashy wave trains just after the White River. Lower Elevator is sometimes called "Swimmer's Rapid" because its mellow waves are a fun place to let rafters swim through a rapid in only their personal flotation device (guides don't say "life jacket" anymore because they will not always save your life, but certainly boost your odds!).
*Editor's note: Travel & outdoors editor Sam Stites has worked as a part-time guide for this company.