So, You Didn’t Pull a Permit

Permits for favored rivers are increasingly hard to snatch, and COVID only added to the brooding desire to get outside and on the water.

Rafting the Main Salmon, Idaho. | OARS

It’s late spring and winter’s bounty is mostly melted. Moisture is making its way into and through the parched soils and transforming into the flows of the rivers many of you (us?) are dying to float. And, alas, because last year couldn’t be the year for many, this year, too, won’t be the year for many. Permits for favored rivers are increasingly hard to snatch, and COVID only added to the brooding desire to get outside and on the water. The odds can be deflating. On the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, 17,000 applicants battled for only 387 permits in 2020. On the highly sought after and impossible to pull Yampa, applicants have about a 2% chance of pulling a permit. With odds like these, who needs enemies?

Rather than spend too much time lamenting the very system that works to preserve the health and long-term sustainability of the rivers we long to float, we’ve schemed up some alternatives. While we know these are no multi-day floats down the Selway or the Green, they’re better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Fortunately, there are still a number of floats that don’t require permits, and floating rivers is not the only way to enjoy them. So, here are a few alternatives for you to ponder, pursue and check out yourself:

GET ON THE RIVER:

  • In northern New Mexico, the Rio Chama offers a family-friendly overnight, and some easy day-trips running laps on the section below the Wild and Scenic stretch.
  • In southwest Colorado, the Upper Animas river is touted as one of the best Class IV-V runs in the region, and beyond. There are more than 100 rapids on this spectacular run through the Weminuche Wilderness. Not for the faint of float, the river drops nearly 85 feet per mile along this stretch.
  • The Flaming Gorge in Utah is a permit-free float on the Green River below the Dam. Broken into three sections, the full float is 23 miles through spectacular canyons, on relatively mellow water that plentiful opportunities for fishing, hiking, camping and wildlife viewing.
  • For a day at the park—the whitewater park—head to Montrose, CO where their recently completed Winter Sports Park offers places for kiddos to splash around, and six drop structures where expert kayakers can test and hone their skills.
Desolation Canyon, Green River, UT | Photo by Adam Clark

RECREATE RIVERSIDE:

  • Pack a picnic and find your perch in the network of parks and trails built around Clear Creek in Golden, CO. You can play in the water or around it, the trails are paved and are biker, runner, skateboarder friendly, and the water is clean.  
  • Hike along the Verde River in the Mazatzal Wilderness in Arizona. There are numerous options, but the Verde River Trail offers a roughly 14-mile out-and-back that crosses the river in multiple places (take note). 
  • Bike the 22-mile Colorado Riverfront Trail in Mesa County. Connecting the towns of Fruita, Grand Junction, and Palisade, the trail is tied at the hip to the river, and meanders through or around numerous parks, Wildlife Areas, Botanical Gardens and lakes. 
  • Commit to a multi-day exploration of the Escalante River Canyon in southern Utah. Whether or not you decide to tackle the full 85-mile expedition, or to dabble in a shorter in-and-out hike, be prepared to wade through the river, and to be humbled by the deep geologic and human history on display in the canyon.
Escalante River | Photo by Mike Fiebig
Escalante River | Photo by Mike Fiebig

FOR THE RIVER:

  • Give back: for as much as we enjoy rivers, our impact can be negative, and our ongoing ability to enjoy them will be dependent upon the ways we commit and contribute to their long-term health. To learn about opportunities near you, visit (or contribute to) our growing list of river clean-up opportunities and sign up to volunteer with National River Cleanup.

Finally, before we spend too much time cursing the permit system that has you in search of alternatives, take a moment to be grateful that these precious resources have some protection that can help usher their unbeatable existence into the next century (and hopefully beyond).