As a professional river rafting guide, once I have established an easy rapport with my paddle crew, dedicated their names to my memory (at least, for the next few hours or days) and learned a bit about their backgrounds without delving too deep into their real-life endeavors (unless they are ready to go there), eventually, someone asks, "What is the best river rafting trip?"
My stock Ed Abbey-inspired answer is, "Whatever river I am floating at the time. . . "
Which is true. But it is also meant to be telling. I love being outdoors. I love leading beginners into the wilderness. I love being on a river. I love the camaraderie, the teamwork, the real-time social networking.
The other old canard I may opt to cast out is, "A bad day on the river is better than a good day at the office." But that one is true only so far as it goes. To be honest, selecting a best river trip is mighty, darn subjective.
My stock non-cutesey answer is, "The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon if you have more than a week's worth of vacation, the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho if you only have a week and the Lochsa River in Idaho if you want lots of big water packed into four hours." But many people don't want to be on a river with intimidating white water in a wilderness setting far from emergency medical services. Some people would be wholly satisfied with slightly less intimidating white water, or a stretch of river slightly less remote.
The Deschutes River in north central Oregon, a little over two hours from metropolitan Portland, is a very appealing river trip suitable for a wide range of participants. Because the Deschutes flows south to north in the 'rain shadow' of the eastern border of the Cascade range, it can be much drier early in the season than other rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
As far as I am concerned, the spring months are the prime time period to be on the Deschutes. Red-winged blackbirds trill from every cattail and bulrush. Pairs of osprey patrol the skies while busily fortifying their nests. Grasses blanket the campsites and hillsides. Campfires, contained in fire pans, are allowed, which means, in addition to an evening spent gathered around a warm flame, meals can be baked in well-seasoned Dutch Ovens.
The river is likely to be swollen from snow melt which means the always entertaining white water at White Horse, Boxcar and Oak Springs will be just that much more entertaining. All of which are good, beginning Class III white water challenges. And though the river might be higher than normal, because it is highly regulated upstream by a couple of dams, it will not be too high to raft.
Of course, the best reason to be on the Deschutes River in the spring months, is that the likelihood of anyone else being on the river is low. So, even though you are not floating through desolate wilderness, you will feel isolated surrounded by the austere mountains and dramatic basalt canyons.
If you cannot make the time until the summer months - and the beauty of the Deschutes in July and August are the long, hot, lazy days and the inviting swimming holes - it is best to try and work around the weekends and schedule your trip midweek. Unlike most of the rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the Deschutes maintains a sufficient water flow due to those upstream regulatory dams.
The western half of the United States lays claim to more than a dozen classic overnight white water rafting trips. They all have their highlights and attractions, some more than others. If you are looking for an overnight river rafting trip within close proximity to Seattle or Portland, suitable for families, excellent for adventurous wedding parties, where you do not have to commit to a week bedding down outdoors, the Deschutes River, in the high desert country in eastern Oregon, is the best river trip for you.