My wife and I first took our daughter, Brooke, down the Colorado’s Ruby/Horsethief Canyon when she was a paltry 9 months old. During that first magical trip, we realized that—aside from the scorpions, rattlesnakes, cactus, fire ants, poison ivy, sunburn, cliffs and rapids—rafting is the perfect outdoor activity to do as a family. Sure, we love to ski and hike and bike together, but there is something about being on the river that brings us closer together. Granted, a river trip adds a host of additional logistics—packing extra snacks and clothes, shuttling car seats to the take-out, and even cam-strapping Pack n’ Play cribs atop mounds of gear. But it also comes with a mode of transportation that allows you to carry in all those creature comforts.

And the rewards come in unexpected ways. Get on the river with children and you open your eyes to a micro-world that you forgot existed. Kids chase frogs and lizards. They paint mud onto rocks. They  build stick forts and crawl through tamarisk tunnels. They have a blast with things you never realized could be turned into fun. And though you can play along, they are willing to do all this while you relax on shore with a beer.

One of our most frequent jaunts is to a river in southern Utah called the San Juan. Most of the 57-mile float from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing is easy Class I-II, save for Class II-plus Government Rapid, which kids can easily walk. Permits allow a maximum of 25 people, and we’ve always pushed it to the brink, feeling the more the merrier when it comes to munchkins.

Of course, last year we broke the cardinal rule and let the kids outnumber the adults. There were 14 of them and only 11 of us, forcing the grown ups to play zone defense instead of man-on-man. The kids had the upper hand. Still, it only added to the enlightenment we experienced on the river.

As with most of our trips, this one coincided with our spring vacation at the end of April, which just happens to be the perfect time to float the San Juan. We packed up and left the day before, driving for seven hours to booming Bluff, Utah. To ease logistics, each family was responsible for shopping and preparing a breakfast, lunch and dinner, (complete with cocktails).

The adventure started with the drive. Alongside the requisite (and seemingly neverending) potty breaks, we stopped at Arches National Park and Hole in the Wall near Moab, which includes a petting zoo with ostriches and a sandstone cave converted into a house (a tour shows the pioneers’ living room, kitchen and children’s bedrooms). After one more stop at the Anasazi art of Newspaper Rock, we arrived—gummy-bear arsenal depleted—at Bluff’s Recapture Lodge.

It was here that I began to recapture my misspent youth. Just downstream from the lodge is the upper put-in of Sand Island, site of the first river trip I ever organized during my final year of college. Replacing kids with co-eds, Barney dolls with a barrel of beer and tuck-in time with late-night toga parties, we rented rafts, pilfered food from our campus meal plan, and played Fear and Loathing for seven, sun-drenched, debauchery-filled days on the river. We were so Hunter S. happy that we lost our bearing and floated into the take-out a full day too soon, oblivious to the side canyons serving as reference points. (We’ve learned not to make those mistakes with kids of course).

A fight in the back seat interrupted my reverie. Yes there were still riverside cocktails, but this trip would be markedly different. As the kids exploded into the parking lot and climbed on a nearby cottonwood, we shuffled gear, figured out our shuttle for the next day and filled our water jugs before turning in for the night.

In the morning, a few people took the kids to see the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, a half-mile-long collage of Anasazi rock art depicting everything from snakes to a bighorn sheep standing on two legs while playing a flute, while the rest of us used our precious non-kid time to head to the put-in and start rigging.

When the kids showed up after their field trip—lessons from which would likely appear on our living room walls back home—the rafts were loaded and lunch laid out. All that was left was feeding everyone, passing the obligatory ranger check and shoving off for six days on the San Juan.

If you were to bastardize a novel, ours was a true Grapes of Raft. Pete’s boat had a Pack n’ Play crib strapped atop an anthill of drybags in the stern, ours had a car seat for naps below the oarsman and Crazy Creek chairs that sat as inverted teepees for shade. Smaller bags harboring rain gear lay clipped about. Sand buckets, squirt guns and footballs littered the floors, and snacks found shelter in a variety of coolers and plastic boxes. Inner tubes and inflatable kayaks trailed like dreadlocks behind the rafts, getting ready to annoy the oarsmen by penduluming into their oars. Rafting with kids isn’t for Type A’s.

The kids quickly settled into their new floating home. We rigged the gear in the stern, freeing up each raft’s front as a walled-in playroom. The kids then played musical chairs with the rafts, grouping with friends and jumping ship whenever the mood struck. We turned them lose on those inner tubes that trailed behind us and let them try the inflatable kayaks and standup paddleboards on calm stretches.

Our first stop came at the neck of mile-long Mendenhall Loop, a bend where we let the kids off to hike with a lucky grown-up over a low-lying saddle and back down to the river on the other side. The shortcut served a lesson in geology and history. At the top was an abandoned stone cabin where crusty old pioneer Walter Mendenhall once lived, which spawned questions about him the rest of the day. “What did he look like?” Casey asked later. “How did he eat?” queried Otis.

The rest of us, meanwhile, floated the rafts a leisurely, kidless mile and picked them up hitch-hiking on shore. Brooke led the charge with a Sissy Spacek thumb held high.

Camp came just as the sun nodded behind the canyon rim. We pulled over at the upper of several spots we had marked on the map, and sent a scout down in an inflatable kayak to make sure we weren’t missing out on Shangri-La just downstream. Sure enough, he radioed back that the next camp was even better, so we herded the kids back in and shoved off.

It was a good call. A path led to a playground of a sandbox on a bench above the beach, with a Hobbit-sized maze filled with butt-slides leading through the tamarisk and willows from the upper veranda back down to the bank-side kitchen. You couldn’t script a better place for kids to burn pent-up energy. After spaghetti and s’mores, and a few rounds of “This Land is Your Land” and “Down by the Bay” on guitar around the fire, everyone was soon in their tents.

In the morning, the kids gained a lesson in erosion by building a canal from the upper sandbox down to the beach. While we carried bags down to the rafts, they carried buckets up, watching the water schuss through the sand and create mini-ravines filled with pools and drops just like the San Juan’s side canyons.

Kids definitely hamper the logistics of loading —take the typical school morning and multiply it a thousandfold. You have twice as many sleeping bags to stuff, ground pads to roll, tents to take down, mouths to feed, dishes to clean and faces to sunscreen. But soon we were off again, everyone adapting to a life of Huck Finn on the river.

At rest stops on errant beaches, we played 500 and soccer. Where appropriate, we cannon-balled off boulders. The kids adopted pet caterpillars and frogs, chased garter snakes out of their skins and blasted the unsuspecting with squirt guns—all while we slowly progressed deeper into time.

Just like each river bend during the day, each camp brought a different playground. One night led to an impromptu costume contest using whatever you could find. The winners were Otis the Beer Salesman and “Huck” Finn as a bandana-suitcased hobo. The parents’ costumes paled in comparison. On another family’s self-dubbed “redneck” night, the parents actually gave their kids mullets.

We churned out our mileage in bite-sized portions, just like the mini-Snickers we broke out for snacks—9, 9, 13, 7, 12 and 7 each of the six days, leaving plenty of time for breaks, side hikes and obligatory mud baths. At one such mud pit, after warning the kids of the dangers of quicksand, I hid behind a nearby rock, placing my hat and sunglasses atop the mudslick as if the thing had swallowed me whole.

At another camp that was littered with the conical depressions of ant lions, we played Gladiator by feeding them ants and watching the predators’ claws snap the offerings from the bottom of their lairs. That same night, a discussion on desert varnish streaking down the cliffs led to the girls talking about streaking their hair. Other kids built sand castles and made paint brushes from sage. In my notebook, Brooke drew a smiling picture of herself sleeping in a tent with a dream bubble showing her mom, dad and sister in peaceful slumbers by the river.

But perhaps the highlight was the hike up to the plunge pools up Johns Canyon, a natural Water World that had the kids careening off a 10-foot cliff into a slickrock-lined pool, complete with a beach for easy egress. With camp far below, they encouraged each other on until the entire amphitheater was an echoing cacophony of cowabungas and Geronimo’s.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all Leave it to Beaverville. There were tantrums, stubbed toes and sharing issues, just like you’d get taking your kids anywhere. But aside from the scrapes, it didn’t happen nearly as much as it does back home. And in the end, these disagreements dissolved like the sediment in the river, replaced with memories that will—I hope—last a lifetime. •

Eugene Buchanan is publisher of PaddlingLife.net and the author of Outdor Parents Outdoor Kids: A Guide to Getting Your Kids Active in the Great Outdoors

Tips for Floating the San Juan with kids

Plan enough days so you can float leisurely (you’ll need plenty of time for potty breaks). And don’t push schedules—you’ll never put in when you think you will, so don’t stress out about it.

Give a last call for the groover a minimum of five times—and make sure every kid hears you—before packing it away.

Encourage canyonside sleepovers by letting kids tent-hop at night.

Sand will stick to the nose-drool of a 2-year-old and stay there until someone wipes it off.

Kids will eat most anything on a river trip. Don’t worry about preparing special meals.

A frog can be passed around to 14 different kids without any real adverse effects, but be prepared for a coating of frog urine on pass No. 7.

The bigger the squirt gun the better.

Let stomachs, rather than destinations, dictate lunchtime. If your kids are hungry, sandwich at the nearest sandbar.

It’s okay to pee in the raft (as long as it’s a self-bailer).

If you’re telling a story in the tent, make sure your spouse doesn’t bring the baby monitor out to the campfire where everyone else can listen in.