I’d done nothing to earn my first trip through Ruby-Horsethief Canyon, on Colorado’s western border, which made my passage feel extra-special. I knew zilch about boating and had no clue how to work the oars of the raft I rode. But I wanted to try rafting’s version of backpacking, so I coattailed a few experienced boaters who’d organized a trip through Ruby-Horsethief, one of the best places in the state to dabble in overnight float trips. My pals supplied all the gear and know-how—and gave me license to idly sit and grin at the surrounding cliffs that looked, to me, like massive slices of peanut butter cheesecake.

Maybe that was low blood sugar talking, but I imagined a cosmic knife slicing smooth, straight cuts into cakes of sienna-colored sandstone. In reality, the Colorado River provided that sawing action, and we rode its flow for 25 miles from the put-in at Loma, Colorado, to the take-out at Westwater, Utah. Most of those miles offered lazy flatwater that left us little to do but ogle the scenery that seemed to swallow us whole.

A bald eagle balanced on the leafless branch of a cottonwood tree growing along the shore. The cooler hinge squealed as my buddy reached inside for an icy Tecate. And an ever-changing parade of rocks provided a visual encyclopedia of erosive sculpting: Some cliffs were steep and smooth, others were pocked and rounded, and a few were black and nubby (the Precambrian rock at Black Cliffs formed 1.7 million years ago, making them among the oldest on Earth).

But the real treat came in late afternoon, when we spied our campsite and rowed to shore. Instead of rushing back to civilization after just a few hours outdoors, we’d extend our retreat into a second day. Staying out felt like the ultimate luxury.

Reaching land, I made my paltry contribution to the trip effort by lugging armloads of gear off the rafts. There were dry bags full of tents and sleeping bags, the big 70-liter cooler and its bounty, a couple of roll-top tables for prepping food, a shade awning, camp chairs, several puncture-proof Paco pads for sleeping, the fire pan, and a portable toilet. Yes, overnight camping is gear-intensive, but that’s one reason why rafters like to posse up on multi-day trips. Not only is there safety in numbers, but also heightened efficiency: The whole crowd can use just one fire pan and one toilet, for example. We drew straws for toilet clean-out duty post-trip, but we also feasted on shrimp tacos that I’d deem worthy of a James Beard Award.

That night, as I stretched out on the sand beneath the sky’s black velvet and diamonds, I listened to the river. Its hiss provided a sound barrier between me and the world beyond, while the canyon walls fenced out everything and everyone but our happy group. Half-day paddles are fine, I decided. But overnight rafting? That’s the real soul-scrubber.

How to Float the Ruby-Horsetooth This Summer

Hint: You have to book permits and (optional) guides now.

A tiny raft floats down the Colorado River on the famous Ruby-Horsethief section, set between stark orange sandstone walls.
I Spy: a tiny raft floating the Colorado River on the Ruby-Horsethief section. Photo by Josette Deschambeault

Holiday River Expeditions offers Ruby-Horsethief trips that are specifically designed to introduce participants to overnight camping and its methods and equipment. These two-night, three-day journeys are scheduled for July and August 2023, and cost $645 for each adult (kids are $595).

Have your own boat? Permits are required for overnight camping in Ruby-Horsethief Canyon, and reservations open 60 days before your intended launch, at 8 a.m. Fees (from $20 per site, plus a $6 reservation charge) apply from April through October. Loma’s launch regulations also require each person (age 18 and older) in the group to possess a Colorado hunting or fishing license.

Another Great Beginner-Friendly Overnight Raft Trip

The Upper Colorado River near Kremmling is another ideal spot for trying overnight rafting. Spanning 14 river miles from the Pumphouse put-in to take-out at State Bridge, this one-night, two-day trip features mellow, Class I and II rapids (occasionally III during spring runoff) and can even include a stop at Radium Hot Spring, an undeveloped spot on the riverbank where travelers have stacked stones to contain the 95-degree water. In May into June, snowmelt raises the river’s flow and submerges the hot spring, making July through September prime time.

Go with Silverthorne-based Colorado Rafting Company ($400 per adult; $350 for kids 12 and under) and bring your trout rod: Fishing is excellent on these headwaters.