What is better than spending a lazy summer day floating your way down a river? Not much! Grab your equipment (or rent some), some sunscreen, your bathing suit, a snack and your friends or family members to ride your way down one of the waterways in or near Calgary including the Badlands and Banff this summer.
Check the weather before heading out. If you happen to get caught in heavy rains or a hailstorm, paddle to the river bank and use your raft as a shelter until it passes.
It is a good idea to check on the river advisories before going out to any location to float. Alberta River Basins website is a good place to see if there are any advisories for the area you want to enjoy – just choose Advisories from the dropdown menu on the top left side of the website.
Remember, never tie rafts or tubes together.
For more detailed information from the city of Calgary on laws and regulations for using the rivers, check out the city website.
1. Floating & Rafting the Bow River (in Calgary)
The beautiful Bow River winds its way through the city of Calgary, flowing eastward and southward, giving you views of the downtown skyline and pretty riverbank areas. There are plenty of sites to enjoy, or simply spend your time splashing in the water or lazily travelling downstream. Drift boats, canoes, kayaks, or rafts powered by human efforts are welcome on the Bow River.
The waters here are mainly Class 1 rapids, which give you some power to move, although right around 10th Street NW you will find some Class 2, and rafters will find the Harvie Passage challenging. Eastern passage is considered a class 3 passage. This is a faster-paced river than some of the others listed, so if you are inexperienced, you may want to spend some time on the slower rivers before enjoying the Bow.
Most rafters start at Baker Park or the west side of Bowness Park. From these points you can travel to Shouldice Park (1 hour), Edworthy Park (1.5 hours) or Prince’s Island Park (3 hours), among others. If you want to spend a whole day, check the Calgary River Access Locations (map) to find where you would like to start and end, as there are in and out points that will take you up to 6 hours to float.
All rafters should be cautious as they enter downtown. It’s best to stay in the middle of the river or to the left while going under the 10th Street Bridge. The right side will tend to pull people into the rocks, and there are river surfers on the right side as well, who will not be watching for rafts.
Harvie Passage has two routes for rafters to enjoy, with the eastern (river left) portion listed as a Class 3 and the western (river right) listed as a Class 2. Inexperienced rafters are advised to use the western route but still exercise caution. There is also an opportunity to portage to avoid this area. Exit at or before St Patrick’s Island to avoid the Passage or keep right to portage.
2. Rafting or Floating the Elbow River
The Elbow River flows eastward from the city’s western edge and is usually shallow and calm compared to the Bow. This river is ideal for families and inexperienced rafters. A lovely route that will allow you to see the city, natural areas and possibly even some wildlife.
Use the Calgary River Access Locations map to show where you can start and end your journey.
Most people enjoy the Sandy Beach to Stanley Park route, which takes approximately 3 hours to complete, although if you are looking for a longer day you can start at Fort Calgary. You should be aware that the Elbow River is quite shallow and rafts can be damaged if you are not careful. Later in the summer, you may have to portage if the river is too shallow.
If you would like a longer, quieter float, you can start at Bragg Creek Provincial Park and end at any point in Calgary. Expect to add on two hours for a float starting in Bragg Creek.
There are several companies in the city of Calgary that can provide you with all the equipment you require to enjoy a day on one of the rivers there, or to take to another destination.
- Lazy Day Raft Rentals can rent you rafts, river-safe tubes, BowYaks (a cross between a kayak and a raft), raft packages to take where you want, or life jackets for those who need them. They can also provide a shuttle service if you book ahead of time. (720 3rd Street NW, Calgary. Phone: (403) 258-0575)
- The convenient Paddle Station not only rents you the equipment but transports it to the water for you and picks you up at the other end. (5227 13 Ave NW
Calgary, Phone: (403) 456-2418)
- Rapid Rent Outdoor Sports offers rentals of 2-4 person rafts and 4-6 person rafts, along with all the accessories that you might need. (903 Heritage Dr. S.W.
Calgary. Phone: (403) 253-2975)
- The University of Calgary Outdoor Center also provides a wide variety of water sport equipment for rent.
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Your Own Equipment
Pool inflatables (air mattresses or inner tubes) are not recommended for use on the rivers in Calgary, as they are not durable and can easily tear when they come into contact with rocks or debris. You do need to make sure that every person has a lifejacket and is wearing it for their float journey. Your own equipment should include a safety pack, which should consist of a whistle, tow rope, and a bailer. If you are on the river in the evening, also include a flashlight.
Take What You Need with You
Don’t forget to take important items with you! Using a waterproof bag, you can easily carry with you what you need, such as your car keys, shoes, sunscreen, a hat, snacks or lunch, bottled water, and even your phone.
3. Float Tours and Whitewater Rafting Upper Red Deer River
Go for guided whitewater rafting or float trips at the Upper Red Deer River. Paddle through rapids with names like Hidden Ledge, Gooseberry, S Bends, The Nationals, Rock Garden, and Sauna Hole.
You have the option of joining for guided float trips or whitewater rafting on the Upper Red Deer River near Sundre and Watervalley.
- Hunter Valley Adventures offers family float trips, whitewater rafting, canoeing, and kayaking in addition to overnight trips. Guided trips start at $100 for half-day whitewater rafting trips for ages 10 and up. Family rafting trip for ages 6 and up starts at $100.00. Directions.Phone: (403) 637-2777
- Mukwah Rafting Tours offers tours from their base camp located west of Sundre. You can choose between a relaxing 1.5 hour family float down the Red Deer white water rafting lasting half or full days at Alberta’s most famous whitewater rafting destination. Cost starts at $40.00 for family float trips and $109.00 for white water trips.
4. Tubing or Floating on the Little Red Deer River
Just a bit over an hour north of Calgary you will find an amazing place to lazily waste away a day or three floating in a tranquil setting on a tube.
Located along the banks of the Little Red Deer River, Red Lodge Provincial Park is a beautiful park with a variety of amenities available, including a day-use area and camping sites if you want to enjoy the river for more than one day. The normally low level of the river allows all ages to get out and tube, and it is easy to walk back to the start of your journey.
Even though this river is normally shallow, remember to check weather and river conditions before heading out.
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5. Rafting and Floating Red Deer River through the Badlands
In the Drumheller area, the Red Deer River winds its way through the incredible badlands, with its unique landscape and diverse wildlife and birdlife.
You can see things here that you may not see anywhere else, such as buffalo bones and skulls in the river and along the banks. There are several ways to enjoy this river – from half or full day floats on tubes to multi-day trips if you are into spending time in a canoe, kayak or even a SUP.
Most people will start either somewhere in the small community of Nacmine or at Newcastle Beach campground and spend a day floating to the suspension bridge or the nearby Pinter’s Campground.
If you rather canoe or want to do a rafting trip you can also follow the river on a canoe from Content Bridge near the hamlet of Nevis to Dinosaur Provincial Park via Tolman Heritage Rangelands Natural Area, which protects extensive badlands that lines the river’s banks.
You may select shorter sections of the river, like Content Bridge to Trenville Park, Trenville Park to the Tolman Bridge campground, or Morrin Bridge to Newcastle Park in Drumheller for a day trip.
If you don’t want to do a full day, you can go stop at any point in between and be fine, just remember that planning in advance is important as you will need a second vehicle to get back to your start point. As well, it is important to think about this river as low and slow, so plan your time accordingly.
Lynch Ranch Canoe Rentals & Shuttle Services provides canoe rentals and shuttle service from Content Bridge to Drumheller.
Contact the Drumheller Visitor’s Center with any questions you have about where to park or where to launch. This area in summer can be very hot, so plan accordingly with sunscreen, water, hats and anything else you may require. See our suggestions on equipment and necessary items above.
6. Guided Float Tours, Whitewater Rafting in Canmore, Banff, Kananaskis
To enjoy a float, you don’t need to have a tube or raft, and you don’t have to go on your own. These float tours can open up amazing wildlife viewing opportunities, or simply let you sit back and relax without the worry of where to start or end, or where to get equipment from.
Many tour companies offer family-friendly, relaxing float tours down the Bow River from Canmore, or through the hoodoos in Banff.
If you want more adventure join for guided rafting down the picturesque Kananaskis River. Raft for 1.5 – 2 hours on the turquoise waters of the Kananaskis River, one of Alberta’s most pristine waterways. This excursion is an ideal introduction to the thrill of whitewater rafting and is great for families or groups on the class 1-3 rapids.
- Canmore Raft Tours can provide you with the perfect float outing to enjoy scenic views of Canmore. Choose from 1 hour or 2.5 hours tours. ($25 to $60)
- Rocky Mountain Raft Tours offers 1 hour guided float tours to Hoodoos from Bow falls encountering excellent views of Sleeping Buffalo, Cascade and Tunnel Mountains. (Adult/senior – $70; Child 2-15 years old – $30 (minimum age is 2 years old))
- Chinook Rafting offers guided 1.5 to 2 hour adventure down the Kananaskis River.
7. Enjoy a Float on a Lake or Two
Rivers aren’t the only waterways that can be enjoyed by a simple float, and there are several pretty lakes in the Calgary area offers up the perfect opportunity.
Ghost Lake is only an hour outside of Calgary and big enough that you can float for a good period of time, but be aware that motorized boats are also allowed here, so you probably want to keep close to shore.
In Kananaskis Country, just a bit over an hour from the city, you will come across the manmade Barrier Lake, which is another great place to spend some time on the water.
If you don’t mind driving a bit farther, head out to the large, and stunning, Lake Minnewanka. While there are motorized boats allowed here, this mountain lake is mainly used by canoeists and kayakers, so it is easy to drift along the shore or paddle out to the middle and waste your day away floating.
If you would like a smaller lake in the same gorgeous mountain area, head instead to Two Jack Lake, which is part of the Lake Minnewanka Loop but separated from the main lake by a dam, and doesn’t allow motorized boats. There are also options for guided SUP tours at the Lake.
No matter where you go, practice water safety and carry the necessary items with you.