YOU DON'T have to start rafting with the ultimate. There are several fun raft trips near Washington: the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., the Potomac River below Great Falls, and the James River near Richmond are all good whitewater sampler raft trips. The trips are available seven days a week through the fall. Prices range from $23 to $35, depending on the day of the week. Outfitters on these rivers include:

SHENANDOAH RIVER

BLUE RIDGE OUTFITTERS -- Box 750, Harpers Ferry, WVA 25425; toll-free 554-2560.

RIVER & TRAIL OUTFITTERS -- Route 2(W), Valley Road, Knoxville, MD 21758; 301/695-5177.

JAMES RIVER

JAMES RIVER EXPERIENCES -- PO Box 4525, Richmond, VA 23234; 804/323-0062.

POTOMAC RIVER

POTOMAC RIVER TOURS -- PO Box 30061, Bethesda, MD 20814; 530-8733.

BLUE RIDGE OUTFITTERS -- Box 750, Harpers Ferry, WVA 25425; toll-free 554-2560.

The lower Youghiogheny at Ohiopyle, Pa., is a big step up in difficulty and excitement from those other rivers. Prices range from $20 to $35, depending on the day of the week. Four outfitters, all located in Ohiopyle, offer guided raft trips seven days a week all summer and well into the fall:

WILDERNESS VOYAGEURS -- PO Box 97, Ohiopyle, PA 15470; 412/329- 5517.

MOUNTAIN STREAMS & TRAILS -- PO Box 106, Ohiopyle, PA 15470; 412/329-8810.

WHITE WATER ADVENTURERS -- PO Box 31, Ohiopyle, PA 15470; 412/329-

LAUREL HIGHLANDS RIVER TOURS -- PO Box 107, Ohiopyle, PA; 412/329- 8531.