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The 12 Best Whitewater Rafting Locations in the US

The 12 Best Whitewater Rafting Locations in the US

For millions of years, rivers have been carving out their existence in the topography of our earth. And for as long as humans have been around, we have been looking for ways to explore them.

Once successfully navigated and mapped, waterways became essential for their resources. It was only a matter of time before keen river runners turned necessity into recreation.

The history of whitewater rafting is somewhat debated, and there’s no definitive answer for when it began or where it originated. One claim is that it was first recorded in 1811 with an attempt to navigate the Snake River in Wyoming. It is thought that commercial rafting trips began in the 1940s, while it didn’t officially become a sport until 1972, when it made its debut at the Munich Olympics.

Whitewater Rafting in Jackson Hole

What we know for certain is that it has grown immensely in popularity over the years, as thrill seekers around the world look for their next whitewater adrenaline fix. As safety and boat technology have improved, the number of people becoming involved in this adrenaline-pumping pastime has significantly increased.

Many countries offer dramtic rivers cascading down mountainsides, through craggy canyons, and amidst some of the most breathtaking scenery on earth. But in this article, we examine the best whitewater rafting locations in the US.

North America is fortunate to have some truly stunning outdoor destinations, and you will find many of these dramatic runs in this list of the best whitewater rafting adventures in the world. Get ready for a wet and wild ride.

Classifying Whitewater Rapids

There are six classification levels in the International Scale of River Difficulty (ISRD), created by the American White Water Association and recognized worldwide. The scale represents the skill level and technical difficulty required for negotiating a stretch of river or a single rapid.

Note that the class distinctions are subjective and are based on the opinions of experienced rafting experts. Sometimes, the classification is fine-tuned with a plus or minus sign. This indicates that the rapid is at the higher or lower end of the classification, respectively.

Note that the figure listed for each section is typically not the river’s total length, but rather a rough estimate for the best rafting adventure.

  • Class I – Easy level. Float trips with little to no rough water or rocks. Minimum paddling is required. Best for relaxing, swimming, and wildlife spotting.
  • Class II – Novice level. Some small rapids, a few rocks and one or two drops. May need paddle maneuvers. Suitable for beginners. Low risk for swimmers.
  • Class III – Intermediate level. Often requires scouting and a guide for new paddlers. Stronger currents and eddies (circular water currents). Swimming and self-rescue are still possible.
  • Class IV – Advanced level. Strong rapids and powerful currents. Challenging maneuvers will be required. Increase in narrow passages and obstacles. Moderate to high risk for swimmers.
  • Class V – Expert level. Very powerful and often violent whitewater with significant drops. Demanding maneuvers is required, and physical fitness is essential. Swimming is difficult to impossible.
  • Class VI – Almost unnavigable waters. Significant threat to life. Should only be attempted (if at all) by expert teams and following extensive scouting and preparation.

The Best Whitewater Rafting in the US

1. Colorado River, Colorado, Arizona, Utah

Canyons by the Colorado River
  • Length: 280 miles
  • Rapid Class: I-V

Arguably the most famous whitewater rafting destination in the US, the Colorado River snakes its way through the mighty Grand Canyon. It features over 80 rapids for thrill-seekers to enjoy, as well as calmer stretches for taking in the stunning scenery. This rafting tour at the Fisher Towers section is a good example of the latter.

The season runs from late April to early October, with the best time to go rafting in the early summer months following the springtime melting snow run-off. Try this full-day trip that departs from Las Vegas, and takes in jaw-dropping vistas that only the Grand Canyon can do.

The upper section of the Colorado River is also a popular rafting hotspot, and you can enjoy the rugged scenery of the Rocky Mountains with this rafting tour that departs from Kremmling. For the Grand Canyon experience, try Lees Ferry in Marble Canyon as your starting point. The Bear’s Den B&B in nearby Page is a great place to stay.

2. Gauley River, West Virginia

Extreme Rafting in Gualey River
  • Length: 24 miles
  • Rapid Class: I-V

Gauley River in West Virginia is the place to go if you’re looking for intense whitewater rafting adventures. It’s not for the faint of heart, with over 100 rapids that range from class I to class V. Age restrictions are in place, and certain sections of this wild ride are only permitted to paddlers over 16.

The lower Gauley is more suitable for beginners and novice paddlers, and this lower Gauley whitewater rafting trip is a nice entry point if you want to tackle class III rapids with an experienced guide. As the river is controlled by the Summersville Dam, you’re guaranteed a powerful and voluminous water flow every fall.

Set a little outside the stunning New River Gorge National Park, Gauley River is part of a National Recreation Area. For accommodation, there are some excellent campsites in the area, but this secluded cabin vacation rental is in a perfect location for enjoying all the outdoor activities the region has to offer.

3. Salmon River, Idaho

Rafting in Salmon River
  • Length: 84 miles
  • Rapid Class: III-IV

There are around 300 challenging rapids on the Salmon, known as “the River of No Return.” The drops here are like a rollercoaster on water, with the famous Middle Fork tributary offering some of the best runs for adrenaline-pumping whitewater river adventures in the world.

Riggings will be your best jumping-off point, a destination known as an outdoor capital. This half-day whitewater trip departs from the town and includes all the gear you need and an experienced guide.

If you’d prefer a longer experience, try this full-day trip rafting adventure instead. The Northwest Rafting Company is another popular option, and you can check out their website here.

Guaranteed to be on any bucket list of whitewater rafting trips, this scenic river is also famous for its stunning scenery and wildlife. You’ll discover world-class hiking routes, hot springs, deep canyons, and abundant flora and fauna. Come for the rafting adventure, stay to reconnect with nature.

4. Rogue River, Oregon

Group Passing the Rogue River in Oregon
  • Length: 34 miles
  • Rapid Class: II-V

Flowing from the Cascade Mountains into the Pacific Ocean, the Rogue River is considered a truly memorable whitewater rafting site in the US. Surrounded by rugged canyons with thick forests of pine, the waterway offers around 215 miles of stunning scenery and is a must-visit for a river rafting trip.

Rapids range from class I to class V, with the legendary Raine Falls included in the latter category. For experienced paddlers only, many experts will still give this a miss such are the risks involved. Blossoms Bar and Mule Creek Canyon are more manageable at class IV, but Rogue River offers something for paddlers of all skill levels, so you don’t need to be a pro to go.

If you’re just starting, you can learn the ropes on this scenic river float which doesn’t go any higher than class II rapids. This excellent introduction to whitewater is a great way to ease into more challenging runs.

Or you can jump right in with this class IV rafting trip at Nugget Falls. Stay at River House which offers easy access to plenty of activities in the area.

5. Arkansas River, Arkansas/Colorado

Group Rafting in Arkansas River
  • Length: 155 miles
  • Rapid Class: I-IV

A major tributary of the mighty Mississippi, the Arkansas River flows for nearly 1,500 miles through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Multiple stretches offer world-class whitewater, but the town of Buena Vista in Colorado is the most popular hot spot for the sport.

Notable runs include Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the class IV rapids of Royal Gorge. Try this Royal Gorge half-day rafting tour which departs from Cañon City.

It will take you down 10 miles while dropping at a rate of 65 feet per mile. If that’s a little too intimidating, this Browns Canyon rafting trip is more family-friendly with class II and III rapids.

Seasoned paddlers will want to try this extreme whitewater rafting tour at the famous Numbers section of the Arkansas River. It departs from Buena Vista, where the Surf Hotel & Chateau offers the perfect place to stay with mountain views. But for the most intense rapids, Pine Creek is the ultimate adrenaline rush.

6. Nenana River, Alaska

Group Rafting Splashed with Waters
  • Length: 11 Miles
  • Rapid Class: II-IV

Alaska is always at the top of our best places in the US for a vacation, especially if you’re a fan of the great outdoors. The Nenana River offers the best white water rafting in the region, flowing for around 140 miles through the heart of the state, with the breathtaking White Mountains as your backdrop.

The Nenana River skirts the boundary of the famous Denali National Park, an example of the last great wildernesses in the US. Fed by glaciers, the best time for rafting adventures is from May to September.

Here you can enjoy rafting trips like the Denali Wilderness Wave, which is suitable for families. More experienced rafters and older children might prefer this Canyon Wave rafting tour.

For visiting Denali National Park and exploring all the region has to offer, Healy is the best town to use as a home base. Try the cozy Denali Park Hotel on the edge of the preserve, where its secluded location offers guests the opportunity to see curious wildlife frequenting its grounds.

7. Snake River, Wyoming/Idaho/Oregon

Snake River Jackson Hole Whitewater Rafting
Lewis and Clark River Expeditions / Viator
  • Length: 80 miles
  • Rapid Class: III-V

This aptly named stretch of water starts in Wyoming and snakes its way into Idaho, before twisting into Oregon towards the Pacific. Flowing within the borders of the Grand Teton National Park, it’s known for its beautiful scenery, towering mountains, and rushing waterfalls.

Home to some of the most thrilling whitewater runs in the Pacific Northwest, the best time to go is in the summer months. River runs are available for all levels, ages, and skill sets.

Try a relaxing 13-mile scenic float if you don’t want to get your heart rate up. This popular class III whitewater experience is one of the best tours to do in Jackson Hole.

While you’re in the region a visit to the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area is always a must-do. The deepest gorge in North America offers spectacular hiking trails, as well as premium fishing, camping, and rafting locations.

8. Youghiogheny River, Pennsylvania

Two Groups Rafting
  • Length: 11 miles
  • Rapid Class: II-IV

The Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania is among the highest-ranked white water rafting destinations in the US. A short drive from Pittsburgh, it’s a great option for a quick whitewater rafting trip given its proximity to the big city.

Famous rapids include the Double Hydraulics and the Railroad, both on the lower section of the river. The middle Yough is better for novice and younger paddlers, with rapids that don’t exceed anything stronger than a class II.

Try this escorted tour which is perfect if you or your family wants to get into the sport. It departs from the outdoorsy town of Ohiopyle, which also offers some of the best running trails in America.

Ohiopyle is a great place to stay for enjoying rafting on the Yough, as well as a whole host of other outdoor activities and adventures. This stunning log home is just a two-minute walk from the river. And if you’ve not yet had enough of the H2O, nearby Pittsburgh is home to one of the best waterparks in the US, which makes it an ideal destination for rafting trips with kids.

8. Kennebec River, Maine

Group Enjoying Rafting
  • Length: 12 Miles
  • Rapid Class: II-IV

The Kennebec River in Maine is a must-visit for white water rafting enthusiasts. Running for 170 miles, the most popular section for paddlers is a 12-mile stretch that offers an exciting rafting experience from beginners to experts. Don’t miss exciting technical rapids like the Three Sisters, Big Mamma, and the Magic Falls.

The Harris Station Dam is the most popular put-in point. The largest hydroelectric dam in the state, it also provides a steady release of whitewater throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

As such, it attracts rafters from far and wide for guaranteed thrills no matter the weather. Particularly high releases are scheduled in June, July, and September.

Several rafting outfitters are operating in the area, including Northeast Whitewater, Magic Falls Rafting, and Northern Outdoors. Single, and multi-day trips are available.

Lodging is plentiful, too, with many operators offering accommodation packages included. If you prefer to book directly, try the Inn by the River, perfectly located in The Forks.

9. Chattooga River, South Carolina/Georgia

People Rafting in Chattooga
  • Length: 26 miles
  • Rapid Class: II-V

A wild river with thrilling rapids, the Chattooga running the border between South Carolina and Georgia. Guaranteed to make your whitewater rafting journey an unforgettable experience, it boasts powerful water courses that will thrill even the most seasoned river runners.

Movie lovers will also recognize it as the location for the infamous 1972 film Deliverance, and thisiconic outdoor location offers remote beautiful landscapes and heart-pounding rapids. Families and novice paddlers will want to start with this mid-section rafting trip, which allows rafters to take in the dramatic scenery with some fun but comfortable whitewater.

More experienced rafters should look to this tour of section four, which includes runs down class IV rapids and tackles famous sections like Raven’s Chute and Five Falls. Lodging along the length of the river is plentiful, and you should try this cozy lakeside cabin in Mountain City. Dueling banjos not included.

10. Tuolumne River, California

Tuolumne River Whitewater rafting
Zachary Collier / Flickr, CC BY 2.0
  • Length: 18 miles
  • Rapid Class: III-V

The Tuolumne River is a stunning 148-acre river in central California near Yosemite National Park. It’s a wildly popular whitewater rafting river in the US, particularly for expert paddlers. While there are options for beginners, the Tuolumne is one of the few locations with commercial rafting trips tackling genuine class V rapids.

The Cherry Creek section offers 15 consecutive such runs and is up there with the most challenging whitewater rafting experiences in the country. This is the ultimate rush and is only to be attempted by seasoned paddlers, but you can try the launch at Meral’s Pool which isn’t as intense.

Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Tuolumne River is an essential bucket list river trip for adrenaline junkies and whitewater enthusiasts. Its waters are dam-controlled, so you can expect rushing flows from March right through to October.

11. Deerfield River, Massachusetts

Group Rafting
  • Length: 17 miles
  • Rapid Class: II-IV

Flowing from Vermont to Massachusetts in the North West, the Deerfield River makes a great day trip from Boston. Aside from its world-class rafting runs, it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty and offers an abundance of wildlife-spotting opportunities.

The best area for white water rafting is the famous Monroe Bridge Dryway, which features the most heart-pumping rapids for expert paddlers. For novice rafters, the Zoar Gap run is more suitable and is notable for providing ideal runs for beginners to ride that learning curve.

Rafting season in these parts runs from May to October, largely thanks to the damn controlled waterways. However, rafting is only possible on the Deerfield when these releases occur, so you should check in with local outfitters before you go. Try Zoar Outdoor to get you started.

12. The Ocoee River, Tennessee

Ocoee River Whitewater Rafting
Nantahala Outdoor Center / GetYourGuide
  • Length: 17 miles
  • Rapid Class: II-IV

Flowing through the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Ocoee River is Tennessee’s premier whitewater destination. With some of the best rafting in the US available, it was the designated whitewater run for the 1996 Olympics.

Offering breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains subrange in Eastern Tennessee, a rafting trip on the Ocoee River is an unforgettable experience. This guided tour of the middle section will set you up against class III and IV rapids, and you can tackle runs with crazy names like Double Suck, Flipper, Diamond Splitter, and Hell’s Hole.

As you come through the gorge, you will be greeted with the sight of the lush Cherokee National Forest as the river deposits into Lake Ocoee. This full-day trip meets in the town of Ocoee, where this secluded cabin is our pick for a place to stay during your adventure.

FAQs

What state has the best river rafting?

There is no single state that is considered the best white water rafting in the United States, but the likes of Colorado, Idaho, Tennessee, North Carolina, and California are all in the conversation.

What is the most difficult white water rafting in the United States?

There are many challenging runs in the US when it comes to rafting trips. But the most difficult that spring to mind includes the Upper Tuolumne River in California, the Upper Gauley in West Virginia, and the Pine Creek section of the Arkansas River.

Where is the best place to go rafting?

It depends on what you’re looking for and your skill/experience level. The best place for me might not be the best for you.

Wherever you go, just make sure you get yourself covered with some good travel insurance. Whitewater rafting is not without its risks, and you don’t want to be up the creek without a paddle.

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