Whitewater rafting can take you places you often wouldn't be able to reach otherwise, which makes it an ideal activity for exploring a new area while traveling. And, thanks to varying difficulty levels and trip lengths, it's a day trip experience the whole family can enjoy, from adrenaline-seeking teens to more mellow moms and dads.
If you're on the hunt for your next big adventure, consider these top-notch whitewater rafting destinations across the country. Honorable mentions must include the Salmon River in Idaho, the Rogue River in Oregon, Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania and the Kennebec River in Maine.
Arkansas River in Colorado
The Arkansas is one of the best whitewater rafting rivers in the country--and for a good reason. The river starts high in the Rockies near Leadville, where it fills with snowmelt each spring. Then, it winds its way down to lower elevations in the Centennial State, passing through towns like Granite, Buena Vista, Salida, and Cañon City. All told, the Arkansas drops 4,650 feet for 152 miles.
Since the river has more than 100 miles of whitewater (with rapids ranging from family-friendly Class II to challenging rapids in Class V) and one of the longest rafting seasons around, you can return year after year and never repeat the same section twice. Heck, you can even make your rafting adventure a multi-day trip!
Plan your whitewater rafting trips between April and September, aiming for June if you want peak flows. The Arkansas River Outfitters Association is your best resource for planning a trip.
Nolichucky River in North Carolina and Tennessee
With rapid names like "Rollercoaster" and "Jaws," it's easy to understand why the Nolichucky--aka "the Noli"--is a beloved whitewater destination among adventurous rafters. (Maybe not first-timers.) People typically raft the Nolichucky between Poplar, North Carolina, and Erwin, Tennessee, a scenic section that spans roughly 9 miles.
The river flows through a deep mountain gorge. It is surrounded by Cherokee National Forest, which provides for some breathtaking views when you're able to catch your breath for a moment. The Noli has rapids ranging from Class III to Class IV. It provides easy access to nearby hiking routes, mountain bike trails, and tasty neo-Appalachian cuisine in Johnson City, Tennessee. Guiding companies like USA Raft and Wahoo's Adventures can help you make the most of your time on the Noli.
Colorado River in Arizona
The Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Still, many people only experience this majestic geologic feature by looking down into it somewhere along the rim. Imagine, instead, being surrounded on all sides by the Grand Canyon and looking up at its reddish-orange walls. That's exactly what you'll experience when you go whitewater rafting on the Colorado River in northern Arizona.
Here, you can explore more than 200 miles of the river that spans from California to the Rockies. This area has smooth sections and rapids ranging in difficulty from Class III to Class IV. Guides offer a wide range of river trips through the canyon, from quick one- and two-day treks to more involved 18-day excursions (rafting the entire canyon typically takes at least 10 to 14 days). Grand Canyon National Park is a helpful resource for finding reputable guides, such as Western River Expeditions or OARS, or organizing solo, unguided trips--keep in mind that you need a permit for a noncommercial rafting trip, so start planning early.
New River in West Virginia
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Mark your calendar: Rafting season starts in April on West Virginia's New River, including upper and lower sections. Early-season adventurers love to get after it on the lower section of the New, thanks to its fast flow, challenging currents, and huge waves driven by seasonal rain and snowmelt.
The upper section, where the season starts in the middle of May, is popular among families and visitors with inflatable kayaks. Chat with the knowledgeable guides at Adventures on the Gorge or ACE Adventure Resort to find the right trip for you based on who you'll be rafting with and the level of adventure you're seeking. If you're traveling to West Virginia in the fall, be sure to scope out the Gauley River, aka the Beast of the East, which has intense rapids when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Summersville Lake in September and October.
Flathead River in Montana
Snaking along the border of Glacier National Park in northern Montana, the Flathead River guarantees jaw-dropping vistas of the Rocky Mountains for travelers who choose to run its rapids (and, if you're lucky, you might just spot a grizzly bear from the safety of your vessel!).
The river's North Fork and Middle Fork offer rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV. Outfitters like Glacier Raft Company and Great Northern Whitewater Raft and Resort can help you enjoy your time on the strikingly blue-green water (and get home in one piece!). Nearby Kalispell is an ideal place to retreat after your time on the water, thanks to its many craft breweries and cideries, locally-owned shops, and a picturesque, historic downtown.
Nenana River in Alaska
Rafting the Nenana River is an idyllic way to experience Alaska's unparalleled natural beauty. Located just outside Denali National Park, the Nenana is fed by glaciers (so prepare for chilly water!) and offers incredible views of the surrounding landscape and Alaskan flora and fauna (golden eagle and sheep spottings are common here).
Rafting companies like Raft Denali, Denali Park Village, and Denali Raft Adventures offer a wide variety of trip types, lengths, and difficulty levels--and difficulty levels (though you can expect Class IV rapids on Nenana.)
Russell Fork River in Kentucky and Virginia
Head to southeastern Kentucky and northwest Virginia to raft the Russell Fork River, which is best known for its extreme rapids in October, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Flannagan Reservoir. In the fall, the river offers challenging, high-intensity Class V rapids. However, it's slightly mellow at other times of year (though it's still pretty technical).
The river forms a 1,600-foot gorge, the deepest east of the Mississippi, which earned the nickname "Grand Canyon of the South." River rafting through the gorge provides incredible landscape views and is guaranteed to get your heart racing.
Snake River in Wyoming
No visit to northwest Wyoming is complete without a rafting trip down the Snake River, the largest Pacific Ocean outlet in North America. After exploring Grand Teton National Park or Yellowstone National Park, take a mellow trip along the Snake, Wyoming's longest river. You'll have views crystal-clear views of the Tetons, and you're like to encounter wildlife, like moose, bison, black bears, and golden eagles, to name a few.
The Snake's rapids are mostly Class II and Class III, so beginners have plenty of time and energy to soak up your surroundings. Make Jackson Hole your home base and book with experienced outfitters like Sands Whitewater, Dave Hansen Whitewater, or Lewis & Clark River Expeditions for a family-friendly trip on the Snake.
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