This blog post was updated on March 27, 2020.
If you’re in pursuit of an exhilarating adventure, then whitewater rafting needs to be next up on your bucket list. You’ll get that roller coaster feeling on thrilling rapids that lead to great crashing waves, sharp turns, and sudden drops, all while getting sprayed with water. Oh, and it all takes place in nature!
But before you go packing that waterproof camera, it’s important to go over some “Whitewater Rafting 101” to ensure your trip is safe and enjoyable. Rapids are classified based on levels of difficulty and danger and are categorized from Class I to Class VI. Class I-III rapids are the smoothest with moderate drops and minor maneuvers, while Class IV-VI involve steep drops, crashing waves, and rocks, and should only be taken on by experts. The best and most popular time of year for whitewater rafting typically runs from mid-spring to early fall.
So with that out of the way, here’s a look some of the best whitewater rafting destinations in America, from easiest to toughest.
Green River Desolation Canyon (Moab, Utah)
Located about 242 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Desolation Canyon is the perfect location for families and friends looking for some excitement. It has 60 Class II-III rapids, so it’s ideal for whitewater rafting newbies. Plan for a trip of about five days, as there’s plenty to do besides whitewater rafting. Depending on your tour, a trip will usually cost around $1,500 for adults and $1,300 for children. An average tour includes hiking, a history guide of the canyon, and camping on the white sandy beaches (with breakfast, lunch, and dinner as part of the package). As you paddle through the Green River you can also admire the massive red rock canyon walls, which are simply amazing.
Salmon River (Idaho)
Known as “the River of No Return,” the Salmon River is 425 miles long, making it one of the largest rivers in North America and the biggest in Idaho. But don’t let the nickname intimidate you — Salmon River can be an adventurous family-friendly getaway. The river as a whole offers something for every rafter from beginner to expert. It’s divided into three sections (the Main Salmon, Middle Fork, and the Lower Salmon), each with its own level of difficulty. The best time of year to go is June through August.
Although costs vary depending on tour operator and duration, most trips cost around $1,000-$1,500 per person. That may seem pricey, but packages typically include transportation to and from the river, equipment, sleeping supplies, meals, and a tour guide.
The Nenana River Gorge (Denali National Park, Alaska)
Journey along the Nenana River and explore just some of the beauty that Alaska has to offer. A day-trip tour between May to September costs approximately $100 per adult and $50 per child and usually includes a tour guide, a choice of a paddle or oar raft, a riverside lunch, and a drysuit for each passenger. Come ready to create memories with family and friends, but also be prepared with warm clothes before entering these Alaskan rapids. Just about 99 miles from Nikolai airport, you’ll be able to experience the Nenana River Gorge with either a half day (4 hours) or full day (7 hours) of excursions. A full day completes about 40 miles and requires a minimum party of 6 people. The tour begins with Class I-II rapids and voyages into tougher Class III-IV rapids. A half day tour completes about 22 miles and starts along a scenic route journeying into Class II-IV rapids.
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Kennebec River (Maine)
The Kennebec River is a deep 12-mile-long river with four- to six-foot waves and tons of adventure. This Class III and IV rapid river is ideal for all participants due to its non-rocky course. You’ll pass through rapids with such colorful names as “Big Mama,” “Whitewasher,” and “the Alleyway.” The section of the river that sees the most action is only about 67 miles from Bangor and you can join the fun from April through October. You can experience the most popular whitewater rafting spot in Maine with a tour operator in one- or two-day trips (meals included) with prices varying around $124. Scenic views and wildlife are observed around the river so be sure to bring a camera. The good thing about rafting here is that there’s no need to worry about the cold and dressing in layers, as the water in the Kennebec is warm and enjoyable during rafting season.
Cherry Creek (California)
Grab your flights to California, put on your helmet, grab a paddle, and prepare for a battle while on this Class V+ rafting trip! Located just outside Yosemite National Park and about three hours from San Francisco, Cherry Creek is one of the hardest and most challenging rapids in the US and is only for experts. Some challenges you’ll face are large and small rocks blocking your path, short fast turns, and crashing waves obstructing your view and landing inside your raft. Before this intense mission, you’ll be required to attend an orientation including training in swiftwater swimming, navigation, and safety. Depending on your choice of tour, a one-day trip at Cherry Creek will cost around $335 including meals, a professional guide, equipment, and a Class V orientation. You’ll usually be given a helmet, a life jacket, and a wetsuit prior to your travels. The season permitted to raft in these waters are July to early September. It’s crucial to wear the required equipment because the extreme rapids, with drops of more than 100 vertical feet per mile, can be life-threatening.
The Upper Gauley River (Upper West Virginia)
The ultimate adrenaline-pumping whitewater adventure can be found about 200 miles south of Pittsburgh, and just outside of Charleston, West Virginia. The Upper Gauley is one of the most intense rapids in the US. Stretching up to 26 miles long, the river is split into two sections: the Upper and Lower Gauley. Experience is necessary for attempting to take on the Class IV-V tight, fast, and rough waters. You can complete your trip to the Gauley River in 3-5 hours. Before you go, be equipped with warm clothing — the temperature of the river is normally 50 degrees. While conquering this high-class river you should brace yourself and prepare to tackle high waters and large drops of 335 feet in less than 13 miles, and a pass through Sweet Falls (a 12-foot waterfall). Your team should be strong, experienced, and at least 16 years old.
The Royal Gorge (Arkansas River, Colorado)
A lot of focus and strength is needed for rafting the Royal Gorge. Located about 50 miles from Colorado Springs. This river is ranked as a Class IV+ and has also been recognized as one of the top whitewater rafting spots in America. To take on this run, rafters need to be experienced, at least 14 years of age, and strong swimmers. You’ll be passing through amazing scenery such as the immense canyon walls and 1,053 feet below the Royal Gorge Bridge, so try not to miss the view as you’re paddling hard! A half day here will normally cost about $80 and a full day about $130.
Have you ever been whitewater rafting? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
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