American Rivers: 8 Rollicking Whitewater Raft Trips

Chattooga River

20 May American Rivers: 8 Rollicking Whitewater Raft Trips

Rafting the Gauley River

Rafters tackle big rapids on West Virginia’s Gauley River. Photo: Gary Hartley, National Park Service.

If you’ve waited till now to make your summer vacation plans, it may be too late to get in on a a multi-day wilderness river trip this season, like the legendary Middle Fork of the Salmon or all 226 miles through the Grand Canyon on a classic dory. While these are “grail trips” for many adventure travelers and book up well in advance, you can still get a feel for the thrills they offer on these one-day whitewater rafting options that are guaranteed to get your adrenaline surging. From Alaska to the Appalachians, whitewater beckons. These rivers hold plenty of exhilaration for experienced rafters when water levels are high, or if you’d prefer to test your mettle in tamer conditions, go later in the summer when the rapids are likely to be gentler — roller-coaster Class IIIs are perfect for avid beginners who want a taste of big fun.

Keeping it upright in the glacial-fed waters of Alaska's Nenana River. Photo: Katie Loehr, Flickr Creative Commons.

Keeping it upright in Alaska’s glacial-fed Nenana River. Photo: Katie Loehr, Flickr Creative Commons.

Rating: Class III-IV
Length: 11 miles
Season: June to August

Exploring up North this summer? Tack a run through the Nenana River Gorge onto a hike in Denali or a journey aboard the Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Choose a guide-oared boat or immerse yourself in the action on a paddled raft. The canyon journey begins at entrance to Denali National Park and travels downstream north to Healy. The roiling Nenana is a milky, opaque gray, its frigid waters carrying a heavy load of glacial till as it skirts the the park’s eastern border with Mt. Healy rising 3,000 feet above the river. More than 10 major rapids include powerful wave trains and hydraulics like Razorback, Iceworm, Cable Car and Coffee Grinder.

Boulder Drop, Skykomish River

Navigating Boulder Drop on the Skykomish River in the North Cascades. Photo: Outdoor Adventures.

2) SKYKOMISH RIVER, Washington
Rating: Class IV-V
Length: 9 miles
Season: April to July

For serious thrillseekers and experienced rafters only, tackle the Northwest’s wildest whitewater that tumbles from Stevens Pass to the Puget Sound lowlands. The crystal-clear “Sky” courses through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the Cascades as it descends between Index and Gold Bar in a steady series of rapids. They culminate in the infamous Boulder Drop, where expert guides navigate a torrent of Class V whitewater raging at 7,000 cubic feet per second at the height of the runoff, taking care to avoid the house-sized rocks that give this stretch its name. The put-in point is little over an hour from Seattle, making this an easily accessible adventure.

Deschutes River

Wapanita Rapid keeps Deschutes rafters cool on a hot summer day. Photo: Molly Boyd

Rating: Class III-IV
Length: 14 miles
Season: May to September

The Deschutes draws crowds from Portland at peak summer season, but if you’re looking for warm-weather fun, you’d be hard-pressed to find a livelier option. The Deschutes, originally dubbed “Riviere des Chutes,” meaning “River of the Falls,” by French fur traders, originates high in the Oregon Cascades and flows to the Columbia. The Lower Deschutes, where most day trips take place, slices through a desert canyon dotted with sagebrush and framed by towering basalt rock formations where ospreys and eagles circle overhead. Unlike many rivers with marked seasonal variations, the Deschutes’ flow rate remains mostly steady due to the porous lava beds it traverses – the sponge-like holes in the rock traps the spring snowmelt, which is released at a gradual rate all summer. Lower Deschutes trips originate at Maupin, while a shorter, milder run through the Big Eddy section of the Upper Deschutes is available from Bend.

Browns Canyon, Colorado

A mellower stretch of Arkansas River whitewater through Browns Canyon. Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

Rating: Class III-IV
Length: 18 miles
Season: May 1 – Labor Day

The Browns Canyon section of the Arkansas in central Colorado is one of the most popular whitewater day trips in the country, and deservedly so. The rugged scenery of Browns Canyon has helped earn its status as the newest national monument in the U.S. And the river’s natural pool-drop flow creates optimal conditions for whitewater revelry followed by calm stretches to regroup before doing it all over — and over — again. Rapids like Widow Maker, Zoom Flume, Seidel’s Suckhole or the near-vertical Silver Bullet will delight avid rafters, especially in June when the river swells with snowmelt to create towering waves and powerful hydraulics. In July and August the water level drops, but big exposed boulders and narrow chutes offer technical challenges of a different kind. The put-in point is Buena Vista, about 3 hours from Denver.

Westwater Canyon

A vertigo-inducing view of the Colorado River in Westwater Canyon. Photo: Richard Rootes, BLM

Rating: Class III-IV
Length: 17 miles
Season: April – September

Winding its way through red and gold sandstone cliffs east of Grand Junction, Colorado to Cisco, Utah, Westwater Canyon is the first whitewater stretch of the Colorado River in Utah. National Geographic called it “The West’s Best Short Whitewater Trip,” with plenty of big rapid sets to temporarily distract rafters from the stunning scenery. The inner gorge is composed of black Precambrian rock, which lends an austere feel to the dramatic environs. Vertical walls soar 1,200 feet high, creating a tight channel strewn with rocks that form the major rapids. Staircase, Big Hummer, Funnel Falls, Sock-it-to-Me and infamous Skull Rapid come early in the journey, while calmer water later in the trip invites rafters to kick back and soak up the desert sunshine. If time permits, it’s possible to see ancient petroglyphs and historic cabins on side hikes. Trips typically start and end in Moab, Utah, with a lengthy but scenic van drive to the put-in point just over the Colorado border.

Taos Box rafting

Rafters on the Rio Grande prepare to enter the whitewater section of the Taos Box

Rating: Class III-V
Length: 16 miles
Season: May-June during high water

The Taos Box is a remote, wild stretch of whitewater in the heart of the Rio Grande Gorge, nearly 800 feet below the canyon rim. The river, which rises in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, begins to cut the 68-mile-long gorge just as it enters New Mexico. The “Box” flows through 16 miles of wilderness that’s home to abundant wildlife including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, river otters and many birds of prey. While the beginning of the Taos Box is relatively calm, the final five miles turn raucous as the gradient increases and the rapids grow in intensity. You’ll paddle hard through Power Line Falls, the Rock Garden, mile-long Rio Bravo and Sunset. This visually stunning section of the river is included in the newly designated Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and is also a charter river  in the National Wild and Scenic River System. The only road access into the Rio Grande Gorge is at Dunns Bridge west of the town of Taos, which is the put-in for the Taos Box.

Gauley River

The Upper Gauley offers some of the biggest whitewater thrills in America. Photo: National Park Service

7) GAULEY RIVER, West Virginia
Rating: Class III-V+
Length: Upper Gauley, 15 miles; Lower Gauley, 13 miles
Season: May through October

West Virginia boast some of country’s premier whitewater rafting on the Gauley and New rivers. The world-class Upper Gauley is notorious for furious whitewater, with at least six tight, technical Class V rapids that comprise one of the world’s most demanding paddling experiences as the river plummets 335 feet in less than 13 miles. More than 25 rapids total provide nonstop thrills for highly experienced rafters navigating the steep drops and churning waves of rapids like Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring and the 12-foot drop over Sweet’s Falls. During the annual fall draw-down, scheduled release dates on the Upper Gauley in September and October promise epic whitewater between the rugged canyon walls fringed with autumn color. The Lower Gauley is a thriller in its own right, with Class III-V rockers and whirlpools, though less daunting than the upper section of the river. You can also raft the Gauley in summer for a tamer experience, or choose the nearby New River for spring and summer drop-pool whitewater: the New River Gorge National River offers colossal rapids in the lower gorge before it meets up with the Gauley.

Chattooga River

Tackling infamous Five Falls on the Chattooga River. Photo: Warren Williams, Flickr Creative Commons.

Rating: Class III-IV
Length: Section III, 14 miles; Section IV, 7 miles
Season: March-November

 The Chattooga, whose whitewater was made famous in the movie Deliverance, was the first river in the Southeast to be granted National Wild & Scenic designation in 1974. From its source on Whitesides Mountain in North Carolina it becomes one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the Southeast, forming the border between South Carolina and Georgia, surrounded by the Sumter and Chattahoochee National Forests. Raft trips leave from Clayton, Georgia, in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains. Spring and early summer offer peak whitewater, and early in the season the river is fringed with blooming pink and white mountain laurel. Section III contains more than a dozen Class III-IV rapids, with the final Bull Sluice rated Class IV+. But the wildest rapids are in the steeper Section IV, where the quarter-mile gorge drops more than 75 feet through famed Five Falls, where five Class IV rapids in quick succession give experienced adrenaline junkies a rush. The Chattooga is less than two hours from Atlanta, Greenville or Asheville. 

Once you’ve whetted your appetite with one of these high-adventure day trips, start thinking about a longer river sojourn next season — there’s nothing like being on the water in wild country for days on end to elevate the heart and recalibrate the spirit. Take a look at the many whitewater rafting and kayking options the Adventure Collection offers, here.

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Wendy Redal
Wendy Redal is a passionate writer and traveler with a focus on nature, wildlife, food and the environment. Her adventures have taken her to 60 countries and all 50 states, including face to face with gorillas in the Congo, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos, wine tasting in the Republic of Georgia, and trekking on horseback across Mongolia. A former tour director in Alaska, Canada, the western U.S. and New England, Wendy today enjoys crafting and guiding private group trips around the world, in addition to her marketing communications job in the adventure travel industry. She holds a PhD in media studies, an MA in journalism and a BA in history and previously worked with the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Wendy’s travel writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Budget Travel, Alaska magazine, World Wildlife, Gaiam Life and Good Nature Travel.
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