America's Whitewater Playgrounds

07/19/2010 09:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2010-07-20-kayaking.JPGThe long, wonderful days of summer are upon us, bringing great weather and warm temps along with them. It is the perfect time to head outside and enjoy your favorite trail, whether on foot or by bike. But it's an even better time to hit the water in a kayak and spend a little time exploring a cool river and maybe even running a little whitewater.

Whitewater paddling is loosely defined as any kayaking done on a moving body of water, most often a river. That river can be flowing very slowly and gently, making for a leisurely day out, or it can be a wild, raucous affair that is both challenging and demanding for the paddler.

Because of these widely varying conditions, the water is usually assigned a rating, not unlike those given to ski slopes that help kayakers judge the difficulty level. The rating system ranges from Class I, which is defined by water that is barely moving, up to Class VI, which is highly dangerous and often not navigable at all, even by the most skilled of paddlers. Class I and II is usually best for beginners, while intermediate paddlers are able to comfortably handle Class III or even IV. Highly skilled adrenaline junkies look for the Class V and beyond levels of water to get their fix.

The U.S. is blessed with spectacular kayaking destinations spread out across the entire country, ranging from the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest, with plenty to enjoy in between. Here are a few of the best rivers to enjoy before summer slips away completely.

Salmon River, Idaho
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River, located in Idaho, has more than 100 unique rapids, spread out across its 105-mile length, making it one of the grand jewels of kayaking in the entire U.S. The Salmon winds its way through some of the most spectacular scenery in all of North America, and it will leave you breathless for more reasons than just the ride.

Ocoee River, Tennessee
Flowing through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, the Ocoee served as the venue for the 1996 Olympic kayak events and offers up fast and furious Class III and IV water on the five mile long Middle route. For the daredevils, the Upper Ocoee adds another five miles of length and extends the water into Class V levels, and with the Smokey Mountains serving as a backdrop experience becomes even more memorable.

American River, California
The South Fork of the American River is a six-mile run that has a little something for everyone. A section known as the "Coloma of Lotus" offers Class II water for beginners for example, while further upstream the "Chili Bar" gets things going with some fun Class III. Experienced paddlers can test their skills in the "Chili Bar Hole", which is one of the most famous points, on one of the most popular rivers, in the American west.

Chattooga River, South Carolina/Georgia
The first river designated as "Wild and Scenic" by the U.S. Congress, the Chattooga runs along the border of Georgia and South Carolina. With waters ranging from Class II to IV, spread out over 50+ miles, and offering up plenty of drops, the Chattooga delivers a wild ride amongst some of the wildest backcountry in America's southeast.

Gauley River, West Virginia
The Gauley River is best paddled after Labor Day, when the Summersville Dam is opened up, creating a nearly endless run of Class III-V water, spread out over a 28-mile stretch. For 22 days each September, this truly epic paddling run becomes a wet and wild playground for paddlers of all skill levels, and it serves as a perfect way to close out the summer on the water.

(Photo courtesy Jared Alexander via WikiMedia Commons)