There's a place for vacations that include museum tours and visits to the childhood homes of famous people, but sometimes you need to feel your heart pound and catch a lump in your throat. For the latter type of experience, head to the mountains: The rivers are calling.
Whitewater rafting can spice up any trip, whether you’re looking for a pleasant family float or a white-knuckle reunion of college friends. Here's what you need to know as you plan your next raft trip:
- The rivers are graded class I-VI (Class I being something your Grandma could float in a canoe, and class VI being unrunnable rapids); if you want mild thrills, book a Class II or III trip, and if you want to get rowdy, head into the class IV and V range. Class V trips often require previous rafting experience, for good reason.
- The equipment is provided by the trip organizer. Cold-weather gear is usually provided, but for your own clothes, wear synthetics or wool clothing. Fleece, polyester, nylon and even high-tech natural fabrics like sport-focused wool blends all have a unique ability to keep you warm when wet. Even if it’s hot outside, the water may be extremely cold, and a good rule for rafting is to dress for the swim.
- The safety talk is given for a reason. This isn't a theme park, and this ride isn’t on a track.
- Leave your wallet and keys back at the outpost. Many a great vacation has been ruined when the car keys went to swim with the fishes.
- Speaking of your wallet, your grizzled guides eek out a physically challenging lifestyle for very little money. They do this because they love the experience as much as you will. The best rule of thumb is that if you like the ride, tip your guide. A 10 to 20 percent gratuity is customary.
Now that you have the basics down, it's time to buckle up your lifejacket, check the strap on your helmet and get a good grip on your paddle. We asked whitewater guidebook author, veteran raft guide and renowned kayaking instructor Leland Davis to pick the 10 best whitewater trips in North America. Here’s his list:
River: Colorado River, Arizona
Section: Grand Canyon (Class I-V)
The Beta: The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is the premier, multi-day rafting trip on the North American continent, offering 226 miles of big water excitement set in one of the most beautiful desert canyons on Earth. Trips can range from six-day, motor-driven tours to 16-day, luxury-rafting getaways that feature gourmet food and breathtaking side hikes.
Towns to Visit: Most Grand Canyon rafters will stage out of the Northern Arizona town of Flagstaff, which has excellent food choices and alpine mountain scenery. For local desert hikes and mountain biking, check out the area just south around Sedona and don’t miss exploring Antelope Canyon outside of Page, near the put-in at Lee’s Ferry.
Guides to Use: Arizona River Runners
River: Salmon River, Idaho
Sections: Middle Fork (Class III-IV), Main Salmon (Class III), Lower Salmon (Class III)
The Beta: The Salmon River boasts more options for trip length and more diverse scenery and wildlife than any other river in America as it cuts through the middle of the largest contiguous, roadless wilderness in the lower 48 states. The Middle Fork is a five- to six-day adventure that starts on a rushing alpine river and ends in a majestic desert canyon. The Main Salmon offers everything from seven-day, gourmet, semi-arid, canyon overnight trips to single or half-day, intermediate trips out of Riggins, Idaho.
Towns to Visit: This is the middle of nowhere, folks! Spend your down time doing a hot-spring tour of the area. Depending on which way you access the river, Missoula and Boise are both excellent towns with abundant food and recreation options.
River: Chattooga River, South Carolina/Georgia
Sections: Section III (Class III w/ one IV), Section IV (Class V)
The Beta: The legendary Wild and Scenic River is one of the most beautiful free-flowing streams in the country. Whether you’re looking to ride raging class V in the springtime on section IV or cool off with some light class II-III in summer on Section III, the Chattooga is the premier destination for wilderness rafting in the Southeast.
Towns to Visit: Nearby Western North Carolina is the epicenter of outdoor recreation in the eastern United States, with endless miles of hiking trails, mountain-biking routes and trout streams. Asheville, N.C., is the hub of it all, packed with awesome food and entertainment for any taste. Atlanta, Ga., is reasonably close if you're seeking a more urban experience after your time in this wild gorge.
Guides to Use: Southeastern Expeditions
River: Gauley River, West Virginia
Sections: Upper (Class V), Lower (Class IV)
The Beta: When the Corps of Engineers draws down Summersville Lake for six weekends in September and October each year, the water rushes into the riverbed of the best single-day rafting trip in America. The towering canyon walls and hardwood trees painted with the hues of fall are breathtaking—when you have time to briefly look up as you pause between the explosions of awesome whitewater that churn between the Gauley’s house-sized boulders.
Towns to Visit: Nearby Fayetteville, W. Va., is an oasis of culture in this remote region of Appalachia, with an abundance of hiking and mountain-biking trails. Check out the Cathedral Café for breakfast, and enjoy craft beers and mouthwatering pizza at Pies & Pints after you play.
Guides to Use: Class VI
River: Arkansas River, Colorado
Sections: Granite Gorge (Class II-III), The Numbers (Class III-V), Browns Canyon (Class III), Royal Gorge (Class III-V)
The Beta: The Arkansas River is the ultimate rafting destination in the Rockies, flowing through a wide glacial valley surrounded by 14,000-plus-foot peaks before plunging into the thousand-foot-deep slot canyon of Royal Gorge. Whether you’re looking for mild adventure or a total whitewater thrill ride, the Arkansas has what you’re looking for.
Towns to Visit: Salida, Colo., is located right on the Arkansas between the Numbers and Browns Canyon sections. The area is known for awesome mountain biking and hikes in the local mountains, and there are plenty of hopping restaurants and bars in town during the summer season. If Salida isn't enough, head up the road to Buena Vista. Use the Where guide to Colorado to explore more of the state.
Guides to Use: Colorado Rafting
River: Nahatlatch River, British Columbia
Sections: Nahatlatch (Class IV), Nahatlatch Canyon (Class IV+)
The Beta: Welcome to the middle of nowhere! The Nahatlatch is an excellent getaway found at the end of a dirt road in a breathtaking Canadian mountain wilderness teeming with bears. The whitewater on the Nahatlatch is excellent, flowing straight out of a chain of natural lakes before making a fast-paced rush through mountain terrain and plunging deep into a vertical-walled canyon.
Towns to Visit: This place is way out there, so the nearest town with lots to do is almost three hours away—Vancouver, British Columbia. For epic mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, kite boarding or even skiing into July in good snow years, head north from Vancouver on the Sea to Sky Highway through Squamish and Whistler.
Guides to Use: REO Rafting
River: Kennebec River and Dead River, Maine
Sections: Kennebec (Class IV), Dead (Class II-IV)
The Beta: These rivers provide awesome thrills in the beautiful setting of backwoods Maine. The Kennebec runs every day during the summer season, and the adjacent Dead River provides an extra thrill on selected days throughout the season. Check the dates with an outfitter well in advance if you want to raft the Dead on your trip to the Kennebec area.
Towns to Visit: While there are a few eateries and hang-outs in the rafting outposts where the Dead and Kennebec come together in The Forks, it’s a long trek back to Skowhegan, Maine, to find a wider variety of options.
Guides to Use: Three Rivers
River: Youghiogheny, Maryland and Pennsylvania
Sections: Upper (Class IV-V), Middle (Class I-II), Lower (Class III)
The Beta: The Yough (pronounced “Yock”) is one of the premier rafting rivers of the East, offering trips to satisfy any level of adventure from a family float on the Middle to intermediate excitement on the Lower or technical class V on the Upper. All of the sections have regular dam releases all summer long, meaning that you can schedule trips with confidence that the conditions will be good.
Towns to Visit: Morgantown is the closest large town with good dining options and nightlife, as well as great mountain biking in the surrounding mountains. For drinks and food closer to the whitewater, check out the Lucky Dog Café in Confluence, Pa. (Middle and Lower Sections), or the Mountain State Brewery near Deep Creek Lake in Maryland (Upper Section).
River: Tuolumne River, California
Sections: Cherry Creek (Class V), Main Tuolumne (Class IV)
The Beta: In a state that’s filled with rafting choices, the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River stands out as an exceptional whitewater adventure. This incredible stream drains out of Yosemite National Park before plunging into the Cherry Creek section, perhaps the most intense stretch of commercially rafted whitewater in North America. If you’re looking to experience the beauty and thrills of Sierra Nevada whitewater with a little bit less intensity, you can do an 18-mile trip over one, two or three days on the less intense but equally beautiful Main Tuolumne section.
Towns to Visit: There are a few places to eat and drink in Groveland; or, for a bigger town with more options, head 35 minutes away to Sonora. Don’t forget to check out Yosemite National Park while you’re in the area.
Guides to Use: Sierra Mac
River: Rio Santa Maria, Mexico
Section: Tampaón (Class III-IV)
The Beta: This beautiful aquamarine river cuts a deep canyon through the verdant jungles of the Mexican Huasteca in the eastern state of San Luis Potosí. The whitewater is captivating as well, with plenty of intermediate thrills to match the incredible setting.
Towns to Visit: Ciudad Valles is the nearest major city, with plenty of restaurants and a bit of nightlife. While you’re near the river, don’t miss the amazing Cascada de Tamul waterfall—where the Rio Gallinas plunges more than 300 feet over a cliff directly into the Rio Santa Maria. You can view this world wonder from the porch of a bungalow at the luxury Huasteca Secreta Eco-Resort, which has excellent food and other activities and can also arrange rafting trips; or you can access the Tamul Waterfall by a short hike as long as you can find the remote trailhead.
Guides to Use: Aventura Huasteca
About the author: Leland Davis is a professional writer, extreme kayaker and river guide. His debut novel,"Precipice," was released in early 2013. He is also the author of two guidebooks, "The River Gypsies' Guide to North America" and "North Carolina Rivers & Creeks," and his writing has appeared in numerous international, national, and regional whitewater and outdoors publications. He has been a whitewater instructor and guide for over 20 years, leading tours and expeditions across the United States, as well as in Canada, Mexico and South America.