Top 10 Locations for the Best Outdoor Rafting Adventure In The United States
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
What do year-round rivers, ice melts, and dam releases have in common?
Rafting has been around ever since humankind started making rafts for river travel. But, the activity only became an adventure sport around the 1950s when double-bladed paddles and single-person rafts started evolving into single-bladed paddles and multi-person rafts with a steersperson.
Adventure rafting has become quite popular in the United States, especially in places with whitewater rivers. This doesn’t mean that folks don’t enjoy rafting in gentler waters as well. Gentler rivers are perfect for an outdoor rafting adventure with the family.
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Rafting Adventures Spots in the United States
The USA is blessed with over 250,000 rivers totaling about 3.5 million miles of potential adventure rafting spots. So, if you’re planning your next rafting adventure trip or you’re looking for a place you can start learning the sport, check out our top picks below.
1. Arkansas River, Colorado
The Arkansas River is over 100 miles long and is surrounded by Colorado’s mountainous landscape that can go up to 13,000 to 14,000 feet. The river has seen over 300,000 guests looking for a soul-firing whitewater rafting adventure since 1973.
Don’t let the image of advanced whitewater rafting discourage you from visiting the Arkansas River if you’re looking for a more relaxing trip. The river is a great choice for adventure rafting of all skill levels.
Looking for an adrenaline-pumping extreme class V whitewater? Check.
Prefer a more scenic float for the family? It’s got that too.
The best times to visit are from late May through late June when the water is the highest.
2. American River, California
The American River is a 30-mile long river running from the Sierra Nevada mountain range down to its confluence with the Sacramento River in downtown Sacramento.
The river is known as the premier whitewater rafting river in California. With hundreds of visitors every year, the river has turned the tiny towns of Coloma and Lotus into the epicenter of California whitewater rafting. The American River has three forks which provide three levels of difficulty and excitement.
Since the American River doesn’t have any hydro-dams on it, it relies solely on snowmelt. This is why the best time to visit is in springtime which is the only time that the river’s North Fork, the class IV+ cousin to the South Fork, is available.
3. Salmon River, Idaho
The Salmon River runs for 425 miles through Central Idaho and ends at the Snake River. Also known as “The River of No Return”, it’s best known for its sandy beaches, big canyons, and big water rapids.
“The River of No Return” got its name back in the early days when boats could navigate through the river but couldn’t get back up due to the fast water and numerous rapids (100 in the Middle Fork). The romantic name has stuck to this day despite the arrival of jet boats that could travel both ways through the river.
The best times to visit are from early June, for the best whitewater rafting, until late September for a more laid-back scenic float experience.
4. Colorado River, Arizona
The Colorado River is one of the major rivers in the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It flows for 1,450 miles and drains a watershed that includes parts of seven U.S. states and two Mexican states.
The upper Colorado River (upper C) has a long history and is popular for fishing, family trips, and (of course) adventure rafting. It also has several campsites along its banks that you can only get to from the water. For a more beginner-friendly experience, you can’t go wrong with the upper C.
The river is fed by snowmelt so while the best time to visit is usually between May to September, you can certainly visit at other times depending on the experience you’re looking for.
5. Rogue River, Oregon
The Rogue River in southwestern Oregon runs about 215 miles from the Cascade Range to the Pacific Ocean. It got its name from the French fur trappers who regarded the natives as rogues. The Rogue River is best known for its salmon runs and whitewater rafting amid the backdrop of rugged scenery.
Each year, many guests visit the Rogue River for its great weather, camps, side hikes — and Class II and III rapids. The best time to visit is between late May until early October when the weather and river conditions are at their best.
6. Kennebec River, Maine
The Kennebec River flows 170 miles long through Maine. The river’s name means “long, quiet water” in Algonquian and describes the stretch of river below Augusta.
If you’re looking for rapids, then this river is for you.
The Kennebec is a high-volume river with Class IV whitewater. Prepare to face advanced whitewater for the first four miles as the river cuts its way through a deep gorge. Thrill-seekers come to the river for its difficult Class IV rapids like Rock Garden, Three Sisters, the Alleyway, and the Class V Magic Falls.
For the best water-churning action, visit the Kennebec when the spring runoff is at its peak starting in early May.
7. Rio Grande River, New Mexico
The Rio Grande, aka the Río Bravo del Norte and the Río Bravo in Mexico, is one of the major rivers in the southwestern US and northern Mexico. It flows a total of 1,896 miles and runs from south-central Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.
The whitewater rafting difficulty varies depending on your starting point. The Rio Grande River is an easy day out if you start in Colorado with Class I, II, and III rapids. More experienced rafters can find Class III and IV rapids in the Upper Box Section, although these aren’t usually rafted by commercial operators.
May and June are the best months to visit for whitewater action but you can still visit the river any time depending on the experience you want.
8. Pigeon River, Tennessee
The Pigeon River is only 70 miles long and flows from Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. It rises above Canton, North Carolina, is impounded by Walters Dam, enters Tennessee, then flows into the French Broad River. It runs through Pisgah National Forest and the Cherokee National Forest.
The river got its name from the extinct species of pigeon (passenger pigeon) whose migration route included the river in North Carolina.
Adventure rafting is popular in both the Upper and the Lower sections of the river which are found in Hartford, Tennessee. The Upper section starts at the powerhouse right on the North Carolina/Tennessee border and features Class III-IV whitewater rapids. The Lower section features more beginner-friendly waves.
The rafting season varies but usually starts in early March.
9. Toccoa River, Georgia
The Toccoa River, aka the Ocoee River, is a 93-mile-long river that flows through the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Nestled in the beautiful North Georgia Mountains, some sections of the river are perfect places to just chill and float on calm waters.
The river does come alive from March to October when hundreds of thousands of whitewater enthusiasts flock the river for its world-class rapids.
10. Nantahala River, North Carolina
The Nantahala River runs about 48 miles from western North Carolina, within the Nantahala National Forest, and ends near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. a two-lane U.S. Highway 19/74 runs along the river and several picnic areas can be seen along the route.
Rafting through the river’s Class II-III rapids gives you a great look at the beautiful and scenic gorge.
The best time to visit begins in early April and ends in early October.
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