Are you looking for the thrill of a lifetime? Prepare to conquer whitewater rapids that are as exciting as they are challenging. These courses offer fast, wild rides on some of the country's most scenic rivers and have options for first-timers, whitewater experts, and everyone in between. From exploring the majesty of the Grand Canyon to detouring for a relaxing soak in hot springs, you're guaranteed a heart-racing adventure. The challenge: mastering the wild rapids. The reward: the soaking-wet glory of accomplishment.
By Zachary Laks
See the Grand Canyon like never before, as you float on a raft through the challenging waters of the Colorado River. Nine rafting companies operate on the river, offering a variety of trip packages from half-day trips to extended two-week journeys. For those looking to experience the rush of the Colorado River, start planning now—the raft trips available to the public often sell out up to two years in advance. For beginner one-day trips, the standard route runs primarily through the Hualapai Reservation, giving rafters an up-close view of the rich orange hues of the western Grand Canyon. The rapids on the average day trip are Class II and III, considered moderate on a whitewater rafting scale that goes up to VI.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Grand Canyon Travel Guide
WHERE: West Virginia
West Virginia’s Gauley River provides a 35-mile stretch of Class V+ challenges throughout gorges and valleys primed for whitewater adventure. With more than one hundred rapids that rank among the most technically difficult in the country and the remote scenic landscape of the region, Gauley River attracts the sport’s most ardent adrenaline junkies. For beginners, opt for a day trip on the Upper New River, a more laidback rafting experience, where the opportunity to swim, watch for wildlife, and experience Class III rapids is optional.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s West Virginia Travel Guide
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River gets top marks for its incredible whitewater sequences and unbeatable views of nature. The river has won acclaim for its whitewater, which includes 300 ratable rapids, six natural hot springs, and pristine campsites. Take in the high country forest, towering granite canyons, and grasslands of Idaho’s rich terrain while on the lookout for the regions black bears, bighorn sheep, moose, mountain lions, and more.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Idaho Travel Guide
Rogue River flows along the southwest region of Oregon from the Cascade Mountains into the Pacific Ocean. Green-forested canyons line the river’s challenging rapids, most notably Rainie Falls (Class V), Upper and Lower Black Bar Falls (Class III+), and Blossom Bar (Class IV-V). Day trips on the Rogue River follow the stream from Hog Creek to Grave Creek, giving rafters the chance to push through the popular Argo rapids (Class II). While onboard, look to the treetops to spot the many eagles, osprey, and heron that call the river home.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Oregon Travel Guide
WHERE: Colorado and Arkansas
Stretching east from Colorado to Arkansas (and passing through Kansas and Oklahoma), the Rocky Mountains of Colorado provide ample whitewater thrills at the source of the Arkansas River. Multiple adventure companies offer half-day, full-day, and extended trips through the valleys and gorges of the river, starting easy with a float down the river from Buena Vista. The pace picks up on the daylong Browns Canyon section, where Class II-III rapids, such as the Zoom Flume and the Big Drop, provide the perfect thrill amidst incredible mountainous terrain.
The glacial river from Mt. McKinley that is most popular in Alaska for whitewater rafting is the Nenana River, flowing north through the Alaskan mainland to Denali National Park. With ten miles of challenging Class IV rapids, the river is ensconced by the steep canyons of the Alaska Range Mountains, where golden eagles and wild sheep are in abundance. Get your oars in place to navigate the river’s Canyon Run, one of most popular day trips from Denali Outdoor Center, a local rafting adventure company. The day trips range in difficulty depending on the route, but the rapids can get up to an impressive Class IV, providing the best full-body workout around.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Alaska Travel Guide
Just a quick 30-minute drive south of Pittsburgh, the Youghiogheny River ranks high on the whitewater rapids of the East Coast for its reliable water flow, its long season (March through October), and its many classes of rapids for all levels. For those seeking an adventure without risks, plan an excursion through the Lower Youghiogheny River, where a demanding course of Class III-IV rapids will test your might and reward you with fun rapids like the Double Hydraulics and the Railroad.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Pittsburgh Travel Guide
Once you’re floating down the Kennebec River, which launches from the towering Harris Station Dam, you’re certain to find a challenge ahead. Maine’s destination for day-trippers looking for a whitewater thrill, the Kennebec River is home to many local companies that provide rafts, expert guides, and equipment for the perfect summer excursion. Class III and IV rapids dot the 12-mile day journey, along with some harrowing rapids, including the Three Sisters and the aptly named drop, Magic Falls.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Maine Travel Guide
It’s not easy to find a whitewater river in the North East, but Bostonians revel in the close proximity (a two-hour drive) to the great runs of the Deerfield River that extends from Vermont to northwestern Massachusetts. For the most rewarding day on the river, opt for the Monroe Bridge Dryway, navigated by Zoar Outdoor, where overcoming Class IV rapids in the backwoods of the Berkshires is celebrated with a delicious barbecue lunch.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Berkshires Travel Guide