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America’s Best Whitewater Destinations

Whitewater rapids offer a great way to test your rafting skills, while also enjoying the outdoors. From Class A and Class I rapids for beginners to Class V and Class VI rapids for seasoned experts only, the U.S. has multiple rafting destinations to consider. Whether you’re looking for challenging rapids, calmer rapids, or a combination, consider the following whitewater destinations for your next vacation.

Rogue River, Oregon

The Rogue River in southern Oregon provides rapids ranging from Class II through IV, which are suitable for those with intermediate or expert skills. The river, which is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, has over 20 rapids to navigate along a 40-mile stretch. Guided whitewater rafting tours and trips are available for those who want some help navigating the waters. During your stay, you can pitch a tent and camp under the stars, or book a lodge for cozier accommodations.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers something for everyone, making it a great destination for the whole family, with the attraction-filled gateway town of Gatlinburg offering entertainment out of the water. Mountainous terrain and a high amount of rainfall create a variety of waters to explore. Expert rafters can head to high-energy whitewater rapids to put their skills to the test. Beginners or family members who don’t do rafting can enjoy calmer stretches tubing or boating while having a picnic. Comfortable Gatlinburg cabins filled with amenities provide a convenient way to stay close to the water throughout your trip.

Rio Grande, New Mexico

The stretch of the Rio Grande in New Mexico provides thrilling rapids for advanced rafters to try, as well as gentle waters for beginners. Expert rafters can test their skills on the river’s Class IV and Class V rapids. The 17-mile Taos Box section of the river is filled with Class III and Class IV rapids. Guided trips along the Rio Grande are also available. Accommodations can be found along this stretch of the river, including cabins, lodges, and campgrounds, as well as a few hotels nearby.

Gauley River, West Virginia

The Gauley River in Appalachia provides stunning views of the surrounding tree-covered mountains in summer, as well as challenging rapids. The river has over 100 rapids overall, with some being in the Lower Gauley and others being in the Upper Gauley section. The lower section of the river includes Class III and Class IV rapids, while the upper section is known for being more difficult to navigate. Peak whitewater rafting flows occur in fall, when water from nearby Summerville Lake is added to the river. This makes for an even more thrilling whitewater rafting experience that’s meant for the most advanced rafters. Campsites, cabins, and other lodging options can be found in and around the area.

Salmon River, Idaho

The Salmon River in north central Idaho, also part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, offers a secluded and exciting whitewater rafting experience. The river’s Middle Fork section winds through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area. Some call this section the place where wilderness whitewater rafting got its start (although whitewater rafting in general started earlier and elsewhere). Brave the rapids while rafting past canyon walls, mountainsides, and other scenic surroundings. Rapids in the Salmon River range from calmer Class II through thrilling Class IV with names such as Ski Jump. Lodges, inns, cabins, and campgrounds offer accommodation near the river.

American River, California

The American River stretches from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Sacramento River. Along the way, the river offers whitewater adventures for all ages and skill levels. The North Fork is the most challenging section, with Class IV and V rapids. The Middle Fork includes Class IV rapids, while the South Fork has Class III and up rapids. Beginners and younger visitors can enjoy floating gently on the river in other sections. A wide range of accommodations are available close to the river, including bed and breakfasts, campsites, RV resorts, inns, and more.

Kennebec River, Maine

The Kennebec River provides a rare spot to do whitewater rafting in the northeastern U.S. The river offers 12 miles of rapids, including the thrilling Three Sisters rapids and the plunging Magic Falls drop. Whitewater rafting in the Kennebec River mostly involves navigating Class III and Class IV rapids, making it a good fit for intermediate and advanced rafters. Some areas of Class II rapids and calm floats are also available for less experienced rafters and the younger swim babies in the family. Lodging options in and around the Kennebec River area include campgrounds, cabins, lodges, and more.

Cossatot River, Arkansas

The Cossatot River in southwestern Arkansas is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The river’s rapids range from Class II and Class III when the water level is normal to Class IV and Class V when the water level is high. Experienced rafters can give the more challenging rapids a try after heavy rains that raise the water level. The river also has calmer areas and smaller rapids for beginners, as well as areas for swimming and fishing. Several campgrounds and other accommodations, such as cabins, can be found along the river.

robert thigpen, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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