adventure journal whitewater rafting rapids grand canyon colorado river

adventure journal whitewater rafting rapids grand canyon colorado river

There’s only one… Photo: National Park Service

As skiers and snowboarders say goodbye to another ski season and start counting the days until next season, whitewater folks rejoice at all that snow melting and turning the nation’s rivers into giant, boat-flipping, adrenaline-releasing fun machines.

Here are nine of the best trips in the Lower 48, in our opinion, obviously, from two hours to two weeks:

1. Grand Canyon, Arizona

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The granddaddy of them all, the 280-mile Colorado River trip from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry is the biggest water in America, with 47 major rapids rated Grand Canyon Class 5 or higher (the Grand Canyon has its own whitewater rating system, 1-10 instead of I-V). Commercial trips for the full length are 14 days, minimum, your cell phone doesn’t work the entire time because you’re 4,000 feet below the rim of the canyon, and the only ways out are hiking, on a boat, or in a helicopter.

2. Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho

The Middle Fork of the Salmon has more than 100 rapids over its 105-mile stretch from Boundary Creek through evergreen forests and canyons cutting between vistas of Idaho’s mountains. It’s five or six days of big views, clear water, trout fishing, and hot springs, among tons of Class III and IV whitewater, on one of the U.S.’s original Wild and Scenic Rivers as named in 1968.

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3. Upper Youghiogheny, Maryland and Pennsylvania

The Upper Yough, cutting through one of the few wilderness canyons in the East, is one of the wildest stretches of river in the U.S.: It starts with a mild section and a few warmup rapids, then boaters hit five miles of continuous rapids up to Class V, 20 in all. The river can only be run during releases from the Deep Creek Dam-of which there are about 60 on the published schedule, April through October.

4. Upper Gauley, West Virginia

The Upper Gauley is also run on dam releases: from the Summersville Dam, where a scheduled “whitewater release” of 2,800 cfs or more happens on about 20 days in September and October (and unscheduled releases happen year-round). From the base of the dam, boaters hit 40-plus rapids from Class III to Class V+ in just 11 river miles, including the 14-foot-high Sweet’s Falls.

5. Cataract Canyon, Utah

When spring snowmelt peaks at around 50,000 cfs in May and June, Cataract Canyon packs Class IV and V action into a short amount of river: 25 rapids in 12 miles. To get to them, boaters have a 50-mile flatwater stretch, the calm before the storm. Many call Cataract “the graveyard of the Colorado,” because of the flipped boats and carnage there. The Powell Expedition (which named Cataract Canyon) portaged every single one of the rapids in the canyon.

6. Middle Ocoee River, Tennessee

The Middle Ocoee is the most popular raft trip in America, a 1½-to-2-hour, five-mile stretch of whitewater (literally: advertised by some as “90 percent whitewater”). It has 17 major rapids up to Class IV, and is another dam-release whitewater section-releases from the Ocoee Dam No. 2 are almost daily in peak rafting season. The Ocoee has long been referred to as the “Ocoee Coaster,” for its fun rapids, and it has probably the best word-of-mouth advertising in America, with 200,000-plus paddlers every year.

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7. Section IV Chattooga River, South Carolina/Georgia

The Chattooga River is probably the most famous river in the U.S., thanks to its acting appearance as the fictional Cahulawassee River in 1972’s highest-grossing movie, Deliverance. Which means lots of Americans know it for one controversial movie scene instead of for its legendary whitewater: Section IV includes what may be the Southeast’s most famous section of rapids, Five Falls, the quarter-mile stretch including five Class III-IV rapids.

8. Gates of Lodore, Colorado/Utah

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The first challenges on John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition came in the Gates of Lodore (which the expedition named), where the Green River cuts into this deep desert canyon in Dinosaur National Monument. The trip has been called a “mini Grand Canyon” by many for its similar desert scenery with shorter commitment-trips are usually three to five days-but the water here can rough up boats the same as the Colorado downriver.

9. Tuolumne River, California

The Tuolumne River is California’s premier rafting trip-18 miles of almost continuous whitewater threading through giant granite boulders, and 15 named rapids up to Class IV, including the half-mile-long Class IV Grey’s Grindstone. Many trips run the entire 18 miles in a day, but plenty split it up over two to three days.


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Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.