Photo: Michael Kevin Daly/CORBIS
There’s nothing like the rush you get when navigating through white water rapids — down every wave, eddy, pillow, and drop of water — as you’re rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ down the river. Rapids can be aggressive, yet graceful, providing a certain poetry in motion in the sport of whitewater rafting; in between rapids there’s always a proverbial calm before a storm — almost always with beautiful scenery — but when the hydraulic storm hits, it tosses and turns you (and sometimes flips you) like an angry beast. However, it is never actually angry (unless you’re feeling mythological) for that’s just the nature of rapids, merely flowing perpetually as Mother Nature intended — which is a good thing for adrenaline junkies inside kayaks and inflatable rafts.
In my opinion, rafting is more fun the more challenging it is — otherwise you might as well be on a slow-moving booze cruise (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But I’m talking about getting that rush when rafting in rapids Class III or higher, based on the scale of difficulty used by commercial rafting outfitters. It goes from Class I, which is just a mild flirtation with fast-moving currents where you generally stay dry, to Class V, where your life is at the whim of your paddle and you get drenched — but hey, that’s what you signed up for, so embrace it. Here’s a round up of five top places to raft whitewater in the USA, rated Class III and up.
1. Deschutes River, Oregon
Photo: Michael Kevin Daly/Corbis
Before there were hipsters in Portlandia, French explorers “discovered” this dramatic river in the Pacific Northwest — the drama coming from the fact that this river was (and still is) full of chutes — a fleuve des chutes, which spawned its name. It goes without say that a river with a lot of falls is perfect for a wild time out on the water, with arguably the most thrilling section known as the Elevator Rapids. In between, the dramatic scenery is a treat, with rock formations made of hardened lava flows.
2. Salmon River’s Middle Fork, Idaho
Photo: Justin Bailie/Aurora Photos/Corbis
Idaho may be known for its potatoes by some, but for the adventurous, it’s known for its Salmon — River that is. The most thrilling place to raft the Salmon is in the Middle Fork, a tributary with a 105-mile rafting course dropping 3000 feet in elevation along the way. Three hundred rapids adorn this river, which is more than enough to get your fill of white water — however a permit is required to navigate them, so start working on that application.
3. New River, West Virginia
Photo: Kit Kittle/CORBIS
The New River is so iconic to West Virginians that it — along with its eponymous gorge and bridge — is on the West Virginia state quarter coin. The New River Gorge Bridge is one of the highlights along the serene parts of the river, amidst what is already beautiful Appalachian scenery. The river water speeds up though, leading into a roller coaster of Class III–V rapids, so brace yourself for a wet and wild ride, West Virginia-style.
4. Gauley River, West Virginia
Photo: Kit Kittle/CORBIS
The Gauley, which merges with its fellow West Virginian the New, is a thrilling white water river that the National Park Service calls “one of the premier whitewater runs in the world.” It’s fun to raft during most parts of the year, but the six weekends after Labor Day when water is released from the Summersville Dam, it’s “Gauley Season” when the river is at its wildest, attracting rafters not only from around the country, but from around the globe.
5. Colorado River, Colorado, Utah & Arizona
Photo: Erik Isakson/Tetra Images/Corbis
No round up of whitewater rafting in the U.S. would be complete without mentioning the mighty Colorado, spanning across several states in the American Southwest. While you can paddle near the river source in the state of Colorado, or tag a rafting trip to the other activities you’re doing in Moab, Utah, the main stage of running the Colorado River is in the Grand Canyon — and not just for the novelty of being in one of the world’s biggest showcase of geological beauty. Twisting its way through the very canyon it carved out millions of years ago, the Colorado’s white waters provide once-in-a-lifetime thrills that make it a must-raft destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list. However, reservations for a spot in raft start a year in advance, so start clearing your calendar.
This is just a primer on some of the more challenging albeit fun places to raft in the USA. Sure there are other rivers to raft around the country — as well as around the world — and you’ll find them wherever adrenaline rushes as fast as the waters beneath.
For more adrenaline-pumping content, check out The Adrenalist.