America's Most Terrifying Whitewater Rafting Rivers

Have you ever tried whitewater rafting? While its daredevil reputation brings to mind experts in kayaks and crash helmets negotiating waterfalls, white water rafting can be at any speed you want it to be…as long as there are a few mild rapids involved. 

When you are choosing the route for your whitewater trip, there are a few things to keep in mind. Rapids are measured by class; the higher the class the more challenging the rapid. Class VI rapids are basically unnavigable while class I rapids would be fun for afternoon tubers with beer coolers in tow. 

If you’re looking for a family-friendly rafting adventure, aim for class II or III rapids. In a class IV rapid you can expect to be splashed and should know how to safely proceed if you are flipped into the water. Class V rapids are exciting, technical and very challenging. You should portage around class VI rapids unless you are participating in a stunt. 

Ready for some time in America’s most exciting white water? Pick up your paddle and point your compass here: 

Rafting on South Fork of Salmon River [Idaho]

Middle Fork, Salmon River, Idaho | The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is one of the most famous whitewater destinations in the U.S. The river cuts through one of the largest road-free areas in the Lower 48. Your adventure could be anything from a seven-day trek through mountain headwaters, canyons and deserts to a half-day adventure closer to civilization. On your way, you’ll pass through award-winning trout waters so bring a fishing pole. Families looking for class III trips will have more fun on the Main and Lower Forks of the Salmon. 

Grand Canyon, Colorado River, Ariz. | Rafting the Grand Canyon is a trip people wait their whole lives to do and it’s worth it if you love exciting water, remote camping and incredible scenery. If you aren’t gung-ho about entering a lottery for a rafting permit and then spending many days on the water, you can take a commercial trip just outside the park. 

The real Grand Canyon trip takes anywhere from three to 25 days depending on the length. With rough, challenging waters beneath you, it’s a good idea to take plenty of breaks so you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the canyon’s scenery to the fullest. 

Section Four Whitewater Rapids [Chattooga River, South Carolina]

Chattooga River, S.C. | This designated “Wild and Scenic River” starts in the mountains of North Carolina and flows downstream to form the border between South Carolina and Georgia. The most exciting whitewater can be found in what is known as section III and section IV of the river. Both of these sections have minimum age requirements. You can bring kids as young as eight on section III, but leave the “Five Falls” of section IV to teenagers and older. You might recognize sections of the white water from the movie Deliverance. 

Gauley River, W.Va. | During September and October, the Army Corps of Engineers draws down Summersville Lake and the Gauley River becomes a turbulent white water inferno. On days the dam is to be spilled, rafters shoot down between refrigerator-sized boulders and narrow slot canyons. 

It’s not unusual to see spectators lining portions of the river to watch the rafters get soaked with spray. Even when you aren’t enjoying these banner weekends, the Gauley River is a great place to challenge yourself with many rapids in the IV-V range.

Tuolumne River at Glen Aulin [Yosemite National Park, California]

Tuolumne River, Calif. | Rushing out of Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne is a class IV-V river best attempted by whitewater rafters with some experience. With the Sierra Nevadas as your beautiful backdrop, you’ll be shooting through canyons, down drops and between boulders. The experts-only Cherry Creek section is filled with white water so challenging that it sometimes pushes class VI. This is not the place to try whitewater rafting for the first time. 

Kennebec River, Maine | You’re kind of in the middle of nowhere when you raft the Kennebec River, but the scenery and the thrills means it's worth not having a trendy eatery to fall back on at the end of a long day. As you splash through stretches of the river called Rock Garden, Big Mama, Whitewasher and Magic Falls, you know you are going to have to hang on tight. 

Whitewater Rafting on Nenana River [Denali National Park, Alaska]

Nenana Gorge, Nenana River, Alaska | The Nenana River is filled with cold glacial melt water that roars along the eastern edge of Denali National Park. The Nenana Gorge is class IV for ten miles. If you can take your mind off the whitewater for a few seconds, you may see golden eagles and big-horned sheep living on the gorge walls. 

American River, Calif. | The American River outside of Sacramento is a place for tubers, but further upstream the river divides into three forks and becomes wild as it courses out of the Sierra Nevadas. For a rough trip through deep canyons and foaming class V rapids, pick the North Fork in the spring when the snow melts. For camping trips and class IV rapids, pick the middle fork. Families enjoy outings on the class III South Fork.  

Rogue River, Ore. | The Rogue River starts near breathtaking Crater Lake and then runs downstream to the Pacific Ocean around boulders, buckets and waterfalls. Take the most famous stretch of class III rapids through a canyon known as Grants Pass. Bring along your fishing tackle and you can fish for salmon when you aren’t playing in the white water. 

Whitewater kayaking through Boulder Drop [Skykomish River, Washington]

Skykomish River, Wash. | The Skykomish River gets wild in the springtime when high water pushes summertime rapids up from class IV into class V. Named after the dozens of boulders just visible in the mass of whitewater, Boulder Drop shouldn’t be attempted without some experience under your belt. Luckily, if high water scares you, you need only wait a few months when the river becomes calmer and is more easily accessible by beginners and children. 

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Carmen Fifield

The delight of finding an unknown park, a captivating history museum or a fantastic desert means exploration is never far from Carmen Fifield’s mind. Carmen’s favorite travel memories include biking to historic sites on the island of Guernsey, huffing and puffing up the stairs to the Great Wall of China and eating the most delicious crab cake ever in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Carmen’s Favorite Travel Tip: Say goodbye to airplane food and tuck some fruit and your favorite sandwich into your carry-on.