White water rafting trips are a must-take plunge to complete every bucket list. And for good reason. The best white water rafting in the U.S. not only comes with plenty of thrills, but also some of the country’s most gorgeous scenery.
And with many of the nation’s rivers offering sections that are beginner- and family-friendly, it’s entirely acceptable to get caught up in a few picturesque moments while you paddle. Of course, taking a breather on a gentle lull of river water after an intense Class IV or V ride is a fantastic sightseeing alternative as well.
From easy-going waters to extreme rapids, these 18 rivers offer all levels of paddlers the best white water rafting trips in the U.S., from coast to coast. So start planning your next rafting adventure!
18 Must-Do White Water Rafting Trips in the U.S.
1. Rogue River
Running from Oregon’s picturesque Crater Lake to the Pacific Ocean is 215 miles of enticing waters. The Rogue River is a hot spot for adrenaline enthusiasts who also appreciate stunning scenery. Boasting Class I and II rapids, with Class III+ available as well, the Rogue River offers quite the white water rush, particularly through the Grants Pass area. As if the ride isn’t exhilarating enough, the lower Rogue’s ‘Wild’ section restricts usage to 120 permit-holding users per day—so it’s quite the exclusive honor to get in on this stretch of the best white water rafting in the U.S.
- Highlights: Collectively, the entire river is considered “Wild and Scenic.”
- Class: Mostly Class I and II, with Class III-IV available as well.
2. Salmon River
425 miles long, this “Wild and Scenic” gem is one of the largest rivers in North America. As such, it’s carved out one of the country’s deepest canyons (7,000 feet, beating out the Grand Canyon’s 6,093-foot depth). With its mountain terrain and canyons, the Salmon River is surrounded by some of the most rocky and remote landscapes tackled by white water rafting trips. River-runners will be delighted by its wildlife, rich green pools, heart-pounding rapids, and tranquil floats —all punctuated by white sand beaches— as they embark on any length of rafting excursion.
- Highlights: This famed “River of No Return” is well worth braving for its breathtaking geographical features.
- Class: Mostly III-IV, with gentler floats available for families/beginners as well.
3. Tuolumne River
Stretching across 149 glorious miles of central California is the Tuolumne River. It serves as one of the most sought-after and challenging white water rafting rivers in the U.S. In use by rafters since the 1960s, an 18-mile stretch of the Tuolumne sports several Class IV-V rapids, dotted by mellow swimming holes in between. It’s imperative that river-runners stick to this area with an experienced commercial guide, unless you yourself are a certified professional. The river’s Cherry Creek area also offers commercial outings, but its 15 consecutive Class V rapids make it one of the most difficult white water rafting trips in the country! Additionally, certain sections of the river within Yosemite National Park are characterized by remoteness, waterfalls, and Class IV-V+ rapids — all reasons to steer clear.
- Highlights: The Tuolumne River starts in Yosemite National Park and played a significant role in the California Gold Rush.
- Class: IV-V, recommended for advanced rafters only.
4. Kern River
Nearly all 165 miles of the Kern River can be easily accessed by the public, making it a premiere white water rafting destination in the U.S., among other outdoor recreational activities. While the Kern Canyon area is a hot spot for rafters, the river does have a reputation for having rather unpredictable or deceptive flow. Those engaging in white water rafting trips should be sure to wear proper gear and vests, and partake under the supervision of certified guides.
- Highlights: The Kern River offers swift flow at low elevation.
- Class: II – V on the Forks and Upper River, with Class II – III (sometimes IV) on the Lower Kern River.
5. Grand Canyon: Colorado River
Step (or paddle) back in time, surrounded by one of the world’s most impressive natural formations. Those pursuing this exceptional S. white water rafting destination will not only experience unforgettable, adrenaline-pumping classes of rapids; but also enjoy a unique perspective of the Canyon’s majestic geology. Often considered the “granddaddy” of white water rafting trips, these fascinating waters are run by over 22K people each year. Trips typically range from one to 25 days, usually spanning between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek or Lake Mead.
- Highlights: Little else truly compares to white water rafting trips that wind through one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
- Class: Anywhere between Class III-V, depending on the river section and trip length.
6. Green River
As the main tributary of the Colorado River, this 730-mile long body of rollin’ water traverses mostly through Utah, with a small section through western Colorado. Originating in Wyoming, the river enthusiastically rambles south, flowing past the endless canyons of the Colorado Plateau and Dinosaur National Monument, then on to more remote wilderness scenery full of cacti, wildflowers, red rocks, desert sheep, waterfalls, and even historical ruins.
- Highlights: What’s not to love about mixing historical sites with a modern-day adrenaline rush?!
- Class: Mostly Class III-IV, particularly through Lodore Canyon.
7. Royal Gorge: Arkansas River
When it comes to white water rafting trips in the U.S., this destination is not for the faint of heart! Rafters must be in good physical shape, as participants need to have a strong paddle game to tackle this river’s raging waters. The majority of excursions along this section of the Arkansas involve continuous rapids, steep drops, and technical paddling—all within rather narrow canyon walls. Talk about unforgettably adrenaline-infused and awesome!
- Highlights: Even among the aggressive paddling that the river requires, you’re bound to get a stunning view of the famous Royal Gorge Bridge, 1053’ overhead.
- Class: II-V, depending on water levels.
8. Rio Grande: New Mexico
Brace yourself for a rugged ride along this iconic U.S. river! The Rio Grande lives up to its classification as “Wild” with its range of Class II-IV+ rapids, offering go-getters some of the best white water rafting in the U.S. The Taos Box run gives adventure-seekers a nice technical challenge, while the Racecourse is a wonderful option for families. And when it comes to being “Scenic,” there’s certainly plenty to see—gorgeous canyons adorned by the possible sightings of bighorn sheep, otters, mountain lions, eagles, elk, beavers and more.
- Highlights: At the bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge, it’s not unusual to come across hidden hot springs, as well as ancient ruins and petroglyphs.
- Class: II-IV+, depending on the section and water levels.
9. Tatshenshini River
When it comes to the most beautiful rivers in the U.S. for white water rafting trips, this Alaskan destination is certainly at the tip-top! There’s no better reason than rafting to head to Yukon Territory for the adventure of a lifetime. The scenery is tough to beat, especially for those with hopes of laying their eyes on icebergs, snow-covered peaks, grizzly bears, wolves, moose, and more—all in this remote paradise in-between the Alsek and St. Elias mountain ranges.
- Highlights: Paddle on the pristine waters of the largest non-polar ice field on the planet, past hundreds of gorgeous icebergs…. Need we say more?
- Class: Primarily II and III
10. Santa Elena Canyon: Rio Grande
Another spectacular part of the Rio Grande’s magnificent waters lies in Texas territory. As the primary feature of Big Bend National Park, the Santa Elena Canyon offers white water rafting trips of varying lengths. With a brilliant 1,500-foot wall, plus a good seven miles of technical rafting within the actual canyon itself, there’s no better rafting option in Texas that’s worth messing with. It should be noted, however, that water levels can be very unpredictable due to Texas’ climate (which has been very dry these last 20+ years). If water levels drop too low, many outfitters will eliminate white water rafts, and instead offer guests tubes or canoes.
- Highlights: The upstream portion of Santa Elena can accommodate “boomerang” trips if water levels are low enough—entailing a leisurely paddle upstream, then back down to the starting point.
- Class: I – II typically, but can hit a Class IV rapid (the Rock Slide) in the canyon, if water is high enough.
11. Cossatot River
The Cossatot River is comprised of diverse rapids for various experience levels to enjoy. Cossatot Falls, however, should be reserved solely for experienced white water rafters, as it entails a thrilling 11-mile rush over 6 consecutive rapids reaching up to Class IV+. As a “Wild and Scenic” river, the Cossatot is an ideal destination for white water rafting trips, especially with its gorgeous camping scenery available near the Falls. This white water destination is hugely popular among kayakers.
- Highlights: The Cossatot Falls section is considered one of the most challenging white water rafting rivers between the Rocky and the Smoky mountain ranges.
- Class: II-IV+ in normal water levels, but Class IV-V at Cossatot Falls during late winter to early spring.
12. St. Louis River
Just because it may not be considered a “typical” locale for white water rafting trips doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on this list—because our friends in the far north U.S. need some river fun, too! The St. Louis River is 192 miles in length, making it the largest in the country to flow into a lake (Superior). Rafters enjoy picturesque sights like towering pines, a narrow canyon run, and possible wildlife—all leading to a nice escape from the usual urban pace.
- Highlights: While many S rafting destinations rely primarily on snow runoff from mountain terrain to feed their routes, the St. Louis benefits from summer thunderstorms to up the ante on the river’s rushing water.
- Class: II-III
13. Vermillion River
Midwesterners need some wet ‘n’ wild fun too, right? While this river that may not be nationally renowned for its rafting (in comparison to other U.S. locations), it’s a fantastic option for folks in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, SW Michigan, and southern Wisconsin. The best white water rafting trip on this river features a 9½-mile stretch near Oglesby, Illinois. Here rafters encounter almost complete immersion in nature, with only one man-made structure (Lone Star Cement Plant) in sight along the whole course.
- Highlights: The Vermillion’s white water rapids in Oglesby, Illinois are actually the feature that the 74.8-mile river is most well known for.
- Class: Mostly Class I-II, sometimes Class III.
14. Cumberland River
While most popular for its fishing, the 688-mile long Cumberland River is also a highly-sought mecca for rafters. It boasts the best white water rafting in Tennessee and Kentucky, and is an excellent spot to both learn fundamentals of the sport and take on challenging waters. Cumberland Falls is the primary put-in location for rafters on the river in the Kentucky area, offering participants gorgeous views before paddling down the exhilarating 5-mile stretch of rapids. The Tennessee portion, however, is most notorious for its 10.2 miles down the Big South Fork section, which can be considered rather difficult with rapids hitting Class IV.
- Highlights: The Cumberland is one of Kentucky’s few rivers that manages to flow all summer long!
- Class: II-IV
15. Chattooga River
One of the special characteristics of the Chattooga River is that it’s naturally free-flowing (no dam upstream controls its water flow rate). The fact, then, that it sports rapids up to Class V —solely at the mercy of Mother Nature— is rather impressive! Early spring is the ideal time to take advantage of this premier white water rafting in North Carolina, South Carolina, and NE Georgia. The Chattooga River is designated as “Wild and Scenic,” so nature-lovers can expect to delight in one of the most aesthetically pleasing atmospheres in the country.
- Highlights: A number of the rapids on the Chattooga were featured in the 1972 film Deliverance.
- Class: II-V
16. Gauley River
White water rafting trips in West Virginia don’t get better than this 105-mile treasure. Originating on Gauley Mountain, the river has three main sections that accommodate rafters. The Upper Gauley is just under 10 miles in length, with challenging rapids of a Class IV-V variety. Meanwhile, the Lower Gauley is a bit more forgiving, with about 11 miles of mostly Class III-IV rapids and an occasional V. In between the two is a middle stretch, providing a calmer alternative of Class III-IV waters. Collectively, this river may not be the best option for first-timers, but it’s sure to deliver some of the best white water rafting in the U.S. for those paddling veterans looking for a satisfying challenge.
- Highlights: While a few family-friendly short-trips exist, participants often must be 16+ to raft, with prior experience in advanced rapids—so you know you’re in for a thrill!
- Class: III-V, heavily depending on which section.
17. Youghiogheny River
The north-flowing Youghiogheny fits its name perfectly, as its Algonquin roots mean “a stream flowing in a contrary direction.” It offers white water rafting trips of varying difficulty. But the level of challenge basically depends on which state you choose to brave. The Top and Upper Yough areas in Maryland are the most experience-oriented waters on the river, presenting steep, tight, technical rapids. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Middle and Lower Yough appeal to a much broader range of rafters—thereby seeing over 250,000 river-runners a year!
- Highlights: The Lower Yough is the most popular white water rafting destination in the U.S., east of the Mississippi River!
- Class: II-V, depending on the section.
18. Deerfield River
This 76-mile New England’er runs from southern Vermont to Massachusetts, where it drains into the Connecticut River. The varying classes of rapids allow for fun for everyone. And don’t let its serene riverside spots fool you! A good chunk of Vermont’s waters are recommended for those rafters with previous (and confident) experience. In Massachusetts, however, there are both a number of stretches that make great white water rafting trips for families and beginners, as well as appealing runs for well-versed rafting veterans looking for an adrenaline fix.
- Highlights: White water kayaking is also popular on the Deerfield’s rapids.
- Class: III-V