Beautiful rivers criss-cross every corner of the U.S., and, each year, thousands explore our nation’s waterways via white water rafting.
If you’ve always wanted to try this exhilarating water sport, but you don’t know where to start, you’ve come to the right place.
In this ranking, RAVE Reviews will tell you America’s 15 best white water rafting destinations. We’ll also help you understand the white water rapid classification system, tell you what pack for your trip, and a whole lot more.
If you love experiencing nature, and you like living on the edge, white water rafting could be right for you. Stop dreaming and start planning your trip with RAVE’s ranking of America’s 15 best white water rafting destinations.
In this article, you’ll read a lot about the white water rapid classification system. Before touring America’s best white water rafting spots, we thought we’d take a moment to help you understand what the different classification levels mean.
The White Water Rapid Classification System
Before we get into the finer pointers of the white water rapid classification system, though, it’s important to understand these are only broad guidelines. In other words, every river offers a variety of difficulty levels, especially as the water rises and falls over the course of a year.
Also, these classifications don’t have anything to do with the quality of the white water rafting experience. There’s just as much fun to be had on Class I rapids as there is in Class IV or Class V.
All that being said, here’s what you need to know about the white water rapid classification system.
Class I rapids will offer just a few riffles and a couple small waves with little or no obstruction. Perfect for classes and beginners.
Class II means there are easy rapids and small waves. Expect clear channels, with little or no scouting required, but some maneuvering might be necessary. You can find Class II rapids in Washington state’s lower Klickitat River, for example.
Class III rapids offer high, irregular waves with narrow passages. Precise maneuvering is often required. Class III rapids can be found on Idaho’s Main Salmon River.
Choose Class IV and expect long, difficult rapids and constricted passages. Complex maneuvering in choppy, turbulent water is often unavoidable. The course will most likely be hard to determine, and scouting will be necessary. For Class IV rapids, head to Oregon’s Owyhee River.
Class V rapids are long, extremely difficult, and very turbulent. These are highly congested routes, which should really be scouted from shore.
With Class V, the rescue conditions are difficult, and would be a significant hazard to life should there be an accident. Class V maxes out what can be attempted in a commercial raft. The Upper Yough, part of the Youghiogheny River, the number one pick in our ranking, is a great example of Class V rapids. Keep reading to find out more.
Highly dangerous and nearly impossible to raft, Class VI rapids are for experts only. Class VI rapids are not commercially raftable.
Speaking of danger, if you’re an inexperienced rafter, it’s never a bad idea to hire a white water rafting guide or even take a few classes.
We include a few guide options along with each destination in our ranking. Even if you do have some experience, it never hurts to take a few extra safety precautions.
What to Pack for White Water Rafting
Many white water rafting expeditions can be overnight trips. How do you pack to be prepared for whatever your adventure has in store? Here’s a packing list for white water rafting.
For Warm Conditions
- A pair of the best water shoes
- Sunglasses — we recommend a strap to help them stay secure so you don’t lose them in the water.
- A hat with brim to protect your face and neck from the sun
- A shirt made from some kind of synthetic material. Even during the warm summer months, it can get cold on the river. Plus, a long-sleeved shirt will help protect against sunburns.
It’s also important to avoid cotton clothing. Cotton absorbs water and gets cold when wet.
For Cool Conditions
If you’re rafting in cool or rainy conditions you can pack many of the same things with a few variations.
- When the weather turns cold, add an extra layer. We suggest a wind and waterproof jacket
- You might also want to add some waterproof pants
- In warm weather, you’ll want a hat to keep the sun off your face and neck. In overcast conditions, choose a hat that’s snug and warm but still waterproof
- Synthetic socks to keep your feet warm, though wool socks work, too
- A synthetic long-sleeved shirt and synthetic long underwear
- A wetsuit
In addition to what to wear while rafting, here’s what to keep with you in the raft:
- A water bottle that can be attached to the raft with a carabiner
- A product like Absorbits to keep your electronics dry
On top of all that, don’t forget to bring a change of dry clothes and a bag to stash your wet clothes on the way back to the campsite or hotel.
In addition to packing, Jennier Willy of the travel site Etia.com has a few pointers for planning your trip.
“Rafting is a very delightful adventure sport,” she says, but you need to plan ahead, especially for the number of family and friends that might be accompanying you on your trip.
“There are so many rivers in America that are perfect for white water rafting,” Willy continues, “but if you need to accommodate a large number of party members, then some places are better than others.”
Now that you’re all packed and ready to go, and armed with some knowledge of the white water classification system, it’s time to set your course for one America’s best white water rafting destinations.
Before writing this comprehensive guide to America’s best white water rafting spots, RAVE Reviews surveyed river guides, travel and outdoors writers and bloggers as well as experienced white water rafting veterans.
I also kept in mind my own experiences white rafting the McKenzie River in Oregon, nearby where I live.
Each spot in our list was ranked on the following criteria:
- Classification of rapids
- Availability of guides and gear outfitters
- Nearby accommodations and dining
- Overall natural beauty
- Average crowds
We also sought out spots in all four corners of the country. With this in mind, we feel confident in our choices, ranking each on a numbered scale beginning at 100 for the top spot.
The water is fine, so let’s get started.
The Best Water Rafting Destinations
Where to stay: Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
Where to eat: Falls City Pub
The first pick in our ranking comes to us from Lindsay Davies of the travel blog I’ve Been Bit. Her choice for America’s best white water rafting spot is the Youghiogheny River, which runs through Ohiopyle State Park located in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. After researching the spot for ourselves, RAVE Reviews wholeheartedly agrees.
“I had the pleasure of experiencing these incredible waves last year,” Davies says. On the Youghiogheny, you’ll find amazing white water rapids, including Class III, IV, and class V. To hire a guide or to buy or rent gear, we recommend White Water Adventurers.
There are a few accommodation choices located in the nearby city of Ohiopyle, or you can choose from all sorts of other properties located less than a 30-minute drive from town. After examining all the options, we recommend Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.
After working up an appetite while rafting, you’ll have plenty of dining choices as well. Davies says not to miss the Falls City Pub, catering to all diets, with lighter fare options and more than 20 craft beers on tap.
French Broad River
Where to stay: Tiny house
Where to eat: Zia Taqueria
Second spot in our ranking belongs to the French Broad River, located just outside Asheville, North Carolina. This pick comes to us from Tara Caguiat, freelance travel writer with the lifestyle and travel blogs She Needs Less and Hostel Jumper.
On the absolutely stunning French Broad River, Caguiat says you’ll find rapids for every level, depending on the time of year. There’s also tons of beautiful wildlife surrounding the river, including bald eagles and a whole lot more.
For guides and gear, Blue Heron Whitewater sets the standard for the area. Nearby Asheville has any number of great dining options to choose from after a long day on the water. We suggest Zia Taqueria, located in West Asheville.
There’s also Stoney Knob Café in Weaverville, conveniently located on the way to Blue
Heron white water, or Cúrate in downtown Asheville
As far as accommodations, Cuguiat suggests this tiny house listed on Airbnb, tucked in the mountains in nearby Asheville.
Wenatchee and Tieton Rivers
Where to stay: Coast Wenatchee Center Hotel
Where to eat: McGlinn’s Public House
The next stop in our tour of America’s best white water rafting destinations are two rivers located in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Winding through the state of Washington, the Wenatchee and Tieton rivers were suggested by Katie and Ben Zweber of the travel blog Two Wandering Soles. After doing our own research, RAVE wholeheartedly agrees.
“Washington State has some of the best rafting in the country,” Katie says. “With snow melts in the North Cascades, there are epic rafting opportunities for people of all ages,”
While the Wenatchee and Tieton Rivers offer Class III rapids, you can take the adventure up a notch on the Green, White Salmon, or Skykomish Rivers, also located in the state of Washington.
For your white water gear or to hire a guide, you can feel confident in Wildwater River Guides, offering multiday white water rafting trips.
Where to stay: Lake Powell Resort
Where to eat: Wahweap Grille
We now turn to the Colorado River for the next white water rafting destination. This pick comes to RAVE Reviews from a few sources, including Jennifer Willy, editor of the travel site Etia.com, as well as Michelle Steinhardt of the travel blog Travel Nav.
And when a spot comes recommended from multiple sources, it must be something special and the Colorado River doesn’t disappoint, especially in the Lees Ferry area of the river.
What Steinhardt likes most about the Colorado River are the Class II and Class III rapids. In between rapids, Steinhardt says, you can rest and take in the different rock formations and the ever-changing colors of the Grand Canyon.
What WIlly likes best about the Colorado River, she says, are the “exciting waves, great holes, and, of course, the stunning views of the canyon towering above.”
For rafting gear or a guide in the Lees Ferry area of the Colorado River, choose River Adventures.
Where to stay: Sheep Creek Historic Ranch
Where to eat: Pack your own
The next spot brings us to the Snake River, which winds through Hells Canyon in the state of Idaho. The Snake River comes recommended by Marc Bromhall, water sports enthusiast and founder of Beginner Surf Gear.
“The Snake River carves its way through the deepest gorge in North America,” Bromhall says, on the border of Idaho and Oregon, and at 8,000 feet in some places, this makes for some epic scenery, he says. And the clear waters of the Snake River create some of the biggest rapids in all of the American Northwest.
To book a tour or for guides, choose America’s Rafting Company or Hells Canyon Adventures. For accomodations, try Sheep Creek Historic Ranch — a historic ranch right on the river that offers camping and works with rafting outfitters for pickup and drop-off.
Staying in Caldwell, Idaho, you’ll be within a short drive from Idaho wine country — an added bonus.
This is a pretty remote area of the country, so there aren’t a lot of dining options. So, bring your own food, like an assortment of the best beef jerky to snack on between river trips.
Where to stay: Montana Whitewater Rentals
Where to eat: Gallatin River Lodge
Montana’s Gallatin River, near Bozeman, is the next white water rafting spot in our ranking. This pick comes from Val Streif from Get My Boat, the world’s largest boat rental and water experience marketplace with a whole category dedicated to rafting trips and tours.
“The best white water rafting experience I’ve personally ever had was in Montana on the Gallatin River,” Streif says. “It was an epic day with my family, and I’ve since been rafting in destinations around the world, including Costa Rica and Australia. “
For guides, gear, and advice on rafting the Gallatin, consult Montana Whitewater. The Gallatin is suitable for a broad range of skill levels, depending on the time of year. It’s also home to Class IV Mad Mile for those who are truly adventurous.
No matter what, the Gallatin flows through Montana’s beautiful Big Sky country, and that’s never disappointing.
Where to stay: Wildwater Rafting
Where to eat: Fortify Kitchen and bar
The Chattooga River places seventh in our ranking of America’s best white water rafting destinations.
(Yes, the Chattooga is the same river from the iconic movie Deliverance, starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds. Let’s just hope you don’t hear any banjo playing while you’re rafting.)
The Chattooga comes recommended from multiple sources, including Nadia and Mike from the travel blog Couple Travel the World. And after researching the river for ourselves, we can see why.
The Chattooga, the longest undammed river in the Southeast, has a little something for rafters of all skill levels, ranging from beginner Class II to advanced Class IV-plus, and there’s no shortage of great scenery along the way.
“You can bring children as young as 8 for some little rapids, and adults and teens can enjoy the more advanced courses,” Nadia and Mike tell RAVE Reviews.
For guides, tours, gear, and advice, rafters are spoiled for choice along the Chattooga. We recommend Wild Water Rafting because it offers not only rafting experiences along the Chattooga but provides lodging, ranging from rustic yurts to group cabins, family cottages, luxury cabins, and even treehouses.
Where to stay: Northern Outdoors Adventure Resort
Where to eat: Kennebec River Brewery
Kennebec River, flowing through The Forks adventure resort in Maine, is the next white water rafting spot RAVE can’t wait to tell you about.
For white water rafting enthusiasts, there are two sections of the Kennebec that are not to be missed. First, the upper section, winding through the magnificent rock-walled Kennebec River Gorge offering everything from fun rapids to big waves, including Class III and class IV rapids.
Then the river broadens out into the easy and accessible lower section with beautiful forests and wildlife, including moose, on all sides.
Rapids on the Kennebec range from class II to IV, and rafting is good on the river all year around.
For lodging and a guided trip, RAVE found the best option in the Kennebec River area is with Northern Outdoors Adventure Resort. Available lodging includes tent camping, cozy log cabins, and individual, private rooms.
Book a guided tour with Northern Outdoors Adventure Resort, and they’ll even provide lunch, including grilled steak, teriyaki chicken, veggie burgers, and the famous rafting stir-fried rice.
If you’re still hungry after a long day on the rapids, head back to the resort and enjoy a meal and a cold microbrew at the Kennebec River Brewery.
Where to stay: Sun Valley Lodge
Where to eat: Konditorei Restaurant
Idaho’s Salmon River is the next waterway in our article to come recommended from multiple sources.
Idaho is one of the most water-rich states in the U.S., with rivers, lakes, and aquifers stretching to every corner of the state. All this makes Idaho an ideal destination for watersports of all sorts.
The Main Salmon River courses from east to west through the center of the state. This stretch is known for exciting rapids and beautiful scenery, winding through Idaho’s roughly 2 million-acre “The Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness Area.”
This means there are plenty of sandy beaches, swimming areas, and places to explore along the way. A multiday trip covers just under 90 miles of river, stopping off at some of Idaho’s famous natural hot springs.
Then, there’s the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Each year from May to October, rafters embark on a 100-mile journey through green alpine forests, finishing up in high desert.
Along the way, rafters pass by hot thermal pools, pristine riverside campsites, and some the world’s best white water.
For a guided tour, RAVE recommends Far and Away Adventures, located in nearby Sun Valley, Idaho.
“I first experienced the Middle Fork of the Salmon River as a teenager from California in 1968, just as it was being designated one of the original Wild & Scenic Rivers,” says Steve Lentz, river guide and owner of Far and Away. “From that point on, the river called to me,” he says.
Where to stay: Sky Ridge Yurts
Where to eat: River’s End Restaurant
Next up in our ranking of America’s 15 best white water rafting destinations is the Nantahala Gorge in Tennessee. Flowing through the gorge is the Nantahala River, known for Class II and III rapids.
While the Nantahala is known as a “family” river, suitable for rafters of all ages and all skill levels, there’s plenty of excitement to be found.
In fact, water sports Olympians often train on the Nantahala, and it is also the site of many regional, national, and international events. Nantahala earns high marks for offering a variety of experiences, suitable for rafters of all sorts.
Book a tour or rent gear on the Nantahala with Wildwater Rafting. Lodging is plentiful in the area, ranging from cabins, yurts, and tent camping. And for a guided tour or to rent gear, the best choice on the Nantahala is Rolling Thunder River Company.
There’s even unique lodging such as tiny houses, converted school buses and storage containers. For a one-of-a-kind experience in the Nantahala Gorge, try Sky Ridge Yurts.
New River and Gauley River
Where to stay: Nesselrod Bed and Breakfast
Where to eat: The Palisades Restaurant
Two Southern West Virginia rivers, the New River and Gauley River, share the next spot in our ranking of America’s best places to try white water rafting.
Big water can be found on the New River, especially in the spring and early summer. The upper portion of the river offers rapids ranging from Class I to Class III, suitable for first-time rafters, or just any rafter who prefers a more relaxed white water experience.
The New River is also a great choice for groups, as there is slow water interspersed with periods of manageable rapids.
“Countless people from all over had their first rafting experience on the New River and then came back for bigger and more thrills,” said Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge and a lifelong rafter and guide.
Adventures on the Gorge is RAVE’s choice for guided tours and gear in the New River and Gauley River area.
Head to the lower New River for rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV.
For a more advanced adventure, head to the Gauley River, where the water is best in the fall. There, rafters can find many Class IV and Class V rapids clustered in a 26-mile stretch below the dam. This area is not for beginners.
Where to stay: Royal Gorge Cabins
Where to eat: 8 Mile Bar & Grill
The misleadingly named Arkansas River is not, in fact, in Arkansas but in Colorado.
This white water rafting destination features something for everyone, with day-trippers making frequent trips downriver between the towns of Buena Vista and Canon City.
The rafting season on the Arkansas typically begins in April, with melting snow increasing flow, peaks in June, and decreases throughout the summer
Rapids on the Arkansas range from Class III to Class V for highly experienced rafters. But there are options for beginners as well, according to Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions
Located just outside Canon City, Echo Canyon is RAVE’s choice for best guide and gear service in the area. For example, there are smooth and gentle family floats in the upper Bighorn Sheep Canyon area of the river but also “heart-pounding big waves of the Royal Gorge” Neinas says.
Those experienced enough to try the Royal Gorge portion of the river will float nearly 1,000 feet below the highest suspension bridge in North America, over big rapids, by epic geological landmarks, and breathtaking examples of human engineering.
“The variety — along with easy access, high-quality professional guides, and stunning scenery — make the Arkansas one of the country’s most popular rivers,” Neinas continues.
Where to stay: Weaksu Inn
Where to eat: Tarasco Mexican Restaurant
Oregon’s Rogue River is the next stop in our tour of white water spots every rafter should try.
Rogue tours start near Crater Lake National Park and wind their way through lush forests, boulder-strewn canyons, and wilderness areas before finishing up 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
The 38-mile trip features Class II, III and IV rapids with participants in paddle boats, oar boats, and inflatable kayaks.
“When it comes to an epic rafting adventure, it’s hard to beat a trip down a wild and scenic river,” like the Rogue, says Zachary Collier, owner of Northwest Rafting Company.
Northwest Rafting Company is RAVE’s pick for guided tours and gear in the area, conducting immersive four-day trips on the Rogue during the prime times of the year for floating there.
“This is white water rafting at its best, with paddling time followed by quiet time surrounded by beauty and the flows of the river providing a soothing soundtrack,” Collier says.
Where to stay: 4 Bears Bed & Breakfast
Where to eat: Bill Cody Ranch
For a little Old West history along with your rafting experience, look no further than the Shoshone River in the greater Yellowstone area of Northwest Wyoming.
Raft the Shoshone through Red Rock Canyon, just downstream from the Buffalo Bill Dam, and retrace routes of notorious Wild West figures like Buffalo Bill Cody, Jeremiah “Liver Eating” Johnston, and explorer John Colter.
Rapids on the Shoshone range from Class I to Class III, and falls on the Shoshone include “Colter’s Falls,” “Sitting Bull,” “Crazy Horse” and “Corbett’s Crossing.
It’s all surrounded by the plants and wildlife of the West, as well as soaring rock cliffs and walls.
Rave recommends booking a guided tour with Red Canyon River Trips.
“A trip down the Shoshone with a knowledgeable rafting guide is an opportunity to both learn about and experience a destination that has been drawing visitors worldwide for many generations,” says Claudia Wade of the Park County Travel Council.
Where to stay: Camp at Horseshoe Bend
Where to eat: Locking Horns Riverside Restaurant
We now return to Idaho for the last spot in our ranking of the 15 best places to try white water rafting. The Payette is one of Idaho’s most famous rivers, and it’s just an hour from Boise.
There’s great white water rafting on any stretch of the Payette — Main, North Fork, or South Fork.
If you choose the Main, you’ll find a classic Idaho white water experience, with all sorts of “pool & drop” rapids ranging from Class II to Class III. “Pool & Drop” is a white water lingo describing any river with calm stretches, or pools, punctuated by rapids, or “the drop.”
All this makes the Payette an ideal area for training and a highly sought-after stretch for families and first-time rafters.
For guided tours and gear, try Cascade Raft and Kayak for multiple half, full-day, and multiday trips.
If you don’t mind making the drive, there’s ample lodging in the nearby cities of Boise or Eagle. Or just camp outside of Horseshoe Bend along the Payette River.