The 10 Best Rafting Trips
Writing any “best” list is tough and certainly an opinion skewed by the motivations, personal likes, and experiences of the author. Here is my own personal top 10, my fave rafting trips from around the world organized by single-day, multi-day, and Class V rafting.
These trips are skewed towards rafting trips in the United States for two reasons:
- I live in the United States and have done most of my boating here.
- The United States has protected many of its whitewater rivers with the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The rest of the world has not. By setting aside many of our outstanding places, these acts through our public lands agencies keep these invigorating waters, mountain scenery, forests and wildlife thriving, specifically for you and future generations to enjoy.
Best Single-Day Rafting Trips
1. Gauley River, West Virginia
The Gauley River has a Class IV+ upper section and Class III lower section, making it fun for a wide variety of rafters. The rapids on the Upper Gauley are legendary: Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweets Falls. Although the rapids are pool-drop in character, they are long and powerful, and there are quite a few places you don't want to find yourself with raft-flipping holes, undercut rocks, and sieves.
The Lower Gauley is less steep and technical than the Upper, but still has a big-water feel and demands respect. It's the perfect rafting trip for a first-timer.
2. Arkansas River, Colorado
Like the Gauley River, the Arkansas River has something for everyone. Families and first-timers will enjoy a mellow float through the Lower Browns Canyon. Those looking for a class IV–V adventure can paddle through the powerful Royal Gorge or the fast-descending Numbers section with its demanding maneuvers.
If you want something in-between, the class III–IV Browns Canyon section through Browns Canyon National Monument is the most popular day trip in the United States.
3. Neretva River, Bosnia and Herzegovina
This little-known gem located in the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina flows through a deep gorge with gin-clear water, fun Class III-IV rapids, and jaw-dropping waterfalls flowing down the cliff walls.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a storied history, but in modern times it’s wonderful country full of whitewater rivers worth visiting.
Best Multi-Day Rafting Trips
4. Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is the quintessential multi-day rafting trip that has it all: hot springs, world-class trout fishing, jaw-dropping scenery, abundant wildlife, great hiking, and nearly continuous whitewater for its 100 miles. It's a river trip that has something for everyone.
The land around Middle Fork is protected by the 2.36 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the river corridor is protected as a National Wild and Scenic River.
5. Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, Arizona
The Colorado River flowing through Grand Canyon National Park has big whitewater, stunning camps, incredible slot canyons, fascinating geology, and the chance to get away from it all for 14–22 days. You can float for either 225 or 279 miles, depending on where you take-out.
You will have the opportunity to hike into incomparable side canyons, to turquoise-blue creeks (Havasu and the Little Colorado), and run some of the most famous rapids in the world. There's also plenty of time to float through flat water stretches and relax on big sandy beaches with a beer.
6. Illinois River, Oregon
The Illinois River is a little-known gem that flows through the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Southern Oregon. It's famous for crystal-clear water, rare botany, rugged scenery, numerous Class IV rapids, and the Class V Green Wall Rapid. It typically only has enough water to raft in the spring after recent rainstorms and when snow is melting.
This is a harsh and beautiful place protected by wilderness and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that only a few people visit, so it’s unlikely you’ll see other rafting groups.
Best Class V Rafting Trips
7. Upper Tuolumne River, California
Also known as "Cherry Creek," the Upper Tuolumne is the most difficult commercially rafted river in the United States. It flows over granite boulders that create narrow chutes and big drops that are just barely doable by rafts.
If you want to join a commercial trip, you'll be required to pass a swim test before paddling the difficult rapids.
8. Futaleufu River, Chile
The “Fu” (Futaleufu River) is famous among river runners for its high-volume Class IV and V rapids with water so turquoise-blue, it doesn’t seem real.
This river is in a remote part of Patagonia that’s tough to get to but worth it if you like your water big and your mountains even bigger. This is the Andes, after all.
9. Zambezi River, Zimbabwe and Zambia
The Zambezi is a big- (huge! HUGE!) volume river full of Class IV and V rapids on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. There are 2 seasons on the Zambezi: Low water (July to February) and High water (February to June). During the high-water season, the river floods from rains to contain 300,000 cfs (that’s cubic feet per second!)! Even during the "low season," the river level is around 20,000 cfs. This creates massive holes, waves, and crazy eddy lines and boils. You'll get to see the 300' Victoria Falls, just upstream of the put-in, and wildlife, including small crocodiles. With warm water, incredible play boating opportunities, and stunning scenery, this is a trip you'll never forget.
10. Forks of the Kern River, California
California’s Kern River has several great sections of whitewater, but it’s the famous "Forks of the Kern" section that really stands out. This trip begins with a 2-mile hike down to the confluence of the North Fork of the Kern and the Little Kern.
This 17-mile run contains 40 Class IV rapids and three big Class V rapids and is typically done in 2–3 days. There are several great hikes to waterfalls that cascade over granite bedrock and wonderful campsites.