The 10 Best Western River Trips
The western United States is filled with spectacular multi-day river trips. People travel from all across the country (or even all across the world!) to run these rivers. The mix of rugged western scenery, world class whitewater, and phenomenal on river camping bring people back to these rivers year after year. A popular topic of campfire conversation (or in some cases, debate) while on a river trip is, unsurprisingly, river trips. Here are the top ten multi-day river trips that are sure to be brought up in any campfire debate.
1. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is a western river that needs no introduction. Sitting high on the bucket list of many river runners, the Middle Fork is widely renowned for its stunning beauty, crystal clear waters, and exciting rapids. Your journey through the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness starts in a gorgeous alpine valley on a river that is little more than a creek.
The first two days are filled with technical, low volume rapids that provide a fun challenge to even the most experienced river runners. As you descend out of the alpine and into the foothills, the river picks up volume from it's many tributary creeks. By the time you reach the massive granite gorge known as the Impassable Canyon, the river has grown from a small mountain creek to a high-volume western river. The diversity of the landscape really sets the Middle Fork apart from many other trips. If that were not enough, the 100 miles of river are nearly continuous class III and IV whitewater. There is also world class fishing, stellar campsites, hot springs, and abundant wildlife. The Middle Fork of the Salmon packs in everything you could possibly ask for, making it the best multi-day river trip in the west.
2. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River
Every culture has its own rite of passage, and in the river running world it is a trip through the Grand Canyon. There is no more intimate way to get to know one of the Seven Wonders of the World than spending three weeks in it's depths. One of the longest multi-day trips you could possibly do, the 296 miles from Lee's Ferry to Pearce Ferry, are filled with exciting whitewater, huge sandy beach campsites, incredible views, and sensational side hikes.
Being able to spend three weeks on the river provides a unique opportunity to establish tight-knit bonds with your group. The people that you go down the Canyon with will hold a special place in your heart forever. You will experience heart-pounding adrenaline, moments of complete serenity, and a deepened connection for the natural world around you. A trip down the Grand Canyon is an absolutely life-changing experience.
3. The Gates of Lodore on the Green River
The name "The Gates of Lodore" sparks mental images of a fantastical world, with twisting canyons where an echo would last forever, sparking crystalline waterfalls cascading over red rock, mountains rising out of the ground only to be cut in two by a river surging with whitewater. This world exists, nestled in the corner of Utah and Colorado in Dinosaur National Monument.
The Gates of Lodore is one of the most beautiful river trips in the country. The blue-green river cuts a channel a thousand feet deep through vibrant red rock walls speckled with the forest green of evergreen pines, an unrivaled dance of color that sparks simultaneous feelings of wonder and serenity. As the sun goes down over the cliffs, you will be admiring the view from the warm sand of one of the huge beach campsites that line the river. But the Gates of Lodore is not just beautiful; the 44 miles of river are filled with exciting class III and IV whitewater. This four day trip through what feels like a lost world is absolutely one of the best multi-day western river trips.
4. The Selway River
One of the sparkling gems of Idaho's wilderness, the Selway is a secluded, isolated western river trip. Only one trip is allowed to launch per day, ensuring that you and your group will be virtually alone in the heart of the Selway-Biterroot Wilderness. The Selway is best known for its incredible whitewater. The 48 miles of river is packed with continuous class III and IV rapids which change dramatically depending on the water level. At high water, be ready for pushy, technical class IV/V for the entire length of the section. As the water drops, many of the rapids on the Selway become tricky boulder mazes, requiring precision and delicate maneuvering to effectively navigate. At any water level, the Selway is a test for the expert oarsman or oarswoman. The Idaho wilderness provides a spectacular backdrop for one of the best whitewater trips of any western river.
5. The Forks of the Kern
California is filled with exciting multi-day river trips through spectacular Sierra-Nevada scenery. The creme de la creme of northern California multi-days is the Forks of the Kern. Despite being only 17 miles long, the non-stop class IV and V rapids force boaters to go slow, constantly scouting and setting safety. The whitewater here is legendary, with towering falls and massive holes in a river choked with mammoth granite boulders. The result is a non-stop gauntlet of forty class IV's and three class V's. That is right. FORTY class IVs in 17 miles. But whitewater is not all the Forks has to offer. Lush forests line the river, gently sloping upwards to vertical canyon walls of raw granite. Magical waterfalls a short hike from the river provide a respite from the non-stop adrenaline. The Forks of the Kern is practically a holy place, a cathedral built for the perfect multi-day trip.
6. The Illinois River
Cutting through the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness in southern Oregon, the Illinois is famous for exciting whitewater, spectacular scenery, and an incredibly unique ecosystem. With flows that are tricky to time and heavily dependent on rainfall, the Illinois is infrequently run. The lack of other humans gives you and your group a chance to soak in the rugged beauty of the Kalmiopsis.
You will marvel at its serpentine rocks, carnivorous plants, and gorgeous blue-green water. The 31 miles are stacked with tons of class IV, as well as Fawn Falls (V-) and Green Wall (V). The Illinois is certainly the best wilderness multi-day in Oregon, and deserves its rightful place as one of the best multi-day trips in the west.
7. The Tuolumne River
The Tuolumne is another Californian classic. Nestled in the foothills below Yosemite National Park, this 18 mile over-nighter has all the breathtaking scenery you would expect to find in the Sierra Nevadas. It is also packed with exciting class IV whitewater, including the class V Clavey Falls.
Pristine white sand beaches will be your resting place at night after a day filled with adrenaline. Side canyons carved by rushing waterfalls offer numerous side hikes, each more beautiful than than the last. Short and sweet, the Tuolumne gives you a quick wilderness fix near a large metropolitan area. "The T," as it is affectionately nicknamed, is one of the easiest access western multi-day river trips around.
8. Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River
Hundreds of miles downstream of the nearest dam, Cataract Canyon is the most naturally flowing section of the Colorado River. Other than the last 20 miles which have been drowned by Lake Powell, Cataract Canyon is the same as it was when Major Powell's expedition came through over 150 years ago. Only a handful of people visit this remote region of Canyonlands National Park every year due to its inaccessibility.
This is a place where you can experience the magic of the desert - deep red-orange sunsets enhancing the rust colored cliffs, stars wheeling over spindly desert spires, and warm, sandy beaches to sink your toes into. These moments of serenity are contrasted by the awe-inspiring proof of nature's power on display. You will experience sudden monsoons dumping buckets of rain when there were blue skies ten minutes before, rock-rending flash floods carving new canyon walls, and best of all, thunderous rapids that rival those of the Grand Canyon. Cataract is home to one of the most infamous stretches of whitewater in the American Southwest: The Mile Long Rapids. Big water class III and IV rapids come in quick succession with very little room for error, especially at high water. Cataract Canyon at high water is one of the most difficult, isolated, and rewarding big water runs on the planet. This Southwestern classic is a must-do for anyone looking for the best mulit-day western river trip.
9. The Rogue River
One of the original eight Wild and Scenic rivers, the Rogue is steeped in beauty, history, and a whole lot of fun. The Wild and Scenic stretch of the Rogue flows through the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest and the Wild Rogue Wilderness, a beautiful forest in the rolling hills of southern Oregon.
This trip offers is just about everything you could ask for: gorgeous campsites, stunning views, historical side hikes, abundant wildlife, and perfect whitewater. The Rogue's class III rapids are the perfect place for a beginner to intermediate rower to push themselves, while still being technical, splashy, and fun for the experienced boatsperson. The one class IV, Blossom Bar, is a technical boulderfield that requires precision navigation to successfully execute. All in all, the Rogue is a classic western multi-day river trip that is sure to be loved by the whole family.
10. The Salt River
One of the last truly free-flowing rivers in the southwest, the Salt River winds its way through the Sonoran desert. The Upper Salt section offers exciting class IV whitewater, as well as fabulously beautiful desert scenery. 1.4 billion year old granite cliffs stretch skyward from the river, dotted with Ocatillo, Sotol, and Saguaro cacti. Over 200 species of bird live along the Salt, several that are unique to the area. You are likely to see big horn sheep or even a gila monster! This Arizona classic is widely regarded as one of the best multi-days western rivers.