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7 Amazing American Rivers for Whitewater Rafting

From seasoned pros who seek turbulent rapids and intimidating waterfalls to first-time families with young kids, whitewater rafting is a thrilling sport that has attracted thousands to rivers around the world. Fortunately, there are a number of amazing river systems in the U.S. that provide a variety of experiences. Some are fast, while others are slow and steady, offering scenic rides through canyons and national parks. So, if you’re looking for a day (or days!) of adrenaline-pumping rides paired with stellar sights that are best seen through the sway of some of the earth’s most beautiful waterways, check out this list of awesome American rivers for whitewater rafting.

Colorado River

Rivers 1
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Wesley Fryer

Kicking off in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River flows through one of the most stunning areas in the U.S. — the Grand Canyon. Stretching through five national parks and six national monuments and state parks, it’s no wonder journeys can last anywhere between a few hours and 18 days. Trips in May and June are faster (read: more exciting), while those in August and September are tamer. Rapids range from class I to V, but rafting along any part of the river will make for a beautiful ride with awe-inspiring canyons, views of bridges, and relics from the Gold Rush.

Nenana River

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Photo courtesy of Flickr/FairbanksMike

When in Alaska, book a whitewater rafting trip down the popular Nenana River. Fed by glacier water, the temperatures can be cold, but are completely worth it. Brace yourself for an exciting (and super wet) ride — the river, which runs through Denali National Park, comes with class III and IV rapids. For those less experienced, there are less intense sections that still offer views of Alaskan scenery and wildlife like bears, moose, caribou, sheep, and lynxes.

Gauley River

Rivers 3
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Michael Blow

With more than 100 rapids along 24 miles, the Gauley River in West Virginia is a prime destination for whitewater rafting. The dam-controlled river is best experienced during the scheduled release dates in the fall, though summer trips between Memorial Day and Labor Day bring a ton of fun as well. Adventurous folks will want to check out the Upper Gauley River for an extreme ride with class V rapids, steep drops, narrow chutes, and rocky ledges. Be prepared to go over the 14-foot Sweet’s Falls and keep your fingers crossed that you don’t go under. If you’re hungry for more, head to the American Whitewater Gauley Fest in September, which happens to be the largest paddling festival in the world.

Salmon River

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Photo courtesy of Flickr/Roy Luck

Set in the wilderness, Idaho‘s Salmon River (also known as “The River of No Return”) is a great whitewater rafting destination for intermediates and experts. The river drops 1,200 feet over a stretch of 89 miles and rapids primarily fall in class III and IV. For the best experience, plan a trip during the river’s peak flow time between mid-June and early July. Mountains, towering trees, beaches, hot springs, and wildlife such as bears, bald eagles, and bighorn sheep along the water all make for a memorable ride.

Kennebec River

A photo posted by Marisa Rossi (@isa4785) on

If you find yourself in Maine, a whitewater rafting trip on the Kennebec River is a must. Rapids, which come with cheeky names like names like Big Mama and Magic Falls, range from class II and IV. Expect steep rock walls and four- to six-foot waves in some areas along your voyage. Controlled by a dam, the river also has high water releases that usually occur on weekends. And while it may be only 12 miles of whitewater fun, that’s enough for an unforgettable experience.

Nantahala River

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Photo courtesy of Flickr/anoldent

North Carolina boasts a number of beautiful waterways, but for those looking to do some whitewater rafting, the Nantahala River is the way to go. It features 20 class II and III rapids, making it manageable for families with kids seven years of age or older. Dam-controlled, the river allows for rafting seven days a week from April to October. But you won’t be the only one to take them up on this offer — it attracts about 160,000 paddlers each year. Beyond the rapids, rafters are sure to witness stunning scenery (it even runs through the Nantahala National Forest, the largest in North Carolina). Just try not to fall in — the water runs at about a chill 45 degrees.

Deerfield River

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Photo courtesy of Flickr/Massachusetts Office of Travel & Toursim

Running from southern Vermont to northwestern Massachusetts, Deerfield River hosts mostly class II and III rapids plus a few class IV, making it a decent ride for paddlers of all levels. Beginners should test the waters with the Zoar Gap, while those looking for a challenge can hit up The Dryway for its intense rapids. Expect mountainous eye candy along with a boulder garden and perhaps a bald eagle sighting or two. While rafting is available from April to October, the river is dam controlled, which means there are only about 132 scheduled release dates.

—Alexandra Temblador

This article was originally published by Oyster under the headline 7 Amazing American Rivers for Whitewater Rafting. It is reprinted here with permission.

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