Most Popular Whitewater Rafting Rivers in the US

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The snowpack continues to recede with the summer melt. It’s okay though… it will be back this winter and there’s a positive. It means the rivers start to rise and whitewater rafting season begins! Here’s a list of some of the best whitewater rafting rivers in US near a ski town.


How Whitewater Rafting Started

But first, a quick history lesson. This outdoor activity started as a way to explore unknown rivers and the areas that surround them. The first rafting trip happened in 1811 on the Snake River through Wyoming and Idaho. The equipment at the time made it too difficult to navigate the entire river. In 1840, the Rubber Raft was invented by Lt. John Fremont and Horace H. Day. With their new invention, on June 9th, 1840, a successful scientific exploration of the Snake River was led by Clyde Smith.

Whitewater Rafting Destinations

Nowadays, it’s not about exploration. It’s all about fun! Rafting has become another fun way to experience the mountains. All adventure seekers must give this a try! Here are some of the best whitewater rafting rivers in the US.


Snake River – Idaho

Class III & Class IV

Image Taken by Hans Dieter Vesely
Image Taken by Hans Dieter Vesely

Nothing compares to rafting Hells Canyon in Idaho. This is the home of the mighty Snake River and the deepest gorge in North America. The river marks the border between Idaho and Oregon. The canyon plunges to depths of nearly 8,000 feet between the Seven Devils range to the east and Oregon’s rim country to the west.

Through this tremendous gorge, the Snake River’s warm, clear waters yield some of the best big waves and whitewater rapids in the Northwest. There are also great fishing opportunities in calmer sections. The Snake River serves up one of the best river experiences in the country!

Experience the rapids yourself by going on a Snake River Rafting Tour.

Weber River – Utah

Class I & Class II Rapids

Devil's Slide - Photo Taken by Photographer Karen J. Rasmussen, North Ogden, Utah
Devil’s Slide – Photo Taken by Photographer Karen J. Rasmussen, North Ogden, Utah

The Weber River, located in the same mountain range as Sundance Ski Resort, is full of historical structures showing off locomotive history. In addition, you’ll see several famous canyons in Northern Utah, some of which have ended up on postcards.

Highlights of this river includes a snug pass beneath the Croydon Bridge, Devil’s Slide, an unusual geologic rock formation consisting of two parallel bands of limestone running down a steep mountainside and Slalom Rapid, which passes a series of concrete pillars supporting the freeway above.

Experience the rapids yourself by going on a Weber River Rafting Tour or float.


Deschutes River – Oregon

Class III Rapids

Deschutes River Rafting
© 2007 Image appears courtesy: Jeremy Brown

One of the most popular river rafting journeys in North America is the Deschutes River. Named by French fur traders for their rapids, these are a sure bet to be a blast! Known for its consistent water flows, sunshine and amazing scenery, it’s perfect for anyone looking for some adventure.

Experience the rapids yourself by going on a Deschutes River Rafting Tour.

Dowd Chute – Colorado

Class IV Rapids

Dowd Chute Colorado Whitewater Rafting Best Whitewater Rafting Rivers in US
Photo Credit as Christian Kallen/

Besides having amazing dry snow, Colorado is also home to great whitewater rafting. The Dowd Chute, located on the Eagle River, is a perfect option that doesn’t require a full day but offers some intense action. The water levels are not dam controlled and fluctuate according to weather conditions and spring runoff levels. For this reason, it is critical to go with a guide. The best part though… it’s only minutes from Vail meaning you get to sample a little bit of the town as well.


American River – California

Class III & Class IV Rapids

American River Middle Fork River Best Whitewater Rafting Rivers in US
Tunnel Shoot 2 – American River – Image taken by: Rachel Lea Fox – For Full story go here.

The American River isn’t just one ribbon of watery fun but rather three. It consists of The North, Middle & South Forks. The South Fork’s action-packed Class III rapids are rollicking good fun for the entire family. The Middle Fork of the American combines challenging Class IV rapids with miles of beautiful wilderness scenery. It’s also home to the “Tunnel Chute.” The exciting rapid drops through a steep chute into frothy, churning water, after which it passes through a 90-ft long tunnel. Last but not least, the North Fork sparkles with Class IV spring run-off thrills and pristine beauty. So, pick the river depending on the level of fun you want.

Experience the rapids yourself by going on a American River Rafting Tour or float.

Salmon River – Idaho

Class II – Class IV Rapids

best whitewater rafting in the us Salmon River near Riggins Idaho
The Salmon River on a calm stretch… before the “storm.”

Idaho is the land of plenty when it comes to whitewater rafting so it should come as no surprise that another ribbon of water would make our list. Nicknamed the “river of no return” since it flows into the largest expanse of continuous wilderness in the country — The Frank Church Wilderness. Depending on how much time you have, you can either enjoy a 5 day camping adventure or just a one day sojourn from Idaho’s whitewater capital of Riggins. The Salmon River includes legendary Class III rapids such as Split Rock, Salmon Falls, Big Mallard, Chittum, and Elk Bar. And if you head there during spring run-off, the normal Class II Ruby Rapid becomes a monstrous Class IV. The entrance contains laterals nicknamed “the pencil sharpener” you must conquer before working your boat to the right as you crest ocean-sized rollers. Miss this move and you’ll end up in the “pancake wave” that will flip you like a breakfast hotcake from the McCall Pancake House just down the road. 

Experience the rapids yourself by going on a Salmon River Rafting Tour.


Rogue River – Oregon

Class III+

The Rainey Falls on the Rogue River one of the best whitewater rafting rivers in the US
Rafters getting after it on the Rainey Falls of the Rogue River.

The Cascade Mountains get pummeled every winter with A LOT of snow. This means that in the summer all that snow transforms the rivers into torrents including the mighty Rogue River in southern Oregon. Not just a fun river for rafters, it also boasts some of the best scenery and wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a good chance you’ll see a bald eagle. You might spot a bear or two. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see a few newts in any of the side creeks. There’s no shortage in wildlife to be enjoyed. The upper half of the river is a bit more mellow except for the Rainey Falls. Luckily, this gauntlet provides three options. You can go right over the main falls, down the “mid-chute,” or the fish ladder. The most popular is the fish ladder toward the right bank. The mid-chute is possible but takes precision rafting to get into it as well as the right amount of flow.

Experience the rapids yourself by going on a Rogue River Rafting Tour.

Kennebec River – Maine

Class III & IV

Kennebec River in Maine
A calm section of the Kennebec River

When you think of a whitewater rafting destination, they don’t only exist on the West Coast. A great example of this is the scenic Kennebec River in Maine. For those that really want to test their mettle and all this river has to offer, we recommend scheduling your trip along with the release of the water from the Harris Station Dam. While still providing access to Class III & IV rapids any time of year, during one of these four scheduled releases the rapids become even bigger. For example, the Big Mama rapid goes from a Class III to a IV and produces a 12-FOOT WAVE! Even if you do miss these windows, expect a lot of fun and still some intense rapid action. You may even see a moose!

This is just a taste into the sport of whitewater rafting and one more way to enjoy the mountains in the summer. If you’re looking for another activity with an adrenaline fix or just something that’s a bit more relaxing, check out our in-depth summer guide to the mountains found here:

3 thoughts on “Most Popular Whitewater Rafting Rivers in the US

  1. I’m surprised that the Ocoee River in Tennessee wasn’t mentioned. It is the only river in the US that was an Olympic Games river (1996). Likewise, being that the article is titled “Most Popular Whitewater Rafting Rivers in the US”, simply for that reason alone, the Ocoee River should be listed. It is the most popular whitewater river in the USA with over 250,000 people rafting it every year. It is dam controlled with two separate river sections, having rapids ranging from Class II to IV, mostly Class III.

    1. Hey Jeff,

      It is true that the title of the article is the “most popular whitewater rivers in the US” but in the first paragraph we highlight specifically near a ski town. Curious is Ocoee River in Tennessee near a ski town? If so, we will definitely include it. I appreciate you letting us know about this river and writing such detailed comment.

      – Alex

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