10 of the Best Paddling Towns in the World
Narrowing down the best paddling towns in the world is no easy task. And while this list could easily have dozens of destinations that boast excellent whitewater and scenery, we’re giving the towns below their due credit. Whether they’re centrally located to a multitude of regional rafting and kayaking opportunities, or they’ve become a paddling mecca for their proximity to one of the best whitewater trips on the planet, these paddling hot spots are worth the trip.
1) Futaleufú, Chile
Chilean Patagonia is loaded with pristine rivers and the town of Futaleufú in the northern region is a major basecamp for whitewater lovers. The nearby Futaleufú River is home to some of the world’s best rafting with challenging Class IV-V whitewater in abundance. Meanwhile, its tributaries, the Rio Azul and Espolon, offer milder whitewater opportunities. Commercial outfitters run one-day and multi-day trips in the area and there is plenty of traffic for DIY folks to swing a shuttle. If you can access a vehicle, the region as a whole is absolutely loaded with epic adventure opportunities.
2) Rotorua, New Zealand
New Zealand’s North and South Islands are jam-packed with rivers and paddling. Lake Rotorua is a major North Island hub with numerous rivers feeding the lake. The sheer number of pristine flat water and Class II-V paddling opportunities in one location is hard to find anywhere else. The Kaituna is extremely popular and has Tutea Falls, the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, along with several Class V rapids and additional drops throughout the trip. The Rangitaiki is another local favorite with incredible scenery and a nice mix of Class II-IV. Additionally, the nearby Wairoa has a short, month-long season and offers intense Class V for advanced paddlers.
3) Hood River, Oregon
You can’t have a whitewater list without mentioning a location in the northwestern United States. Hood River sits in a unique geographical location where rainforests and high desert collide. It has a backyard Class IV-V run on the town’s namesake Hood River and the White Salmon River is a Class IV run just across the Columbia. Easy access to I-84 will shoot you east or west on the Columbia. Pick any direction from there and you will cross a paddling opportunity. Creeks are abundant and big water is always close. Hit the Deschutes, Grande Ronde and John Day. Push farther northwest into the Olympic Peninsula or make an 8-hour drive east to the Salmon River system in Idaho. You will be hard pressed to find a location with access to more paddling than Hood River and the general Northwest.
4) Moab, Utah
The desert town of Moab, Utah has long been considered an adventure hub and with its location just minutes from the Colorado River and close to the Green River, it’s no surprise that paddling is at its core. Many people opt to run the 14-mile “daily” stretch of family-friendly whitewater just outside of town or even nearby Westwater Canyon, which has been hailed one of the best short rafting trips in the West. The real local treasure, however, is the stretch of the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, which offers paddlers a multi-day trip option combining easy floating with stunning scenery and legendary whitewater through the heart of Canyonlands National Park. Desolation Canyon on the Green River is also an easy multi-day trip from Moab and serves up more than 50 Class II-III rapids in a pristine and remote wilderness setting.
5) Salida, CO
With the Arkansas River pouring through its downtown, the small mountain town of Salida has long attracted paddlers from all over the world. The town itself is home to the Salida Playpark, a ¼-mile whitewater park along the Arkansas that caters to beginners and experts alike depending on dam-controlled flows. But that’s not what has attracted more than 25 rafting outfitters to set up shop here. That credit goes to the abundance and variety of whitewater rafting trips on the Arkansas River that attract nearly a quarter of a million paddlers to the region each season. For technical and challenging whitewater, paddlers can test their mettle on the nearby Royal Gorge and Numbers runs, while first-timers and families can take on the popular, Class III-IV Brown’s Canyon trip through Browns Canyon National Monument.
6) Livingstone, Zambia
Livingstone, Zambia, which is situated just miles from the Zambezi River and spectacular Victoria Falls, rightfully deserves best paddling town credit. Here, in Africa’s adventure capital, experienced paddlers and thrill seekers can access one of the most renowned and challenging rafting trips on the planet through the Zambezi’s majestic Batoka Gorge. Starting from the base of Victoria Falls—one of the Natural Wonders of the World—it’s a wild ride filled with impressive scenery, beautiful beaches, big drops, and notorious Class V whitewater. After this river trip of a lifetime, adrenaline junkies are well poised for wildlife safaris, bungee jumping, helicopter tours and more.
7) Coloma, CA
While California has enough whitewater to keep paddlers busy exploring for a lifetime, the state’s rafting epicenter is no doubt the town of Coloma near Sacramento. Located along the South Fork of the American River, and basecamp for more than 20 rafting outfitters, this sleepy little town comes to life during the months of April through October when paddlers flock to the area to raft the South Fork’s popular Chili Bar and Gorge runs. Centrally-located to a number of great whitewater runs, Coloma is also a great launching point for trips on the more advanced North Fork and Middle Fork of the American. The free-flowing North Fork offers scenic Class IV whitewater for a short window each spring, while the dam-controlled Middle Fork provides an exceptional Class III-IV, 18-mile wilderness run all summer long. Not to mention, the world-class Tuolumne and North Yuba Rivers are just a short drive away.
8) Val di Sole, Italy
Italy’s Val di Sole is rich with whitewater, resorts and charming villages. Nearby, the Noce River offers some of the best whitewater rafting in Europe with a glacial influence that keeps it pumping throughout the European summer (May-October). The river serves up rapids ranging from Class III-V with a picturesque mountain backdrop. Located in the far northeastern corner of Italy, the location is close enough to Austria’s Inn River and Switzerland’s Rhine River to make a regional, multi-river tour possible. Stelvio National Park also offers some incredible hiking and side trips in the Dolomites.
9) Sqaumish, British Columbia
British Columbia as a whole is a massive adventure playground. It’s like Alaska, but with more accessible streams and rivers. Sqaumish, just an hour north of Vancouver, is close to a wide variety of whitewater runs, lakes and even ocean paddling opportunities making it a great base camp for all types of paddlers. Just five minutes from town, paddlers come from all over to practice their skills on the Mamquam River which has a great play-wave, as well as a slalom course upstream. Nearby, the Cheakamus River offers fun, bouncy rapids perfect for first-time rafters and families, while more experienced paddlers can head to the Elaho-Squamish, which steps things up a notch with bigger Class III-IV whitewater. Stand up paddleboarding has also become quite popular and the options run the gamut from exploring the rugged shoreline of Howe Sound to river SUPing or even a mellow flat water paddle on a local lake with mountain views. It’s all here in this paddling town.
10) Fayetteville, West Virginia
In the eastern United States, the New River Gorge and Gauley River have put Fayetteville, West Virginia on the paddling map. Some of the earliest pioneers of the rafting industry knew the area had a lot to offer, and today, Fayetteville is the base camp for two world-class whitewater runs. The Upper New River is the perfect scenic float with mellow Class I-III rapids while the Lower New River offers a heart-pounding Class III-IV run through a steep and beautiful gorge. Meanwhile, the nearby Gauley River is bucket list material, especially in September and October when paddlers and river guides flock to the area for the wildest whitewater on the East Coast thanks to dam-controlled water releases.
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Photos: Futaleufú Rafting – Neil Rabinowitz; Dead Horse Point State Park, Moab – Logan Lambert/Unsplash; Livingstone, Zambia – Jeremy Hetzel/Flickr; Sqaumish – Andie Caie/Flickr