10 of the World’s Most Notorious Whitewater Rapids
How do you choose the world’s most notorious rapids, when arguably, there’s an infamous rapid on every great whitewater run on the planet? Well, to us, it comes down to the rapids that leave lasting impressions and hook people on rafting for life. The best whitewater rapids are the incredible rides we never forget. They’re the rapids where legends are made. So we polled some pros, and these ten whitewater favorites made the cut…
1) Terminator – Futaleufú River, Chile: With five Class V rapids, the Futaleufú is known for its big water, but it’s Terminator that’s considered the biggest and baddest of them all. In fact, many pros say it’s the most challenging commercially run rapid in the world. And when asked about this long and technically challenging rapid, our guides say Terminator has every feature that will make your belly groan: Towering waves, pummeling holes, massive black boulders strewn everywhere…all embraced by brooding cliffs and echoing thunder. Even the “cheat run” on river left is bigger than anything you’ve ever run.
2) Bidwell – Chilko River, British Columbia: Lava Canyon on the Chilko River offers up 14 miles of non-stop excitement through what is often boasted as the longest stretch of commercially-run Class IV whitewater in North America. And at the start of it all you’ll find Bidwell, an exciting Class IV “S-bend” rapid with big breaking waves and a huge hole at the bottom. Seasoned pros say it’s an intense way to start off the Chilko’s infamous White Mile. If you don’t make the correct move at the top, you have continuous whitewater below. Translation: You don’t want any swimmers here.
3) Big Drops 2 and 3 – Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, Utah: Cataract Canyon‘s Big Drops 2 and 3 (ok, technically two rapids) might be a surprising pick considering most of the season they’re a fun Class III ride, but those who’ve experienced these infamous back to back drops at high water know their unforgettable nature. Longtime OARS guide Jeffe Aronson, who claims to be the first to run the Big Drops on an 18-foot raft at 75,000 cfs says, “They’re bigger, scarier, harder and more consequential than anything else we run, period.” At their peak, these rapids are two of the top ten biggest rapids in North America offering up waves bigger than the biggest rapids in Grand Canyon.
4) Lava Falls – Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, Arizona: Speaking of Grand Canyon, no “best whitewater rapids” list would be complete without mentioning Lava Falls, the biggest rapid in the canyon and definitely the most fabled. Navigating through a maelstrom of whitewater as the river falls 37 feet over the span of several hundred yards, paddlers pretend they’re in control as they try to avoid Big Black Rock and boat-flipping Ledge Hole for any hope of making it to Tequila Beach for post-Lava celebrations. Rated Class 10 (the highest degree of difficulty in the Grand Canyon), Lava can be twenty of the scariest (and best) seconds of an entire Grand Canyon rafting trip for guides and passengers alike.
5) Godzilla – Rio Upano River, Ecuador: When it comes to the “River of the Sacred Waterfalls” deep in the Andes Mountains, Godzilla is the most memorable rapid on the Rio Upano, according to Peter Grubb of ROW Adventures. “It’s in a deep and dramatic jungle canyon with high waterfalls plummeting in from both sides of the river, making for a wave train that boasts 15-foot waves when flows are in the 15-25,000 cfs range,” he describes. “As you run this rapid you have to be working from right to left, without getting caught in strong eddy lines on left, so that when you come out of the train of waves you are on the left side of an almost river-wide hole!”
6) Pillow Rapid – Gauley River, West Virginia: There are five legendary rapids on West Virginia’s notorious Gauley River, but when we talked to Heidi Prior from ACE Adventure Resort, she said that everyone on their crew would agree that Pillow Rapid takes the cake. As this Class V rapid drops 30 feet boats pummel down a narrow chute directly into Pillow Rock where they have to “ride the pillow” just right to avoid the worst case scenario. But according to Heidi, “Just like the name suggests, it’s a soft, fluffy ride of water…it’s the best 10 seconds of life.”
7) Ghostrider – Zambezi River, Zambia: The Zambezi, another legendary big-water river, doesn’t skimp on excitement which is clear from the name of some of its iconic rapids like Stairway to Heaven, Gnashing Jaws of Death and Oblivion. But it’s the grand finale to the trip, notorious Ghostrider, that ensures even the most avid river runner a little adrenaline, according to Hamish McMaster of Water By Nature. “Nowhere in the world have I seen expedition size rafts disappear for 2-3 seconds before they resurface from inside the three gigantic waves that make up the crux of this Class V rapid,” reports Hamish.
8) God’s House – Karnali River, Nepal: Post-monsoon season in early October, the Karnali River in Western Nepal offers some of the best big-volume rapids in the world through pristine jungle and dramatic Himalayan gorges. But all of that aside, the pinnacle of the trip for many is no doubt God’s House. Running through the narrowest gorge on the river this Class V rapid serves up a large runnable wave on the left before you have to fight your way to the right to miss an enormous hole that has the capacity to flip a small vehicle let alone a raft.
9) Bull Sluice – Chattooga River, Georgia: While well-known rapids like Jaw Bone and Seven Foot Falls are obvious choices for best whitewater rapids on Georgia’s scenic Chattooga River (made famous in the movie Deliverance), Charles Conner from Nantahala Outdoor Center thinks Bull Sluice deserves the official title. The grand finale to rafting on Section 3 of the river, this Class IV+ thriller dishes out a 14-foot elevation drop with a tricky line that includes a difficult to maneuver ledge, aptly named Decapitation Rock, and finally a big hole that you have to surf to escape. “To me, it’s the perfect rapid,” says Charles. “There are multiple routes through the rapid and it flows over a rugged sandstone ledge surrounded by house-sized boulders.”
10) Clavey Falls – Tuolumne River, California: Anytime the word “falls” shows up in the name of a rapid, you can guarantee it’s going to be a thriller. And Clavey Falls at the confluence of the Clavey River and Tuolumne, with its series of dramatic staircase drops, is no exception. “The quarter mile of Class I water leading up to Clavey Falls is the ‘calm before the storm,’” according to OARS’ California Manager Chris Moore. “As you approach the horizon line—the initial drop of Clavey Falls—your senses are dulled due to the thunderous sound emanating just downstream.” On this Class IV+ rapid you’ll drop 8 vertical feet before dropping again and trying to avoid a massive hole.
Are there other big rides you think should make our best whitewater rapids list? Chime in below.
Photos: White Mile, Chilko River, BC – Photo: Justin Bailie; Lava Falls, Grand Canyon – Photo: Justin Bailie; Pillow Rock, Gauley River – Photo: ACE; Karnali River, Nepal – Photo: Whitehorse Canoe Club; Clavey Falls, Tuolumne River, CA – Photo: OARS