The air might be brisk, the water will definitely be icy, and there’s a chance you could even get snowed on, but there’s nothing quite like chasing those elusive early-season flows. We’re talking about the best spring rafting trips in the West, the coveted runs that offer optimal rafting conditions for only a short period of time each season, if at all. So catch them if you can.
The Best Spring Rafting Destinations in the Western U.S.
1) Yampa River
The Yampa River is the last free-flowing tributary of the entire Colorado River system. All of the other rivers in the region are dammed, but environmental activists blocked a proposed dam at Echo Park in the 1950s. What they saved is a 250-mile long river that springs to life for three months a year—May through July—with fresh, surging run-off from the melting snows and glaciers of the Colorado Rockies. Boaters who are able to snag a coveted Yampa River permit get to explore some of the most remarkable sandstone canyons in the country, paddle through Class III-IV whitewater, camp on sandy beaches and enjoy incredible side hikes in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. Some would argue this highly-sought-after spring rafting trip rivals the Grand Canyon.
2) Animas River
In the spring and early summer, boaters from all over the world flock to the Upper Animas in Southwestern Colorado which offers one of the best Class IV-V runs in the state. The 25-mile stretch of non-stop whitewater from Silverton to Tacoma Station can be done as one epic full-day trip or a slightly-less-crazy overnighter. Considered a marathon trip, be ready for rollercoaster waves, huge holes and three big drops that warrant Class V status—Garfield Slide (a.k.a. Ten Mile), No Name Falls, and Broken Bridge. When you’re not paddling for your life, look up and take in the spectacular mountain scenery and nearby peaks in the heart of the San Juan National Forest.
3) Selway River
The solitude of the Selway River, which cuts through the heart of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, is unmatched by any multi-day whitewater river in the Lower 48. The Forest Service, which runs a lottery for permits, only allows one launch per day (alternating commercial and private trips) from May 15 to July 31. As one of the first eight rivers designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Selway is undammed meaning spring flows are high, cold and rowdy with the most dependable flows typically in June. And with an average drop of 28 feet per mile, abundant rocks and long stretches of unbroken whitewater, the Selway is considered one of the most challenging whitewater rivers in the U.S. For those with the technical skills to run this gem, expect crystal clear water, rising cutthroat, sandy beaches and amazing cedar-lined hiking trails.
4) Lochsa River
The free-flowing Lochsa River, which tumbles down from its headwaters in the Bitterroot Mountains, is an Idaho whitewater classic. Boatable only in the spring during high water, typically early May through July in exceptional snow years, this technical river with more than 40 rapids in 20 miles boasts continuous whitewater and some of Idaho’s best rapids. Rapid names like “Grim Reaper” and “Terminator” say it all. This is a trip for the adrenaline-addicted who don’t mind having an audience since much of the river runs adjacent to scenic Highway 12 and the pullouts provide prime viewing for spectators. Expect a crowd waiting for you at the boat-flipping Class IV+ Lochsa Falls and wish for the best. The scenery doesn’t disappoint either.
5) Owyhee River
For those who hit the narrow window, typically sometime in April or May, when the Owyhee River actually flows, it’s unforgettable. One thousand-foot basalt cliffs cascade down to desolate, soft beaches. Hot springs bubble up along the banks. You float past abandoned ranches, ancient petroglyphs, and the whitewater should not be underestimated. There are over 200 miles of boatable water, with the Lower Owyhee serving up a popular combination of whitewater, solitude, and incredible desert scenery. The Middle Owyhee features Class IV rapids and the infamous Class V Widowmaker, and therefore is for expert river runners only. No matter which section you float, the Owyhee River is a rarely-visited but mesmerizing river in its bizarre beauty.
6) Illinois River
The Illinois River is the Holy Grail of Oregon whitewater and spring rafting trips. Some who seek it never find it. Others find it and are scared senseless. Still, those few fortunate boaters who run the Illinois each year bring back tales of glory. It’s a tributary of the Rogue River in the Siskiyou Mountains of Southern Oregon that is run much less often than talked about. Since the Siskiyou receive little snow, the river only runs when there’s enough rain, most often March through mid-May though boatable flows can occur in the winter months. Too much rain, however, and the Class IV rapids stack up, making it a dangerous endeavor. What’s more is this 32-mile stretch of whitewater, which includes the infamous Class V Green Wall rapid, is entirely within the wilderness so any mistakes are magnified by the remote nature of the run. Those with the skill and guts, however, are rewarded by crystal-clear water, stunning greenery, challenging rapids, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from running the wildest whitewater in the state.
7) North Fork American
One of the best spring rafting trips in California, the free-flowing North Fork American River typically runs March through mid-June. Flowing untamed through a beautiful forested gorge with 2,000-foot cliffs, the emerald green waters of this Wild & Scenic River deliver rapid after Class IV rapid of nearly non-stop, white-knuckle whitewater, followed by a stretch of more gentle Class II-III rapids. With intricate boulder gardens, rushing falls and staircase drops, this 10-mile stretch of California whitewater rafting promises intense paddling and plenty of adrenaline-inducing thrills for adventurous paddlers looking for a good challenge.
8) Kaweah River
Flowing from the peaks of Sequoia National Park, the Kaweah River is one of the steepest river drainages in the country, and as a result, has some of the best whitewater rafting in California. But you have to time it right. Since the Kaweah is free-flowing before it reaches Terminus Reservoir, you have to catch this thrilling spring rafting trip during the peak snowmelt window which is typically April through June. While expert paddlers can challenge the upper 6-mile stretch just outside of the park boundaries, most people run the lower section with offers approximately 10 miles of technical Class IV+ whitewater filled with powerful hydraulics, narrow chutes, river-wide ledges and plenty of boulder-filled obstacles.
9) Salt River
It’s not every year that paddlers get to catch this exceptional desert river in eastern Arizona, which relies on snowmelt from the White Mountains. When water conditions are ideal, however, the approximately 51-mile, multi-day trip through the Salt River Canyon, which is sometimes referred to as Arizona’s other Grand Canyon because of its sheer red and brown cliffs and impressive geology, is worth the trip. As you paddle through the impressive 2,000-foot-deep canyon walls speckled with saguaro cacti you’ll challenge Class III-IV whitewater, including technical rapids like Blackrock, Maze and Corkscrew, which is one of the biggest rapids and can often catch boaters off guard. This is a solid technical run that’s not for newbies.
10) Rio Grande River
The Rio Grande River has no shortage of world-class whitewater, but it’s the remote and rugged inner gorge—a 16-mile Class IV section of river known as the Taos Box—that attracts paddlers far and wide. Raftable flows can start as early as March and run through June, or may not run at all in years with a below average snowpack. But for the lucky folks who time it right and find themselves at the bottom of this remote chasm with 800-foot basalt walls towering above them, a thrilling and challenging run awaits. With more than 60 rapids, the “Box” is chock full of technical boulder gardens and long stretches of non-stop whitewater, especially in the last four miles where you’ll encounter notorious rapids like Powerline Falls, Rock Garden, Boat Reamer, Screaming Left-hand Turn and Enema. Catch it if you can.
11) San Juan River
Since not all spring rafting trips are about the whitewater, we’d be remiss to not mention the San Juan River, a classic desert rafting trip that’s at its best in the spring. And what this family-friendly trip may lack in thrills, it makes up for with fascinating cultural history and surreal beauty, hundreds of years in the making. This Class II, multi-day float trip winds through 83 miles of stunning desert landscape and one of the most complex canyons in the Colorado Plateau known as the Goosenecks—a spectacular labyrinth of towering red rock walls. Rapids like Ross, Government and Slickhorn add just enough excitement to the adventure, side hikes reveal incredible stone kivas and cliff dwellings adorned with petroglyphs, and the starry night skies are like nowhere else.
Which spring rafting trips do you chase each season? Chime in below.
OARS contributor Tim Gibbins added to this post. Photos: Yampa River – Colleen Miniuk; San Juan River – Pat H.; Selway River – U.S. Forest Service (Flickr); Owyhee River – Justin Bailie; North Fork American River – James Rodger; Salt River – Mild to Wild Rafting, Rio Grande River – Bob Wick, BLM (Flickr)