Where to Find the Best Whitewater in the West this Year
O.A.R.S’ 2016 Whitewater Rafting Outlook for the Western U.S.
El Nino may not have brought the West out of the ongoing cycle of drought, but a normal to above average snowpack throughout most of the inter-mountain West, especially in Idaho, means paddlers are looking at a solid whitewater rafting season in 2016. To get the full scoop, we checked in with our regional managers so we could report back on where to find the best whitewater this year. Here are your best bets for prime rafting conditions, including insider info for adventure-seekers looking for exciting early-season high water trips.
While much of the West has grappled with severe drought conditions the past few years, Idaho has fared somewhat better and consistently provided some of the best whitewater rafting in the country. This year is no different.
With above average snowpack numbers ranging from 114 to 125 percent of normal across the Salmon River drainage basin as of April 1, river levels are expected to be better than the 2015 season, reports O.A.R.S. Idaho Manager, Curt Chang. We won’t see epic high water levels, but people can anticipate big rides on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon during the month of June and into July when the water levels will be at their highest. The Lower Salmon River is also expected to see higher flows the first two weeks of July before settling down to normal summer flows. Families and more laid-back vacationers may want to target trips later in July and August, but can count on the free-flowing Salmon offering fun flows into September.
As always, the dam-controlled Snake River through Hells Canyon—the deepest river gorge in North America—remains a reliable and fun Idaho whitewater option.
In Oregon, whitewater enthusiasts are excited for some of the best whitewater since 2010. “For the first time in six years, we’re thrilled to be able to run the Wild & Scenic Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon,” says Chang. But you’ll have to catch this little-known gem and guide favorite soon since the season is limited to April and early May. The window for Owyhee River rafting is based on snowmelt and is often only a matter of weeks, which makes the chance to boat these waters all the more coveted.
Meanwhile, O.A.R.S. Oregon Regional Manager, Kate Wollney, says it’s business as usual on the dam-controlled Rogue River. While there will be slightly higher water than last year, people can still count on this southwestern Oregon favorite for family-friendly whitewater thrills May through September.
On the Colorado River in Utah, O.A.R.S. Canyonlands Manager, Seth Davis, anticipates high water in Cataract Canyon from mid-May through mid-June thanks to snowpack numbers that are slightly above average. Flows in Cataract peaked at around 45,000 cfs in 2015 and this year he thinks it’s possible we’ll reach 50,000 cfs, which means a big ride (likely some of the biggest whitewater in the country) for guides and guests alike. Additionally, one of Cataract Canyon’s most significant rapids has been altered which should make things extra exciting this year.
“There’s a new rock in Big Drop 2,” reports Davis. “It’s not as consequential as the ‘The Claw’, which showed up in 2008, but it may make some changes in the Cat’s most significant rapid.”
A higher water year should also mean fun, reliable rafting for families and first-timers from mid-June well into October.
In the Yampa and Green River Basins, a normal snowpack has O.A.R.S. Dinosaur Regional Manager, Bruce Lavoie, anticipating moderate to high early season water flows. While it’s still too early to predict exactly how the spring run-off will affect flows, Lavoie expects high-water trips in May and early June for the Yampa River with sustained flows through the end of June. On the Green River through the Gates of Lodore, Split Mountain and Desolation Canyon we will likely see elevated flows during this timeframe as well, with possible high water if there are higher-than-average releases from upstream Flaming Gorge Dam.
“If we have a wet, cold spring then we will have lower water flows and a longer season,” says Lavoie. “If the spring is hot and dry we can have a very high water season that is very short.”
Regardless, later in June, water flows will return to lower, family-friendly levels.
After several years of extreme drought, rafters can anticipate the best rafting conditions in California since 2011, especially on rivers across the Northern and Central Sierra thanks to a near normal statewide snowpack. That also means early-season elevated flows are expected on the Tuolumne River—the state’s iconic Class IV rafting trip, which features 18 miles of nearly continuous whitewater through a pristine wilderness canyon just outside of Yosemite National Park.
“Hetch Hetchy is filled to the brim at this point,” according to O.A.R.S. California Manager, Chris Moore. “If it gets hot quick, we’re going to have high water quick…It’s the experience of a lifetime.”
Right now, high water trips are predicted on the Tuolumne River at least through the end of May, with normal water flows returning from June through August.
For the full scoop on where to find the best whitewater rafting in California this season, you can read our complete 2016 California rafting outlook.
When Should You Go?
Folks who are active, physically fit and looking for a “big ride” should target rafting trips like the Salmon, Cataract Canyon and the Tuolumne between May and early June for a more challenging and exciting experience. First-timers, laid back vacationers and families with younger children can plan for fun and steady flows late June through September on these classic whitewater runs.