The Best Whitewater Rafting Day Trips in the West
It’s no secret that you can find incredible whitewater rafting all throughout the West. Idaho is home to some of the best multi-day trips, Oregon owns some of the best year-round runs, California boasts incredible rapids, while Wyoming serves up Rocky Mountain scenery. But each state also has a classic day trip—the iconic one-day adventures that come to mind when locals and tourists alike think about the best rafting in the region. Whether it’s the intensity of whitewater or the overall experience, these are the whitewater rafting day trips in the West that stand above the rest.
White Salmon River, Washington
The White Salmon is the pride of Washington State. Starting from the glaciers high on Mt. Adams, it pummels down a basalt canyon through lush forest before plunging into the Columbia River Gorge. The best part? You can run it year-round. The classic stretch is from BZ Corner to Buck Creek. It’s 7 miles of nearly nonstop Class III action with fun, varied rapids in a narrow canyon. The water is always glacial cold even on the hottest summer day, and you’re bound to get wet on Top Drop, Corkscrew, or Waterspout. Then you’re due for a Pacific Northwest doozy—Husum Falls. This is the most photographed rapid in the state. It’s a 12-foot waterfall with great viewpoints on either side that always draw a crowd. If you survive the drop upright, then you can either take out or continue downstream through the Narrows, a beautiful section of river that was underwater until the Condit Dam was removed in 2011. It makes for an incredible journey that reveals the power and promise of conservation.
North Umpqua River, Oregon
There are 58 Wild and Scenic Rivers in Oregon. Choosing the best day trip is tough, but perhaps no river exemplifies Oregon whitewater more than the North Umpqua. It’s down in southern Oregon, far from crowds, yet Highway 138 provides easy access. There are a bunch of sections to choose from, but for consistent Class III rapids, the seven and half miles from Horseshoe Bend to Gravel Bin is your best bet. The first thing you’ll notice is the stunning clarity of the jade green water where you can spot spawning steelhead swimming beneath you. Next you’ll notice the old-growth forest leaning in. Then you’ll encounter rapids like Pinball, a Class IV rapid that demands your attention as you swerve between massive boulders. It’s the combination of rugged volcanic rocks, an evergreen forest, and rollicking whitewater that makes the Umpqua a treasure for Oregonians. Add the plentiful camping, natural hot springs, and extended whitewater season and you have an overall winner for the Oregon boating community.
Middle Fork of the American River, California
The Middle Fork of the American River is unlike any other. It’s a 16-mile adrenaline-packed roller coaster in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. You start with standard rapids like Jake the Ripper and Guide Slammer until you come to something completely unique. During the height of the Gold Rush in the late 1800s, miners dynamited the granite rock channel to divert the river in search of their payday. The resulting bonanza was one of the largest fortunes hauled from a California river, and the unintended side effect is they created Tunnel Chute, which in rapid lore, stands apart. It’s an 80-foot long Class V chute that plunges into a frothing pool before passing through a 90-foot-long rock tunnel. Count your lucky stars if everyone you started the rapid with is still in the boat by the end. It’s an unforgettable ride that makes this the best whitewater rafting day trip in California.
Lochsa River, Idaho
Idaho is home to some of the best rafting in the West. The multi-day classics on the Salmon, Snake, or Selway draw boaters from across the nation, while hard-charging runs down the Payette and Clearwater test the nerve of experts. The 9-mile stretch of the Lochsa River from Fish Creek to Split Creek, however, is an absolute Idaho classic. It’s a snowmelt torrent that bangs down from the Bitterroot Mountains, and Class IV rapids like House Wave and Killer Fang come fast and frequent with boat-flipping potential, but the main event here is Lochsa Falls. It’s a powerful Class IV+ drop that dishes out the carnage. Every Memorial Day boaters from around the region come to test their mettle during Lochsa River Madness when the river flow is peaking. Huge crowds gather to watch all sorts of crafts brave the falls from the roadside pullout. The roar of the falls, the congregation of boaters, and gorgeous mountain scenery all combine to make the Lochsa feel like a shot of adrenaline to the Idaho boating community.
Snake River, Wyoming
The Snake River is one of the major rivers of the Pacific Northwest. It flows through six different states and through mountains, prairie, canyons, and gorges before emptying into the Columbia River. There are multi-day options along the way, including the famous Hells Canyon run, but for an action-packed day trip, you can’t beat the big water fun of the 8-Mile run just south of Grand Teton National Park. Booming rapids like Big Kahuna, Lunch Counter, and Rope are sure to soak all on board, and at Hawaii 5-0, you might find that rare breed of inland surfers catching a glassy wave hundreds of miles from the ocean. With all the big water action, consistent flows throughout the summer, and stunning mountain scenery, this stretch is the most popular day trip on the Snake. After a day getting bucked around on the river, it’s a short trip back to town where you can put your newfound skills to the test on the mechanical bull at the Jackson Rodeo.
Clark Fork River, Montana
The Alberton Gorge just west of Missoula is a local favorite. The Clark Fork follows I-90 out of town and then the river descends into purple cliffs. It’s an 18-mile stretch with 13 rapids that hit Class III-IV. The Upper Gorge is more mellow with pool-drop rapids spaced by deep green pools. You can spot bald eagles and otters, and there are Montana’s finest beaches for lunch breaks on the sand. The interstate bridge high overhead marks the gateway to the Lower Gorge, and here the action picks up. Tumbleweed hits with its swirly currents. Fang packs a punch with its boat-flipping waves. And other rapids like Boat Eater and Split Rock keep you on your toes. After the day spent deep in the gorge, it’s a quick trip back into Missoula for a burger and beers.
Arkansas River, Colorado
The Upper Arkansas is the most popular whitewater river in the U.S. During summer weekends, colorful flotillas of guided trips fill the river. There are many runs to choose between the town of Leadville and Canyon City for over 100 miles of whitewater. The Numbers is the most notorious stretch, but with constant Class IV-V action, it’s expert only. The Royal Gorge is the best overnight stretch, but for the best day trip, Browns Canyon wins that distinction. It’s a 13-mile Class III stretch through a rugged canyon with huge, smooth granite boulders that make for technical features and powerful waves in its 16 named rapids like Zoom Flume, Hemorrhoid Rock, and Seidel’s Suckhole. Browns Canyon became a national monument in 2015 so you can rest easy knowing that this unspoiled gem in the foothills of the Rockies will remain unchanged for future generations.
Green River, Utah
The 9-mile Split Mountain Canyon stretch of the Green River within Dinosaur National Monument is the perfect entry to Utah rafting. Sandstone walls soar overhead as you float through the lush river corridor. There are numerous Class III rapids like Moonshine, SOB, and others that add a splash of excitement for the perfect family trip. If you stop for lunch at one of the sandy beaches you might see bighorn sheep roaming the canyon walls above. On side hikes you can see ancient petroglyphs made by native people who lived and hunted along the Green for centuries. In between rapids, there are pleasant stretches of flatwater where you can enjoy the sun, idyllic canyon scenery, and mellow current as you go for a swim. It’s a trip that heightens your appreciation for the natural world and whets your appetite for more of the world-class rafting in Utah.
Rio Grande, New Mexico
In the arid Land of Enchantment, there are not many options for rafting except for on the Rio Grande where you can paddle a section known as the Taos Box. Within this 100-mile long canyon, the Lower Box has the best rafting in New Mexico. It’s a 14-mile stretch of Class III+ water. Rapids like Ski Jump and Powerline would be significant rapids on any river, but when you’re at the bottom of an 800-foot gorge in the middle of nowhere, they’re amplified. Spring is the best season to run the Box when snowmelt surges into the river gorge. Even though temperatures can climb upwards of 100 degrees, the water here is always ice cold. It makes for a refreshing escape from the hot, arid desert that surrounds it, and not to mention, the scenery and solitude of the canyon is unrivaled in New Mexico.
Salt River, Arizona
In the driest state in the nation, the Arizona rafting scene is dominated by the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. When there is enough water, however, the much less known Salt River in the northeastern corner of the state provides a unique Arizona rafting experience. The Salt River serves up a 60-mile, multi-day run through the Sonoran desert, and for the best day trip in the state, you can do the first 8 miles of this run. There is a fun mix of nearly eight Class III rapids throughout the stretch. The cold, clear water is a refreshing contrast to the desert scenery surrounding, and it’s one of the only rafting experiences in the U.S. where you float past saguaro cactus. Since this canyon is a sort of oasis, you can expect to see an abundance of wildlife, and other rafters during spring weekends. Rattlesnakes, black bear, cougar and a wide variety of lizards all call this canyon home, and to run this stretch of the Salt you’ll need a permit from the Apache Tribe before you go.
Photos courtesy of: Wet Planet Whitewater, North Umqua Outfitters, James Kaiser, Row Adventures, Zoo Town Surfers, Barker-Ewing Whitewater, Noah’s Ark Whitewater, Wild to Mild Rafting, Far Flung Adventures