When most people think about the best whitewater rafting in the U.S. it’s typically the big-water rivers of the West and the creeky warm waters of the Southeast that come to mind. It’s bucket list trips like the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, Idaho’s scenic Salmon River, and the popular Gauley River in West Virginia. Yet, if you’re from the oft-underrated flyover states, you don’t have to go far to find world-class whitewater rafting in the Midwest.
Is There Whitewater Rafting in the Midwest? You Bet!
St. Louis River, Minnesota
Running from the small town of Scanlon near Duluth all the way into beautiful Jay Cooke State Park, the St. Louis features rapids ranging from Class II – V depending on water levels. In the summer months at normal flows, the Upper St. Louis stretch above Thomson Dam provides paddlers with 4-plus miles of fun, family-friendly Class I – III rapids. Later in the summer and into the fall when flows are lower, the Lower St. Louis offers a more raucous and technical rafting trip through a steep dark-rock gorge (earlier in the season this run is typically best for experienced kayakers only). At raftable flows, the trip down the lower stretch features a number of big drops and challenging Class III-IV+ rapids like Twisted Sister and Fin Falls.
Menominee River, Wisconsin/Michigan
On the border of Wisconsin and Michigan near Niagara, WI, the Menominee River offers some of the most exciting whitewater action in the Midwest. While some outfitters offer longer trip options that begin with more mellow paddling and fun warm-up riffles, the most popular run is the Class II-IV stretch between Sand Portage Falls and Piers Gorge, where paddlers will find almost non-stop whitewater. Entering Piers Gorge, you’ll encounter Misicot Falls, a massive 10-foot drop before Volkswagen Rock and the infamous Chicken-Ender hole. From here, paddlers take on The Sisters before reaching Terminal Surfer, a boat-surfing hole that marks the finale of the trip. The best part about rafting the Menominee River, however, may be the chance to double-down on the fun and excitement. It’s easy for paddlers to walk back upstream and tackle the rapids of the gorge twice in the same day. Some outfitters even offer this as part of the experience.
Peshtigo River, Wisconsin
Not far from the Menominee, a 5.3-mile section of the Peshtigo River known as the “Roaring Rapids” run has been a favorite Wisconsin rafting destination since the 70s. With nearly non-stop Class II-IV rapids depending on the season and water levels, this free-flowing river offers some of the best whitewater in the Midwest. In the summer months, outfitters will typically provide rafters with the right gear for the current flows and conditions, including rafts, and shuttle you to and from the river for a self-guided adventure. However, during the high-adrenaline spring rafting season guided trips are also available. If you go it on your own, be ready to maneuver through plenty of rock gardens and ledges like First Drop, which has a curler wave that has been known to flip rafts with ease. Many folks will walk their boats upstream to run this rapid more than once, and even some will throw themselves into the curler to body surf. With numerous opportunities for playboating, the Peshtigo is also a great spot for kayakers to fine-tune their whitewater skills.
Wolf River, Wisconsin
The Wolf River in northeastern Wisconsin is a popular destination for do-it-yourself rafters. The access is controlled by the Menominee Indian Tribe, so permits are required and are generally only issued between May 1 and the second Saturday of September. While paddlers can start out on more mellower stretches, the most popular trip option is the 6-mile Class II-IV stretch from Otter Slide to Big Smokey Falls known as Section 4. Notable rapids here include Sullivan Falls, Upper and Lower Ducknest, and the iconic Big Smokey Falls. Don’t be caught off-guard at Big Smokey Falls as it comes after nearly two miles of flatwater. This Class IV series of drops features beautiful waves and holes and a final grand finale off a ledge into a large pool below where you’ll find the takeout. There are several outfitters to choose from who will provide everything you need to get out there and tackle the river, including rafts, gear and transportation to and from the river.
Kettle River, Minnesota
Situated between Minneapolis and Duluth, the Wild & Scenic Kettle River features crystal clear water and thrilling Class II-IV rapids through beautiful Banning State Park. A popular Midwest rafting destination, it is aptly named due to the “kettle” shaped features that have been carved into the bedrock. Since the flows are controlled by rainfall, outfitters offer a variety of craft depending on water levels. During higher flows, larger rafts are typically offered, while inflatable kayaks and smaller rafts are a better option at lower water levels. At Blueberry Slide, the first notable rapid of the run, paddlers encounter a great series of holes and drops. Further downstream, Hell’s Gate Canyon offers the best scenery and playboating on the river. Guided trips typically end after Hell’s Gate, but experienced paddlers can continue on to the most difficult rapid on the Kettle—Class IV Big Spring Falls, also known as Triple Drop.
There’s plenty of whitewater to be found close to home for those in the often-overlooked Midwest. Paddling clinics abound, as well as numerous commercial whitewater outfitters for all ages and abilities. You just might find the whitewater experience you’re craving right out your backdoor.
Related: Explore the Best Rafting Trip in (Almost) Every State