With more than 3.6 million river miles, it’s no surprise that the United States has some of the finest whitewater rafting on the planet. From fast, narrow creeks to multi-day meanders beneath towering canyons, America’s whitewater truly has it all.
So which state has the very best whitewater rafting? The answer depends, since “best” can mean a lot of things. We took into account some of the most important factors: How much runnable whitewater a state has (and its variety), how accessible those rivers are, the length of the season, and the quality of the scenery. It’s tough to find a clear winner—after all, the best river is the one you’re currently paddling—but these states are the clear standouts.
Top 5 States for Whitewater Rafting
1) California | Sheer Volume
The Golden State boasts the second-highest number of river miles in the U.S., clocking in at just under 190,000. Of course, not all of those miles are runnable, but plenty of them are: Jim Cassady’s California Whitewater, generally considered the definitive guide, lists nearly 50 runs ranging from the kid-friendly South Fork American to the heart-pounding Tuolumne to the Wild & Scenic Merced. Bonus: In a state this big (and covering this much latitude and elevation), the commercial rafting season is long—the North Fork American kicks off in March, and plenty of rivers are still running in October (or beyond if you’re a private boater).
2) Colorado | The All-Arounder
Gnarly Class V whitewater? Check—Gore Canyon is as wild as it gets. Splashy and scenic? Check—the Arkansas River runs through Browns Canyon, a national monument. Towering thousand-foot canyons? That, too—the Royal Gorge run includes jaw-dropping scenery as well as teeth-clenching rapids. There are also the mellower runs (and hot springs) of the Upper Colorado, fantastic fly fishing on the Gunnison, and the striking geologic wonders of the Yampa River. Best of all, much of the state’s whitewater is ultra-accessible from the Front Range.
3) Idaho | Wild and Scenic
Idaho’s low population density, coupled with more than 100,000 miles of river, mean you’ll find solitude on many of its best runs. The Salmon—a National Wild & Scenic River—runs through the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48 and is home to bighorn sheep, bears, martens, and countless other critters. The Middle Fork Salmon is perhaps Idaho’s most renowned scenic river trip, but there’s no shortage of others: The Selway is incredibly remote, Hells Canyon of the Snake River is even deeper than the Grand Canyon (in places, it’s more than 8,000 feet from river to rim), and the Henry’s Fork boasts phenomenal fly-fishing.
4) Oregon | Family-Friendliest
If you’re looking to instill a love of whitewater in your offspring, Oregon is the place to start. The Clackamas is home to the ideal day trip for families with Class II and III rapids, and the gorgeous Deschutes offers more than 250 miles of paddling on its way to the Columbia River. Of course, for family fun, it’s hard to beat the Rogue, whose moderate Class III rapids, frequent side trips, and campsites ripe for exploration make it the perfect place to bring youngsters (parents, too, will delight in the breathtaking scenery).
5) Utah | Paddle through the Past
Paddling a Utah river is a lesson in geology, human history, and whitewater lore, often all at once. You can trace the paddle strokes of John Wesley Powell’s historic 1869 journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers. Along these famed whitewater rivers you’ll find the scarlet canyons and salacious outlaw history of the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument, the remote and untouched wilderness of Desolation Canyon and backdoor access to Canyonlands National Park in Cataract Canyon. Further south, the mellow San Juan River flows through a fiery red rock maze concealing ancient ruins, petroglyphs and a rich Puebloan history.
Honorable Mentions: Best States for Whitewater Rafting
West Virginia | Rowdy Rapids
For East Coast paddlers, West Virginia is a worthy mention. The popular Lower New River boasts Class I – IV+ big water rapids all season long, but it’s the Gauley River that attracts paddlers from around the world each year. For the majority of the summer paddling season, the Gauley is a technical run with Class I-IV+ whitewater trip options available. For a 6-week window each fall though, scheduled water releases turn this infamous run into continuous Class V whitewater.
Arizona | The Biggest Whitewater of All
Arizona boaters mark their calendars with a handful of seasonal whitewater runs, but there’s no competing with Grand Canyon rafting on the Colorado River, home to some of the best rapids (not to mention scenery) on the planet—the Grand Canyon earns Arizona a mention on any best state for whitewater rafting list.
Photos: Tuolumne River rafting – James Kaiser; Rafting on the Arkansas River – AVA Rafting; Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon – Justin Bailie; Rogue River rafting – James Kaiser; Green River rafting trip through the Gates of Lodore – Josh Miller; Gauley River rafting – ACE Adventure Resort; Grand Canyon rafting – Josh Miller