By Larry Olmsted
Ever since explorer John Wesley Powell and his men took a leap of faith into the unknown and made the first descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, people have loved whitewater rafting trips. Whether it’s a scenic float through nature with small rapids or an adrenaline-pumping adventure that includes unplanned swims, there is something for everyone.
Whitewater rapids are traditionally rated Class 1 to 5: Class 1 requiring no navigation or experience, and Class 5 meaning lots of big, continuous rapids. However, in most cases, experienced guides will lead you. If you want a relaxing ride where you mainly take in the views, look for trips rated Class 1 to 2. If you’d rather thrilling adventure, choose those that include Class 4 or 5 rapids. As the numbers go up, so does the activity level in terms of how much paddling you have to do yourself.
Check out these seven great whitewater rafting spots:
Very few rivers offer as much variety in such a concise area as the Roaring Fork, the pride of Aspen’s rafting scene. The Lower and Middle Roaring Fork are perfect for laid-back beginners with Class 1 to 3 trips almost daily from spring to fall while the Upper section has steadier Class 3 water and is excellent for intermediates. Adventure junkies can do trips through Class 4 Slaughter House Falls, also on the Roaring Fork, or try out the nearby Arkansas River with Class 4 and 5 rapids.
Where to stay in Aspen.
Centrally located Breckenridge has five rivers offering quality whitewater day trips. Highlights include the Upper Colorado, a beginner’s paradise where you float through deep canyons carved from high desert with accessible hot springs along the way. Cutting deep gorges, the Arkansas is one of the nation’s premier rivers for big rapids with Class 2 to 5 water for intermediate and advanced trips. The Blue River is closest to town, and fed by timed dam releases, with predictable beginner and intermediate rapids that make it a perfect family trip.
Where to stay in Breckenridge.
Sun Valley, Idaho
“The River of No Return,” Idaho’s Salmon River is legendary among whitewater aficionados worldwide with several forks and sections of widely varying intensity. An hour north of Sun Valley is Stanley, the perfect access spot for family Class 3 trips on the Main Salmon with options for Class 4 trips just upriver. For those with small children, there is also the “Scenic Stretch” of the Salmon, a lengthy float with no rapids at all. Luckily, all three options showcase staggering views of the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains and run through largely pristine Idaho wilderness.
Where to stay in Sun Valley.
Park City, Utah
Whitewater around Park City is generally calmer, and the main attractions are the vast canyons, spectacular geology and excellent wildlife viewing. Several outfitters offer scenic early morning and sunset trips on the nearby Provo River. The Weber River is the other top choice, and both are mostly Class 2. For adventure seekers, the full-day trip is the way to get into the Class 3 sections of Weber Canyon, a trio of rapids known as Rock Alley, Devil’s Slide and Taggart Rapids.
Where to stay in Park City.
Whistler, British Columbia, Canada
There are three main rivers offering distinct rafting experiences within very close proximity of Whistler: the Green, Lower Cheakamus and Elaho-Squamish. The Green, just minutes from the village center, is the most popular with a good mix of Class 2 and 3 rapids that is fine for beginners but has enough thrills for more experienced paddlers. Family-friendly trips on the Cheakamus offer a long, scenic section of Class 1 to 2 water, while the Elaho-Squamish is a thrilling adventure of Class 3 and 4 whitewater.
Where to stay in Whistler.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Part of the Colorado River, Gore Canyon is one of the most challenging, commercially guided whitewater trips in the nation: a 9-mile stretch of Class 4 and 5 rapids that drops a staggering 120 feet-per-mile over the four- to five-hour trip. People come from all over to try this with expert guides (minimum age is 15), but friendlier alternatives include the Upper Colorado for a low-key family float trip, or the Yampa River, which runs right through the heart of town and offers easily accessible intermediate trips as short as an hour long on Class 2 to 3 whitewater.
Where to stay in Steamboat Springs.
Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
Close to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the Pigeon River is the big attraction in these parts and offers something for everyone. Half-day trips on the Upper Pigeon (ages 9 and up) bounce occupants through a non-stop series of Class 3 and 4 water with over 70 different rapids through a 6.5-mile stretch, all with views of the surrounding Smoky Mountains. The Lower Pigeon is much gentler and offers a half-day trip suitable for younger rafters through Pigeon River Gorge with all Class 1 and 2 water – until the final Class 3 rapid. Those who can’t get enough can do both the Upper and Lower, which is a single full-day trip with a break for lunch.
Where to stay in the Smoky Mountains.
Larry Olmsted is a travel journalist who covers many adventure activities, from skiing to cycling, and has done the most classic multi-day white water trip in the world, the Grand Canyon.