Whitewater Rafting Adventures Across North America
Record snowfall over the winter means serious snowmelt is coming down from the mountains and rising whitewater in the mountain-fed rivers, from Oregon to Colorado to Tennessee. Whitewater rafting season in North America starts around May and we've scouted out the best spots across the country for it - ranging from family-friendly beginner routes to Class V tumblers.
By Lena Katz
Deschutes River | Oregon
Starting from the West Coast, encounter the Pacific Northwest in its summertime glory on a splashy ride down the Deschutes River, through the ponderosa pines of the Deschutes National Forest. Numerous outfitters operate in this area, but Sun Country Raft Tours is a standout because it also offers river tubing, stand-up paddle boarding and inflatable kayaking trips.
Where to stay: Private community Pronghorn in Bend, Oregon just saw the opening of the Pronghorn Resort, a 48-unit residence-style resort right on the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course. After a day in the rough rapids, spend a day on the greens and then enjoy an Oregon summer evening of microbrews and local seasonal cuisine.
Photo Credit: Sun Country Tours
Merced River | California
In California, whitewater season comes earlier thanks to snowmelt that starts in May. The Motherlode region of California has amazing whitewater in several different regions and some of the best rapids are running right now in the Merced River, a "Nationally Designated Wild and Scenic River" (so called because it's undammed) which has a launch point five minutes from the entrance to Yosemite National Park. Destination experts suggest a visit to Yosemite's waterfalls followed by a rafting adventure down Merced River Canyon. Be aware, however, that rapids here are currently classified at Class IV - not for the faint of heart!
Where to stay: There are a lot of lodging options in the park during the high season. The Ahwanee is the crown jewel, of course, but some prefer the gracious and old-fashioned Wawona Hotel near the park's south entrance.
Tuolumne River | California
About 30 minutes west of Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Foothills is the Tuolumne River, also designated "Wild and Scenic," which is particularly known for its challenging technical Class IV rapids. Springtime is when the river is at its most intense, with high waters churning through tight chutes and spraying froth over giant boulders all around. This is a multi-day wilderness rafting experience.
Where to stay: Though you're guaranteed to rough it if you raft the Tuolumne, there are a few elegant-rustic hotels around the region that cater to well-heeled adventurers. The Groveland Hotel is charming, historic and has an excellent dining room. Yosemite Rose is an upscale B&B located near one of the most challenging sections of the river.
Whistler | British Columbia
Just over the border in BC, Whistler has whitewater of all levels, from the "bouncy" family-friendly Green River, located a convenient 10 minutes from Whistler Village, to the dual river experience of Elaho-Squamish - rafters do a section of the Elaho that flows directly into the Squamish, and is among the more challenging rides the region has to offer.
Where to stay: Whistler Village offers a myriad of lodging choices including the celeb-favored Four Seasons Whistler and the landmark Fairmont Chateau.
Arkansas River | Colorado
Colorado is an outdoor wonderland in general and whitewater is one of its specialties. The state has 20 raftable rivers and the season starts in April and goes through September. Of all the choices, we recommend the Arkansas River in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado because one of the most popular sections goes under the Royal Gorge Bridge. This bridge is among the world's highest suspension bridges and a can't-miss photo op. Plus, it connects to Royal Gorge Park so many visitors do a combined itinerary of rafting and park adventures. Royal Gorge Park attractions include an aerial tram, Royal Rush (the highest "sky coaster" in the world) and Wapiti Western Wildlife Park. Another popular area attraction is the Royal Gorge Route Railroad; its tracks run along the Arkansas River.
Where to stay: If you want to stay in the park, the Bighorn Mountaintop Lodge in Royal Gorge Bridge & Park offers comfortable, unique, but slightly rustic accommodations. Otherwise, Colorado Springs is about an hour and 15 minutes away and has two of the best hotels in the state: the grand old Broadmoor and the romantic Victorian charmer Cliff House at Pike's Peak.
Photo Credit: VisitCOS.com
Snake River | Wyoming
The Snake River is probably the most popular summertime destination in the Jackson Hole region, with people coming to run the rapids, float the lazy sections and even do family canoe expeditions. Of the many outfitters, we recommend Mad-River for its combination tours. You can do a float and follow it with whitewater, then wind up with a riverside barbecue at dusk. Mad-River also has a Guide School open to visitors who want to learn water safety or technical rafting skills.
Where to stay: If you're looking one-of-a-kind luxury, Hotel Terra is the newest property in Jackson Hole and is owned by a group of former Four Seasons executives. LEED-certified, sleek, sophisticated and lauded by the glossy magazines, this hotel is 20 minutes from the Mad-River headquarters in the same area as popular big-name hotels like the Four Seasons.
Salmon River | Idaho
Boasting "more whitewater river miles than any other state in the lower 48," Idaho is a frontrunner for family expeditions - especially because so much of its whitewater is rated Class II and Class III - fun, but fine for novices. Leading regional tour operator and Western travel expert Gary Schluter of Rocky Mountain Holiday Tours recommends "just about any stretch" of the Salmon River, from the "big water" Class III rapids found in the Salmon River Valley to the 13-mile Shoup Section. This is also the start of the "River of No Return" and though modern whitewater outfitters only rate it as a Class II or Class III, it was difficult enough to halt the Lewis and Clark canoes back in 1805.
Where to stay: There's not much to choose from for upscale accommodations in these areas, particularly not near Shoup. People rafting the Salmon River Valley often pick the Shore Lodge in McCall on Payette Lake's south shore.
Colorado River | Colorado
Cutting through many states and incredibly diverse surroundings, the Colorado River calls adventure-seekers from around the globe. Some of its most distinctive stretches cut through canyons, prehistoric sites and historic Southwest territory. Premiere outfitter Tag-A-Long Expeditions runs a great itinerary that starts just outside Moab, UT and runs for 100 miles through Canyonlands National Park, eventually ending in Lake Powell. This can be either an intense one-day rafting experience or a multi-day adventure with many side trips.
Where to stay: The Red Cliffs Lodge has been Moab's self-styled "Adventure Headquarter" since the father of the original Marlboro Man founded it and John Wayne filmed Rio Grande. The Lodge is part of the Red Cliffs Ranch, which also encompasses a winery and the Moab Museum of Film & Western Heritage - located at the base of 2000-foot red rock cliffs on the Colorado River bank.
Ocoee River |Tennessee
The West doesn't have the only whitewater in the land, though. Tennessee actually has some Olympic-caliber whitewater running through absolutely stunning Smoky Mountain scenery. Destination experts recommend the Ocoee River not because it's easy, but because its Class III and IV rapids can and have been navigated by first-time rafters numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The technically skilled head to the Upper Ocoee, site of the 1996 Olympic Whitewater Competition - though it's only open a few weeks out of the year.
Where to stay: The closest city is Chattanooga, but for the ultimate in Smoky Mountain luxury, drive to the Knoxville region where Relais & Chateaux property Blackberry Farm offers a pastoral haven replete with epicurean delights and an Aveda spa.
Photo Credit: Tennessee Department of Tourism
Hudson River | New York
Just 3.5 hours from New York City is North Creek, the raftable portion of the Hudson River. This area is often associated with the Kennedys because both Bobby Kennedy Sr. and Jr. spent so much time on the river and Bobby Jr. is one of the most outspoken advocates for its preservation. This is the perfect juxtaposition of metropolis and rustic: the glorious Hudson rushing down from the summit of the Adirondack Mountains, through narrows and gorges - so far from the big city, yet if you followed the river to its end (which you can't, of course), you'd be in Gotham.
Where to stay: The Adirondacks are full of tucked-away inns and upscale mountain lodges. Among the best are the cozy-sumptuous Fern Lodge, a mountain-style resort on Friends Lake; and the Copperfield Inn, a charming whitewashed boutique resort in the heart of North Creek.