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An Expert Guide to the Best Multi-Day Rafting Trips in North America

Getting into whitewater rafting isn’t always easy, but it's definitely worth it. Here are a few spots to mark on the map as the location of your next big adventure

Photo by Alex Dolan

Published on

Overnight rafting trips are an incredibly unique experience. Rafting allows us a glimpse into some of the most remote places and provides unparalleled perspectives as we gaze up from the river at the scenery and wildlife around us. Planning such a trip allows you the freedom to sleep at the river’s edge, flow over whitewater rapids, wake up on sandy beaches, and truly escape from civilization. We get to explore rivers, the veins that carry the lifeblood of our ecosystems over land and eventually into the ocean. One of the biggest advantages of camping with a raft is that you can bring all the gear you could ever need with you. Pack a tent or flop down your sleeping bag under the stars for a night sky so free from light pollution that you’ll think you are swimming through the Milky Way.

But getting into whitewater rafting isn’t always easy. It takes a fair amount of gear, extensive safety training, and most importantly, some really great friends. But it is so worth it. If you are lucky enough to be inducted into the amazing community of river lovers, here are a few spots to mark on the map as the location of your next big adventure.

East Coast

Nolichucky Gorge

Multiple groups of whitewater rafters make their way down the Nolichucky River
Photo by Alex Dolan
  • River: Nolichucky
  • Nearest Town: Erwin, Tennessee
  • Rapid Difficulty: IV
  • Best Time to Go: Year round - ideal temperatures and flows in June
  • Climate: Temperate rainforest
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: No

A hidden gem of the Appalachian Mountains, the Nolichucky has it all: class IV rapids that are as technical as they are exciting, classic surf waves, warm water to swim in during the summer, and remote campsites nestled deep in the gorge. Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Nolichucky Gorge is nestled deep in the heart of Appalachia. You’ll spend time in both the Cherokee and the Pisgah National Forests during a 10-mile float down the river. Once you set up camp smack dab in the middle of the trip, hike up to the ghost town of Lost Cove and look down into a horseshoe bend that gives you a vantage point to see nearly the entire gorge. For unforgettable scenery, take a trip in late September or October, when the leaves are changing, to see a potpourri of colors more dazzling than 4th of July fireworks.

Kennebec River

  • River: Kennebec
  • Nearest Town: Bingham, Maine
  • Rapid Difficulty: III
  • Best Time to Go: May through October
  • Climate: Humid continental climate
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: No

While it may not be at the top of the list for nationwide destinations, Maine is a beautiful state with some amazing wilderness to explore. And if you’re from there, you can probably boast for days about all the places to visit and things to see. The Kennebec River features the only ferry to cross the 2,000 mile long Appalachian Trail, and it is a pretty cool experience to cross it. Lush green scenery gives way to splendid colors in fall. While the overnight stretch on the Kennebec doesn’t boast very intense rapids, there is some great whitewater in the area, especially on the Dead River.

Gauley River

Whitewater rafters prepare to drop down a small waterfall
Whitewater rafters begin to lose control of their raft
Whitewater rafters fall into the water
A story in three parts. Photos by Alex Dolan
  • River: Gauley
  • Nearest Town: Summersville, West Virginia
  • Rapid Difficulty: V
  • Best Time to Go: September/October
  • Climate: Temperate rainforest
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: No

The Gauley River, “the beast of the east,” is valhalla for whitewater folk. For one month of every year, boaters from all over the world come to experience the recreation release from the Summersville Dam. The whitewater madness that occurs during this time is like nothing on Earth. West Virginia holds true to its motto, “Wild and Wonderful.” The Upper Gauley features five class V rapids, the last of which is located inside “The Colosseum of Carnage,” which looks down into Sweets Falls Rapid. If you are lucky enough to flip here, you’ll be met with cheers and applause that make you feel like a gladiator. If you make it out of there and still want more, you can head down into the Lower Gauley for less intense class V fun and more beautiful Appalachian canyon views than your eyes can handle.

Rocky Mountains and Southwest

Browns Canyon

A river flows through a rocky canyon with railroad tracks running alongside it
Views upstream of Brown’s Canyon in Granite, Colorado. Photo by Alex Dolan
  • River: Arkansas
  • Nearest Town: Buena Vista, Colorado
  • Rapid Difficulty: Class III+
  • Best Time to Go: April through August
  • Climate: Desert
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: No

Often referred to as the whitewater capital of North America, Buena Vista is a must-see for any whitewater enthusiast. The Arkansas River offers stunning views and sections of river for all skill levels. The high alpine dessert offers views of incredible rock formation both in the river and towering above it.

Grand Canyon

  • River: Colorado
  • Nearest Town: Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Rapid Difficulty: Class III-IV (although the Grand Canyon features its own 10 class rating system)
  • Best Time to Go: Any time!
  • Climate: Desert
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: Yes

In many ways, floating the Grand Canyon is a pilgrimage for many boaters. It took me a few years just to win a permit in the lottery. The days spent in this remote desert canyon will be some of the best of your life. Time off the river can be spent canyoneering mazes of slot canyons, hiking to the rim for stunning views, or searching for wildlife such as bighorn sheep, elk, mountain lions, or, if you are really lucky, a ring-tailed cat. You can spend up to 21 days forgetting about the real world while exploring the vast canyon and still feel like you want to do it all over again when you reach the take-out.

Westwater Canyon

A double rainbow extends over a river and some plateaus
Photo by Alex Dolan
  • River: Colorado
  • Nearest Towns: Grand Junction, Colorado / Cisco, Utah
  • Rapid Difficulty: Class III (IV)
  • Best Time to Go: Year round
  • Climate: High Alpine Desert
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: Yes

The Colorado River flows through some incredible places, and Westwater Canyon is one of them. This is an amazing introduction into multi-day rafting trips. Much of the trip is pretty mellow and spent gazing up at the jaw dropping red canyon walls. Near the end, you’ll know that the rapids are about to get bigger because the canyon bottlenecks into sheer walls that get darker in color. If you want to take a trip into another world, drive to the desert ghost town of Cisco for some extracurricular fun.

Middle Fork of the Salmon

A river flows between hills
Along the Middle Fork Salmon River Trail. Photo by Scott Hershey
  • River: Salmon River
  • Nearest Town: Stanley, Idaho
  • Rapid Difficulty: Class III+/IV
  • Best Time to Go: May through September
  • Climate: Dry and mild
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: Yes

This trip is rated #1 by many in the whitewater community, and for good reason. With continuous rapids, stunning Idaho mountain views, riverside natural hot springs, and a dry, mild climate it is sure to deliver the goods for anyone looking for excitement and adventure in the great outdoors. Scouting above Pistol Creek Rapid on river right (about a quarter of the way down the 100-mile stretch) will give you a great perspective of just how amazing this river is.

West Coast

Rogue River

  • River: Rogue
  • Nearest Town: Merlin, Oregon
  • Rapid Difficulty: III (IV)
  • Best Time to Go: Year round
  • Climate: Alpine
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: Yes

The Rogue River was one of the very first to be labeled wild and scenic, which means that it was so amazing, the government made it against the law to tamper with its natural beauty. It is a free-flowing river which means there are no dams to obstruct your passage as you float. The biodiversity found here is spectacular. Bears are very common to see in the upper section, and newts can be spotted in most of the creeks that flow into the river. Not to mention, the abundance of eagles, herons, and so many other birds that ornithologists will need to be careful not to leave with twisted necks.

John Day River

  • River: John Day
  • Nearest Town: Madras, Oregon / Bend is a two-hour drive from the put-in
  • Rapid Difficulty: III
  • Best Time to Go: April through June
  • Climate: Alpine
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: Yes

The basalt rock formations that you will see along the John Day River will truly boggle your mind, especially if you start to think about how they were formed. What the river lacks in exciting whitewater, it makes up for with stunning scenery through the 70-mile journey. While the entire trip has been done by stand-up paddle boarders, I prefer to relax and take in the views from an oar-rigged raft.

Tuolumne River

  • River: Tuolumne
  • Nearest Town: Modesto, California
  • Rapid Difficulty: IV+
  • Best Time to Go: May through August
  • Climate: Alpine
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: No

“The T” is a true whitewater paradise. Boasting remote wilderness and technical rapids, this 18-mile section of river packs in the thrills and the scenery into a two day trip. Bring your A-game on this river and rig your boat to flip, there is a good chance of it happening. Flowing from the Sierra Nevadas all the way to San Francisco Bay, the Tuolunme is a true American classic that demands reverence and respect from its visitors.

A raft drifts down a stretch of whitewater
Chittam Rapid on the Salmon River. Photo by Scott Hershey

What did you think of this list? Do you know where you're going next? Are there any rivers you have been to that need to be added? I bet there are! You can click on the link to my expert profile below to chat with me in real time and let me know. I love hearing from you and I could chat about the river all day. Summer is short, paddle hard, and stay safe out there.

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Written By
I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time and countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element, moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. I have also toured the San Juan Islands via kayak, and circumnavi...

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