An Expert Guide to the 8 Best Multi-Day Rafting Trips in North America

Published on 09/30/2023 · 8 min readGetting 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!
Alex Dolan, Camping Expert
Kelly Greene, Camping Expert
By Curated Experts Alex Dolan and Kelly Greene

Photo by Logan Carter

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. In addition to rowing oar rafts you can also participate in multi-day river trips in paddle rafts, inflatable kayaks, hard-shell whitewater kayaks, whitewater canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. 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.

1. Nolichucky Gorge

Photo by Alex Dolan

  • River: The Nolichucky River
  • 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 the 4th of July fireworks.

2. Grand Canyon

Photo by Jim Mallouk

  • 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. May consider it to be the standard for world-class whitewater and it certainly is the most famous spot in North America for a multi-day raft trip. It took me a few years just to win a permit in the lottery for this epic rafting trip. 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, gazing at towering waterfalls pouring through the sandstone, 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.

3. Westwater Canyon

Photo by Kelly Greene

  • River: The Colorado River
  • 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 to multi-day rafting trips that can easily be done in one night. The first several miles of the trip are 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 narrows into sheer walls that get darker in color. If you have a crew of experienced whitewater kayakers (or rafters with a very early start to the day) you could push to do Westwater as a full-day trip instead of an overnight. If you want to take a trip into another world, drive to the desert ghost town of Cisco for some extracurricular fun.

4. Middle Fork of the Salmon

On the Middle Fork Salmon River. Photo by Kelly Greene

  • River: The 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

Located in the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, 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. There are also great opportunities for viewing wildlife and I've been fortunate enough to see river otters, Golden Eagles, and bears on this trip. Scouting above Pistol Creek Rapid on the river right (about a quarter of the way down the 100-mile stretch) will give you a great perspective of just how amazing this wilderness river is. The Middle Fork converges with the Main Salmon River stretch too, and with some permit luck and lots of planning you can "turn the corner" and combine the two trips into an epic, 2-week-long adventure.

5. Selway River

Rafting the Selway. Photo by Kyle Frost

  • River: The Selway River
  • Nearest Town: Hamilton, MT
  • Rapid Difficulty: Class IV
  • Best Time to Go: May through July
  • Climate: Dry and mild
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: Yes

With only 68 available private permits every season, the Selway is one of the hardest white water rafting trips to win. In addition to being hard to get a permit for, it is also a challenging river where many experienced rafters put their skills to the test through several class IV rapids - many of which are back-to-back. In addition to some of the best white water on a multi-day trip, the Selway boasts beautiful Idaho mountain scenery as well as some sandy campsites that are great for a layover day full of camp games.

6. Yampa River

Green River, Yampa River Confluence at Steamboat Rock, River Rafters and Rafts on Beach at Echo Park - Dinosaur National Monument Colorado. Photo by Eric Poulin

  • River: Yampa and Green Rivers
  • Nearest Town: Craig, CO
  • Rapid Difficulty: Class III (IV)
  • Best Time to Go: May through July
  • Climate: Dry, Desert
  • Non-Commercial Permit Required: Yes

This 44-mile overnight in Dinosaur National Monument is a classic and highly coveted multi-day river trip thanks to its proximity to the Front Range in Colorado, its shorter time commitment of 4-5 days, and its shorter season that is reliant solely on snowpack from the nearby rocky mountains. The Yampa is a gorgeous, family-friendly desert trip with colorful, deep canyon walls, splashy rapids, and excellent side hikes.

7. Rogue River

Rogue River wilderness at Rainie Falls in Grants Pass, Oregon. Photo by J. Kendall

  • River: Rogue River
  • Nearest Town: Merlin, Oregon
  • Rapid Difficulty: III (IV)
  • Best Time to Go: Year round
  • Climate: Alpine

The Rogue River was one of the very first to be labeled wild and scenic, which means that the landscape is 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.

8. John Day River

Rafting on John Day River near Burnt Ranch, Oregon. Photo by Danita Delimont

  • River: The John Day River
  • Nearest Town: Madras, Oregon / Bend is a two-hour drive from the put-in
  • Rapid Difficulty: Class II
  • Best Time to Go: April through June
  • Climate: Alpine

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. This is a great option for river runners of any experience level and can be a great option for getting kids on the water.

Final Thoughts

Photo by Martin Mecnarowski

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! Reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert to share your adventure stories and get free gear recommendations. We love hearing from you! Summer is short, paddle hard, and stay safe out there.

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Alex Dolan
Camping Expert
Kelly Greene
Camping Expert
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