White water rafting in the USA

You know you’re on to a good thing when your rafting guide makes a point of packing a telescope. The chances of spotting a bear snuffling hopefully along a riverbank, a condor circling above you, or the remnants of an old pioneer’s cabin in the woods are high. And if not, a telescope always comes in handy at night, when the star gazing is exceptional in wilderness areas entirely untroubled by light pollution.

The USA is one of the best places in the world for white-water rafting. The rivers here, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest, offer plenty of challenging rapids, which you negotiate with highly experienced guides. You’ll traverse vast expanses of wilderness, passing respectfully through territory belonging to Indigenous communities such as the Warm Springs Band and the Nez Perce, and always keeping in touch with nature. And because rafting trips here are so brilliantly organised, you’re always traveling in comfort.

River conservation

But while the trips may be amazing fun, all is not well with these rivers. They face a range of threats, from pollution to low water levels caused by drought, and demand from farms, ranches and communities along the rivers. Many waterways are dammed to produce hydroelectricity, which not only limits flow but puts species such as salmon and steelhead at risk of extinction, as they struggle to reach their spawning grounds.

Our responsible rafting partners support a number of fantastic river conservation campaigns, including Save Our wild Salmon (SOS) which is trying to get dams on the lower portion of the river removed in an effort to improve populations. Caffeine-lover? Your morning coffee will come courtesy of a local roaster that also donates a portion of its profits to SOS. Keeping in mind the long, storied history of transport along these rivers, there is an overarching responsibility to keep them in good health so that future generations can enjoy exploring them too.

Why go white-water rafting in the USA?

White-water rafting in the USA has become immensely popular in recent years. There is the thrill of testing yourself against the rapids, of course and the camaraderie of the group both in the raft and around the campfire. But there is also the magnificent scenery to enjoy along wooded riverbanks dotted with pioneer cabins and between deep canyon walls, and the chance to see wildlife such as bears on the riverbanks and condors in the sky above. And all of it is gleefully shown off through the enthusiasm and knowledge of the rafting guides who steward you safely along, while ensuring maximum respect for the river itself.

Our partner ROW Adventures has been piloting trips in the Pacific Northwest of the USA for over 40 years, along rivers including Snake, Salmon, Rogue, Owyhee and Bruneau. Their guides have an average of eight years’ experience on the river, but many also have degrees in everything from wildlife biology and geology to anthropology. With a 1:3 or 1:4 guide-to-guest ratio, they’ll have the time to show you how to steer a raft skilfully, as well as what that bird far up in the sky is, about the meaning behind the Native American cave art in the vicinity, or about the history of gold mining camps in the area.

“We operate in off-grid locations, truly allowing guests to check out from their day-to-day worries and routines,” says Michelle Darnell, from ROW Adventures. “We take care of all the details and really focus on allowing the guests to be present in their environment and just relax and enjoy their time.”

What state has the best rafting in the USA?

Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington are some of the best states in the USA for white-water rafting. The Pacific Northwest boasts some thrilling stretches of water, including the Middle Fork of Salmon River, Rogue River and Snake River. These rivers also offer some of the best white-water rafting in the USA for beginners, with carefully crafted routes that are ideal for families and piloted by extremely skilful and knowledgeable guides.

Indigenous territorial acknowledgements

Our USA rafting trips pass through the traditional homelands of Indigenous Peoples such as the Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. By recognising their struggles, the displacement of their communities and erasure of their histories, as well as their continuing disenfranchisement, and then bringing these to the awareness of travelers, our partners spur conversation on colonisation and the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the USA and worldwide.
Travel Team
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What are white-water rafting trips in the USA like?

Highly skilled, highly qualified river guides

“We take a lot of pride in our knowledge and interpretation of the diverse destinations we explore,” says Michelle. “We believe that by sharing history and culture with guests, we can add to the enjoyment and appreciation they develop for the area. Our guides share entertaining and educational information on cultural and natural history throughout our trips, and they encourage questions.”

Of course, there won’t be much guiding going on if your raft can’t clear the first set of rapids. So before you set off, and throughout the trip, your group will be given training on paddling forward and backwards, steering, safety aspects, negotiating rapids, and how to get back in if you fall out.

Accommodation & meals

A typical USA rafting trip is between three and six days long, and with up to 13 passengers in a raft there’s a fair bit of equipment and food to transport. That equipment usually includes tents, as most groups camp along the way in remote areas of wilderness. However, if you’re picturing thin, soggy mattresses and leaky old tents, then you couldn’t be further from the reality of modern river rafting expeditions in the USA.

On most trips the full complement of passengers is reached, and a separate cargo raft will travel ahead and prepare a deluxe temporary camp for your arrival, complete with inflatable foam mattresses. Portable toilets are another essential of camping, and they are designed to provide excellent views of the river while also preventing beaches from being spoiled.

As for food, if you’ve worked up an appetite riding the rapids then you can be reassured that a hearty meal awaits every evening. The rafts are large enough to carry along a complete kitchen, with dining tables, chairs, coolers, Dutch ovens and griddles.

“Our guides are known for their backcountry cooking skills and often surprise and delight guests with the quality of food served on the river,” says Michelle. “Almost anything that is traditionally baked can be recreated in a Dutch oven, from lasagne to beer bread to chocolate cake. For breakfast, we may serve French toast, pancakes or eggs Benedict, while dinner favourites include prime rib, slow-cooked pork, and baked mac and cheese. Dutch ovens really shine when it comes to making dessert, with brownies and pineapple upside-down cake among our specialties.”

Fitness requirements

You don’t need to be able to swim to join a rafting vacation, as everyone is equipped with a personal flotation device, as well as a helmet.

As for the amount of exertion required, there are different types of trip available. In the Pacific Northwest for instance there is the option of riding along as a passenger while the guides do all the paddling. If you want to get involved, then go for a trip where you’re rafting as part of a team – there are patches of effort needed but nothing too exhausting. Many people choose to fish over the side between rapids.

The best places for white-water rafting in the USA

Salmon River, Idaho

Ram’s Horn, Pistol Creek, Devil’s Tooth –the names of the rapids you’ll be tackling when white-water rafting on the Salmon River in Idaho cannot fail to inspire excitement.

The magnificent Middle Fork of the Salmon River passes through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, which is one of the largest wilderness areas in the USA. Dropping some 900m over its course between banks densely forested with fir and spruce, the river is exceptionally popular with rafters – there is more white water in Idaho than anywhere else in the country.

This is also the only river in the USA where sweep boats can be used – rafts with blades, or sweeps, at the end of long arms so that one person can steer them. They travel ahead of the main group, carrying all the camping equipment and food. Floating high in the water, the sweep boat’s progress is entirely dependent on gravity and the river current – they cannot be slowed down so it requires immense skill to pilot them. Thankfully, our partners have years of experience on this river.

Sadly, the salmon for which the river is named, as well as steelhead, are endangered. In large part this is due to the number of dams on the river that prevent free travel downstream to the Pacific Ocean where the fish grow before returning upstream to spawn.

Snake River, Pacific Northwest

Flowing through Hells Canyon, the deepest river canyon in the USA, the Snake River is home to some of the USA’s biggest and best white-water rapids. The waves are high-crested, and there are deep holes in places that seem to almost swallow up the raft as you plunge into them. Expect to get happily soaked.

You’ll moor up and camp on sandy beaches in the evenings, sleeping under the stars. Water temperatures are fine for swimming, and you can join a guided hike or a game of horseshoes. The canyon forms a border between Idaho and Oregon, with steep mountainsides carpeted by golden grass and forests of pine where big horn sheep and black bears roam. Otters can sometimes be seen scouring the rocks by the river edge while golden eagles patrol the big open skies overhead. 

Snake River multi-day rafting trips pass through the traditional lands of the Nez Perce Tribe, an area rich in mythology. Rock art and carvings (also left by the Shoshone Tribe) can be seen, as well as preserved homesteader cabins that you can visit to understand the lives of early American colonists. Knowledgeable guides bring the past to life, whether it’s stories of copper and gold mining communities, sheep ranching or the era of steamboats on the river.

What class of rapids is the Snake River, Idaho? For the most part the rapids along the Snake River range from Class II to Class III. In spring, however, as the snow melt runoff increases the level and speed of the river, some of the rapids are classed as IV.

Rogue River, Oregon

Rafting in Oregon takes you along the Rogue River, which flows from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, past California redwoods and Crater Lake National Park. The river got its name from the derogatory term that 19th-century French fur trappers would use for local Native Americans with whom they fought, and who were eventually forced onto reservations, their land rights plundered by European colonisers.

The Rogue River is ideal for short family rafting tours in USA, with intermediate (Class II and III) rapids and lots to do when you don’t have a paddle in hand, including hikes to waterfalls, swimming holes and historic homesteads to visit. Deer are frequently seen on the banks, along with the occasional black bear or otter, while the national bird, the bald eagle, can sometimes be seen in the sky.

You have the option of staying in a remote but cosy riverside lodge every night instead of camping. These locally owned properties are as welcoming as they are comfortable, with rafting and fishing trips along the river making a big contribution to their business. Head torches are handy, as there are no electric hook-ups this far out in the wilderness. Once the generator is turned off in the evenings, there’s only the moonlight.

How difficult is rafting the Rogue River? Rogue River rafting trips in Oregon are ideal for beginner and intermediate paddlers, with plenty of easy rapids that families love, as well as a few larger and more exciting sections. You can either travel the river in a raft paddled and steered by the guides or take the oars yourself.

Family rafting trips in the USA

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is one of the best for family rafting trips in the USA. Kids aged seven and up can cope with the intermediate rapids on five-day trips, while in the afternoons and evenings there’s a wide range of nature-based activities and games to keep them entertained until dinnertime around the campfire. Think arts and crafts, horseshoes, sandcastle building and hikes suitable for little legs – all capably organised by dedicated ‘river jesters’.

Families can also raft on the Snake River (minimum age usually seven), and the Rogue River in Oregon (as young as five). With rafts capable of holding up to 13 passengers, larger families will often choose to charter one all to themselves.

When is the best time to go white-water rafting in the USA?

Late May to mid-September is the best time of year to go white-water rafting in the USA, especially in the Pacific Northwest (Idaho, Washington and Oregon). Melting winter snows mean that rivers are generally flowing high and well, with good water levels compared with later in the year, which can be affected by drought in many areas.

Temperatures are pleasantly mild in spring too – summer can get very hot – but you will still need to wear protection. We recommend river-friendly (reef-safe) sun lotion and a long-sleeved vest so that you can use less of it.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Chandan Chaurasia] [Intro: Ramon Bucard] [What state has the best rafting in the USA?: Vince Fleming] [Accommodation & meals: sean hobson] [Salmon River, Idaho: Zachary Collier] [Rogue River, Oregon: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington]