Whitewater kayaking in the US

15 Best Whitewater Kayaking Destinations in the U.S.

Whitewater kayaking is an experience you should definitely try at least once. The connection you get with nature as you battle through the rushing water is an intense feeling!

It’s also a great activity to do with friends. Whitewater kayaking with your buddies can give a stronger bond as you conquer the rapids together. Whether you are just a beginner or a veteran of whitewater kayaking, the USA would never run out of rapids to challenge. Here are the top 15 whitewater kayaking destinations in the U.S.!

Top US Whitewater Kayaking Destinations

Rogue River

Rogue River whitewater kayaking, United States

The Rogue River is a 215-mile river in southwestern Oregon. The river is well-known for fishing, scenery, and whitewater rafting!

The variability of rapids classification makes it one of the best places for whitewater rafting for both novices and experienced kayakers. Most rapids are Class II and III, with enough speed and obstacles to keep kayakers alert.

Rapids such as Rainie Falls, Mule Creek Canyon, and Blossom Bar in the Rogue River offer Class IV to Class V whitewater. Paddling between the forested canyons of Rogue River is an experience no-one should miss.

Salmon River

Salmon River whitewater kayaking, United States

Salmon River or “The River of No Return” is a 425-mile river in Idaho. It’s one of the largest rivers in the United States without a dam in its primary downstream segment.

The river is also one of the first Wild and Scenic Rivers protected by Congress. Rapids range from Class II to Class IV, making this destination great for paddlers of any skill level. Near the Salmon River are white, sandy beaches to relax in and natural hot springs to unwind in after a day of kayaking.

Salmon River is perfect for a multi-day kayak camping excursion. 

Tuolumne River

Tuolumne River

The Tuolumne River is a 149-mile river in Central California that originates at over 2,400 meters above sea level in Yosemite National Park! Experienced whitewater kayakers will delight in the 18-mile kayaking route of Class IV+ rapids.

An experienced guide is required unless you’re a professional. Trips can range from one to three days, where you’ll experience the rushing whitewater and calm swimming holes in between. While you may not get to brave the rapids as a beginner, once you gain experience, you should put Tuolumne River on your kayaking bucket list. 

Colorado River

Horseshoe Bend Grand Canyon

The Colorado River is a 1,450-mile river that carved the Grand Canyon thousands of years ago. Visiting the Grand Canyon is a worthy trip already, and adding paddling will make it even better.

Paddling through the Colorado River will give you a new experience of the impressive canyon. The Colorado River rapids range from Class III and up.

A complete tour of the Colorado River can vary widely, with some trips taking up to three weeks, although most trips average around one to two weeks. If you’re looking for the ultimate kayak + camping experience, this might be the one!

Arkansas River

The Arkansas River is a 1,469-mile river with a portion that flows through the Royal Gorge canyon. The narrow canyon walls loom over you and your kayak, creating an impressive sight.

The river is only for experienced paddlers – big waves, steep drops, and plunges await those who dare challenge its rapids. The Arkansas River has Class III to V rapids, depending on the water height, so you must be able to swim for some unexpected flips. Trips can take from half-day to five days.

Gauley River

Gauley River whitewater kayaking, USA

Gauley River is a 105-mile river in West Virginia. Both Lower and Upper Gauley River offer whitewater of Class III to Class V.

While the Upper Gauley River gets more attention, you shouldn’t miss the Lower Gauley River. Lower Gauley is slightly calmer than Upper Gauley. Both parts, however, should only be kayaked by experienced paddlers.

The summer water flow can turn Gauley into a different experience, with daily fluctuating water levels and sparkling water. If you want a unique paddling experience, the Gauley summer trip is the best option!

Youghiogheny River

Ohiopyle Falls, Ohiopyle, PA, USA

Youghiogheny River or Yough is a 134-mile river in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Almost all of the Youghiogheny River is navigable by watercraft.

The river also has rapids ranging from Class I to Class V, which makes it another river that’s great for beginners and veterans.

Maryland’s portion has Class IV to V whitewater if you’re looking for intense rapids. On the other hand, Pennsylvania has the calmer river portions with Class I to Class III whitewater.

While you’re in Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out the Ohiopyle State Park, a perfect place to go biking, hiking, and camping too! 

Deerfield River

Bue heron

Deerfield River is a 76-mile river that ends in the Connecticut River. The river has numerous dams, dividing it into many portions.

A 17-mile river stretch from Fife Brook Dam to Number 4 dam is very popular for whitewater paddlers. That river portion offers Class II to IV rapids and a gorgeous view! Wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy the Zoar Gap section.

As you paddle through Class III+ rapids, bald eagles, beavers, red-tailed hawks, blue herons, and other animals can be seen from the shore.  

White Salmon River

White Salmon River is a 44-mile river in Washington. The upper portions of the river have challenging Class V stretches.

Most tours take you through the Middle White Salmon River which has Class III to Class IV rapids. The lower portion of this river has been designated as a Wild and Scenic River and is also the calmest part, with Class II to Class III rapids.

No matter which section of the river you go to, you can be sure to have a great time! White Salmon River trips take around from half-day to one day.

Potomac River

Potomac River

The Potomac River is a 405-mile river along the East Coast. The rapids in the Potomac River range from Class I to Class V+. Most tours will cover rapids ranging from Class I to Class III.

Kayaking the Potomac River can be a fun afternoon trip, with some taking around one to two hours. Some companies there offer whitewater kayaking lessons for beginners. Learning whitewater kayaking might be a good family outing! If you want to learn the basics of whitewater kayaking, perhaps check the Potomac River out.

Kern River

Kern River

Kern River is a 165-mile Wild and Scenic River in California. If you like kayaking and want to see the breathtaking Sequoia National Forest, the Kern River is the place to paddle.

There are many trips for both beginners and advanced kayakers. Some outfitters also offer beginner kayaking courses. The river offers Class II to Class IV rapids. The Class IV rapids make Kern River a popular whitewater kayaking destination. Trips can range from a few hours to two days. 

Kayaking and visiting the Sequoia National Forest — what more do you need on a trip?

Chattooga River

Chattooga River is the main tributary of the Tugaloo River in North Carolina. It’s also a designated Wild and Scenic River, so you can expect the landscape and wildlife to be gorgeous. The lush greenery and isolated nature (no motorized vehicles are allowed within a quarter-mile of the river) while kayaking is a sight to see!

Whitewater rapids on the river range from Class II to Class IV. The river is sectioned into three rapid classes, so beginners and advanced kayakers will find a part of the river for them! You can expect both day trips and overnight trips to the Chattooga River.

For overnight trips, be sure to pack extra kayak lights in case the existing mounted kayak lights dim out or get damaged by hard objects.

Snake River

Snake River USA

Snake River is a 1078-mile river and the largest tributary of the Columbia River. Kayaking the Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming is a great family experience.

An 8-mile stretch of this river offers Class II to Class III whitewater and the lush forest scenery of the Teton Range! You will also be able to spot eagles nesting as you go through the fun rapids. The Big Kahuna, Lunch Counter, and Champagne are the popular rapids in Snake River, with trips taking around four hours. 

Nenana River

Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska

Nenana River is a 140-mile river that flows through the Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The scenery and wildlife of the Nenana River are something everyone needs to see.

More experienced kayakers can paddle through the Nenana River Gorge. The gorge is 10 miles of Class IV whitewater between steep canyons. You will find wild sheep and nesting golden eagles along the way!

The outside of the river gorge provides Class I to Class III whitewater for families and beginners. While paddling, you might be able to see moose, bears, and wolves. Paddlers who are also animal enthusiasts should not miss this one out!

Kennebec River

Kennebec River is a 170-mile river in Maine. It is also home to 11 native sea-run fish. This river is the most popular whitewater destination in Maine! It offers Class II to Class IV rapids, with Big Mama and Magic Falls being the most popular rapids.

Trips start below Maine’s largest hydroelectric dam, Harris Station. Once you launch, you’ll be in for a great time as you paddle down 12 miles of river! Trips usually take around four and a half hours.

A Final Word…

If you’re traveling the U.S. looking for a great place to experience whitewater rapids, check these places out! You can also go and search for kayaking near me locations. The U.S. has many rivers to go whitewater kayaking, ranging from beginner-friendly to advanced. When you are just starting out, remember that you have nothing to prove if you want to stick to the lower classes. Go paddling for your enjoyment and prioritize safety at all times! 

FAQs About Whitewater Kayaking, Answered

What are the whitewater grades?

Whitewater grades go from  I to VI, with difficulty increasing from Class I through Class VI. 
Class I and II are good places to start learning whitewater kayaking. They have small waves and a few riffles, though they still require some maneuvering. 
Class III and IV are for those with previous whitewater experience and skills. The passages get narrower, and the waves get higher. Class IV routes need more complex maneuvering and sometimes even scouting. 
Class V and VI routes are the hardest, with rough rapids and congested portions. Making a mistake in classes V and VI have a real risk to your life. 

What is the difference between a recreational kayak and a whitewater kayak?

recreational kayaks have rounded hulls that are designed for stability and ease of paddling on flat water or lakes.

Can you use inflatable kayaks for whitewater kayaking?

inflatable kayaks bounce off rocks is helpful for beginners. They are also generally more stable than hard-shell kayaks. A high-quality inflatable whitewater kayak can handle up to Class IV rapids! Grab the best inflatable kayak now and have fun!

How do I choose the right whitewater kayak for me?

Whitewater kayaks come in three types: playboats, river runners, and creekers. Your purpose and the rapid’s classification are the primary considerations when choosing a whitewater kayak.
Play boats will work for calmer rivers with some class II waves and if you want to perform tricks. For more intense rapids, you might need a creeker. When in doubt, river runners, the solid middle ground for whitewater kayaking, are a safe choice!

What kind of whitewater paddle should I choose?

Choose a paddle that allows you to give your best without overexerting yourself! Paddles with straight shafts weigh lighter and cost less, making them a common choice for whitewater enthusiasts. A bent shaft is most suitable for those who have wrist problems. 
Consider also the blade shape. Paddles with more surface area at the upper tip provide more power and are more efficient. On the other hand,  paddles with more surface area below the centerline of the paddle provide better maneuverability and control. 

What are the top skills you need for whitewater kayaking?

n addition to being able to comfortably maneuver your kayak by yourself, you should master how to roll your kayak. Due to the unpredictability of whitewater, getting your kayak flipped is inevitable. Learning how to roll to rebalance your kayak will save you from the risks of having to swim through whitewater. The C-to-C and sweep rolls are the most basic roll techniques you should learn. 

What gear do I need for whitewater kayaking?

Aside from the right kayak and paddle, a helmet, a PFD, and a sprayskirt are the other whitewater kayaking essentials. A good whitewater helmet will protect your head from any dangerous rocks or logs if you capsize. For PFD, you will need a Type III or V PFDs in compliance with the U.S. Coast Guard requirements. Lastly, having a sprayskirt will keep the splashes of water out of your kayak.

What is the difference between whitewater kayaking and whitewater rafting?

Whitewater kayaking is an activity for up to two people only, which requires more skill than whitewater rafting. In whitewater rafting, a group of up to 10 people braves the rough waters, where each member assists in paddling and more skilled rafters can support the less experienced rafters.

Is whitewater kayaking dangerous?

Kayaking, like all extreme sports, has its risks and dangers. Accidents during whitewater paddling are uncommon,  with fatalities occurring at a rate of 2.9 deaths per 100,000 participants per year and injuries occurring at 3 to 6 injuries per 100,000 kayaking days. These rates are lower than that of scuba diving and rock climbing. Most injuries occur when kayakers get hit by objects while swimming or when the high water impact hits the upper extremities. 

What should I wear while whitewater kayaking?

Wear clothes that would keep you warm, light, and dry. A dry suit or quick-dry bathing suits are perfect for warm weather conditions. For rafting in cold weather, wear a wetsuit, synthetic layers under the wetsuit, and river shoes. In any case, do not wear cotton! Cotton absorbs your sweat and water, which increases body heat release. Also, it does not dry quickly. 

Should I go whitewater kayaking?

While you already have paddling experience in flat water, it is safer to hire a trainer to teach you the nuances of whitewater kayaking. Then, start practicing! Acclimatize yourself first with Class I and Class II rivers before moving on to rougher waters.

 Written by Julien

Julien is an adventure travel enthusiast who loves any outdoor activities. He has been into mountaineering, paddling, diving, trekking, cycling, snorkeling, and more. His fun-filled experiences with the great outdoors fueled him to launch XtremeSport4u.

Other USA posts to check out:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top