Best River Trips in America

Featured Article, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal, Travel Destinations
on April 23, 2013
Courtesy of Wild West Rafting Linda Neeley (center) and a boatload of her family members raft the Yellowstone River in Montana. The Yellowstone rises in northwestern Wyoming, flows 692 miles and is the longest undammed river in the contiguous United States.

The best river trip is the one that you take.

Millions of miles of rivers and streams flow across America, from the gently moving Niobrara River in Nebraska to the roaring whitewater of the Gauley River in West Virginia, beckoning canoeists, kayakers and whitewater rafters. Leisurely rivers for floating abound in every state, while whitewater adventures are abundant in the mountainous states.

“In upstate New York, New Hampshire and Maine, it’s not uncommon to float a section of river that’s leisurely and the next section of river has rapids and waterfalls,” says Todd Ambs, 53, president of River Network, a conservation organization based in Portland, Ore.

The Penobscot River in Maine, the Green River in Vermont and the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania, for example, offer both ripples and rapids.

Across the West, whitewater enthusiasts thrill to the roar of the Middle Fork of the American River in California, the Colorado River as it rushes through the Grand Canyon, and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River that snakes through the Idaho wilderness.

The southeastern United States boasts rivers with the greatest biodiversity. Among the showplaces for a vast array of plant and animal life are the Upper Chattahoochee River in Georgia, the Suwannee River in Florida and the Cahaba River in Alabama, which is famous for its rare Cahaba lilies.

“People come from far and wide to float the river just to see the beautiful white blossoms,” Ambs says.

A pristine paddle

Chris Paul leisurely paddles his canoe through the sparkling water of the Namekagon River, flanked by the balsam fir and pine forests that blanket northwest Wisconsin.

“Look! There are some loons off to the left,” says Paul, 53, nodding toward a pair of black-headed birds bobbing in the water near the riverbank.

Along the serene stretch of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, the stirrings of wildlife attract his attention, whether it’s a wispy dragonfly skittering across the water or a monster muskellunge swimming beneath the boat.

Last spring, Paul, of Osceola, Wis., and 50 other paddlers enjoyed a weeklong, 92-mile trip organized by the Saint Croix River Association, leaving their workday worries behind while basking in the pristine beauty of the river.

“I’ve seen multiple eagles,” says Paul’s wife, Mary, 50. “I haven’t been lucky enough to see an otter yet, but you never know what’s around the next corner. That’s part of the fun.”

Floating down the scenic river can be a life-changing experience, says Deb Ryun, 55, president of the 102-year-old Saint Croix River Association.

“By the end of a paddle, your mind clears and you put things in perspective,” Ryun says. “Big issues become little issues when you have time to reflect.”

Ripples to rapids

Depending on the river and boat you float, paddlers can mosey downstream at 2 miles per hour or run rabid rapids in heart-pounding seconds. Outfitters offer gear, guides and how-to information on hundreds of recreational rivers nationwide.

At Glidden Canoe Rental in Mullen, Neb., Mitch Glidden rents round metal livestock tanks, outfitted with benches, for drifting the Middle Loup River.

“The tanks are real stable. I’ve had babies and a 97-year-old woman go tanking,” says Glidden, 53. “People bring coolers and lunch. It’s like a floating picnic.”

Peggy Bostron, 70, of Mullen, can’t swim and was too scared to take a float trip until she shoved off in a stock tank surrounded by her children, grandchildren and Border collie, Sophie.

“You can’t tip those over,” she says about the 9-foot-diameter tanks. “It’s fun for everyone.”

More adventurous “river rats” raft the Yellowstone River—the longest undammed river in the contiguous United States—with Wild West Rafting in Gardiner, Mont.

“This is a great river for first-time rafters,” says owner Mike Barlow, 48, a river guide since 1994. “We have Class II and III rapids, which is right in the middle. It’s high rollercoaster waves where you get soaking wet, but have a lot of fun.”

While rafting the Yellowstone, paddlers might see elk, pronghorn antelope, buffalo, beaver and bears. “And as you’re traveling, you’re looking up at snow-capped peaks and pine forests,” Barlow says.

Linda Neeley, 50, of Tyler, Texas, screamed and white-knuckled her paddle last spring when she rafted the Yellowstone with a boatload of her family members.

“I was scared to death,” Neeley says of her first whitewater adventure. “We’d go in these giant holes in the water that would drench everyone in the boat. It was such a rush and great fun.”

While rafting the Yellowstone, paddlers often see elk, pronghorn antelope, buffalo, beaver and bears. “And as you’re traveling, you’re looking up at snow-capped peaks and pine forests,” Barlow says.

Rafting trips are popular family activities, according to Brad Niva, 43, owner of Rogue Wilderness Adventures in Merlin, Ore. Eight or more people can ride in a large inflatable raft, which a guide steers from the back as he directs paddlers.

“The Rogue River offers a glimpse of old-growth forest,” says Niva about the guided trips on one of the first federally designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers. “You see osprey, river otters and turtles playing. It’s a day when you get to clock out, take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.”

Ride on the wild side

While rafting is ideal for beginning paddlers, kayaking requires training and skill to maneuver a small, single-person craft through raging rapids and around logs and boulders, says Leland Davis, 40, an avid kayaker and co-author with wife, Andria, of “The River Gypsies’ Guide to North America—A Whitewater Travel Guide” to 294 of the Continent’s Best Rivers.

“I like interacting with a moving power of nature that is so powerful and beautiful,” says Davis, of Swannanoa, N.C. “Unlike going for a hike or a rock climb, kayaking is with a moving medium that allows you to dance with it.”

Some of Davis’ favorite whitewater rivers include the Upper Youghiogheny in Maryland, the Arkansas River in Colorado and the South Fork of the American River in California. The tallest waterfall that he’s kayaked over is 80-foot Metlako Falls on Oregon’s Eagle Creek.

While few paddlers will attempt such a daring plunge, Davis says there’s a river trip to suit almost everyone.

“If you could be outdoors in a beautiful wild place and riding a rollercoaster at the same time,” he muses, “wouldn’t you want to try?”