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10 Best Whitewater Rafting Trips in the US for Beginners

In our opinion, one of the most fun and exciting outdoor activities is whitewater rafting. Families can enjoy traversing rapids with their kids, and more advanced thrill-seekers can take the higher classes. There are various levels so that everyone can enjoy this adventurous activity!

Today we’re examining the best whitewater rafting in the U.S. Whether you’re on the west coast, in the Mountain West, along the Mid-Atlantic, or on the East Coast, these are 10 rivers you’ll want to check out to book your next memory-making adventure. Let’s dive in!

Whitewater Rafting the Snake River | MOTM Vlog #62

If You Haven’t Been Whitewater Rafting, You’re Missing Out

Whitewater rafting is fun because of the adventure. Even if you raft the same river, it will be different every time. It’s fun to work together as a team in a raft to accomplish the goal of navigating the rapids.

While it may sound intense and scary, whitewater rafting is suitable for beginners. While many rivers have rapids, they don’t have to be super fast or treacherous. You can whitewater raft in practically any river with fast, shallow stretches of water. These rapids vary in difficulty, and they categorize them into classes so you can select the level you’re comfortable with. Some are very gentle and safe for all ages and levels while others are so dangerous only expert paddlers should attempt them.

Kids squeal as the water sprays in their faces. The adrenaline starts pumping as you see a rapid approach. Along the banks, you have chances to see wildlife. There are many adventures in whitewater rafting.

The Classes of Rapids for Whitewater Rafting In the US

There are 6 different levels of rapids. These classes start at Class I, which is the easiest with just fast-moving water with small waves. You can float over these, and they’re safe for almost anyone. As the levels increase, so does the challenge.

Class II rapids are still easy for beginners to maneuver without assistance, although some people would prefer to have a guide once rapids reach this level. Class III rapids require good control over the raft as you navigate larger waves and faster currents. Most rivers will have guides at Class III, and guided trips at this level are still suitable for beginner rafters.

Whitewater Rafting: Rapid Classes Demystified

Beginners probably shouldn’t go whitewater rafting on rivers with Class IV, V, or VI rapids. These more intense rapids require some technical skill and can be quite nerve-wracking for rafters who haven’t experienced this sort of activity before.

Powerful, unavoidable waves can throw you from the raft if you don’t hit them correctly. The rapids are also longer and can have obstructions. You’ll need the correct equipment and experience to tackle these advanced-level rapids. Most people never even attempt Class VI rapids.

Is Whitewater Rafting in the US Dangerous? 

Whitewater rafting is generally not dangerous, especially if you choose the right class of rapids for your experience level. In fact, injuries and fatalities are quite low for this high-adrenaline sport, with reports of 0.55 fatalities per 100,000 user days and 0.26 to 2.1 injuries per 100,000 boating days. The most likely cause of acute injury while whitewater rafting is from “contact with another rafter’s paddle or other equipment; the next most common injury is the rafter hitting an object while ‘swimming.'”

Knowing the classes of rapids for whitewater rafting in the U.S. is crucial when choosing a safe adventure. If you’re a beginner, we recommend sticking to the Class I-III levels until you’ve had a few trips. This is similar to hiking, biking, or rock climbing. If you’re new to the activity, you don’t start with the hardest trail or route. You start with the easiest, most basic option to keep yourself safe, learn your limits, and have an enjoyable experience.

The higher the class of rapids, the more dangerous whitewater rafting becomes. These are fast-moving currents. Rivers have debris, giant boulders, and tree limbs you’ll have to navigate around. You could easily get thrown from the raft in Class IV or V rapids, and water rescue could be challenging. So there are much higher risks when whitewater rafting at those levels.

Always keep your life jacket on, even during the most basic Class I rapids. If you’re thrown overboard, lay flat on your back with your feet pointed downstream. This will make it easier to push through any debris and avoid hitting your legs on shallow spots until help arrives.

You also want to choose a licensed rafting outfitter. These guides will know what to do if something goes awry, but they’ll also keep you safe during the ride. They’ll teach you how to hold the paddle correctly, where to place your feet, when and where to lean, and much more. You want a safe but exciting experience when whitewater rafting in the U.S.

Pro Tip: Snooze under the stars while camping in a boat! Check out our guide on Boat Camping 101: How to Enjoy the Best Campsite on the Lake.

How to Whitewater Raft

First, do your homework and book a reputable rafting company. Then listen to your guide. No matter if you think you should do it another way, the guide knows best. They will teach you how to hold your paddle and what to do when they yell “Bump!” They know the safest routes and can avoid problematic areas.

The company will provide all the gear, and you’ll learn how to use it. A whitewater outfitter will train you before you hit the river. Sometimes you’ll watch a video or have hands-on instruction. You should feel confident and comfortable even if you’re still a bit nervous.

Keep in mind that you will get wet, so wear the appropriate attire. This includes closed-toed shoes, and may also involve a wet suit to stay warm. They’ll often give you a dry bag, but you still don’t want to bring anything valuable on a whitewater rafting trip. There will also be moments of relaxation. The guide might even allow you to jump into the water at certain points. But always wait for the guide to give you that permission. Never get out of the boat unless they tell you to do so.

If you’ve never been whitewater rafting before, have no fear. The guide will give you specific instructions as you travel down the river. As long as you listen, you’ll be safe. This is why it’s so vital to book a trip with a reputable company. The guide will do most of the steering from the back of the boat and will ask you to help at times and lift your oar out of the water.

whitewater rafting in idaho
Whitewater rafting is not for the faint of heart.

10 Best Whitewater Rafting Trips In US For Beginners

If you’re ready to take a whitewater rafting trip, here are 10 of the best rivers for beginners. These rapids are fun but safe. However, you’ll still want to book a trip with an outfitter. Don’t jump into a river without a guide if you’ve never whitewater rafted before.

Some of these rivers have higher classes of rapids at other locations along the river. So it’s crucial you know which part of the river is safe for beginners.

1. Kern River, California

South Sierra offers whitewater rafting trips for beginners along the lower Kern River. There are half-day and full-day options where you’ll encounter Class II-III rapids. You’ll enjoy beautiful scenery, have a chance to see wildlife, and even have time to dip in the water. The trips operate March-October. Sometimes they require wetsuits. Participants must be at least 12 years old and weigh between 50-275 pounds.

2. Rogue River, Oregon

One of the best places along the Rogue River is Hellgate Canyon. This beginner-friendly part of the river has Class II-II+ rapids suitable for all levels. Orange Torpedo Trips offers full-day excursions where you’ll enter the narrow gorge and stare up at the towering walls around you. Here you can relax in the pools before you head into the rapids. Whitewater rafting trips occur May-September.

3. Colorado River, Utah

Portions of the Colorado River are safe for beginner whitewater rafting trips. The section in Utah that locals call Fisher Towers has Class I-II rapids, and are suitable for everyone. Oarboats, inflatable kayaks, and paddleboards are all available through Sheri Griffith River Expeditions in Moab. The wide part of the river also allows for swimming. What’s also enjoyable about this outfitter is that they’re very kid-friendly. They offer kid-friendly snacks, activities, and games to make the whitewater rafting trip fun for everyone.

whitewater rafting down the salmon river in idaho
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced whitewater rafter, there is a river in the US perfect for you.

4. Snake River, Wyoming

Dave Hansen takes people down the Class II-III Snake River. The 8-miles whitewater rafting trip is ideal for kids aged 6 and up. There are calm sections where you can enjoy the scenery and wildlife and exciting rapids to soothe your adventurous spirit. The Snake River in Wyoming is a Wild and Scenic River where you might spot elk, deer, and moose on the banks. Trips occur from early spring to late fall.

We’ve personally rafted this river and can attest to its beauty! The water was very cold, even in mid-summer, so we recommend wearing enough layers to stay warm or opting for a wet suit. The river is relatively shady, but don’t forget your river-safe sunblock.

5. Youghiogheny River, Pennsylvania

Sitting in southwestern Pennsylvania, Wilderness Voyageurs takes people on the Lower Yough, their most popular whitewater rafting trip. There are daily departures from April-October. The rapids include Class III, which is doable by people without any experience, and kids ages 12 and up. The 7.5 miles include pools of calm water where you can enjoy the scenery and catch your breath before hitting the next rapid.

6. Potomac River, Maryland

Just 20 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C. is the beautiful Mather Gorge in Maryland. A 3-hour guided whitewater rafting trip led by Potomac Paddlesports is great for beginners. The Class II-III rapids aren’t too much to handle but offer enough for adventure. Paddlers must be between 90-275 pounds. This is a prime location to enjoy the outdoor beauty near our nation’s capital.

7. Deerfield River, Massachusetts

Families and beginners will find the Class I-III rapids of Deerfield River enjoyable but exciting. Participants can enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Berkshires during the calm waters and buckle down to tackle the biggest rapid of this portion of the river called the Zoar Gap. Crab Apple Whitewater has been in business in Massachusetts since 1989 and offers a 7-mile whitewater rafting trip through Fife Brook for people aged 7 and up.

Pro Tip: While in Massachusetts, use this guide on How to Spend a Day in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

whitewater rafting
Always wear a helmet and life jacket while whitewater rafting.

8. Tuckasegee River, North Carolina

In western North Carolina, there are Class I-II rapids along the Tuckasegee River ideal for beginners. With a minimum age limit of 4, Dilllsboro River Company offers family-friendly trips and expeditions for people with no whitewater experience. The season runs May-October. Fans know it as the mom-approved whitewater rafting company. Dillsboro River Company has an excellent reputation for making young children, their parents, and other inexperienced paddlers feel comfortable while navigating the mild waters.

9. Nantahala River, North Carolina

One outfitter that is well-known in this region of North Carolina is the Nantahala Outdoor Center. They have been taking families on whitewater rafting trips for more than 50 years. Paddlers of any skill level over age 6 will enjoy a 3-hour ride between March-October. Riders must be at least 60 pounds. The Class II-III rapids provide thrills, and the mountain scenery is spectacular. There are even calmer floating spots where you can relax.

10. Pigeon River, Tennessee

For 30 years, Smoky Mountain Outdoors Rafting has been taking beginners down the lower portion of the Pigeon River in Tennessee. The 5.5-mile adventure through the Pigeon River Gorge is ideal for paddlers with little or no experience because of the Class I-II rapids. There is one Class III rapid at the very end. Rafters must be at least 3 years old, and the season operates May-October. It’s crucial to note that a valid parking tag for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is necessary. You can purchase one onsite.

Whitewater rafting splash
Make a splash on your next whitewater rafting adventure.

What to Wear for Whitewater Rafting

Wear clothes that can get wet. You may never set foot into the water except to get in and out of the raft, but as you travel through rapids, the water will definitely spray in your face and splash into the boat. Even those sitting in the middle of the raft will get wet.

You also want to wear protective clothing. A long-sleeved shirt with UV protection is a great idea. Don’t wear cotton, as it tends to stay wet for longer which could make you quite cold. Ensure that whatever you choose is breathable and quick-dry.

If you’re planning a whitewater rafting trip in the U.S. during the winter, you’ll probably need a wetsuit. Either the outfitter will have suits to rent, or you can find another store nearby.

Pro Tip: Hit the water in one of these 7 Best Inflatable Boats for Easy Storage and Transport.

What Shoes Should You Wear?

The best whitewater rafting shoes can get wet and will remain on your feet. You don’t want to wear flip-flops or Crocs. You want to wear sandals with a heel strap or water shoes. Some outfitters won’t let you ride without the correct footwear.

If you plan on doing much whitewater rafting, you can invest in special water shoes for paddlers. Stores like REI will carry brands like Merrell, Keen, and Astral, which make suitable outdoor shoes for every activity, from hiking and mountain biking to whitewater rafting. You can also find shoes on Amazon like these Keens or Merrells

Merrell mens Wildwood Aerosport Water Shoe, Black,…
  • Synthetic leather and mesh upper
  • Elastic cord and lock lacing system for quick secure fit
  • Kinetic Fit BASE removable contoured insole for flexible support
Whitewater rafting 23-ft Tutea Falls in New Zealand 😱 #adrenaline #whitewaterrafting
You can whitewater raft all over the world!

Enjoy Whitewater Rafting On Your Next Camping Trip

Whether you’re planning a long-distance roadtrip or a weekend getaway, whitewater rafting is a fun and exciting activity to add to any itinerary.

It’s time to start planning your whitewater rafting trip in the U.S. No matter if you’ve never set foot in a river or if you’ve been tackling rapids for years, some rivers will take you on an adventure. Book a trip with a reputable outfitter, bring the appropriate gear and attire, and listen to your guide. You’ll have a memory that will last a lifetime!

Is whitewater rafting an outdoor activity that you’d like to try? Tell us in the comments!

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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