20 Legendary Whitewater Rafting Trips

by Zachary Collier

Last year I wrote about the World's 13 Legendary River Trips, a list of the best expedition style, multi-day river trips. That post was the catalyst for some great discussions about the most legendary single day rafting trips.

What makes a trip legendary?

The gold standard for a legendary rafting trip is one that is frequently inquired about, remembered, and rehashed around the campfire. The most important factor is great whitewater, but I also considered scenery, length of season, and reputation.

I've attempted to order these from most difficult to least difficult and had to make a few judgment calls that I'm sure will spark some controversy. Cherry Creek and the South Fork of the American River have different styles of whitewater, but they both have great rapids (harder doesn't necessarily mean better), and I consider both of them legendary.

1. Upper Tuolumne River (Cherry Creek), California

Coffin Rapid on Cherry Creek

Coffin Rapid on Cherry Creek

Cherry Creek is the gold standard for Class V and is the hardest section of commercially rafted whitewater in the United States. Rapids like Mushroom (V), Toadstool (V), and Lewis's Leap (V) challenge even the most experienced river guides. The first few times down, you'll probably be scared (as you should be), but once you see the beautiful lines through back-to-back, huge rapids you'll want to keep coming back for more. Learn more about rafting Cherry Creek.

2. Zambezi River (Bakota Gorge), Zimbabwe and Zambia

Bakota gorge on the Zambezi River

Bakota gorge on the Zambezi River | Photo by Sam Swanson

The legendary day section of the Zambezi River forms the border with Zimbabwe and Zambia. It starts just below the famous Victoria Falls, and has 25 big water Class IV and V rapids in a deep gorge that can be rafted most of the year. Learn more about the Zambezi River.

3. Futaleufu River (Bridge to Bridge), Chile

Rafting Casa de Piedra (V) on the Futaleufu River

Rafting Casa de Piedra (V) on the Futaleufu River | Photo courtesy of Earth River Expeditions

The "Fu" is known for its big water rapids, stunning turquoise color, and incredibly beautiful river canyon. The bridge to bridge (puenta a puente) section is like doing all the biggest rapids of the Grand Canyon back-to-back in just 5 miles. You can go past the take-out bridge to add Mas-o-Menos (V-) and Casa de Piedra (V). Learn more about rafting trips on the Futaleufu River.

4. Bhote Kosi (Upper), Nepal

Rafting on the Bhote Kosi in Nepal

Rafting on the Bhote Kosi in Nepal | Photo courtesy of GRG Adventure Kayaking

The Bhote Kosi is one of few day trips in Nepal and it's a humdinger! It's a 12 mile trip with big rapids like Frog in the Blender (IV+), Great Wall (V), Gerbil in the Plumbing (IV+), and Liquid Bliss (IV). Learn more about the Bhote Kosi from GRG Adventure Kayaking.

5. Cal Salmon River (Nordheimer), California

Airplane Turn on the Cal Salmon River

Airplane Turn on the Cal Salmon River | Photo courtesy of Momentum River Expeditions

The Cal Salmon is a stunningly beautiful river that flows between two wilderness areas in the coast range of Northern California. The Nordheimer section has three big Class V rapids surrounded by a ton of classic Class IVs. There is also great whitewater downstream on the Butler section and the nearby Ikes section of the Klamath River. Learn more about rafting the Cal Salmon with Momentum River Expeditions.

6. Youghiogheny River (Upper), Pennsylvania

Rafting Tommy's Hole on the Upper Yough

Rafting Tommy's Hole on the Upper Yough | Photo courtesy of Wilderness Voyaguers

Famously known as the Upper Yough (pronounced "Yock"), this steep river requires very precise maneuvers through tight boulder-choked rapids. Most people take smaller boats like AIRE Super Pumas with 3-4 paddlers per boat in order to negotiate the unique style of rapids. Learn more about rafting the Upper Yough from Wilderness Voyageurs.

7. Gauley River (Upper), West Virginia

Pillow Rock on the Upper Gauley River

Pillow Rock on the Upper Gauley River

The Upper Gauley is an absolute classic and one of the most popular and renowned rafting trips in the world. Pillow Rock (V), Lost Paddle (V), and Sweet's Falls (V) are three of the hardest and most interesting and thrilling rapids in the world. The nearby Lower Gauley and New Rivers are equally amazing (and easier) rivers, making this a world-class paddling destination. Learn more about rafting the Upper Gauley.

8. Wairoa River, New Zealand

The Wairoa has 35 technical rapids including The Waterfall (V) and Rollercoaster (V) in just 2 hours. The river flows through a tree-lined gorge and is dam controlled with just 26 days of water each year.

9. Chattooga (Section IV), South Carolina and Georgia

Sock'em Dog Rapid on Section IV of the Chattooga River

Sock'em Dog Rapid on Section IV of the Chattooga River | Photo courtesy of Wildwater

In 1974 the Chattooga was the first river east of the Mississippi to be granted the powerful Wild and Scenic river designation. Section IV is the last seven miles of the river and has the steepest, most exciting whitewater commercially rafted in the Southeast. In a 1/4 mile gorge, the river drops more than 75 feet through the famed Five Falls: Entrance (IV), Corkscrew (V), Crack-In-the-Rock (IV), Jawbone (V), and Sock’em Dog (IV). Learn more about rafting Section IV from Wildwater.

10. Lochsa River, Idaho

Lochsa Falls on the Lochsa River

Lochsa Falls on the Lochsa River | Photo by Eric Evans Photography

The Lochsa is famous for its 30 big rapids in 30 miles. It has a huge boatable range, anywhere from 1500 cfs to over 22,000! Every year boaters from around the West meet up to paddle there during peak flow for "Memorial Day Madness." The Lochsa is in a remote part of Idaho with no cell phone coverage making it a great place to come for a few days of great paddling and camaraderie.

11. Arkansas River (Royal Gorge), Colorado

The Royal Gorge is over a thousand feet deep, contains spectacular scenery, history, geology, and has some of the most fast-paced whitewater in Colorado. The first rapid Sunshine Falls (IV) is extremely technical at low water and angry at high water. The Big Horn Sheep Canyon above the Royal Gorge (also known as Parkdale) turns running the Gorge into an awesome full day trip. If you are brave enough to put in at Pinnacle Rock during high water you can run the notorious Three Rocks (IV/V), fun wave trains of the Big Horn Sheep Canyon, and the Royal Gorge. When the water is medium or high levels, even the most seasoned guides will take notice. Learn more about the Royal Gorge from Echo Canyon River Expeditions.

12. Klamath River (Upper), Oregon

Caldera Rapid on the Upper Klamath River

Caldera Rapid on the Upper Klamath River | Photo courtesy of Indigo Creek Outfitters

If you love whitewater, you'll LOVE the Upper Klamath. It begins with Caldera (IV+), a rapid so epic it has a brewery named just for it. After Caldera, you'll find powerful and continuous Class IV and IV+ monsters just keep coming at you. Learn more about rafting the Upper Klamath.

13. Penobscot River, Maine

The Penobscot is a technical river flowing through a beautiful granite walled canyon. The big rapids in the upper section are Exterminator (V) and The Staircase (V). One of the highlights is the wildlife and if you're lucky you'll even see a moose! Learn more about rafting the Penobscot from New England Outdoor Center.

14. Pacuare River (Lower), Costa Rica

The Pacuare is a full day of paddling Class III and IV rapids through a beautiful Costa Rican rainforest. The highlight is a beautiful waterfall dropping into the river between Upper Huacas (IV) and Lower Huacas (IV).

15. Paro Chhu, Bhutan

Rafting below a 600 year old bridge on Bhutan's Paro Chhu

Rafting below a 600 year old bridge on Bhutan's Paro Chhu

This is the least known river on the list since very few people are able to visit Bhutan due to their "High Value and Low Volume" tourist policy. However, for those that have rafted it, this river is legendary due to its beautiful Class IV rapids, crystal-clear water, and a memorable side hike up to an active monastery. Learn more about rafting trips in Bhutan.

16. Ottawa River, Canada

The Main Ottawa flows through channels and big drops separated by the Rocher Fendu Islands. The water is warm and has big water rapids like Bus Eater (IV) and the White Faced Monster (IV). The "middle" section downstream is known for Garvin's Chute (IV), a 15 foot waterfall.

17. Wenatchee River, Washington

Rafting on the Wenatchee River

Rafting on the Wenatchee River | Photo courtesy of Wildwater River Guides

The Wenatchee is a big water Class III river with large waves and low consequences in Northern Washington. One of the highlights are views of the nearby Enchantments, a beautiful mountain range with jagged peaks.

18. Neretva River, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Rafting on the Neretva River

Rafting on the Neretva River

The Neretva is a crystal-clear Class III river flowing through a stunning, vertically walled canyon with many amazing waterfalls cascading into the river. It is simply breathtaking and easily Bosnia's best rafting trip in a country full of amazing rafting trips. The Neretva is fairly close to Sarajevo and is a must-do when visiting the region. Learn more about rafting in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

19. South Fork of the American River, California

Rafting the South Fork of the American River

Rafting the South Fork of the American River | Photo courtesy of H2O Adventures

The Coloma Valley and South Fork of the American are the beating heart of the California whitewater community. The South Fork has fun rapids like Troublemaker (III+), Satan's Cesspool (III+), and Hospital Bar (III-) that have big hits and beautiful lines that anyone will enjoy. The nearby Middle Fork and North Fork of the American are also legendary rafting trips that could (and some may say should!) also be on this list. Learn more about rafting on the South Fork of the American River.

20. Deschutes River, Oregon

Wapinita Rapid on the Deschutes River

Wapinita Rapid on the Deschutes River | Photo courtesy of River Drifters

The Deschutes River is one of Oregon's longest and best known rivers. The day section near Maupin is the most popular rafting trip in the state because of its friendly rapids and reliably consistent water. There are great multi-day trips upstream and downstream of the day section as well. Learn more about rafting the Deschutes River with River Drifters.

Honorable Mention

There are a few more legendary rafting trips that should have also made this list, but were left off for brevity.

Washington's White Salmon River

Washington's White Salmon River is one of the best half day trips in the world

Merced River, California; Lower Kern River, California; North Fork of the Umpqua River, Oregon; White Salmon River, Washington; New River (Lower), West Virginia; Colorado River (Gore Canyon), Colorado; Arkansas River (Brown's Canyon), Colorado; Kaituna River, New Zealand; South Fork of the Payette River, Idaho; Ocoee River, Tennessee; Cheoah River, North Carolina;Misahualli River, Ecuador; Kennebec River, Maine; Sanna River, Austria; Kicking Horse River, British Columbia; Tully River, Australia

Putting this list together was a fun project and I did my best to make the most comprehensive list possible. If you think I missed any rivers please let me know in the comments below!

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Author

Zachary Collier

Owner of Northwest Rafting Company, Zach Collier combines international guiding experience in places like Siberia, Bhutan, and Chile with a natural business acumen for systems and logistics. Whether he’s on big water or in the back office, Zach strives to ensure NWRC offers exceptional whitewater and wilderness experiences for guests and guides alike.

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