If you’re searching for the ultimate whitewater destination, look no further than the Southwest. The region is home to an abundance of rivers that provide an ideal playing field of rapids ranging from mild class II and III sections to roaring class IV and V rapids.
Canoe and Kayak Managing Editor and former rafting guide, Dave Shively, has made a living rafting the Southwest and knows that spring is the time to plan a trip to the region. “Barring some kind of spring snow-pocalypse, snowmelt in the West is happening as we speak,” said Shively. “Now’s the time to start planning a rafting trip.”
Choosing the destination that matches your skill-level, interest, and budget can be tricky, so here is a list of the top 5 spots to run this season.
Cataract Canyon Big Drop Falls- Located in Southern Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, this 46-mile section of the Colorado River offers and excellent cluster of rapids in short succession– Big Drop 1, Big Drop 2, and Big Drop 3. During high water, these rapids run together to form one very large rapid. These class III and IV rapids are some of the best on the entire Colorado River.
Expert Outlook: “This trip delivers it all: big whitewater rapids, concentrated time in the wilderness, and deep exploration into Canyonlands National Park.” -Utah Outventures
Average Cost: $160-$175 one-day trip
The Taos Box- The 16-mile stretch of the Rio Grande, near Taos, New Mexico is known as the Taos Box because of the steep walls that make the canyon nearly impassable without a raft. In the Box, things get especially wild during the last four miles, where the constantly evolving geology combines with a narrowing canyon to create a succession of whipping Class IV rapids.
Expert Outlook: “With 60 rapids, of which 13 are rated Class III and above, the Taos Box is the ultimate whitewater thrill. This is not a trip for small children or the faint of heart!” -Los Rios River Runners
Average Cost: $105 weekdays, $125 weekends one-day trip
Salt River Canyon- Starting in Globe, Arizona, the Salt River rapids are rated class III and IV. The Salt River drops an average of 25 feet per mile for over 50 miles through rocky, secluded canyons known to many as the ‘other’ canyon rafting trip. With Grand Canyon trips booking up a year in advance, the Salt River serves as an excellent alternative.
Expert Outlook: “Arizona’s Salt River has unique characteristics not to be missed. Not only are the rapids exciting, with world class river-rafting action, the Salt River features stunning biological diversity and breathtaking grandeur.” -Wilderness Aware Rafting Outfitter
Average Cost: $130-$150 one-day trip
The upper Arkansas River Valley- This renowned rafting epicenter of the US offers whitewater of every sort– from Pine Creek all the way down to Royal Gorge. There are roughly 60 outfitters in that stretch to choose from, offering tours on anything from roaring Class IV and V rapids to milder Class II and III sections.
Expert Outlook: “Take the Upper Animas out of Silverton– 26 miles of continuous Class IV-V rapids.” -Dave Shively, Canoe and Kayak Magazine
Cost: $100 one-day trip
North Fork Stanislaus River- A hidden gem of California whitewater rafting, the North Fork of the Stanislaus River is located 4,000 feet into the Sierra Mountains in Calaveras Trees State Park. The Class IV River is concealed among the granite cliffs and magnificent redwoods, boasting some of the most technical whitewater rafting in California.
Expert Outlook: “Granite gorges, meadows of wild azaleas and old Miwok Indian sites slip by one after another, amidst big waves, churning holes, and plenty of technically demanding paddling.” -OARS Rafting Company
Average Cost: $150-$180 one-day trip