Rivers are America’s lifeblood. They provide most of the West’s power, irrigate the country’s farm fields and act as roadways for barges.
Rivers also hearken to something deep within our souls. They cut through the landscape and history in a way that makes one looking upon them feel proud to be American.
The following six rivers most embody America’s heart and soul, and all offer great ways to experience their splendor.
Merced River, Yosemite National ParkWhat makes the Merced a must-visit river is that just three years ago, the public was permitted to paddle it for the first time in the park’s history. The Merced Wild and Scenic Management Plan now classifies the Merced sections in the park as “water trails” or backcountry routes.
Boaters of all skill levels can find a section suited to their abilities, as the ratings range from Class I to Class IV. Wilderness permits may be required for overnight stays, and certain sections are open only when a minimum gage height is reached. Check the park’s website for details when planning your trip.
Little Colorado River, Grand Canyon National ParkOK, this one’s actually two rivers. The small, crystalline blue band of the Little Colorado collides with the deep green and brown bigness of the Colorado River way down in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
You can paddle the Colorado to mile 61 or hike the 6-mile Salt Canyon Trail to see where the two rivers meet and flow side by side until the Colorado finally swallows the Little Colorado a hundred or so yards downstream.
Animas River, ColoradoAs part of the Colorado Watershed, the 126-mile Animas runs through southern Colorado’s stunning San Juan Mountains.
The Animas is popular among whitewater paddlers at high water levels and with trout fishermen at low water levels. The best way to see the Animas is by taking a scenic, historic train ride on the 45-mile Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Chattooga River, GeorgiaThis national wild and scenic river characterized southern Appalachian culture generations before people saw the 1972 film “Deliverance” (no squealing necessary).
It’s a primo destination for paddlers, trout fishermen, hikers and campers. Reserve a $10 campsite at Wildcat campgrounds for some of the most beautiful scenery in the area.
Dozens of trails dot the area, including the Chattooga River Trail and Angel Falls Trail. Horse trails are also scattered throughout.
Potomac River, Virginia/MarylandLook specifically for the Great Falls of the Potomac section. Two features stand out about this spot on the river: First, the long stretch of water above it is flat and quietly slow. As the current moves downstream, it begins to turn, seemingly out of nowhere, into one of the steepest, hardest and most dangerous stretches of whitewater on the East Coast.
Second, the section actually splits Maryland and Virginia. The Great Falls even has three channels: Virginia side, center and Maryland side.
Luckily, you don’t have to kayak the river to see it. A short, pleasant trail from the National Park Visitor Center on the Virginia side takes you to three overlooks with perfect views of the rapids, and if you’re lucky, maybe some of the East Coast’s top whitewater kayakers running them.