12 American Whitewater Destinations That Kick Ass, Make Waves

And what to know before you go, from beer to gear to lingo

May 11, 2018 9:00 am

This is but one installment of 37 Things a Man’s Gotta Do This Summer, our annual compendium of everything worth seeing, doing, eating, drinking and generally making time for in your neck of the woods between now and September. Stay tuned all month for more.

Warmer temps have finally arrived. And with them, a few ruminations:

  • That sunlight dappling your desk would look better up close
  • 2018 was supposed to be the year you tried something new
  • You still haven’t booked the annual boys trip, have you?

Killing three birds with one stone: our brief but handy guide to American whitewater rafting.

Inside, you’ll find 12 great destinations (plus nearby breweries for your après), some must-have gear and a few notes on boat etiquette from a veteran guide.

Plus: 25 bits of river argot to commit to memory before you “put in.”


The Nantahala River
Nantahala, North Carolina

Classes: II-III (lower), IV-V (upper)
Outfitter: Nantahala Outdoor Center
Features: Granite and limestone rocks, verdant surroundings
Brewery: Nantahala Brewing

The Snake River
Jackson, Wyoming

Classes: I-III
Outfitter: Mad River Boat Trips
Features: Views of the Tetons and Yellowstone
Brewery: Roadhouse Brewery

The Colorado River
Utah, Arizona

Classes: I-III
Outfitter: Western River Expeditions
Features: The Grand Freakin’ Canyon, overnighters
Brewery: Grand Canyon Brewing

The Rogue River
Grants Pass, Oregon

Classes: I-V
Outfitter: Northwest Rafting Co
Features: Lush canyons, tons of eagles, osprey and herons, and the outfitter does gourmet dining and overnighters
Brewery: Wild River Brewing and Pizza

The Gauley River
Gauley, West Virginia

Classes: III-V
Outfitter: Gauley River Adventures
Features: 35 miles some of the most difficult chutes in the country, lush forests and resplendent accommodations
Brewery: Big Timber Brewing Company

The Nenana River
Denali, Alaska

Classes: I-IV
Outfitter: Denali Rafting Adventures
Features: The tallest Mountain in North America, all sorts of animals, extreme conditions
Brewery: Denali Brewing Company

The Kennebec River
The Forks, Maine

Classes: I-III
Outfitter: Northern Outdoors Resort
Features: Great for families: only 12 miles, and it’s hosted by a great resort
Brewery: Kennebec River Brewery

The French Broad
Asheville, North Carolina

Classes: II-IV
Outfitter: French Broad Rafting and Ziplining
Features: Outfitter has a zipline course, the river is lush and swift
Brewery: Burial Beer Co.

The Salmon River
McCall, Idaho

Classes: II-III
Outfitter: OARS
Features: Swimming holes, gourmet meals and overnighters
Brewery: Broken Horn

The Arkansas River
Buena Vista, Colorado

Classes: II-IV
Outfitter: American Adventure Expeditions
Features: Brown Canyon, a variety of trips depending on skill and time, very experienced crew
Brewery: Eddyline Brewery

The Youghiogheny River
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Classes: III-IV
Outfitter: White Water Adventures
Features: Long season (March-October), in the fall you get great color, technical terrain
Brewery: Hitchhiker Brewing Co

The Deerfield River
Florida, Massachusetts

Classes: I-IV
Outfitter: ZOAR
Features: Tailwater makes for a consistent flow, long season (April-October), beautiful canyons
Brewery: Element Brewing Company


Patagonia Men’s Light and Variable Boardshorts
You’re looking for a pair of boardshorts that dry quickly on the water, won’t balk at impromptu hikes or fishing outings, and can handle low-key lounging at camp. We’ve tested these duds before; they boast a quick 3-5 minute drying time and four-way stretch for getting after it.  

Exofficio Sol Cool Print Boxer Brief
Here’s the layer going under those boardies. Ideal for keeping what you’ve got down there (relatively) dry, odorless, cool … and in its place.

Lifeproof Water-Resistant Phone Case
Look, most of us can’t head down a city block without dropping our phones.  A multi-day excursion full of rocks, trails, and uh, water, necessitates a case up to the task. If you’re extra concerned, consider picking up a watertight Pelican Micro Case. Even comes with a biner for hitching it somewhere safe.

Astral Brewer 2.0 Water Shoes

Invest in shoes that can handle the trip. Those old sneaks in the garage will feel like Timberlands after a minute in the boat. Astrals feature grip-happy rubber soles and completely water-resistant uppers (down to the laces).

Chums Original Eyewear Retainer

Picking up a cheap pair of sunnies should also be high priority, but regardless: a pair of Chums will make sure they’re not saying goodbye forever if you get dump-trucked.

Pacsafe Dry Anti-Theft Splashproof Stash Bag

This stainless steel 4L mesh stash bag is ideal for keeping your valuables safe and dry. And if you’re looking for something closer in DNA to a daypack, we’d recommend the 100% waterproof Helixot.  

Honorable mentions: Petzl Headlamp, Marmot Rain Jacket (yes, even in the summer) and Dexshell Waterproof Socks.

As assembled with the help of the guides at Northwest Rafting Company.

Do … Grip your oar properly by its T-grip at the top.

Don’t … Knock your buddy’s chompers out with your oar, giving him “summer teeth.” (As in, some are in the river, some are in the boat.)

Do … Wear shoes that can transition from water to portage to side-hike.

Don’t … Float along helplessly if you fall out of the boat. Swimming back immediately is essential.

Do … Ship your oars. Translation: pull ‘em back when it’s time for a stop.

Don’t … Be the camp drunk. You’re asking for A) a midnight trip over a tent stake, B) the full force of the morning sun, C) the ire of your fellow paddlers or D) all of the above.

Do … Stay hydrated. Especially for excursions that stretch a week or more.

Don’t … Sacrifice your expensive smartphone for your “dream shot.” Put it away, people.

Do … Respect the bartering system, in the case of a multi-day trip. Forgot the hot dogs? Trade a couple beers to the other camp.

Don’t … Bump into another guide’s boat. You’re not at Disney.

Study up. Nobody likes a noob.

Big water: The heavy, scary stuff. Approach with caution and mind your guide’s orders.

Biner: Short for “carabiner,” and referring to the heavy-duty metal clips that lash pretty much everything to your boat.

Boat: Your vessel. Don’t call it a raft.

Class level: Shorthand for the International Scale of River Difficulty. Designations range from Class 1 (Easy) to Class 6 (Extreme Rapids). Class 1 is steady-moving water for beginners, Class 6 is … a bit of a death wish, even for experts. The levels in between increase in difficulty (speed, obstructions, wave potency) accordingly.

Duckie: A one- or two-man inflatable boat.

Dump Truck: When the boat hits an obstacle and goes sideways, shedding gear and passengers, but ultimately staying upright.

Flotilla: A group of boats floating a river in concert.

Guide: The guy in charge. Hire a good one, and tip him well — assuming everyone gets out unscathed.

Hair: Quick, turbulent water, typically crowned by a film of white froth.

“High side!”: “Everyone to the downstream side of the boat, now.”

Hydraulic/hole: An area of the river where the water flows down over an obstacle and then shoots back up. They can trap boats if overly rough, or act as speed-boosts when properly negotiated.

“Lean in”: “Get your weight in the center of the boat, lest you go swimming.”

“Nice rubber”: “That’s a good-looking boat you have there”

PFD: Your safety vest. Shorthand for “personal flotation device.”

Pillow: The “cushion” of water that abuts the upstream face of any large rock or obstacle.

Portage: Both a verb and a noun, denotes the practice of carrying the boat overland. You might have to portage around a particularly ill-intentioned rapid.  

Punching: Or “punching a hole.” It’s what differentiates the boat from a kayak or canoe. A raft and its crew, working like an offense on the goal line, can accelerate down into a hole (everyone leaning forward, chopping away at the water) and emerge victorious.

Put-in: Where the trip starts. Don’t say put-out.

Rapids: Any area where the river-bed’s gradient shifts, creating a slope that churns the current. Mini rapids are called riffles, which is kind of adorable.

Sandpaper: A section of shallow water that is especially bumpy.

Sneak: To successfully circumvent a difficult rapid or obstacle.

Strokemaster: The paddler — typically seated in the bow — who is responsible for setting the cadence for the entire boat. Typically appointed by the guide at the outset of a trip.

Swimmer: The poor sap who fell out.

Take-out: Where the trip ends. Don’t say take-in.

Whitewater: Frothy water formed by an ever-churning aeration process at points of turbulence (i.e., rapids).


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.