Suit up: The best whitewater rafting in the U.S.

When it comes to whitewater, bigger is not always better. In fact, some of the best whitewater paddling experiences can be had on rivers that barely break the Class III rating. Those who love to run these rivers know the importance of the rush, but also appreciate the scenery, local culture, and accessibility of a river. Here are some of the best US whitewater destinations based on the overall experience they provide.

Nantahala River, North Carolina – Class II-III
The Nantahala is a great way to take on a whitewater challenge suitable for paddlers of all experience levels. After running this lushly forested river in a raft of inflatable ducky boaters can take out at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and celebrate with a brew and a burger at the River’s End restaurant.

Upper Gauley River, West Virginia – Class III-V
Consistently named one of the top whitewater rivers in the US and the world, the Gauley is a thrilling ride. Not for the faint of heart, the Gauley drops 650 feet in 24 miles and features over 100 rapids. The Upper Gauley should only be run by experts or with a guide service. River Expeditions provides guided trips throughout the summer months and during September and October when the dam is released and the river really goes wild.

Arkansas River, Colorado – Class IV
The Arkansas is a popular river, and for good reason. It touts heart pumping whitewater close to a major city, Denver. The Browns Canyon run is the best way to get away from the highway and sometimes the crowds. As the river drops into a gorge it runs fast and narrow and supplies plenty of hair-raising rapids.Dechutes River, Oregon – Class III
Paddling through the white caps of this Class III river will keep one focused on the task at hand. Between running rapids, take a look around and notice the ancient lava flows that carve the landscape. Playful river otters also provide entertainment along this beautiful stretch of river.

Colorado River, Arizona – Class IV+
Twisting its way through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado river is an icon of the American West. Running the river with a commercial service will ensure not only safety but passage on the river. The coveted non-commercial permits are first-come first-served and must be requested at least one year in advance.

Klamath River, California – Class IV-V
Fishing and irrigation rights have been hotly debated on the Klamath for some time. But, what is truly hot are the series of runs that carve their way through the upper section of the Klamath river near Hell’s Corner.

Cumberland River, Kentucky – Class III
The mostly serene Cumberland takes a wild turn as it enters the Big South Fork National Recreation Area. Boats must maneuver around house-sized boulders as the “below the falls” run descends toward Tennessee.

Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho – Class III
The remote location and strict permit system on the Salmon river help protect the pristine wilderness experience it provides. These isolated rapids can be run May through August.

New River, West Virginia – Class III-V
Despite being named the “New” river, this is the second oldest river on the planet. The lower New river has something for everyone, from roller coaster style rapids to the huge raft-sucking holes. Rafters can even pass beneath or take out under the massive New River Gorge Bridge, home each year to the Bridge Day festival.

Getting out of the city and into the rapids of a whitewater river is the perfect way to challenge yourself. If spectacular scenery and the thrill of a rushing river are what you crave in a paddling trip, these rivers are sure to please.