10 great rivers to get you started

Lora J. Finnegan

Here are 10 of the West's best rafting rivers, along with veteran outfitters that lead trips on them. We're suggesting runs that let you feel the power of the water without leaving you shaken. They range from rivers rated class I (a fast, easy float) to class IV (wild and woolly but relatively safe for aggressive beginners on a guided trip). Water flow can vary widely by the year and throughout the season, however, so be sure to check with the outfitter.

CALIFORNIA

1. South Fork of the American River
Your base: Coloma
Why it's great: The most popular whitewater river in California, with plenty of thrills.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 1/2-2 days; class III
Season: April-October
Outfitters: A, E

2. Tuolumne River
Your base: Groveland
Why it's great: An 18-mile run through an awesome, whitewater-filled canyon on a river that's big in spring, milder in summer.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 1-3 days; class IV
Season: April-September
Outfitters: C, E

COLORADO

3. Green River/Gates of Lodore
Your base: Vernal, UT
Why it's great: Slickrock canyons and fossils in Dinosaur National Monument.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 4 days; class III
Season: May-September
Outfitters: D, E

IDAHO

4. Main Salmon River
Your base: Salmon or Boise
Why it's great: Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area is full of wildlife, huge sand beaches, and hot springs.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 5-6 days; class III
Season: June-September
Outfitters: C, D, E

5. Snake River
Your base: Lewiston or Boise
Why it's great: Hells Canyon, North America's deepest river gorge.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 3-5 days; class III-IV
Season: May-September
Outfitters: D, E

OREGON

6. Deschutes River
Your base: Maupin
Why it's great: Canyons and waterfalls on the sunny side of the Cascade Range.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 1/2-1 day; class III
Season: April-October
Outfitter: F

7. Rogue River
Your base: Grants Pass
Why it's great: Thick forests; bears, eagles, and otters; side canyons to explore.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 3-5 days; class III
Season: May-September
Outfitters: C, E, F

UTAH

8. Colorado River/Cataract Canyon
Your base: Green River or Moab
Why it's great: Technicolor canyons and thrilling rapids; first-timers should go during low-water months
Trip length/Rapids rating: 5 days; class III-IV (V in high water)
Season: July-September (low months)
Outfitters: D, E

WASHINGTON

9. Sauk River
Your base: Darrington
Why it's great: The wild North Cascades loom over a river of deep-green glacial meltwater.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 1 day; class III+
Season: April-July
Outfitter: B

10. Upper Skagit River
Your base: Marblemount
Why it's great: Emerald water, sockeye salmon, rapids balanced with flat water.
Trip length/Rapids rating: 1 day; class I-III
Season: April-October
Outfitter: B

Outfitters to call

A. American River Recreation ( www.arrafting.com or 800/333-7238)
B. DownStream River Runners ( www.riverpeople.com or 360/805-9899)
C. Echo River Trips ( www.echotrips.com or 800/652-3246)
D. Holiday Expeditions ( www.bikeraft.com or 800/624-6323)
E. O.A.R.S. ( www.oars.com or 800/346-6277)
F. Oregon River Experiences ( www.oregonriver.com or 800/827-1358).