From white-water rafting on rushing rapids to floating along placid stretches, there’s no better place to cool off than on our mountains’ waterways
– April 17, 2018
Creative Commons photo by jshyun is licensed under CC BY 2.0
1 of10Creative Commons photo by jshyun is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Tuolumne River, California
Affectionately known as “The T,” this whitewater gem outside of Yosemite sets the standard for Class IV rapids. Permits are limited, so anyone who scores a spot is guaranteed solitude in the wild. From late May to June, snow melts in the high country, pumping the river with massive, fast rapids that can challenge even experienced rafters. Hire a guide, like Sierra Mac, who can also lead the way to gorgeous waterfall hikes, Gold Rush landmarks, and secret swimming holes.
Creative Commons photo by popofatticus is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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Colorado River, Arizona
It’s not uncommon for folks to carve out three weeks or more to explore the 280-mile Arizona segment of the Colorado River. As you coast through the deepest portions of the Grand Canyon, you’ll stop to explore fern-covered springs, turquoise oases, and ancient ruins that are only accessible by boat. Rapids vary, but there are plenty of smooth segments, which makes this trip particularly family-friendly. The Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association helps you browse and choose from a dozen-plus tour operators in the area.
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Snake River, Wyoming
There is plenty of action on this 1,000-mile river that runs along four states, but most argue the best section is around Grand Teton National Park, near Jackson Hole. Start with a scenic float from Jackson Lake Dam to Pacific Creek to take in the wildlife (bald eagles, bears, elk), then hold on as the river picks up speed along Snake River Canyon, with Class II and III rapids sporting names like Big Kahuna and Lunch Counter.
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Salmon River, Idaho
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River (the longest undammed river in the lower 48) consistently lands on the top of paddlers’ lists for its 105 miles that cut through nearly impenetrable Idaho Rockies. (The area has barely been touched since it was protected by the Wild and Scenic River Act in 1968.) Rapids range from Class III to V, with the most heart-pounding action occurring in June. Off the water, you’ll be swimming in hot springs, fishing for trout, and hiking around an unspoiled slice of the West.
Creative Commons photo by Keith Ewing is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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Lochsa River, Idaho
Spanning 70 miles in North-Central Idaho, Lochsa is best known for its 40 big rapids concentrated within 20 miles. The name, given by the Nez Perce Native Americans who inhabited the region, literally means “rough water”--it’s that mix of challenging terrain and lush Rocky Mountain scenery that draws thrillseekers (a guide is highly recommended). The river’s ocean-like waves have also earned it a following among river surfers.
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Russian River, California
Those looking to build on their whitewater skills can turn to the Class III rapids that pop up at certains times of year along the Russian River, located about 1.5 hours from San Francisco. But, for the most part, the river attracts daytrippers looking to slowly float or kayak alongside redwood- and fir-covered beaches and explore charming riverfront towns.
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Arkansas River, Colorado
Rafters and fly-fishermen flock to the 100-mile stretch spanning from the Continental Divide to Pueblo in Colorado. A half-day trip on Browns Canyon is a good starting point for families with a taste for adventure. Aggressive rafters can try their hand at the steep and wild Numbers and Royal Gorge sections. No matter where you are, expect to see classic Colorado magic—majestic 14ers, Ponderosa pines, bighorn sheep, and massive boulders.
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Black Canyon Water Trail, Nevada
Just below the Hoover Dam and 45 minutes from Vegas, this 12-mile portion of the Colorado River has smooth, still waters suited for first-timers and mixed-level groups. Beaches are lined with mile markers, so it’s easy to find the natural wonders that make this place special, like Emerald Cave (where the waters glitter to an Insta-perfect green hue) and the Sauna Cave (a 150-foot tunnel with naturally balmy temps). The river’s cool, 54-degree water offers respite from brutal summer days; or, you can plan for a fall visit when the abundant hot springs complement chilly mornings.
Courtesy of National Park Service/Dan Johnson
9 of10Courtesy of National Park Service/Dan Johnson
Green River, Utah
History buffs will love this float through Utah’s Desolation and Gray Canyons, also known as “Deso/Gray.” Stops include McPherson Ranch (where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hunkered down), canyons with native petroglyphs, and dinosaur fossil sites. Once called The Great Unknown, the 84-mile stretch is teeming with flora and fauna—from the green brush that lines the river to blue herons flying overhead.
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Tatshenshini River, Alaska
This is perhaps one of the most pristine and remote rivers around, and cruising through Alaska’s Tatshenshini you’ll encounter glaciers, icebergs, and fields of wildflowers as the river makes its way to the Pacific. The waters are fairly easy to navigate—most rapids are Class III or lower—so it’s really the scenery that thrills. The entire area is designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site for its awe-inspiring vistas and stable populations of eagles, Dall sheep, and grizzlies.