Ask 10 river rafting enthusiasts what are the best 10 rivers and you'll get 10 different answers. The fact is, there are so many rivers to choose from with so many different things to offer: all levels of whitewater and calm wide sections in everything from evergreen-blanketed mountains to cactus-studded canyons. So this "Top 10" list is an attempt to sample a little of everything.
This is a river with something for everybody. The Lower Gunnison is a scenic, tranquil float through slickrock, cottonwoods and fruit orchards from Delta to Grand Junction, Colo. Then there is the Gunnison Gorge, which is not a float, but a challenge. When the gorge flows are at their highest, only expert boaters should attempt it. More info here.
This is one of the best-kept secrets of Montana rafting. This fork of the Flathead forms the southwestern boundary of Glacier National Park and, naturally, is glacier-cold. There are calm, as well as extremely rough, sections of this river, the more challenging being in remote wilderness that require carrying rafts around wilder rapids. Some sections of this river are accessible only by plane or a long horseback ride, so guides are advised. Additional info here.
The Rogue River is a hands-down favorite in the river rafting world. It was among the first to gain the designation “Wild and Scenic.” The 30-plus mile raft run of this river cuts steeply west through the rocky canyons of the Coast Range, with rapids and nice camping locations along the way. An especially nice rafter feature of the Rogue is Blossom Bar rapids, which block access to the upper river by jet boats. At the bottom of the river is Gold Beach, on the Pacific. More info here.
This is a kick-your-feet-up-and-relax river. Forget whitewater rapids and bring your fly rod. Rafting down the Smith is more about scenery and catching dinner. The river banks are largely closed to the public, which means the fishermen are scarce and the fish are plentiful. But the river rafting season is brief and competition for permits is high. Stress it now so you can relax later. More info here.
Not many rivers in the lower 48 run north, but this one does. There are a number of sections of the Deschutes River that can be floated, but beware of the falls between! There are two popular sections for whitewater rafting and kayaking. The upper section has the Big Eddy, a short segment starting at Bend between Dillon Falls and Lava Island Falls. The lower section starts at Warm Springs and ends just above Sherars Falls. This is a great fishing river as well, so beware of fishermen. Learn more at Oregon State Parks.
Here's another long river with northward flows. Wide views, ghostly historic mining ruins, deep canyon and rapids abound as this Oregon/Idaho state line river descends towards the Columbia River near Kennwick, Wash. There are wide beaches and easy camping. The lower portion of the river is notorious for upstream winds, however, which prompts some to bring along a motor just so they can finish the trip. More info at Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
For something totally different -- if you can manage to catch it with enough water and are ready for a whitewater challenge -- there's the Salt River east of Phoenix. Instead of piney canyons, the Salt River is surrounded by a towering Saguaros cactus forest. This is a rare gem of a river with a very short season. More at USFS Tonto National Forest.
Not far from the Snake River, and in fact feeding into it, is this great family river with mild rapids that the kids will love. It's perfect for a long weekend float, with lots of wooded campsites along the way. The float starts on the Wallowa River, where it is crossed by Hwy 82, then it joins the Grand Ronde all the way to Powwatka Bridge, almost 39 miles downriver. More info at Umatilla National Forest and Grande Ronde Campsites.
Slickrock, ancient cliff dwellings and red rock desert follow the San Juan River. This is not much in the way of a whitewater river, but it has loads to explore along the way. Permits for floating this river are issued in a pre-season lottery, so going with an outfitter might be the best way to get a spot. More info here.
The upper Klamath is as rowdy as rivers get in California. It starts in Oregon with a long series of rapids before it reaches California. There, it widens and mellows, allowing for opportunities to watch the abundant bird life of the area. More info here.