Best Rivers to Kayak in the US

Everyone has a favorite river. It could be the one with the biggest rapid, the run that is closest to home or the river that begins with a huge waterfall. Even with so many different preferences, several rivers undeniably rank on the top of every kayaker’s list of favorite rivers.

In the southeast United States kayakers have built an entire community, almost cult, around the Green River Narrows. Few creeks provide the winning combination of easy access, reliable flows and classic rapids in one short, steep stretch of river. The Green Narrows has it all.

Whitewater rafting with kayaker and raft on wild river

Located just outside of whitewater hotspot Asheville, North Carolina, the Green Narrows set the standard for Class V kayaking when it was first run in 1988. Today, kayakers travel here to try their luck out on the famous “big three” rapids; Go Left, Gorilla, and Sunshine; as locals use the run to keep their kayaking skills polished. With mandatory boofs, steep slides and technical waterfalls this run is not for the novice boater. However, it lands on nearly every kayaker’s must-see list.

For top-shelf southeast creek boating, kayakers head to the Toxaway River. Arguably the hardest run in the region, the Toxaway features back-to-back class V+ action. Rapids are steep, fast and often shallow. Experienced kayaker Chris Baer comments on the Toxaway. “This thing is in a different caliber. You go in knowing that it is going to be hard, and that you are going to go really fast, and you are going to drain your adrenaline reservoir. But running these rapids is priceless.”

Just north in West Virginia rests another unforgettable river: The Upper Blackwater, or Upper B to the locals. When the rains fall on just the right mountain range, this small creek attracts some of the area’s most afflicted whitewater addicts. Kayaker Ben Scoville describes the Upper Blackwater as, “steep, but not too steep. It’s a river, it’s a creek. Classic lines. Beautiful scenery. Commitment.”

If traveling west with a kayak on the roof, a boater might as well go all the way to California.

The warm sun of late spring and early summer acts as a beacon for kayakers. Snow in the high Sierras begins to melt, filling in the rivers for only a short few weeks each year. Rarely do sunny skies, distinctively beautiful canyons and crisp, blue water come together as on the Devils Canyon stretch of the Middle Feather in northern California. As a three day multi-day trip this run transports paddlers into a remote, granite paradise with rapids that get better every day.

The rainy Pacific Northwest also dishes out some of the United States’ more memorable stretches of river. Ranking among the top is the Little White Salmon, an action-packed class V stretch of river in the Columbia Gorge. With a more continuous nature, the river keeps even the most skilled boaters on their toes. The run ends with the thirty-foot waterfall Spirit Falls, a sure way to leave a lasting impression on any kayaker.

These rivers, however, do not even scratch the surface of the country’s best whitewater. Smaller playboats make the Upper Gauley in West Virginia a playground of waves and holes. Colorado’s Oh Be Joyful cascades through the Rocky Mountains with multiple waterfalls and technical rapids. The Grand Canyon’s quintessential scenery and overall experience are also hard to beat.

Once a kayaker has experienced the connection to the river, almost any stretch of water could be considered a favorite. Kayakers develop a bond with the water that never fades.

As kayaker Jeff Simcoe states, “My favorite river is the one I’m on.”

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