Top 5 White Water Rivers and Rapids

Top 5 White Water Rivers and Rapids

By Ash Sanders
August 10, 2017 | Updated November 09, 2023

If your last summer vacation involved losing your arm in a major war, then being sent by your government to uncharted territory to run death-defying whitewater through indifferent canyons in a wooden boat that didn’t exactly steer, then you and John Wesley Powell have a lot to talk about. But with all the advances and amenities involved in modern-day river-rafting, you can brave everything from stillwater to serious soapsuds with a Nalgene-may-care attitude. And with all the family-friendly gigs out there, you can even pull it off without your troops staging a mutiny and leaving you to survive on your grit and remaining flour rations.

A little something to know before you go: Rapids are classified on a scale from 1-6, or, if you’d rather, from safest to most insane. We’ll break it down for you now so you don’t have to do the math at the edge of a fifteen-foot waterfall.

Class I: Hey, wuss, over here! Gentle riffles, a little rocking.

Class II: Waves, a little maneuvering and a splash. Canyon cred without going overboard.

Class III: More intense than II’s, less intense than IV’s.

Class IV: Iron your sash and polish your neckerchief slide. What’s the Boy Scout motto? “Be prepared, cuz things about to get nasty”?

Class V: Congratulations! You’ve outlived the basic evolutionary impulse to preserve your own life!

Class VI: Might as well go out doing something you love.

5. San Juan River

In the world of rivers, the San Juan’s your buddy. Your friend. He’s not out to push you. He’s gonna drop a gentle eight feet per mile, but because he knew you in college, he’s gonna throw in a couple Animal House-lite wave runs. You know, to keep it interesting. But he’s a family man, too, now, and he loves his kids — he’d do anything for their safety, so trust him dude. Seriously. It’s gonna be like the good old days. But with more sculpted gorges, rock art and spritely wildflowers.

4. Provo River

Or maybe you’re seeking rarer game: a Robert Redford sighting in the shadow of towering Mt. Timpanogos. In that case, inflate the raft that’s been collecting plague particles in your garage, wrassle the kids into the car, and head down the Provo River, a two-and-a-half-hour rollick that will leave you misted, smiling and much better at running into shrubbery. If you don’t see Bob on the riverbank, staring into the middle distance and sipping homemade tea from a mason jar, you can finish the trip with overpriced sandwiches at Sundance and hope for the best. Just remember to throw an artsy shawl over your kids to blend in.

3. Weber River

Redford? Phsst. You like to kick it old school, with your blue collar popped. Forget ritzy resorts and towering Timp-type things — you’re gonna stick with the Northern Wasatch (NorWa?) and its wooded canyon bottoms. Your kids don’t need to be wrassled, they wrassle themselves, making bow-drill fires and gutting their own trout all along the piled-up wave-fest that is the Weber. But seriously, thanks for steering away from the flyfishers — or, as we locals like to say, "Preciatchya."

2. Colorado River

All right. The kids have graduated. You’re having a midlife crisis. You looked into a Mercedes, but it didn’t come with sandy beaches and star-studded nights, so you’re still on the prowl for the Next Big Rush. Don’t worry, when life gives you crises, make whitewater lemonade, and fling your body down some of the most grisly waterscapes in the known world. Whether you make it or not, your kids will have (had) the coolest parents ever.

1. Green River

You don’t have to be a seasoned traveler to recognize the potential of a river that runs past sites called Flaming Gorge, Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands. Sounds like an incredible board game, but the actual river’s even better. The Daily is great for families; Yampa gets spicier.

Travel Tip: Pee in the River

It might feel naughty, like when you let loose in your neighbor's pool as a child, but your ammonia is going to make its way into the river eventually anyway. Peeing directly in the river saves it the journey and kills fewer plants on the way. As for the other thing nature likes to call and chat about, stick with a groover.