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List of the Best Rafting Rivers for
Having a Great Active Vacation

best rivers

By Nick Howdy

The stalwart canoe is like the classic go-anywhere, do-anything family station wagon of the '50s. And while we've not included any flat-water rivers or lakes in this guide, we couldn't help but doff our cap to these rivers, which will inspire paddlers of all shapes, ages, and adventurous wanderlust to get out on the water.

Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Maine 

  • The Allagash Waterway crosses eight lakes, four ponds, and the outlets of hundreds of tributary streams. The river corridor runs north and eventually empties into the St. John River on the Canadian border. For most paddlers, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. A night on the remote shores of Allagash Lake, deep in the Great North Woods, is a true encounter with wilderness.
  • Plan on spending seven to ten days on the waterway if you want to paddle all 98 miles from Telos Landing to Allagash Village. This trip is a remarkable tour of both the Northern Forest and Maine history. Along the trip, you'll portage on ancient Native American footpaths, pass rusting logging locomotives, and have the opportunity to bunk at historic sporting camps.
  • One of the best side trips on the waterway is the six-mile paddle into Allagash Lake. The state of Maine forbids motors of any kind on the lake, and the lack of motorboats and floatplanes makes it a unique and wild place.
  • Churchill Dam marks the end of the flatwater lakes and the start of the swiftwater. The Class II Chase Rapids are located just downstream from the dam. Many paddlers begin their trip here, which reduces the paddle to 62 miles and about four days. Ask the ranger at the dam about ferrying your equipment downriver so you can run the rapids unloaded.
  • Camp a night at Round Pond and stretch your legs on the 2.5-mile hike to the fire tower on the summit of Round Pond Mountain. From the tower, you'll be able to see south to Katahdin and west into Quebec.
  • On your drive back south, make a quick detour to Doris' Cafe in Fort Kent Mills for baked beans and ployes. Made with buckwheat flour, ployes are a cross between a pancake and a crepe that are eaten at each meal of the day.

Buffalo River

  • Arkansas's Buffalo River was the country's first national river, is roughly 150 miles long, and includes nearly 95,000 acres of public land along its corridor. Like the Mulberry River and Big Piney Creek, the Buffalo originates in the rugged Boston Mountains division of the Ozarks.
  • Unlike the other two streams, which eventually head south to meet the Arkansas River, the Buffalo goes east where, ultimately, it joins the White River. Along the way it descends nearly 2,000 feet through layers of sandstone, limestone, and chert. One immediately obvious result is bluffs and more bluffs—the highest in all the Ozarks. Other geological wonders are hidden away: springs, caves, waterfalls, natural bridges, and box-like canyons.
  • The 24-mile stretch downstream from Ponca to Pruitt is the star section on the Buffalo, with the ten-mile stretch from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing being ideal for day-tripping beginners and families.

Clearwater River, Idaho

  • Located in the river-rich environs of the northwestern Idaho Panhandle, the Clearwater River is a complex river system that’s notable for its scenic stretches of mostly clear, Class II water. (Water can occasionally hit a higher Class III flow during spring runoff, so more technically challenging for canoes.)
  • The river branches into several separate forks: the North Fork, which flows from near Orofino to its confluence with the Snake River at Lewiston, near the Idaho-Montana border; the Little North Fork, emanating from the wilds of northern Idaho to a final resting place in the state’s sprawling Dworshak Reservoir; the Middle Fork, which owes its existence to the convergence of the Selway and Lochsa rivers, near Lowell; and finally the South Fork, flowing between Red River Hot Springs and Kooskia. Of these sections, the Middle and North forks offer the easiest entryways, ideal for beginner rafters, canoeists, and inner tubes.
  • With State Highway 12 running between Kooskia and Lewiston, there are many easy access points to scenic, open stretches of river. The 64-mile expanse of the South Fork of the
  • Clearwater gets a little more rowdy with some Class IV whitewater in amidst the remote terrain of Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. This section is only recommended for experienced paddlers, however.

Colorado River, Colorado

  • The primary put-in for the Upper Colorado River lies within a two-hour drive from Denver. Rafting, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, swimming, or a chance for pure relaxation attract day users as well as those on overnight trips. The most popular upper segment from Pumphouse to the private take-out at State Bridge is principally for day use. Boaters may continue or initially launch at Catamount Bridge to run the lower segment. Both public and privately owned take-outs are scattered along the river from the Burns townsite to the Dotsero Bridge at I-70. Upper Gore Canyon was considered unrunnable until lately. It is Class V water and requires several mandatory portages. Rafting this section is discouraged.
  • Beautiful Ruby Canyon of the Lower Colorado River provides flatwater river trips for canoeists, rafters, and kayakers. Grand desert painted walls tower overhead. The 25-mile stretch between Loma Boat Launch, below Grand Junction and the Westwater Ranger Station take-out in Utah, is some of the most noteworthy canoeing waters in western Colorado. The trip provides river access to seven spectacular canyons in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Study Area and the river has been recommended to Congress as a National Wild and Scenic River. This area contains the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches in Colorado. Boaters can either make this a day trip or the first leg of a trip through Utah's famed Westwater Canyon. All but experienced rafters and kayakers are discouraged from passing beyond the Westwater Ranger Station take-out. A permit is required for all boating use downstream from the Westwater Ranger Station.

Cumberland River, Kentucky 

  • The Cumberland is actually a river system that offers many options for one- to three-day trips. Think weekend paradise. The Big South Fork is probably the most renowned paddle. This is a near wilderness run through an area protected as the Big South Fork NRA.
  • The environment is densely forested sandstone canyons, lush and rugged at the same time. The North Fork ventures through a spectacular gorge. Boulders present a rambunctious obstacle course. This is known as the "Below the Falls Run," the "falls" referring to stunning Cumberland Falls. Above the falls, the river is swift but placid—superlative canoe territory.

Author’s bio: Nick Howdy is a traveler and survivalist. During his travel journeys, he learned a lot of new things about countries he traveled to. He believes, that easiest doors to go through for happiness when you feel that every new day for you is “one of those days when you don’t wanna wake up”, is to take a vacation and have a good rest. Also, he Believes, that active vacation brings even more happiness then lame Paris journey. On Bestoutdooritems.com, he writes about kayaking, traveling, and other equipment for active rest.

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