Written by 7:02 am kayaks

Top 10 Best River Kayaking Trips In the USA

We all know about the Grand kayaks, Middle Forks and Selways of the world. To a lesser degree, we also know about the Salts, Chamas, Yampas and Greens. What we’re not familiar with are the lesser-known multi-day kayak trips that can be found throughout the West, where permits aren’t an issue, and rangers and regulations are scarce. Consider the following a primer for 10 spots to wet your paddles without the hordes.

1. Labyrinth / Stillwater Kayaks, Green River, Utah

You won’t find a better place to get in touch with your inner Edward Abbey than a multi-day float through the Green River’s Labyrinth and Stillwater kayaks. Non-permitted for 68 miles from the put-in at Green River, Utah, to Mineral Bottom–and permitted, but without any use limits or fees, for another 52 miles from Mineral Bottom to its confluence with the Colorado–this section of the Green offers 120 miles of rock-strewn splendor in which to immerse your soul in desert wilderness. Though it’s as flat as the mesas atop the kayak cliffs, averaging a gradient of only 1.5 feet per mile, the run is popular among canoeists, sea kayakers and rafters looking to lose themselves in kayak country.

The kayaks were named by John Wesley Powell during his journey in 1869, and the reason behind their monikers still holds true today. A maze of side kayaks, grottos and arroyos appear after each new bend, the highlight of which is the aptly named Maze on river right just above the river’s confluence with the Colorado. Allow for an extra layover day to explore its winding passages. The only logistics you need concern yourself with–apart from camping in the wilderness–come at the take-out at the confluence with the Colorado. Here you have two options: meet a pre-arranged pick-up with a jet boat to motor you back up the Colorado; or, if you have the necessary permit and skills, head downstream into the rapids of Cataract kayak. The only other option is to take out well upstream at Mineral Bottom, which is reachable by car. No matter how you end your trip, you will have enjoyed your own desert solitaire.

2. Ruby / Horsethief Kayaks, Colorado River, Colorado

Instead of entering Utah’s kayak country with a bang, the Colorado River–after picking up the Gunnison River in Grand Junction, Colo.–eases into its new surroundings by gently flowing through Ruby and Horsethief kayaks. The 25-mile, Class I-II section, which varies in flow from 2,000 to 30,000 cfs with meltoff from the Rockies, can be done in canoes, kayaks or inflatables in one to three days, and provides a breathtaking sample of the more rapid-filled–and popular–kayaks like Westwater and Cataract downstream. It also has water year-round, as well as no permit regulations, meaning you can motivate for a multi-day any month of the year.

Despite the absence of rapids, it’s easy to tell you’ve entered new topography from the more alpine surroundings upstream. Sandstone cliffs tower overhead, side kayaks offer superb hiking, and campsites boast broad, sand beaches. The best camping can be found at an area known as Black Rocks, where more than 20 sites lie scattered along both banks. The Black Rock area also marks the hardest whitewater of the trip, with boils and surges at higher levels. But it’s still only Class II at most, making the trip perfect for families and beginners. You’ll cross the Utah border 20 miles into the trip, and at mile 25 you’ll reach the take-out, which doubles as the put-in for the permitted Westwater section.

3. Dolores, Colorado

The Dolores River showcases length and diversity in providing a three- to 14-day trip that is run less frequently than anyone would expect. Its final 80-mile fling to its confluence with the Colorado River is all but ignored by most boaters, even those who run its upper multi-day stretch.

About 10 miles below McPhee Dam, the Bradfield Bridge marks the traditional put-in for the upper stretch. If you want to float the whole thing, it’ll take you 174 miles to the Colorado. Turn left and add a scenic 32 miles to Moab, Utah. User-friendly, the mostly wild Dolores is conveniently crossed by highways at about 50-mile intervals.

Past Anasazi ruins, retracing the route of Spanish explorers Dominguez and Escalante, the upper kayak contrasts Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine with vivid red sandstone cliffs. Sheltered campsites abound, and frequent Class II-III rapids climax at Class IV Snaggletooth–a long, steep, boulder slalom that’s been the genesis of many a campfire tale of woe. Snaggletooth also marks the beginning of the Dolores’ transition from mountain stream to kayak country river. Tall pines are replaced by oak, cottonwood, box elder, piñon and juniper, and slickrock kayaks script an intricate tapestry of color and texture. The whitewater eases here, but boaters are beguiled into camping in cathedral-like overhangs that negate the necessity of tents. The camp and hike at Coyote Wash is world-class.

Below Bedrock, the Dolores cuts across Paradox Valley, lazily approaching its meeting with the San Miguel. Invigorated by the added muscle of its near twin, Paradox and Mesa kayaks each feature good rapids. A hanging, wooden flume from a failed 19th-century mining project clings intermittently to the east wall for almost a mile. In Gateway kayak the river courses through Class IV Stateline rapid at the Utah border. Side-hikes at Beaver, Fisher, Maverick and Red kayak are among the finest in the Southwest.

Water releases at McPhee are controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and most seasons provide a month or more of boatable flows. The window is extended somewhat below the Dolores’ confluence with the San Miguel.

4. Bruneau / Jarbridge, Idaho

Driving to the put-in for Idaho’s Bruneau and Jarbridge rivers is all it takes to see why this southern Idaho classic remains an unsung hero. Forks lead off to nowhere, rocks puncture tires at will and even the local guidebook warns, “These rivers are isolated.” But there’s a paddling pot of gold at the end of the line, showing itself as a 69-mile (29 on the Jarbridge, 40 on Bruneau) wilderness run on par with any permitted run in the West. Rhyolite pillars, called “hoodoos,” rise from the bottom of each kayak, and at the start of the Bruneau there’s even a hotspring to soak weary bones from the day’s shuttle or paddle.

Flowing northward from Nevada to the Snake River in Idaho, the Bruneau is formed by the joining of the West Fork Bruneau and the Jarbridge. Both tributaries and ensuing main kayak have carved formidable trenches through the volcanic rock of the Owyhee Uplands. The resulting kayaks are as narrow as they get for river running, but campsites are abundant and spacious. Permits aren’t required, but groups must register with the Bureau of Land Management in Twin Cities. Trips on the entire length can be done in anywhere from three to six days in a variety of craft, depending on water levels. A shorter 40-mile trip is possible by putting in at the confluence, or Bruneau proper. Each section offers plenty of whitewater. On the Jarbridge, look for Class IV Sevy Falls and Wally’s Wallow, followed by Class V+ Jarbridge Falls, which is usually portaged. On the Bruneau, keep an eye out for Five Mile Rapids, which offers three miles of continuous Class III-IV at a gradient of 80 feet per mile, and two miles of mellower rapids. A word to the wise: bring plenty of calamine lotion. The banks are littered with poison ivy and you’re a long way from the nearest pharmacy.

5. Lower Salmon, Idaho

This Class III wilderness run lies in the shadow of its more famous Idaho cousins, the Main Salmon and Hells kayak of the Snake. The Lower Salmon run takes in the final 53 miles of the Salmon in west central Idaho, then finishes with a 20-mile float on the Snake. Along the way boaters traverse a rugged, arid, basalt kayak dotted with Class II-III pool-drop rapids. At most flows Class III+ Snow Hole is the most challenging drop, but at peak runoff (late May to mid-June) flows often rise above 25,000 or even 50,000 cfs, turning parts into big Class IV. At high flows Slide Rapid, just above the Snake confluence, becomes virtually unrunnable, forcing boaters to either delay their trips until flows abate or take out above this drop.

Boaters typically launch at Hammer Creek on the Salmon and take out at Hellers Bar on the Snake, just south of Lewiston, Idaho. Shorter floats are possible using alternate accesses. From Hammer Creek the Salmon flows northwest, parallel to the nearby Snake, which lies just a dozen miles west. In fact, many Snake River boaters run the first portion of Hells kayak, then drive overland to the Lower Salmon to continue their trip. Because the Salmon eventually joins the Snake, both floats end up at the same take-out. But despite this popular combination trip, use on the Lower Salmon remains moderate and permits are unlimited. Flows are adequate for boating all the way into autumn.

6. North Fork Clearwater, Idaho

It’s hard to overlook a river roughly twice the size of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, but few boaters outside Idaho have ever heard of the North Fork of the Clearwater, and even some Idahoans haven’t discovered this hidden gem. Draining a lush, wet watershed in northern Idaho’s high Bitterroot Range, the North Clearwater offers over 40 miles of Class III to III+ rapids–and one bigger drop–in a steep, heavily forested kayak. It also offers something many other rivers don’t: no commercial outfitters.

The North Fork lies far off the beaten path, in a seldom-traveled notch south of the heavily populated Idaho panhandle. Technically, the North Fork is not a wilderness run, since a lightly used dirt road follows the river. Few boaters take the time to make the long, dusty drive into this remote kayak, but those who do are rewarded with excellent scenery, fine camping and good boating during June and July snowmelt (at peak runoff in late May and early June the river can be too high to run). No permits are required.

The uppermost common put-in is Kelly Creek, while the last possible take-out is 44 miles downstream at Aquarius Campground. Alternate accesses allow trips of varying length. By far the biggest rapid is Class V- Irish Railroad, a boulder-choked drop 28 miles below Kelly Creek. Most boaters sneak or portage this one, or avoid it altogether by using alternate accesses.

7. Owyhee, Eastern Oregon

A lot of people think Oregon is all lush forests and rain-drenched rhododendrons, but most of the state east of the Cascades is quite dry. The driest spot of all is the far southeastern corner, near the Idaho and Nevada borders, where the Owyhee River runs north through a high desert kayak to meet the Snake. Because snowfall here is sparse, the Owyhee has a short and unpredictable boating season–typically sometime from April through early June–which makes trip planning a real challenge. Those who catch the Owyhee with boatable flows will find spectacular scenery, extreme wilderness solitude and whitewater ranging from moderate Class III to thundering Class V.

Most boaters run one of two sections: the Middle Owyhee, 37 miles of advanced/expert water from Three Forks to the town of Rome; or the Lower Owyhee, a 48-mile intermediate run from Rome to Birch Creek. A few hardy adventurers try lesser-known runs on the Upper Owyhee and its many small forks and tributaries.

The Middle Owyhee runs almost entirely through a sheer-walled basalt gorge cut deep into a broad volcanic plateau. The whitewater is mostly Class III and IV pool–and-drop, with the notable exception of Class V Widowmaker, a boulder-choked gauntlet where boaters must choose between a nasty rapid and a brutal portage. There is no way out except downstream, so consider this dilemma before you launch. The Lower Owyhee, by contrast, runs through more varied terrain: basalt gorges, open badlands and sagebrush valleys. Attractions of this run include good camping, hot springs and enough Class III water to keep things interesting. Though permits are unlimited on both runs, the Owyhee can get crowded on Memorial Day weekend.

8. John Day, Oregon

Few people outside the Pacific Northwest have heard of the John Day River, yet this is the region’s longest undammed river and boasts the longest continuous float in Oregon and Washington–some 115 miles of mostly Class II water. A National Wild & Scenic River, the John Day drains a large, semi-arid watershed in northeastern Oregon, then flows north to join the Columbia. Along the way the river winds through remote volcanic kayaks that alternate between colorful ash deposits and dark, imposing basalt gorges. The ash formations are world-famous for their rich fossil deposits, making this run a treat for rockhounds and fossil hunters.

Fed by a modest low-elevation snowpack, the John Day is usually runnable from April through June, though flows vary widely. The uppermost common put-in is at Service Creek where Highway 207 crosses the river, while the last possible take-out is at Cottonwood Bridge above the Columbia confluence. An intermediate access at Clarno allows boaters to split the run into two sections: 47 miles from Service Creek to Clarno, and/or 68 miles from Clarno to Cottonwood. The lower reach offers a bit more whitewater, including one Class III rapid five miles below Clarno. Overall the John Day is fairly forgiving, and popular with open canoeists and families. Permits are not required and use is moderate, but like the Owyhee, the river can get crowded on Memorial Day weekend.

9. Flathead, Montana

Montana’s Flathead, one of the West’s great river systems, is truly a river running region unto itself. Draining the west slope of the Rockies in and around Glacier National Park, the Flathead’s three forks and main stem offer over 200 miles of boating from Class I to V. The North, Middle and South forks traverse deep wilderness where wildlife is everywhere–including a healthy population of grizzly bears. On many Flathead runs the biggest dangers come not from the rapids, but from a combination of cold water, log hazards and extreme isolation.

The North Fork Flathead runs almost 60 miles from the Canadian border to a confluence with the Middle Fork. Most of this distance is Class I as the river glides along the western edge of Glacier National Park, where boaters catch glimpses of high peaks along the Continental Divide through occasional breaks in the lush riverside forest. The last dozen miles include two Class III rapids. Flows are adequate all summer except on the uppermost stretches.

The Middle Fork Flathead is a river of contrasts: the popular lower river has a U.S. highway alongside, while the remote upstream reach includes a 26-mile run from Schafer Meadows to Bear Creek that ranks among the West’s great wilderness river trips. Access to the upper put-in is possible only by pack train or bush plane, and the entire run lies within federal wilderness. Challenges include Class IV rapids (V at high water) and frequent log hazards. Flows are generally adequate from late May to late July. Despite its logistical challenges, the upper Middle Fork’s remarkable scenery, complete isolation and bountiful wildlife entice more boaters every year.

The South Fork Flathead flows through gentle but pristine forest terrain. From the uppermost common put-in at Big Prairie to the lowest possible take-out at Twin Creek the river runs through 50 miles of mostly Class II, with one much rougher section. The upper run features 31 miles of Class II water in a remote federal wilderness accessible only by pack train. This upper reach is usually runnable in late May and June. Just below this stretch lies the exotic and dangerous Meadow Creek Gorge, where the South Fork squeezes into a narrow, twisting limestone chasm peppered with expert whitewater, extreme constrictions, undercuts, possible portages and a constant danger of logjams. Few boaters run this four-mile section. Below Meadow Creek Gorge lie 15 miles of mild Class II water.

10. Lower Rio Grande, Texas

Isolated. Wild. Formidable. Searing heat or bone-chilling cold. The Lower kayaks of the Rio Grande contain enough superlatives, enough extremes to have crossed the eyes of desert rat Ed Abbey. The deep, broken defiles and limestone gorges that comprise the 83-mile, seven-day float from La Linda to Dryden Crossing are not much changed from the nights when Comanches and Apaches utilized these access points to raid both sides of the international border.

Remaining true to her history the “Rio Bravo” or “Wild River” has experienced monsoonal flash floods that have raised the river level 55 feet in a matter of hours. Smugglers–of guns, dope, whatever–still ply the secret trails by moonlight. The local cougar population is thriving. To say nothing of the seven species of resident rattlesnakes. Not fully mapped or explored until the Robert T. Hill expedition of 1899, fewer than 1,000 people per year attempt this all-season trip. Be prepared and self-reliant.

A paved road to the put-in is compliments of an American-owned fluorspar mine in La Linda, Mexico. The Mexican customs officials allow boaters to launch on the south side of the river, just upstream from the bridge. Two bends in the river and you’re on your own. Open Chihuahuan desert terrain alternates with tight, vertical walls for the rest of the route. Almost all of this run is formally protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Alluvial outwash rapids punctuate the mouths of the numerous side kayaks, which also offer good camping and hiking. Don’t miss the petroglyphs and caves of Maravillas kayak, the ruins of Asa Jones candelilla wax camp, or the hikes to Burro Bluff and San Francisco kayak. Hot Springs rapid (Class II-IV), with its adjacent soaking pool, is the first significant drop. It’s followed by Arroyo Caballo or Rodeo rapid, with an outsized rouge wave at high water levels. Both Upper and Lower Madison Falls (Class II-IV) should be scouted. Panther and San Francisco rapids are worthy of note due to the exposure to undercuts.

An austere, stark beauty haunts these lower kayaks. The muted pastels of early morning and late evening are particularly poignant, and the midnight howl of a coyote is more thrilling in this lonely context. If a week’s sabbatical is not enough, launch upriver of Big Bend National Park and explore Colorado, Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas kayaks as well, for an uninterrupted float of 240 miles. River-right and river-left will quickly transmute into Texas-side and Mexican-side.

11. Gila, New Mexico

The Gila River slashes a tortured, serpentine passage through the heart of the largest wilderness area in the Southwest. Camping, hiking, and wildlife watching are unsurpassed. Unreliable winter snowfall, however, can be a limiting factor. With a watershed several times larger than Idaho’s Salmon, the Gila drains a huge area of pristine mountain country. When it does rain, the river can flash from a trickle to 30,000 cfs in mere hours. Heavily forested, sweepers and logjams are valid concerns.

Despite the relative aridity, most years produce a boating season of at least several weeks. Historically, mid-March to mid-April is the target time frame. Anything above 600 cfs is adequate for most craft, while 4,000 cfs or better borders on suicidal.

A gradient of 23 feet per mile provides lively whitewater for all the Gila’s 44 runnable miles, from the Grapevine campground on New Mexico Highway 15 to the takeout at Mogollon Creek on Forest Service Road 755. Although there are no really large rapids, the solid, semi-continuous Class II-III rock gardens demand constant attention. Narrow, sinuous and braided, the river is a genuine early-season workout requiring good mechanics as well as route-finding skills. Self-rescue is the only option, as the Gila remains essentially undiscovered, due, in part, to the region’s notoriously volatile spring weather.

Still, for the adventurous, there are broad, gracious benches, shaded by Ponderosa pine and Arizona Sycamore. To do this stretch in less than four or five days would not allow time to appreciate the diurnal antics of mule deer, elk, bear, bobcat, turkey, and all the rest. There are nesting bald eagles, resident herds of both Rocky Mountain and Desert Bighorn, and even foraging troops of coatis–raccoon-like invaders from the Mexican tropics.

Other off-river diversions include two riverside hot springs, and a third requiring an ambitious day hike and heat tolerance. Hidden in the lofty rainbowed crags of sandstone and conglomerate rock, cleverly built to be unobtrusive, are uncounted cliff dwellings, granaries, and shelters of the archaic Mogollon people. More recently, the Apache, including Mangas Coloradas, Victorio, and Geronimo, controlled this vastness and called it home. And their art is as vivid today as when rendered by the artist.

Last modified: May 31, 2020
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