Outdoor enthusiasts are gearing up for whitewater rafting season. Snow is melting, rivers are rising, and the weather is beginning to warm. Like mountain biking and backpacking, whitewater rafting is another adventurous way to immerse yourself in rugged and beautiful natural landscape throughout the U.S.
Rafting is a personalized experience where you can plan for day trips or longer multi-day expeditions. You can also choose rivers and sections of rivers based on rapid class. Class I rapids are mellow and low risk, while Class V rapids are the most extreme and should only be attempted as an experienced rafter or with a guide.
Even beyond the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, the U.S. is a mecca for whitewater rafting. Here are some of the best campgrounds with nearby access to whitewater rafting.
1. Gauley River, West Virginia
West Virginia is often overlooked for adventure sports, but it’s an East Coast gem for climbing, backpacking, and whitewater rafting on the Gauley River. Coursing through the Gauley River National Recreation Area, the 105-mile stretch of water features various levels of rapids depending on where you access the river.
The Upper Gauley is pumping with “Big 5” rapids. These rapids are exhilarating, but rated Class V for their steep drops, continuous whitewater, and a 14-foot waterfall on Sweet’s Falls. Considered a more beginner-friendly route, downstream is the Lower Gauley, with incredible views of cliffs merging water with sky.
The best time to visit the Gauley River is after Labor Day. This time of year is known as “Gauley season,” when the dam at Summersville Lake is released. People from all over the world come to this region to experience the rush of water and adrenaline.
Where to camp near Gauley River:
2. Gunnison River, Colorado
The Gunnison River flows through much of western and southwestern Colorado. “The Gunny” snakes through tight canyons and isolated high desert for kayakers, fishermen, and rafters to explore. Its lengthy expanse offers sections of rapids for all experience levels.
The Gunnison Town Run starts from Gunnison and leads you through mellow Class I and II rapids to the Gunnison River Whitewater Park. Gunnison Gorge is another must-do for rafters. After a tricky four-wheel drive road and a mile approach, you’ll be rewarded with 13.5 miles of Class III and IV rapids rushing against soaring sandstone and black granite walls.
“There are lots of great side spur roads to explore here and access to the Gunnison River,” according to a Campendium reviewer.
Before visiting this summer hot spot, check permit requirements and campground availability during peak season.
Where to camp near Gunnison River:
3. Rio Chama, New Mexico
Do you want to get off the beaten path? Then plan a whitewater rafting trip to Rio Chama. The Rio Chama sets out from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and merges with the Rio Grande near Espanola, New Mexico. This 120-mile river flows along towering cliffs, colorful sandstone, and remote pinyon pine forests in northern Mexico.
This is a perfect place for families and beginners looking for a refreshing taste of summer. It offers rapids up to Class III for a little spice without too much risk.
Where to camp near Rio Chama:
4. Snake River, Wyoming
Located in Snake River Canyon just outside of Jackson, Wyoming, and the Grand Tetons, the Snake River area is ideal to set up a base camp and plan a few day trips to float and raft. Start a float trip from Wilson Bridge to South Park Bridge for 13 miles with bald eagles soaring ahead and epic views of the Tetons. Then get closer to the whitewater rapids from Astoria to the East Table section. This is a 10-mile run that features faster-moving water, hot springs, and access to campsites at East Table Campground.
East Table Campground is a “Forest Service campground right on the Snake River. So very nice!” according to a Campendium review.
Then comes the most popular whitewater section of the Snake River. From West Table to Sheep Gulch, you’ll raft Class II and III rapids. Highlights include Big Kahuna, Lunch Counter, and Cottonwood; for anyone looking for an adrenaline rush, Snake River has it all, especially during July when the water is rushing perfectly.
Where to camp near Snake River:
5. Salmon River, Idaho
Idaho is a haven for camping, fishing, hiking, and whitewater rafting, especially on the Salmon River. Known as the “River of No Return,” the Salmon River runs for 425 miles through the middle of Idaho, crossing paths with Redfish Lake and Little Redfish Lake via the Redfish Lake Creek, which is also home to ideal camping.
“Go to Little Redfish Lake,” says a Campendium reviewer. “No motorboats, just kayaks and people floating around on air mattresses. Sweet view of the lake backed by the awesome Sawtooth Mountains to the west.”
Excursions on the Salmon are typically divided into a few sections, including the Main Salmon, Middle Fork, and the Lower Salmon. Each section offers access to stunning views, guide services, and Class II to IV rapids.
The Main Salmon and Middle Fork sections are the most popular sections and require advanced permits to experience features like Tappan Falls and Devil’s Tooth. The Lower Salmon is an easier section with beautiful beaches and access to Snake River. Since the Salmon River covers a lot of ground and tends to be a multi-day or even week-long excursion with permits, prepare ahead of time.
Where to camp near Salmon River:
Whitewater rafting is an adrenaline rush through merciless rapids and wilderness. To experience the rush this adventure sport offers, you need to be educated, prepared, and safe.
Here are a few tips for your first—or next—whitewater rafting and camping trip:
- If you’re new to the sport, hire a guide.
- Dress appropriately. The weather changes quickly on the water, even in the summer. Wear layers, quick-drying material, river shoes, and UPF clothing.
- Monitor the weather, snowmelt, and water levels.
- Always keep your helmet and life jacket securely on.
- Have fun!