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Van Life: Ten River Rafting Destinations Across the U.S.


As summer draws to a close, there’s still time to squeeze in one more adventure. For thrill-seekers and nature lovers, what could be better than exploring majestic landscapes by water? You’ll get unfettered access to remote areas, unique views, and wildlife enjoying their natural habitats, all while staying cool on the river.

Whether you’re chasing the frothy thrill of advanced whitewater or looking for a leisurely scenic float down the river, there’s a summer rafting destination for you. Experienced rafters with the equipment and know-how can plan their own excursions at many of these locations, but all ten offer an array of guided experiences. Whether you choose a wild or mild itinerary, you’ll get to embrace the elements and make memories to last a lifetime. Ready to dive in?Read on for the details.


Salmon River, Idaho

As the longest undammed river in the country, the Salmon River is a paradise for whitewater rafting enthusiasts. Here, you can charge down exhilarating Class III-IV rapids through an expansive landscape of national forests, catching glimpses of wildlife like river otters and golden eagles along the way. Middle Fork and Main Salmon are the most popular rafting expeditions. Middle Fork earns points for being more raw and pristine, while Main Salmon’s large sandy beaches and manageable rapids appeal to families. Regardless of which route you choose, you’ll have the option to soak sore muscles in natural hot springs!

San Juan River, Utah

Looking for a relaxing rafting trip with a side of history? You’ll love the San Juan River, which meanders through important sites including ancient Native American petroglyphs and a well-preserved ruin built into the sandstone cliffs. Speaking of cliffs, the geological formations showcased by this route are everything you’d expect from scenic Utah. The rafting itself is relatively mellow, with a few short but fun Class II rapids towards the end of the day trip. With such favorable conditions, you can safely navigate the river on your own. For those that want to learn more about the history of the area, however, guided tours are also available.


Arkansas River, Colorado

The Rocky Mountains are a favorite destination for van adventurers of all stripes, and rafters are no exception. Those in search of the spray will find it in the Class III-V rapids that tumble down from the Rockies. With half-day, full-day, and overnight trips as well as beginner, intermediate, and advanced difficulty levels, there is an option for everyone on the Arkansas River. Pair your whitewater exploits with a visit to Colorado Springs less than two hours away for even more outdoor activities. Read our Colorado Springs Adventure Guide to see everything the area has to offer.

Chattooga River, South Carolina

While the Chattooga River flows through three states, it is the portion in South Carolina that’s most popular for rafting. Here, multiple companies operate trips ranging from beginner to advanced levels. Specifically, Section III guarantees a family-friendly float through Class I, II, and III rapids, while Section IV provides an intense run with rapids all the way up to Class V+! If you have experience with whitewater rafting, you’ll appreciate the exhilarating challenge of the famous Five Falls area. With multiple well-tested and expert-guided routes, every explorer will find their fit at this iconic destination.


Kenai River, Alaska

If you’re all about the views, you can’t beat the Kenai River. Breathtaking forest scenery is revealed at every turn, but the bright turquoise river itself is the true showstopper. The immaculate glacial water flows into a glacier-carved lake, which you can explore at the end of your journey. The day trip led by Alaska Wildland Adventures also features a gourmet picnic lunch break to sweeten the deal. The peaceful water dotted with a few Class II+ rapids lets you focus on admiring the scenery floating past. Bring a camera and keep an eye out for wildlife like moose and beavers.

Snake River, Idaho and Oregon

If you’re looking for complete immersion in nature, consider embarking on a multi-day river rafting quest. We recommend the Hells Canyon area on the border of Idaho and Oregon. This dramatic high desert landscape is only accessible by backpacking, horseback riding, and–you guessed it–boating. Winding Waters River Expeditions will smooth the way with their guided multiple-day tour. By day, you’ll navigate exciting Class III-IV rapids, learn about the local flora and fauna, and fish for rainbow trout and smallmouth bass. At night, you’ll set up camp along the river, chow down on all-inclusive meals, and marvel at the Milky Way. Remote wilderness adventure, unlocked!


Rogue River, Oregon

Speaking of wildlife, lucky visitors can see majestic creatures including great blue herons and black bears at this destination in Southern Oregon. The Rogue River is known for its world-class whitewater and captivating forest scenery. If you dare, there are numerous rapids in the Class IV range including the fan-favorite Blossom Bar section where massive boulders form a natural obstacle course. For something more relaxing, Orange Torpedo Trips offers a scenic sunset tour. The company has also pioneered a floating pub on a raft for a completely unique experience.

Gauley River, West Virginia

In search of a challenge? The Class IV and V whitewater rapids of the Gauley River are sure to get your heart pumping. Serious whitewater rafters will appreciate the wild waves and tricky terrain of Upper Gauley, while Lower Gauley is ideal for newcomers who are still looking for a thrill. Either way, you can look forward to getting drenched as you careen through the rugged landscape. Round out your adrenaline-packed itinerary with ziplining, mountain biking, cave tours, or rock climbing–all available in the area. 


Flathead River, Montana

Bordering the spectacular Glacier National Park, the Flathead River is just as lovely as you’d expect. The water is pure and blue. The wild huckleberries are ripe and ready for the picking. New postcard-pretty scenes are revealed around every bend. Thanks to the Flathead’s long stretches of calm water with approachable rapids, you could feasibly plan an unguided multi-day rafting and camping adventure here. Stick to North Fork for a chill Class I-II float or check out Middle Fork for a slightly more invigorating route with up to Class III rapids. 

American River, California

The three forks of the American River provide endless opportunities for splashing fun in the sun. Two of the three forks have the longest and most reliable whitewater rafting season in California, making this destination perfect for end-of-summer and early fall exploits. Even better, there are exciting runs for every level (Class II-IV+) and age (4+). Kids will also enjoy learning about the area’s gold rush history and playing in natural pools and waterfalls along the river. After the rafting romp, drive around two hours to Lake Tahoe to continue your outdoorsy California vacation. 

Regardless of which location you choose, you’re in for a treat. For more refreshing destinations, check out “Top 8 Places to Swim in Nature This Summer” and “Top 10 Lakes Across the U.S. to Visit Now.” For the perfect snack to pack, browse “8 Simple DIY Trail Mix Recipes to Power Your Summer Adventures.”

Note: If you go the unguided route, be certain you have enough rafting experience. Do your research on the obstacles you might face and obtain any necessary permits. Van dwellers arranging an unguided rafting trip will need two forms of transportation to station at the start and end points, whether by teaming up with another road warrior or using a towed vehicle. And regardless of what type of river run you have in store, don’t forget to pack sun hats, sunscreen, and ample water and snacks.

With a camper van, you can get up close and personal with our nation’s most beautiful rivers without sacrificing on comfort. After a day spent braving wild currents, treat yourself to a mouthwatering meal and a great night’s sleep on a real bed. Still in search of your dream home on wheels? Visit RecVan to browse our wide range of state-of-the-art adventure vans.