Best National Parks: White-Water Edition

Rapids, whirlpools, and risky currents transform some national park rivers into raging infernos and white water. Rafts and kayaks are the best ways to experience the big thrills and spills. Most of these routes can be run in a half or single day, though some are a ripe two days of adventure with a much needed breather in between.

Here are six white-water wonderlands in America’s national parks:

> Snake River, Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)

Only a small portion of the 1,000-mile Snake River flows through the Tetons, but it’s about as gorgeous as a river can get, with ribbons of water set against jagged, snow-covered summits. But that handsome face hides a mean temper, a Wyoming river that should never be taken for granted.

Advanced white-water skills are necessary for several sections of the Snake, particularly a stretch of white water in the John D. Rockefeller Parkway between the Southgate launch and Flagg Ranch. Despite a lack of rapids and whirlpools, the river south from Deadman’s Bar can also get pretty nasty, thanks to tricky currents and logjams. Snake River Canyon south of Jackson Hole tenders a much longer stretch of white water.

Practical Info: At least half a dozen outfitters in Jackson Hole offer half- and one-day trips along the Snake. Take your pick!

> Nenana River Canyon, Denali National Park & Preserve (Alaska)

Born of snow, sleet, and glaciers in the mighty Alaska Range, the Nenana River runs a swift course down the east side of Denali National Park before pouring into the Tanana River near Fairbanks. It’s a wild one, especially through the narrow Nenana River Canyon near the park visitor center, a stretch that features wicked Class III and IV rapids like the Coffee Grinder, Royal Flush, and Razorback.

The dozen miles of river between the visitor center and the put-out point near the town of Healy takes around two hours. And don’t try it without a dry suit; even on the hottest summer days, Nenana’s waters are just above freezing.

Practical Info: Denali Outdoor Center runs white-water trips through the canyon along milder stretches of the Nenana.

> North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River, Glacier National Park (Montana)

The long and twisty Flathead River forms the western boundary of Montana’s Glacier National Park, separating the national park from national forest on the opposite shore. The entire length of the watercourse alongside Glacier has been designated a national wild and scenic river.

The North Fork of the Flathead takes three or four days to run. But parts of the Middle Fork between the Izaak Walton Inn and West Glacier Village can be rafted in a single day. The portion through narrow John Stevens Canyon features challenging Class III and IV rapids, which are especially hairy during the early summer when water flow on the Flathead peaks.

But there’s also plenty of time to eye the scenery—snowcapped peaks rising on either side, thick forest along the shoreline, and maybe even a glimpse of bears, moose, or wolves. The Middle Fork also has Hollywood cachet: Parts of the 1994 movie The River Wild with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon were shot on location here.

Practical Info: The locally based Glacier Raft Company (GRC) offers single- and multiday trips on both forks of the Flathead in rafts and inflatable kayaks. GRC also rents equipment and provides shuttle service for those who wish to run the river themselves.

> Gunnison River, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado)

The only thing you need to know about rafting or kayaking the Gunnison River through the notorious Black Canyon is the fact that no commercial operator makes the trip. That tells you how extreme this river is, one of the most dangerous in North America and one of the most rewarding for skilled river runners. This is Class V water all the way, with some sections that even the best kayakers cannot negotiate safely.

Attaching a parachute to your kayak is not as farfetched as it may sound. The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon falls an average of 7.5 feet per mile; by comparison, the Gunnison River (a tributary of the Colorado) through the Black Canyon plummets 95 feet per mile. That’s big air.

But that doesn’t mean that mere mortals can’t experience one of Colorado’s foremost wonders. The spectacular Gunnison Gorge downstream from the park is tamer but still wild enough to get your knuckles white and your heart thumping. Preserving the gorge’s solitude, only two rafting groups (of no more than 12 people per group) each day are allowed to make the journey.

Practical Info: Boulder Outdoor Center and Dvorak Expeditions offer guided trips between May and September.

> Elwha, Hoh, and Sol Duc Rivers, Olympic National Park (Washington)

Rivers radiate from Washington State’s Mount Olympus like spokes on a wheel, and at least two of them afford trips that combine white-water adventure and the park’s Pacific Northwest woods.

The most popular trip is the Elwha River through the heart of the park, a waterway that combines gentle stretches and mild rapids, good for families or for people who would rather watch the scenery than constantly battle for survival. The secluded Hoh River is another possibility, with a voyage through Oxbow Canyon and the lush rain forest that carpets the park’s western fringe.

Olympic’s best white water is the Sol Duc River, where the Class III rapids can get a little daunting as it passes out of the park and into Olympic National Forest. But there’s only enough water int the Sol Duc during the winter months, which means rafting and kayaking is limited to November through March. And the water is most definitely cold.

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Practical Info: The only water outfitter licensed to operate inside the national park, Olympic Raft and Kayak, runs trips on all three rivers.

> Kaweah River, Sequoia National Park (California)

California’s southern Sierra Nevada park has lots of rivers, but few of them are deep or wide enough for boating. The exception to that rule is the Kaweah River, a short but turbulent waterway that starts as several forks inside the park before coming together in a single channel.

The Middle Fork is navigable starting just outside the park, two miles down the road from Ash Mountain entrance gate. The scenery is more California foothills speckled with oaks and wildflowers. The season is early, April through June, and highly dependent on Sierra snowmelt.

Practical Info: All-Outdoors Rafting organizes one- and two-day guided trips on the Kaweah.

This article was excerpted from the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.

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