Photograph by PETE MCBRIDE, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A young man navigates a boat in a large rapid on the Colorado River.
Photograph by PETE MCBRIDE, Nat Geo Image Collection

Paddle the world's most famous rivers

Here’s how to ride five of the planet’s most glorious waterways.

“You can't be unhappy in the middle of a big beautiful river,” said writer Jim Harrison. Whether your goal is to see the planet from a new perspective or unplug in an epic setting, few experiences match the invigorating rush of paddling out onto flowing water.

From barreling down America’s grandest rapids on the Colorado River to taking a peaceful stand-up paddleboard ride on the Danube, these aquatic tours promise unforgettable adventures outside your comfort zone. In the realm of rivers, these five are among the greatest.

If you only have a couple days—or even just a few hours—here’s how to pull off your next wet and wild trip.

Kayak the Nile in Southeastern Egypt

Following a life-changing 124-mile kayaking trip from Aswan to Luxor in February 2016, three friends launched Egypt’s first recreational kayak club. Their mission: to drive eco-tourism, empower the local outdoor community, and make the world’s longest river more easily accessible for adventurers.

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The Ramses temple stands resolute along the Nile shoreline.

The Nile Kayak Club (NKC) offers weekend outings around its Cairo home base, but if you’re in Egypt during the winter months, go beyond the pyramids and join their five-day, temple-to-temple tour from Aswan to Luxor. With an intimate group of four to 10 people, you’ll experience spectacular riverside attractions and the remnants of a millennia of Egyptian history. You’ll wander the pharaonic Temple of Kom Ombo, with its intricate hieroglyphics and mummified crocodiles; the Gebel El Silsila Temple, where shallow water keeps cruise ships at bay; and the well-preserved Temple of Edfu, dedicated to the falcon god Horus and built in the Ptolemaic period between 237 and 57 B.C.

While rocking gently down the 4,258-mile river, you’ll spy white egrets, honey buzzards, and kestrel falcons. You’ll learn fishing techniques from a father and son in hand-painted boats, and hear yulla! yulla! (let’s go!) from the Nile Kayak Club guides, who are often women. “Female guides are a rare phenomenon in Egypt. Women are working in agriculture and fishing but are not usually traveling alone or playing sports,” says NKC co-founder Charif Khedr. You’ll cross an ever-transforming desert landscape, from bustling felucca-filled ports to sublime horizons, past sand dunes, palm trees, distant mountain ranges, steep sandstone cliffs, small villages, and quaint farms welcoming tired paddlers for tea. NKC guests eat lavish meals on the beach and wake up on motor boats in the middle of the Nile. Without headwinds and rapids, the Nile’s mellow water and mystic aura make kayaking through Egypt a luxurious thrill.

Raft the Colorado in Southeastern Utah

On his river expedition in 1869, geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell described Canyonlands National Park as a “strange, weird, grand region” of “ten thousand strangely carved forms.” On Mild 2 Wild’s four-day, all-inclusive Cataract Canyon tour from Moab to Lake Powell, you’ll appreciate this same uncanny landscape while tackling some of the largest whitewater rapids in the country.

Despite the rousing cold splashes, there’s an out-of-body element to this 120-mile, off-the-grid journey down the Colorado River. Paddlers experience a sense of weightlessness on the class III-V rapids rushing between otherworldly cliffs that rise 2,000 feet above the river’s edge—but taking the plunge is only half the adventure. Off the water, visitors are privy to Wild West hideouts of famous outlaws, Anasazi petroglyphs, waterfall-laden hikes accessible only from the river, and gourmet camping meals of Dutch-oven lasagna and pineapple upside-down cake.

The 1,450-mile Colorado River may be six million years old, but amid population growth and a warming climate, records show water levels at an unprecedented low, so consider experiencing the canyon’s mesmerizing crimson rock formations sooner than later.

SUP the Danube in Budapest

Stand-up paddleboarding may not be the most conventional way to explore a city, but once you’ve experienced the “Pearl of the Danube” on a SUP board you can’t imagine taking any other mode of transit.

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Parliament buildings illuminate the River Danube in Budapest, Hungary.

Originating in Germany, the Danube flows southeast for 1,780 miles through 10 countries (more than any other river) including Hungary, where it runs between the capital’s two formerly separate cities—from hilly suburban Buda to the urban center of Pest. On a two-hour sunrise tour with SUP Budapest, which launches from the northern beach of Római Part, guests paddle six miles alongside prominent sites like Buda Castle, Margaret Island, the Citadella, Széchenyi Chain Bridge, and the third-largest parliament building in the world. At sunup, the water is flat and traffic-free, and the normally vibrant cosmopolitan city adopts a remarkable serenity.

As the tour moves down the Danube at an unhurried pace, Budapest reveals its famed beauty at new angles; visitors can take in its baroque-style architecture, verdant oases, and hidden streets without distractions—besides the aroma of freshly baked danish mingling with the boggy air. Even as you watch the city come to life, stand-up paddleboarding through Budapest feels more refreshing than a soak in the Gellért Thermal Bath.

Canoe the Mississippi in Memphis

Memphis’s primary claims to fame are BBQ and rock 'n' roll, but when many people think of Memphis, they may forget about the illustrious river that runs through it. The denizens of downtown have a healthy reverence for the mighty Mississippi—the largest river system in the U.S. and, at 2,348 miles, the world’s fourth longest river.

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The downtown Memphis skyline features varied old and new buildings.

If you’re looking for a classic American paddling trip, no river has played a more vital role in the development and expansion of our country than the Mississippi. Before strapping on a life vest, discover the river’s geological and human history at the Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island—a small peninsula just north of Memphis, between Tennessee and Arkansas—where you can rent a canoe or join a guided tour with Allen’s Kayaking Adventures. (There’s also a 2,000-foot-long scale model of the lower thousand miles of the Mississippi that can’t be missed.)

As most locals still prefer to admire the river from a dry distance, you’ll likely be the only paddler in this southwestern nook of Tennessee, except for maybe some anglers hunting for trophy catfish. On a placid day, you can float lazily down the river, passing sandbars, barges, 19th-century steamboats, the 321-foot-tall Bass Pro Shop pyramid, and the Big River Crossing—the country's longest active rail, bicycle, and pedestrian bridge. Come for the simple joys of paddling the Mississippi; stay for the fiery sunsets.

Kayak the Hudson in Upstate New York

While the Hudson River flows 315 miles from the Adirondack Mountains down into the New York City harbor, the Manhattan skyline is no match for the World’s End, a place of refuge and unexpected thrills an hour north of NYC. The Port of Call is a little sandy cove located across from the train station in Cold Spring. Push out onto the river as the late afternoon sun graces the jagged cliffs of Constitution Island and the massive Hudson Highlands—a reminder that the Hudson River is a true fjord.

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The George Washington Bridge in Manhattan towers over the Hudson River.

Hudson River Expeditions (HRE) offers several guided outings from April through October, but the Twilight Tour packs a history class, therapeutic adventure, and killer upper-body workout all into just two hours. “The goal on a Twilight Tour is just to enjoy being on the water at this time of day,” says HRE guide Brian Grahn, who considers this his favorite stretch of the entire river. With a depth of 216 feet, the World’s End is the deepest point on the Hudson and was named by early explorers for its fierce currents and dead-end illusion. When the weather is calm, you can rest the paddle and listen to the guides summon stories from the surrounding castles and mansions about the dawn of Babe Ruth and the inspiration for the Wizard of Oz.

On a Twilight Tour, you can expect whistling southbound trains, soaring eagles, and the booming 5 p.m. cannon from the Military Academy at West Point. Just as the clouds turn pink, a rumbling may erupt from all sides of the gorge. “Anything can happen out here,” Brian says with a smile, as Apache and Black Hawk helicopters emerge from behind the island and fly low and slow over the brackish water.

Lauren Matison is a travel, adventure, and lifestyle writer based in New York City. Follow her on Instagram @laurenmati or Twitter @LaurenMati.