Rivers for Recreation, Part 1: The Fab Five

By Jacob Baynham April 13, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a four-part series:
Part 2:  Rivers of Divide     Part 3:  Hustle and Flow    Part 4: Coming Soon


If any topographic feature captures the spirit of American adventure, innovation, and sport, it has to be the country’s waterways. Rivers are the lifeblood of America. First we navigated them, paddling into territories unknown. Then we harnessed them, building canals and hydroelectric dams that powered our industry. And now we play on them, finding tranquility in the timeless flow of water.

But in a country so riven with rivers, where is an uninitiated rafter, kayaker, SUPer or angler to begin? Are all rivers created equal or are some better suited to particular pursuits and passions? Although every river recreator will eventually find his or her favorite, these five rivers are some of America’s most iconic and heavily trafficked among anglers and whitewater paddlers—and for good reason. Each one is a solid suggestion for anyone interested in river recreation.

Arkansas River, Colorado

“The Arkansas as a whole is probably the most popular river in the country,” says Charles Conner, marketing director for the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Asheville, North Carolina “In many ways, it’s the ultimate rafting river.” It stands to reason. In the river’s first 100 miles, it drops 6,750 vertical feet through some of Colorado’s most dramatic canyons before eventually widening into a Midwestern waterway and tributary of the Mississippi.

Fed by Rocky Mountain snowmelt, the Arkansas begins near Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in the country at 10,400 feet. It flows steadily east/southeast through Colorado’s steep mountain valleys. One of the Arkansas’ most-loved sections, for paddlers and anglers, is Browns Canyon, a 26-mile stretch of river stacked with class III rapids that make it a classic day-trip for first-timers on guided trips. “It’s exactly right,” Conner says of the intermediate runs through the Canyon. “They’re exciting, boat-dousing rapids without taking it to an adrenaline-inducing extreme.” Add class IV rapids in other stretches of the river—like Numbers, Fractions, Pine Creek and the Royal Gorge—and it’s easy to see why the Arkansas is one of the most popular commercially rafted rivers in the country.

In February 2015, President Obama designated Browns Canyon a National Monument, noting that “the naturalists and industrialists and politicians who dreamt up our system of public lands and waters did so in the hope that, by keeping these places, these special places in trust—places of incomparable beauty, places where our history was written—then future generations would value those places the same way as we did.”

The Arkansas is beloved by Colorado fly fishermen, with its healthy populations of brown trout and prolific Mother’s Day caddis hatch that swarm the river from Buena Vista to Canyon City.

Ocoee River, Tennessee

The Ocoee River (also called the Toccoa River) is a 93-mile waterway that runs northwest along the southern Appalachian Mountains. Its flow is regulated by three dams, which make for great paddling conditions all summer long, especially for kayakers. In fact, the Upper Ocoee has the distinction of being the only Olympic whitewater venue in the Western Hemisphere—it hosted the canoeing and kayaking events at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. During the week, this section of the river is diverted to generate electricity, leaving just enough water in the riverbed to swim in places. But the Tennessee Valley Authority releases scheduled flows on summer weekends that turn this stretch into world-class recreational whitewater.

Far more popular, though, is the middle section of the Ocoee, which serves up five miles of continuous whitewater through the Ocoee River Gorge, a beautiful pocket of Appalachia. “It’s the classic run,” says Conner. The Diamond Splitter rapid, which features a dramatic monolith in the middle of the river, is a kayaker’s dream.

Paddlers can also string together the upper and middle sections for a combo trip perfect for a summer weekend. “That’s a fantastic trip,” Conner says. “As far as pure fun East Coast rafting, that’s hard to beat.” Visitors seem to agree. Each year, more than 300,000 people come to the Ocoee, making it one of America’s most popular rivers.

 Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

If you like rivers, few can match the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado for sheer majesty and legend. It flows 1,450 miles from its source, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, to its mouth in the Gulf of California. Each of those miles is steeped in history, both geologic and anthropologic, and it takes a while to take it all in. In fact, most floaters prefer to spend as much as three weeks on the river to get the full experience. It’s a rite of passage for many river runners, and it’s a bucket list item for countless visitors, experienced paddlers or not. “It’s the premier multiday river trip in the U.S. and certainly the most beloved,” says Conner. According to the National Park Service, 3- to 18-day commercial trips down the river are available to the public but often must be reserved a year or two in advance. Shorter half- and single-day smooth water trips offer a nice appetizer and an option for anyone who doesn’t have the foresight to book years in advance.

If you like rivers, few can match the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado for sheer majesty and legend.

Experienced paddlers who wish to run the river on their own (self-guided) must apply in February for a permit for the following year. A weighted lottery is held to assign permits and specified launch dates.

The Canyon’s rapids are notable enough to warrant their own unique grading scale, from 1 to 10, but in between where the water mellows to a lazy roll, it’s easy to feel lost in another universe. “When you get down in there,” Conner says, “you are down in there. The world is above you. You’re away from it all.”

Chattooga River, Georgia/South Carolina

If you had to pick a river that traces the history of American whitewater paddling, it would probably be the Chattooga River, which also happens to be the setting of the 1972 film “Deliverance.” The Chattooga runs only 57 miles, from its headwaters near Cashiers, North Carolina, to its confluence with the Tallulah River at Lake Tugalo. It’s short in length, but long in history. America’s canoe and kayak industry grew up along its banks, especially in Easley, South Carolina.

If you had to pick a river that traces the history of American whitewater paddling, it would probably be the Chattooga River, which also happens to be the setting of the 1972 film “Deliverance.”

The Chattooga is designated a Wild and Scenic River, which is a rare designation for Southeastern waterways. The river features a stretch of water called Five Falls, a series of five class III­–V rapids all crammed within a quarter mile. Conner likens that stretch of the Chattooga to Yankee Stadium or Amen Corner at the Augusta National Golf Club—a storied spot for river-sport devotees. “It’s the hallowed site of paddling in the East and Southeast,” he says. “It’s The Run.”

Deschutes River, Oregon

One of the most beloved rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the Deschutes runs north—unusual for U.S. rivers—for 250 miles from the east side of Oregon’s Cascade Mountain Range into the Columbia River. It was once a major obstacle for travelers on the Oregon Trail, most of whom crossed it near the site of the Deschutes River State Recreation Area. Today the river is as popular with fly fishermen as it is with canoeists, kayakers and rafters.

A Wild and Scenic River, the Deschutes has healthy populations of the native Columbia River redband trout, which feature a dark red slash on their sides. Some stretches of the river are also home to summer steelhead and Chinook salmon. Some of America’s best trout water is found in a 100-mile stretch from the confluence with the Columbia River to Pelton Dam. The best time to fish it is during the salmonfly hatch in late May and early June.

Whitewater paddlers concentrate on two sections of the Deschutes: the Big Eddy, upstream of Bend, Oregon, and the stretch between Warm Springs and Sherars Falls.

Whether you want to wet a paddle or a fishing line, these five rivers are some of America’s most scenic, storied, and fun waterways. For more information on these rivers and many more, check out American Whitewater’s national database, or head to the website of the advocacy group American Rivers.