5 of the best springtime river rafting trips

Spring, when snow melts and the rivers are at their fullest, is the best time to paddle. If you can deal with the cold, put on a wetsuit and get out on the river; you’ll be rewarded with big water, beautiful views, and solitude. These are some of the best high-water runs to tackle in the springtime.

Arkansas River, Colorado

River rafting out of a hole on the Arkansas
Paddling out of a hole on the Arkansas; photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Arkansas is Colorado’s most frequently run river. In the middle of the summer, boats will be bumper to bumper down the Class III Brown’s Canyon section. But early in the season, as snow melts down from the Rockies and before flows are regulated, you can run the steep, wild Class V Pine Creek section with barely any other boats around. The 6-mile section, which is the most technical on the river, flows into the tricky, narrow Class IV Numbers section. It’s some of the best paddling in the state and it’s the most fun when the river is high in the spring.

Dead River, Maine

Dead River rafting POV
Dead River rafting POV; photo courtesy Northern Outdoors

Maine has two rivers that are dam-released and run every day from now through the fall: the Penobscot and the Kennebec. The Dead, on the other hand, runs only eight times a year. There are five releases in the spring and three in the fall, so you have limited times to run the state’s wildest river. It’s beautiful and remote, and the rapids, including big holes and huge wave trains, build over the 16-mile trip.

Deschutes River, Oregon

A quiet stretch of the Deschutes
A quiet stretch of the Deschutes; photo by Leslie Butler

If you want a desert trip but you live in the Pacific Northwest, the Deschutes—in dry, warm eastern Oregon—is a good compromise. The Wild and Scenic lower section of the Deschutes, which eventually runs into the Columbia, has a variety of Class III rapids and really good fishing. You can run sections ranging from 13-mile half-day trips to nearly 600-mile three-day expeditions.

Chattooga River, Georgia

Cue the banjo music: river rafting on the Chattooga. Photo: Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest
Cue the banjo music: river rafting on the Chattooga. Photo courtesy Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest

“Deliverance” makes most people think of West Virginia, but the paddling sections of the movie were actually filmed on Georgia’s Chattooga River, one of the most exciting and beautiful rivers in the Southeast. The Chattooga was declared Wild and Scenic in 1974, so it’s undeveloped and the gorge feels really remote. There are two sections you can run: the slightly mellower Section III and the Class IV–V Section IV, which includes the Five Falls, a series of Class IV drops.

Tuolumne River, California

Dropping on the Tuolumne; photo by Grant Montgomery
Dropping on the Tuolumne; photo by Grant Montgomery

The Tuolumne, right outside of Yosemite National Park, is widely considered one of the most beautiful rivers in the state of California, if not the country. If you have three days, commit to a multi-day trip and do the whole Main Tuolumne. If you can’t swing that much time, there are single-day stretches too. California is having one of its driest years on record, which means it’s even more timely to get there in the spring this year.

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