Top 10 Whitewater Kayaking Destinations in North America

people in blue water

Kayaking can be the perfect way to unload some stress and get away from problems at work or at home. However, it can also be a challenging aerobic activity that can improve flexibility and strength. If you’re always up for a challenge, and you love paddling in whitewater conditions, then you’ll definitely want to check out the top 10 White Water kayaking destinations in North America. These destinations offer a paddling experience you won’t find anywhere else and can provide the type of challenge you’ve been searching for. So, if you’re tired of your nine-to-five life and you’re looking for a new adventure, then read on to learn about the hottest spots where you can put your kayaking skills to the test.

Ready, Set, Go!

Kayaking can be a calming experience or a thrilling one, depending on where you paddle. If you’re like most thrill-seekers, then you own a good whitewater kayak that’s designed to handle class 4 and 5 water conditions. You may even be searching for your next adventure and want to plan a trip so you can explore new waters and take in the sights. My list of the top 10 whitewater kayaking destinations will show you some of the best kayaking spots in the country, some of which are even beginner-friendly.

Before you fly to your destination, make sure you bring along the proper gear, including a kayaking lifejacket, gloves, and other supplies. While in some destinations, you may be able to rent some gear, in more rural locations, you will need to bring your own supplies, including your own kayak.

To learn more about how to prepare for this type of trip, click here to read my guide on what to wear kayaking.

Let’s get started with Chesapeake Bay, a spot that landed at number one on my list.

Chesapeake Bay

Kayaking on the Chesapeake Bay
Kayaking on the Chesapeake Bay

The largest estuary in the United States, Chesapeake Bay is a 200-mile long river that flows across a total of 6 states and is home to thousands of animal and plant species. Typically, most kayakers will spend up to two or three days paddling through this winding Majestic River exploring the beauty of the bay.

Aside from the challenging whitewater conditions, fishing is among one of the biggest highlights of Chesapeake Bay. As you ride along the river you’ll be able to view fish as they swim smoothly through the water while you quietly follow them with a net. Fishing on the bay has been described as a very relaxing and thrilling experience. This destination also provides some pretty amazing scenery that only gets better as you continue down the river. You’ll also be able to catch one of the most beautiful sunsets in the country. In terms of the Whitewater rapid classification system, this destination rated as a class 1-3.

Colorado River

The Colorado River is centuries-old and is an impressive 1450 miles long. It’s also home to millions of species of animals. If you are seeking a quiet day on the river and an adrenaline rush, this kayaking experience is one that you’ll never forget. The best part about this destination is the iconic site of the Grand Canyon, one of 8 natural wonders of the world.

However, you also get to catch sight of 7 States including Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming. For this river’s whitewater rapid classification, it rated as a class 1-4.

Gauley River

This river has a reputation as one of the best whitewater destinations in the world. Located in West Virginia, visiting during the fall you’ll enjoy the rapidly changing foliage. Each year during autumn, water is released from the Summersville Dam, which creates perfect whitewater rapids that every adventure seeker will love. The lush scenery that you’ll be exposed to as you paddle down the river will also be a very relaxing experience. Additionally, as you paddle you can capture sight of beautiful scenery that you would not be able to have access to on foot.

Tampa Bay

Kayaking in Tampa Bay, Florida will allow you to get away from it all and truly take in some beautiful sights, however, it can also give you a big rush of adrenaline. You will stumble upon many types of wildlife that call this place home including alligators, large fish, and snakes. If you decide to kayak in downtown Tampa, you will also catch sight of manatees and dolphins in addition to the beautiful cityscape. In terms of whitewater rapids, you can explore the Hillsborough River. Tampa Bay earned a whitewater rapid classification of 2.

Tyger River

In South Carolina, you’ll find this beautiful river, which is home to several species of animals and plant life. You’ll find a variety of species of waterfowl and eagles here. As you paddle down the river, you’ll see several different types of plants that you normally wouldn’t catch sight of in the big city. Unfortunately, a big drawback of this destination is the fact that kayaking services are not provided, unlike the other destinations that made it onto my list. This means that you’ll have to find your own kayak. However, if it’s a matter of mailing your kayak ahead of time, or purchasing a new one, it’s definitely worth the trouble.

The whitewater rapids here may not be the most challenging for the adrenaline junkie, however,  it will still give the kayaker a sense of peace as they paddle down the river and observe nature at its best. Further down the river, you won’t need much skill as the rapids turn to relatively mild conditions, allowing you to bring inexperienced kayakers along for the ride.

Prince William Sound

Aerial shot

This destination is named after King George the third’s son Prince William Henry. The Prince William Sound is found in Alaska and is part of America’s second-largest forest. Chugach National Forest is surrounded by snow-capped steep mountains and it’s often referred to as the kayaker’s paradise. Kayaking here is definitely a life-changing experience. Due to the vastness and abundance of plant life and wildlife you’ll be exposed to on your journey, you’ll catch sight of sea lions, seals, whales, bears, and more. The lush plant life, different species of fish, wild animals, and massive trees are all part of this thrilling destination and can make it an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. The whitewater rapid classification system here has a rating of 3.

Salmon River

Kayaking on the Salmon River is definitely a beginner-friendly experience. While you paddle through the river, you’ll catch sight of otters, bears, and eagles. This river is often referred to as the river of no return, due to all the wondrous things you’re bound to see. As you journey down the river, you’ll also get to catch sight of the famous canyon which is home to cougars and deer. Forests, mountains, beaches, and waterfalls are also part of this beautiful river that runs 14,000 square miles in length. This destination earned a whitewater rapid classification of 3 to 4.

Mulberry River

If you love combining your two favorite passions kayaking and fishing, then the Mulberry River is the perfect destination for you. The crystal-clear water is home to millions of species of fish including potholes, sunfish, and largemouth, and smallmouth bass. However, the water temperatures tend to drop quickly which means you’ll need to dress warmly for this adventure. Located in the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas, this destination earned a whitewater rapids classification 2 to 3.

San Juan River

In Colorado, you’ll find the San Juan River. If you’re looking for a more family-friendly whitewater rapids destination, then the San Juan River is a great choice. Kayaking on this river is very beginner-friendly and isn’t it as risky as some of the other destinations on my list. Even better, you and the family can enjoy a beautiful sunset as you head down this river and stare at the amazing rock art. Food is also readily available so you won’t have to travel far to stock up. If you and the family love to swim, the water is usually the perfect temperature so you can cool off throughout the day. This destination has a whitewater rapid classification of 1 to 2.

Arkansas River

Girl Paddling

If you want to kayak in mild water conditions, enjoy a beautiful sunset, and hang by the mountainside, then the Arkansas River is a great choice. With mild temperatures and a great location, this low-risk kayaking experience will give you and the entire family and opportunity to connect with nature. If you’re looking for more of an adrenaline rush you won’t find it here due to the class 2 rapids, however, it does make the perfect spot for the beginner to learn how to handle mildly choppy water conditions.

Other Kayaking-Worthy Destinations

While the following destinations didn’t make it onto my top ten list, they’re definitely places you’ll want to visit at some point in the future. Many also offer camping facilities nearby, which will allow you to get the most out of your kayaking adventure, while exploring many of the beautiful sights that nature has to offer.

Tuolumne River

Kayaking down the Tuolumne River is packed with adventure due to its continuous flow of class 4 rapids. However, if you are new to kayaking, then this destination is definitely not for you. If you have experience and you’re feeling adventurous, you’ll get the adrenaline rush you’ve been looking for. Here, you’ll witness canyons and waterfalls on your journey across this river which is often referred to as the T. Camping facilities are also available near the river since most tourists often spend three to four days kayaking and making the most of the natural sceneries, and intriguing wildlife.

Devils River

If you know how to handle waves in your kayak, then you’re ready to take on the Devil’s River. In Texas, you’ll find this beautiful and scenic river that runs between a couple of deserts: the Tamaulipas and the Chihuahua. The waters here are much clearer and cleaner than the majority of rivers you’ll find in America,  which makes it a very popular kayak fishing hotspot. Unfortunately, this destination is not a good choice for the beginner since the rapids are very strong and should only be handled by experts. If you want to make the journey down river you need to be prepared for a 3-day adventure and bring along enough supplies since food and other resources are not readily accessible.

Eleven Point National Wild and Scenic River

You may have heard of this river which is recognized internationally for its rich history and beautiful scenery. Kayaking down this river will be an experience you’ll never forget thanks to the beautiful sycamore and birch trees. In some places, the trees have grown together to form beautiful canopies over the river. Fishing on this river is also a very popular activity however, you may need to purchase a special kind of permit to fish certain species. Additionally, the river flows to the Ozark Hills of Missouri where you’ll be able to spot gold mines of the past. This destination has a whitewater rapid classification of 1 to 2.

Final Thoughts

These top 10 whitewater kayaking destinations in North America are definitely great choices for the serious kayaker in search of a new adventure. However, some of these spots are also a good choice for family vacations, or for beginners in search of gentler rapids they can explore and practice their paddling techniques. Many of the more challenging rapids should only be attempted by experienced kayakers who know how to handle rough water conditions. However, even these experienced paddlers should never attempt to tackle these challenging waters alone.