Famous for its whitewater rafting during the “fall release” season, West Virginia’s Gauley River doesn’t need the help of a timed release to have killer class IV and V rapids. During the spring runoff season, water levels can actually be higher than in the fall and some say the usually-less intense Lower Gauley section can match the Upper boil for boil.
Rivermen offers two spring options: a full-day trip from $119 per person will take you on either the Upper or Lower Gauley, depending on water levels, and a two-day overnight for $289 that combines different sections and boats—multi-person rafts or 1-to-2-person inflatable kayaks called “duckies.” Both trips are for advanced paddlers.
Carving a 215-mile path through southwest Oregon’s Cascades from Crater Lake to the Pacific, the Rogue River was one of the first rivers declared “Wild and Scenic” by a 1968 Act of Congress.
The 34-mile section designated “Wild” starts where the lower Rogue meets its Grave Creek tributary, and is marked by Class III rapids and the Mule Creek Canyon. Passing through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the river is home to wildlife including black bears, river otters, bald eagles, and Chinook salmon, as well as the most diverse collection of flora west of the Smokies.
The Bureau of Land Management issues recreation permits May 15 through October 15. To take advantage, Noah’s River Adventures offers outfitted rafting trips ranging from half a day to four days. For $895 you can raft and camp for three nights, or, if you want some creature comforts, you can throw lodges into the mix for some extra dough. Check the schedule for availability.
March through June is the perfect time to visit Arkansas’ Buffalo River, which winds its way undammed through the rocky bluffs of the Ozarks. Class III and IV rapids mark the 15 miles of the Upper Buffalo, nicknamed Hailstone River, and will take advanced kayakers through a cave-pocked landscape that’s truly wild. Keep an eye out for elk.
The lower 135 miles are administered by the National Park Service as Buffalo National River. With plenty of camping and hiking along the way—and cabins, too—there are plenty of single- and multi-day trips you can take, depending on water levels.
For a day-trip, Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca can outfit you with canoe, paddle, PFD and trash bag for $55 a person (shuttle is $30 extra). The ten-mile paddle will take you past 550-foot Big Bluff and the trailhead for Hemmed-In Hollow, a 210-foot waterfall that whips in the wind like a ribbon. Call for multi-day pricing.
For having two of the country’s premier whitewater runs in a ten-odd-mile stretch, the Ocoee River is a strange beast. On its brief way through Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee, the Middle and Upper Ocoee are cut off by two dams and a power station, leaving the riverbeds dry for most of the year. Drivers on U.S. Route 64 might even scratch their heads when they pass Ocoee Whitewater Center, home of the whitewater slalom in the ‘96 Olympics, only to see... nothing.
Don’t be fooled. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the dams, begins scheduled releases every spring for the sole benefit of recreationists. Although the Upper Ocoee is stacked with class III’s and IV’s—both natural and man-made—it’s only slated to see 34 days of action this year.
The Lower Ocoee, on the other hand, is a magnet for rafters and sport kayakers, drawing over 250,000 visitors annually, according to American Whitewater. With releases beginning in March, outfitters like Ocoee Rafting can send you downriver for between $30 and $49, depending on the date and day of week.
Cutting through Idaho's rugged Salmon Mountains before emptying into the Salmon River, the Middle Fork drops 3,100 feet in its 110 miles, making the river a continuous string of class III and IV rapids—with some hot springs, to boot.
Over its course, the Middle Fork's douglas fir- and lodgepole pine-lined shores give way to the steep walls of Impassable Canyon. Golden eagles, bears and bighorn are found in this wild terrain, nestled into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.
Award-winning ECHO River Trips offers five-to-six day all-inclusive rafting trips down the entire Middle Fork beginning at the end of May. Prices range from $1,445 to $2,095 per person for groups up to 23 people. As flow drops off in July and August, the first 25 miles become impassable, but slower water for the remaining distance makes trips more family-friendly.
Forming a natural 50-odd-mile stretch of state line between South Carolina and Georgia, the Chattooga River is one of the rivers that inspired the novel-turned-film Deliverance. (It was also a shooting location.) Passing through three national forests in wild Appalachia, the Chattooga’s flow peaks in spring, culminating in some famously hairy class IV’s and V’s in its lower sections.
Until this past December, paddling in the river’s upper reaches in North Carolina was banned by the Forest Service, but now sections are open for business until April 30. Be aware, this part of the river is a DIY affair, but well worth it for the adventurous.
Downstream is where you’ll find rafting outfitters. Southeastern Expeditions, Wildwater Rafting, and Nantahala Outdoor Center all do single- and multi-day packages starting under $90. Wildwater also can set you up for stand up paddleboarding in Lake Tugaloo, Chattooga’s terminus.
Although popular in winter, the Everglades’ "river of grass" has excellent paddling until the rains arrive in late spring. Its mangrove tunnels and cypress domes, reedy expanses and 10,000 Islands are so abundant with scenery and wildlife—think gators, manatees, bears and birds—even a half-day guided tour is rewarding.
Everglades City in the park’s northwest corner is the perfect launching point for the whole range of paddling options. Everglades Adventures leads half-day mangrove tours year-round for $124, and its extended schedule of trips into the sawgrass prairie and “sunset tours” continue through April.
For $150, Shurr Adventure Company can take you on a 6-hour kayak journey to the coastal islands where you can see dolphins, manatee and the elusive American crocodile.
Or, for the truly adventurous, book with Backcountry Cowboy for an all-inclusive six-day, 99-mile trek ($795 per person) down the Wilderness Waterway where you’ll camp on raised wooden platforms called chickees.
Upstream from where the New River meets the Gauley in West Virginia are 53 free-flowing, canyon-rimmed miles of the New River Gorge, part of the National Park system. This outdoors paradise is beloved by rock climbers for the hundreds of single-pitch verticals, BASE jumpers for its eponymous bridge, and whitewater rafters for its class II to class V runs.
Class VI-Mountain River leads package trips on both the Gauley and the New. Among the highlights are their multi-day packages that combine hiking, swimming and—oh, yeah—barreling down class V’s. Catered camping included, from $289 for two days and $389 for three.
In the heart of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, the Nantahala River runs for eight moderately wooly miles through the narrow Nantahala River Gorge. Because an upriver power plant schedules daily releases from March through October, the flow is consistent enough to support several outfitters, and even the 2013 Freestyle Kayaking Championships.
Self-guided trips can run you less than $20 per person with Adventurous Fast Rivers, although if you’re a real adrenaline junkie, you can spring for a sit-on-top kayak for $35. Just be sure to take out before the lower Nantahala Falls, a class VI monster considered to be suicidal.
Because the Nantahala is a half-day river (unless you run it twice), head to the Nantahala Outdoor Center where the river feeds into Fontana Lake, a flat Appalachian lake lined with coves and waterfalls. For $25 NOC can put you in a kayak or on a stand up paddleboard for two hours.
Ever since John Wesley Powell ran it in 1869, the Colorado River’s 220-plus-mile passage through the Big Ditch has been the big name in big water. Experiencing the whole canyon at river level is a bucket-list trip—and prices and availability reflect that. Longer guided trips sell out a year in advance, and unguided trips require entry into a lottery the previous February—so, really, we’re talking spring 2014 here.
If you’re willing to pony up a cool $2,600 per person, there are openings for two left on award-winning Western River’s 6-day trips. Fair warning to paddle fiends: these are motorized rafts.
For the budget conscious, travel 15 miles upstream of the Grand Canyon’s put-in to Glen Canyon Dam, where Colorado River Discovery leads half- and full-day motor-raft tours from $89 and $181, respectively. While you’ll technically be in Glen Canyon, you'll still get the towering rust-colored bluffs and blue-green waters its Grand neighbor is famous for.