River kayaking is one of the best ways to explore a new city. From paddling right through metropolitan areas to exploring rural countrysides, there is a ton of variety on the 15 best rivers to kayak in the U.S.
To be honest, this list holds an extra appeal to me because I love testing my limits in one of the best whitewater kayaks. The good news, however, is that not all of these rivers require whitewater kayaking skills.
Some may have Class IV and V rapids during the peak runoff season, but others are the equivalent of an extra-wide lazy river at your local waterpark. So there is something for everyone.
From beginners to experienced kayakers, we hope this list will help you plan a kayaking trip to a U.S. destination that you haven’t seen yet. For those beginners out there, we will also start with a few quick river kayaking tips!
Photo by Gaspar Janos via Shutterstock
- Best Rivers To Kayak In The U.S.
- Quick River Kayaking Tips
- Best U.S. Rivers For Kayaking
- Final Thoughts
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- Colorado River
- Green River
- French Broad River
- Snake River
- Rio Grande
- Susquehanna River
- Delaware River
- Columbia River
- Gauley River
- Arkansas River
- Klamath River
- Middle Fork of the Salmon River
- Missouri River
- Loxahatchee River
- Noatak River
Photo by Jim David via Shutterstock
If you have plenty of experience with river paddling, feel free to skip right to our river highlights. For everyone else, these tips will help you enjoy a safe paddling experience on whichever river you decide to visit next!
Not all of the rivers on our list will have sections of whitewater for you to paddle through. Some, however, will require that you learn how the ripples on the surface of the water can teach you about the depth, current, and obstacles present ahead.
If you begin to paddle rivers with even Class I and II whitewater, you will need to learn how to read the rapids ahead of you. This will help you pick the best possible line through the rapids and avoid capsizing or even, in the worst cases, hitting rocks that will damage your kayak.
Finding a course on whitewater paddling in your area is a great place to start with this kind of education. Even the most basic course out there should include critical information about how to read a river.
For some helpful basics right here, however, we would suggest watching this quick video!
Annual flow rates are really important to know when you are preparing for a river trip. Comparing averages, highs, and lows to the current flow rate will give you a better sense of a river’s current conditions.
The important thing to know is that river flow rates will look different depending on the depth, width, and general makeup of a river. For example, a flow rate of 1500 cubic feet per second (CFS) will look different on a narrow, shallow river compared to a wide, deep waterway.
For the best picture of a river’s current conditions, it can be helpful to reach out to a local outfitter. They should have the river’s up-to-date flow rate on hand and can translate that to give you a better sense of the safety of paddling in those conditions.
This is a more common practice for folks paddling on whitewater rivers, but it is a healthy habit for all river paddlers. If you are questioning the best route through the rapids that lie ahead, pull your boat up on the shore and find a way to scout that section of rapids on foot.
Seeing the river from the elevated vantage point will give you a better sense of the best way through (or around) obstacles or rapids. As you begin to run higher classes of whitewater, scouting becomes increasingly important.
River kayakers should always have a spare set of clothing packed somewhere on their kayak. If you are paddling a sit-inside kayak, we suggest looking into one of the best kayak deck bags to hold your personal gear.
Of course, you can also choose a regular dry bag that will fit in your kayak’s bulkhead compartments. For sit-on-top kayaks, you will need to choose a dry bag that will fit in your kayak’s open storage compartment either at the bow or stern of your vessel.
Photo by Jim David via Shutterstock
The lone major river in the American Southwest boasts some of the most stunning topography of any river in the nation. The Colorado runs for 1,450 miles, which makes it the fifth-longest river in the United States.
There is something for everyone on this river. Finding calm paddling, intense whitewater, or something in between is simply a matter of where you can get down the river’s shore.
Because of the steep cliff walls that the river has carved out for centuries, there can be a limited number of access points to choose from. For those interested in calmer paddles on the Colorado River, the Black Canyon National Water Trail is one of the most popular sections.
On the other end of the spectrum, the sections running through Kremmling and Glenwood Springs are known as having some of the most intense whitewater that this river has to offer.
Photo by Tucker Ballister
The Green River is actually a tributary of the larger Ohio River and it stretches 384 miles through south-central Kentucky. It is one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in the entire nation.
One of the most popular sections for remote kayaking runs through Mammoth Cave National Park and can be accessed at several old ferry sites.
This river can also be popular for canoe trips, so you may want to learn a bit more about the differences between canoes and kayaks to choose the right option for your Green River trip.
Fortunately, there are plenty of canoe and kayak outfitters in this area to help you prepare for your trip and organize a shuttle for point-to-point or overnight paddles.
The river’s flow rate is generally manageable for beginner and intermediate paddlers, but it can vary greatly depending on storms and seasonal rainfall.
Photo by Tucker Ballister
If you are planning a visit to Asheville, North Carolina, we would highly recommend taking a day (or just an afternoon) to paddle a stretch of the French Broad River.
Sections of the river that run right through town are extremely popular for recreational kayaks and tubing, but there are other sections further downstream for whitewater kayakers.
Interestingly, scientists claim that the French Broad is one of the oldest rivers in the world. It is widely believed to be anywhere from 260 to 325 million years old and it is fed by freshwater in eight different counties in North Carolina (with its headwaters being located in Rosman).
If you are looking to rent a kayak to get out on the French Broad, French Broad Outfitters is a great company located right in Asheville. They will also organize a shuttle for you and your group if you have your own kayaks and safety equipment.
Photo by George Lamson via Shutterstock
Beginning in northwestern Wyoming, the Snake River is the largest tributary that eventually runs into the Columbia River (which then drains into the Pacific Ocean). The river runs largely in a northwesterly direction for its entire 1,078-mile length.
Over that extended length, this river offers plenty of opportunities for casual recreational paddling and heart-pounding whitewater. It is also a highly popular waterway for owners of the best river fishing kayaks.
Centennial Waterfront Park is one of the most popular launching points for beginners to explore the Snake River. If you are looking for an extended journey on the Snake, check out the trip to Shoshone Falls, which is otherwise known as the ‘Niagara of the West’!
Photo by Timothy Harris Photo via Shutterstock
Large rivers have formed natural borders that restrict human and animal movement for centuries. Here in the United States, the Rio Grande may very well be the most well known natural river border we have.
Along a significant portion of the southwestern section of Texas, it forms the natural border between the U.S. and Mexico. That neck of the woods also happens to be a great place for Rio Grande paddle recreation.
Big Bend National Park is one of the most remote parks in the country and it includes a significant section of the Rio Grande. One of the most popular areas to paddle on the river is Santa Elena Canyon, which offers a long section of meandering river before descending into a much more technical section that includes Class IV whitewater.
Photo by George Sheldon via Shutterstock
The Susquehanna is a wide, meandering river and its full watershed basin drains half of the land area of Pennsylvania as well as portions of New York and Maryland. The river itself stretches 444 miles in total.
It originates in Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York and eventually drains into the Chesapeake Bay. It also gets the distinction of being the ‘longest, commercially non-navigable river in North America’, which means you won’t have to deal with commercial ships or boat traffic as a non-motorized paddler.
Its width makes it a relatively easy place for beginners to paddle, although it does flow at an average rate of 20 miles per day during the summer months. At its widest, the river is a full mile across at is runs through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Cory Seamer via Shutterstock
Staying on the east coast, the Delaware River offers paddling opportunities for residents (and visitors) in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and, of course, Delaware. In total, it is 330 miles long and eventually drains into Delaware Bay.
There is a 103-mile section of the river (from Philadelphia and Camden down to the bay) that is used heavily for transportation and commercial purposes. Outside of that section, kayakers can find plenty of calm stretches to explore.
If you are looking for a place to launch your kayak on the Delaware, we would suggest looking into Fort DuPont State Park. Those of you with fly fishing kayaks may also like to check out the West Branch of the river and, more specifically, the lower section from Hale Eddy Bridge down to Junction Pool.
Photo by Mary Nguyen NG via Shutterstock
We stay at roughly the same latitude but head all the way across the country for this next river. The Columbia River is the seventh-longest river in the United States and spans a total length of roughly 1,243 miles.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area encompasses one of its most iconic stretches and features canyon walls up to 4,000 feet high in some sections.
On a historical note, humans have inhabited this biologically diverse river valley for more than 15,000 years and salmon fishing has long been one of the primary methods of sustenance on this region.
For folks interested in multi-day flatwater paddling, the Lower Columbia River Water Trail is an exceptional long-distance trip in this region.
There are also opportunities for whitewater paddling on the Columbia River, with one of the more notable sections being that which lies between Tucker Bridge and the confluence (this paddle is actually on the latter section of the Lower Hood River).
Photo by Arlene Waller via Shutterstock
Just to keep you on your toes, we are heading back to the eastern part of the country to check out the Gauley River in West Virginia. This river is a great location for whitewater kayaking and rafting trips.
At 105 miles long, the river is actually one of the shortest on our list, but it is world-renowned for its whitewater paddling. The main issue with whitewater paddling on the Gauley is that the ‘season’ is incredibly short and actually spans just 22 days from September to October.
That is because the annual flow is controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers at Summersville Dam. The seasonal release to prepare for the upcoming demands of winter create perfect whitewater conditions for folks that want to test their mettle on the “Big 5” (the river’s unique collection of five Class V rapids!).
Photo by Nature’s Charm via Shutterstock
The Arkansas River is also well-known for its whitewater paddling and rafting opportunities. It is the sixth-longest river in the United States and it is one of the largest tributaries feeding the mighty Mississippi River.
The river is categorized by three distinct sections along its length. The first section stays mostly in the state of Colorado (despite its name) and is highly popular for whitewater kayakers because the steep, rocky terrain causes the river to drop roughly 4,600 feet in elevation in a span of just 120 miles.
This river is also a very popular destination for kayak anglers interested in trout fishing. It is regularly included in Trout Unlimited’s annual list of the top 100 trout streams in the United States and the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado is one of the river’s best stretches for kayak anglers.
Photo by Victoria Ditkovsky via Shutterstock
Jumping back out to northern California, the Klamath River once featured one of the largest salmon runs in the nation. While the numbers have dwindled in recent years, it can still be a popular spot for kayak anglers.
The upper reaches of the river and its surrounding territory are affectionately known as “The Everglades of the West.” This is due to its vast tracts of wetlands and the fact that the river’s watershed is as large as the combined areas of the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
With more than 286 miles of protected area, the Klamath is the longest Wild and Scenic River in California. The protected area also stretches into southern Oregon.
The Lower Klamath River offers up to Class III whitewater while the upper stretches offer sections with Class IV and V rapids. Fortunately, there are calmer stretches (such as Klamath River Recreation Site) that are great for recreational, flatwater paddling.
Photo by CSNafzger via Shutterstock
The total length of the Salmon River stretches for roughly 425 miles through central Idaho, but the middle fork alone covers approximately 104 miles. You will need a permit to paddle the middle fork.
For whitewater enthusiasts, the middle fork of the Salmon is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The entire section features continuous whitewater and some of the best trout fishing in the United States.
Paddlers can also take advantage of hot springs to warm up after a day on the river’s colder waters. Plus, the scenery and wildlife make it hard for most to keep their eyes on the next stretch of rapids.
Because of its incredible beauty and technical whitewater, getting a permit to kayak the Middle Fork here is very competitive. The lottery begins in January and permits are limited in an ongoing effort to “preserve and protect these wild places.”
Photo by Leonard Jerry Horsford via Shutterstock
The Missouri River is the mighty Mississippi’s longest tributary and is the second-longest river in the United States in its own right. It extends more than 2,315 miles from its headwaters in southwestern Montana down to where it meets the Mississippi roughly 10 miles north of St. Louis.
There are paddling opportunities on the Missouri in many states including Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and, of course, Missouri.
One of the most popular locations for recreational paddlers is designated the Missouri National Recreational River. It encompasses a 100-mile section with 29 different river access points and mostly flatwater paddling throughout.
Photo by William Silver via Shutterstock
We had to include at least one river in the great state of Florida and we should also mention that Florida has a lot of freshwater and saltwater paddling. Plus, it is a highly popular location for saltwater kayak fishing.
It is one of only two rivers in Florida that have been designated with the ‘wild and scenic’ distinction. While it is much shorter than many of the other rivers on our list, it gives paddlers great opportunities to see a section of the central Florida landscape through 10 major freshwater and saltwater habitats.
Photo by National Park Service – Alaska Region via Flickr
From one extreme to the other, we finish our list with a clear, Arctic river in the state of Alaska. The Noatak River winds its way through the largest undisturbed watershed in North America, which means rugged paddling and remote wildlife viewing.
The river runs for a total length of about 400 miles and begins in the Endicott and Schwatka Mountains in Gates of the Arctic National Park. The final 100 miles flow through the Noatak National Preserve.
It isn’t easy to pull off a paddle trip in such a remote area, but June and September are the most popular months. June features the area’s annual caribou migration and the fall colors later on are epic!
Photo by Vitalii Nesterchuk on Shutterstock
Long-distance river kayaking requires proper packing, navigation skills, and wilderness survival skills. Fortunately, many of the best rivers to kayak in the U.S. provide opportunities for both day paddles and multi-day expeditions.
If one of these rivers is right in your backyard and you have yet to explore it, what are you waiting for? Get out and enjoy the beautiful scenery in your area before you make a cross-country trip to explore a new waterway.
Of course, this list is by no means a complete collection of all the amazing rivers to kayak throughout the United States. So if you would like to share your experiences on any of these rivers or suggest others that we should check out, please drop us a comment below!