Some vacations are about total relaxation, while others are about stepping outside your comfort zone. Yeah, sure, it’s nice to sit on a beach — but it’s even more rewarding to get yourself into the mountains and experience nature on full blast. You’ll feel like you challenged yourself, did a little work, and got a little dirty.
If you’re headed west this summer, get yourself to the nearest river and spend a day going whitewater rafting. You’ll feel like the ultimate adventurer, and maybe get some cool PFD tan lines while you’re at it.
Salmon River’s Middle Fork, Idaho
To experience a full back-country experience, wander into the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church Wilderness via the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Also known as the “River of No Return” Wilderness, this 104-mile branch of the Salmon is windy and skinny, tapering off to a dead end in north-central Idaho. Since it’s a five- to six-day endeavor, it’s a bit of an investment; but go with a reputable company and it’ll be one of the best weeks of your life.
Rogue River, Oregon
Take a day trip on the recreation-approved stretch of the Rogue River near Merlin, Oregon, or get even dirtier with a multi-day trip into the wild and scenic section. The river flows from Crater Lake — a crater left by the volcanic Mt. Mazama — and passes through the younger Cascade Mountain range as well as Western Cascades, arriving at the Pacific Ocean. An intermediate stretch, it’s known for rugged, Northwestern scenery.
Lochsa River, Idaho
With a Nez Perce name that translates to “Rough Water,” the Lochsa river is unregulated, which means that it’s free of dams. It also contains a steep elevation drop, about 2,000 feet. As a high-elevation river, the Lochsa has an early season of late April to early June and is known for being a wild ride, featuring Class III-IV rapids — medium to difficult.
Colorado River, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona
It’d be a mistake to not include one of the most obvious choices for this list: the Grand Canyon. If you want to raft the Grand (who doesn’t?!), it’s pretty easy to hook up with one of the private companies leading trips year-round and take one of the one- to 17-day trips with a little planning.
But it would also be a mistake to overlook the other amazing runs on the mighty Colorado: Westwater Canyon over the state lines of Utah and Colorado, and Cataract Canyon through Canyonlands National Park. These shorter runs feature breathtaking scenery and powerful rapids on one of the most epic rivers in the country; and since they’re a little more niche, they even have a bit more cool factor.
Green River, Utah
On the Green River in Utah, Desolation Canyon is a slice of historical wilderness that’s even deeper than the Grand Canyon in several places and said to be one of the most remote places in the lower 48. The scenery features more open space than the Grand as well, and more relaxed Class II and III rapids. Located near Moab, Utah, it’s a perfect destination for a family vacation.
Tuolumne River, California
For world-class rafting, try the Tuolumne River originating from Yosemite National Park in California — if you dare. Commercial and recreational trips frequent the 18-mile stretch from Cherry Creek to Lake Don Pedro and cover Class III-IV rapids; but the main Tuolumne is known for offering some of the most difficult rafting in the country.