White water rafting is the ultimate thrill ride. Propelled by foaming, rushing water, you’re carried along canyons and under rainforest canopies, whooping and yelling as you rocket over rapids and navigate rocks. There’s no adrenaline rush like it—and the scenery is usually pretty spectacular, too.
Rivers with white water are graded from One to the experts-only Six, according to how challenging they are to navigate. But with an experienced guide and a sense of adventure, even novice rafters can be shooting rapids of up to Grade Four on a day trip.
All over the world, you’ll find opportunities to try white water rafting. You will need to be able to swim, as capsizing is sometimes all part of the fun. So buckle your life jacket and prepare for the ride of a lifetime.
Here are the 10 best places to go white water rafting in the world.
Nenana River, Denali National Park, Alaska
The Nenana River, just outside Alaska’s Denali National Park, flows through a majestic scenery of mountains, tundra, forest, and—for thrill-seekers—a sheer-sided canyon.
There’s rafting for all levels here on two separate stretches of the water. The more serene McKinley Run is a chance to admire the scenery of taiga forest and towering Alaskan mountains, with a chance to spot moose, bears, Dall sheep, and beavers. There are a few Grade Two rapids along the way, with a Grade Three as a grand finale.
The three-hour Canyon Run, meanwhile, hurtles you over eight Grade Three rapids and ends with the fearsome Grade Four “Cable Car”. Other rapids are wittily named the Coffee Grinder and the Ice Worm, which gives you an idea of what to expect.
The scenery is magnificent, especially in the canyon. If you can take your eyes off the foaming water around you, there’s a chance to spot popular Alaskan animals such as Dall sheep, bears, and moose.
Options on the Nenana River include an oar boat, where the guide does the paddling and you hang on, or a paddle boat, in which everybody has a paddle.
Hvitá River, Iceland
If you’ve admired the foaming Gullfoss—one of Iceland’s most extraordinary waterfalls—where the Hvitá River plunges 105 feet over a canyon edge, you may question whether this setting isn’t a little too extreme for whitewater rafting.
However, downstream from the falls, the river forces its way through a canyon, with mainly Grade Two rapids to negotiate, making it suitable for all levels of experience.
As this river originates in a glacier, the water is understandably cold. You’ll be kitted out in a drysuit with gloves, booties, and a hard helmet.
The course is just under five miles, with a stop midway during which those in need of an even greater buzz from Iceland’s nature can jump off a canyon lip into the freezing water below.
Soča River, near Koper, Slovenia
The emerald-green Soča River near Koper winds its way through lush forests in the shadow of Slovenia’s jagged Julian Alps.
The most popular descent through the rapids here takes two to three hours, along a stretch around seven miles long, from the jaw-droppingly spectacular 472-foot drop of the Boka Waterfall to Trnovo ob Soči.
The Soča, along its most popular stretch, starts off with a few gentle Grade Two rapids, where the drops are small and the rocks easy to navigate. It accelerates to Grade Three and a jaw-clenching Grade Four as a finale, as the river rushes through a narrow channel with continuous frothing, turbulent white water.
By then, though, you’ll be an old hand. Most operators on this river use rafts taking up to eight people with everybody paddling.
Rafting is hugely popular here; it’s one of Europe’s best places to go white water rafting, and while the later rapids may look intimidating, shooting them is tremendous fun.
The water is at its highest in early spring, as the river fills with snowmelt from the Alps. Come in summer and the rapids are likely to be more gentle.
Reventazon River, Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
One of the joys of whitewater rafting in Costa Rica is the chance to spot wildlife along the way. Experience Costa Rica’s nature and join a 10-mile descent of the Reventazon River.
In between negotiating the rushing Class Two and Three rapids, you can look out for toucans in the trees, kingfishers diving for fish, herons perched on the banks, and reptiles including iguanas and emerald basilisks.
Giant morpho butterflies in sapphire blue add to the illusion of being in a forest clearing in a cartoon, with distant misty hills forming a rugged backdrop.
The water levels in the river are controlled by a dam, so there’s no worry about low water. In fact, sections of the Reventazon are so fearsome that the World Rafting Championships have taken place here. Mere mortals, however, paddle the safer section of the river, which makes for a thrilling and satisfying day out.
Zrmanja River, Croatia
Curving a course through the karst scenery of the Velebit Nature Park, the blue-green Zrmanja River is one of the most beautiful places in Croatia, tumbling over a series of natural limestone shelves on its journey to the sea.
You’re not expected (or allowed) to plummet over the most dramatic of these, Veliki Buk—one of the best waterfalls in Croatia—on your whitewater rafting tour. Instead, you get out and carry the raft over the steep section. But there are thrills nonetheless, shooting roaming rapids through narrow canyons.
On the serene sections, listen to birdsong and cicadas chirping in the trees. It’s astonishingly peaceful here, and completely unspoiled. Crystal-clear rock pools provide welcome places to cool off on a hot day.
The rafting route takes you from Kaštel Žegarski to the iron bridge in Muškovci, a leisurely three-hour paddle with swim stops along the way.
Come in spring, when the water is high, and you’ll descend in rafts. Later in the season, when there’s less water, you’ll travel in lightweight rubber kayaks and the rapids will be calmer.
Ayung River, Bali
Most people regard Bali as a spiritual kind of place; an island of intricate Hindu temples, yoga retreats, and emerald rice terraces. But the island has plenty of appeal to adrenaline-seekers, too, particularly on the Ayung River near arty Ubud.
Here, you can gear up and jump into a raft for a thrilling two-hour descent of a section of Bali’s longest river, covering a distance of seven miles and racing over Grade Two and Three rapids.
You can expect the scenery along the way to be dazzling. The river curves around rice terraces, under coconut palms, and through dense rainforest, gathering pace as it’s fed by splashing streams.
You won’t need a wetsuit here as Bali is in the tropics. In fact, the splashing and occasional dunking in the water are refreshing in the intense humidity.
Read: Best Beaches in Bali
Mohaka River, Napier, New Zealand
New Zealand prides itself on its extreme sports, whitewater rafting being one of them. But don’t worry; you can have a fantastic day out on the Mohaka River near Napier and steer clear of the thundering, technically challenging Grade Five drops.
Families might want to opt for a gentle Grade Two section, drifting through wooded valleys and over exhilarating but relatively easy rapids. For more thrills, opt for Grade Three, with some white water descents and spectacular views of New Zealand’s backcountry.
You’ll have stops for swimming or just floating in the crystal clear water, taking in the picturesque views that New Zealand is known for, with lush woodlands, green hills, and craggy rock formations along the river.
Pacuare River, near Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
Serious thrill-seekers head for Costa Rica’s Pacuare River, about an hour and a half from Puerto Limón, where the rapids are Grades Three and Four and not for the faint-hearted. Having said that, this is still a river that anybody with reasonable nerve can tackle in the hands of an expert guide.
The waters roll along a 16-mile stretch, twisting and turning through gorges and past mammoth rock formations against a backdrop of the Talamanca Mountains.
The scenery, when you get a chance to look up, is spectacular. You’ll see dangling vines, monkeys skipping through the trees, and colorful birds flitting in the canopy.
Barron River, Cairns, Australia
Just a short drive from Cairns, you’ll discover the Barron Gorge National Park. This is a verdant landscape of steep, forested mountains and sheer-sided ravines.
The dramatic Barron Falls plunges an astonishing 863 feet over a cliff face, while the river has carved a narrow gorge over the millennia by the Barron River to the Coral Sea.
One of the most popular activities in the gorge, which is studded with giant boulders and characterized by foaming rapids, is whitewater rafting.
The rapids here are Grade Three, safe enough for a beginner in the hands of an experienced guide, but thrilling enough to satisfy even the most daredevil passenger.
Rafts carry seven plus a guide and no experience is necessary. Rapids have amusing names including Hell’s Gate, Cheese Churn, and Mother-in-Law, so you can draw your own conclusions as to what to expect.
Rio Bueno, Jamaica
You’ll negotiate the Grade Two Rio Bueno, a scenic drive inland from the north coast of Jamaica, in a giant inflatable tube rather than a raft, but the thrills are the same.
There’s little chance to control a tube; you just settle in and literally go with the flow. The river propels you gently towards the warm Caribbean, accelerating towards the manageable Grade Two rapids. You’ll be carried through the fastest sections and occasionally spun around, which is all part of the fun.
Anybody can tackle the Rio Bueno; it really is gentle, and a lot of fun for kids. Part of the joy is the smooth section, where you can simply relax in your tube and gaze up at the forest canopy, looking out for birds and monkeys.
There’s a stop en route for a swim, and a chance to fly through the air on a “Tarzan” swing and plunge into the river. Alternatively, you could leap off a 15-foot rock ledge, making sure someone’s on hand with a camera to capture the action.
The tubes emerge at the mouth of the river onto a sandy Jamaican beach, where you can celebrate the adventure with a rum punch and a dip in the sea.
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