Few outdoor adventures can match the thrill of river rafting in Alaska. This is, after all, a state that proudly calls itself the Last Frontier.
Venturing down Alaskan waterways is one of the best ways to explore the protected forests, tidewater glaciers, and fjords here. Since many parts of Alaska have few roads, traveling by boat affords travelers access to a world they would never experience by car.
Of course, while the scenery and wildlife sightings are thrilling on their own, river rafting is also perfect for adrenaline junkies. Many of the top spots here boast Class 3 and Class 4 white water rapids, which send small boats careening around corners and through waves of frigid water.
Whether you’re looking for a peaceful float or a pulse-pounding ride, there’s something for you in this great state. Here are some of the best places to go white water rafting in Alaska.
Talkeetna River, Talkeetna
When it comes to remote white water rafting in Alaska, the Talkeetna River is the textbook experience that both travelers and guides most often cite.
There’s a good reason for that. The Talkeetna River runs through Denali State Park, meaning you can expect to see phenomenal Alaskan wildlife on the shoreline here.
On rare days when the clouds that obscure Mount Denali part, you can also glimpse the glacier-capped peaks of the highest mountain in North America.
What kind of experience you have here depends largely on your comfort level and which parts of the river you and your guide attempt to tackle.
Certain sections of the Talkeetna River have daunting Class 4 and Class 5 rapids, making them not for the faint of heart.
Nenana River, Denali National Park
Denali National Park is one of the most captivating expanses of wilderness in all of North America, yet there are relatively few options for exploring it.
Part of what makes this Alaskan national park so special is the same thing that makes it effectively impossible to navigate solo: the intentional lack of infrastructure.
With few signs of civilization and even fewer roads or trails, this unique preserve allows an incredible array of wildlife to do as they please, unencumbered by human presence.
Most visitors who come here opt to either take a guided bus tour or ride on one of the park shuttles, which allow passengers to hop on and off to tackle the terrain for short stretches on foot. All of the buses and shuttles navigate the same winding road in and back out of the park.
For those looking to quite literally escape the beaten path, white water rafting is a terrific way to experience the park and often offers a better chance of wildlife sightings.
While megafauna have little incentive to follow the park road, they often congregate around the banks of the Nenana River, which runs just outside of the park boundaries.
Herds of mountain goats, moose, elk, Dall sheep, and even grizzly bears and their cubs can often be spotted just on the shoreline.
A range of guided rafting tours are available from the area and run the gamut from laid-back, two-hour journeys through Class 2 rapids to more spirited three-hour trips through Class 3 and 4 rapids.
Yukon River, Skagway
Adventurous souls will feel the call of the wild on this mammoth expanse of water that runs through some of the most rugged expanses of nature in the world.
The mighty Yukon River winds its way through more than 2,000 miles from the Canadian subarctic through the entirety of Alaska down to the Bering Sea.
Parts of the route are notoriously tricky to navigate and since much of the river runs far from human civilization, both black and brown bears are often just around the bend.
Because of its vastness, the Yukon River is one of those challenges that people choose to approach in all sorts of different ways. However, tour operators in Skagway offer attainable four- or five-hour day floats down some of the more serene stretches.
Mendenhall River, near Juneau
Conveniently located near one of Juneau, the Mendenhall Glacier is just one of a series of mammoth glaciers that make up the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Ice Field.
Situated above the brilliantly hued waters of Auke Bay, this magnificent Alaskan glacier can be difficult for hikers and other visitors to see up close—unless they approach by water.
Many visitors to the area opt for a kayak ride through the sheltered part of the bay, but there are also rafting tours around the area that typically run from about three to four hours.
As you cruise down the Mendenhall River, you’ll go through Class 3 white water rapids and take in some absolutely jaw-dropping views.
Lynn Canal, near Skagway
For travelers looking to experience the wonders of ocean rafting, the Lynn Canal is an excellent place to try.
Interestingly, the word “canal” here is something of a misnomer, as this breathtaking expanse is technically classified as a fjord.
It’s also not just any fjord, but the deepest one in all of North America. If you peer down into these icy depths, know that there are more than 2,000 feet—or 233 fathoms, in nautical terms—of water below you.
Naturally, passengers cannot expect to encounter white water rapids out here in the ocean, but what the Lynn Canal lacks in splashy thrills it more than makes up for in marine life.
Roving pods of orcas regularly make their way through the passage in search of prey. These highly intelligent apex predators are particularly easy to spot from the boat, thanks to their distinctive black-and-white markings. Orcas are also social and occasionally playful, meaning travelers can occasionally see them following a boat.
In addition to orcas, humpback whales can be seen in abundance during summer in Alaska, when they migrate up to the state from Hawaii to feed. Keep an eye out for the distinctive fluke of a tail or even the spectacular sight of a humpback breaching.
Dall’s porpoises also love to show off and swim alongside boats, as do sea otters. Meanwhile, if you look over on a sunny patch of rocks, expect to see Steller sea lions and harbor seals warming themselves.
Chulitna River, Talkeetna
Located toward the southern side of Denali National Park, the Chulitna River is Alaskan wilderness at its finest.
The river itself is an important salmon run, which means each season the waters here become thick with the prized fish. Naturally, this makes the river an especially good place to spy both brown bears, not to mention moose, bald eagles, and all sorts of other wildlife.
Many of the day rafting trips here run for roughly four hours, As with Talkeetna River, travelers fortunate enough to visit on a blue-sky day can glimpse the mighty summit of Mount Denali in the distance for more or less the entirety of the journey.
If you don’t actually see the mountain, don’t worry–-you’re in excellent company. Sightings are inherently rare, which is what makes them so special. Lucky travelers often refer to themselves as part of the “10 percent club,” while the other 90 percent simply vow to return to Alaska.
Taiya River, near Skagway
For families with children searching for a relatively peaceful rafting day trip, the sections of the Taiya River near Skagway offer plenty of options for more placid rides.
A number of the tour operators here offer journeys of roughly an hour or two through particularly scenic stretches of the river, which are free from the white water rollercoasters of Class 3 and Class 4 rapids found elsewhere.
On these gentle excursions, keep your eyes peeling for moose and elk at the edges of the forest. Depending on time constraints, some tour operators offer combination rafting trips that include a short hike along the White Pass.
Kenai River, near Seward
If the waters of this river, which spills forth from the Chugach Mountains, appear a supernaturally vibrant shade of teal, that’s not your eyes playing tricks on you.
Like many waterways in Alaska, the Kenai River carries mineral-rich runoff and sediment from ancient glaciers, which give it such an alluring hue in certain areas.
Aside from its distinctive color, there are a number of other reasons why the Kenai River makes for an exceptional rafting experience.
For starters, most of the river runs through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which happens to be one of the best places on Earth to spot charismatic megafauna.
The river itself is also teeming with life—most importantly, four species of salmon. Every year, these fish swim almost the entire length of the river to spawn, making this one of the longest salmon runs and one of the best places to fish in Alaska. The influx of salmon each year brings with it plenty of bears and other predators hoping to gorge.
When it comes to rafting, the river offers ample Class 3 rapids, which can make for a wild ride in places interspersed with phenomenal scenery.
Chilkat River, near Skagway
Bird watchers should make a beeline for this river, which flows from the icy slopes of the Chilkat Glacier.
Avian life of all sorts can be spotted along these banks, but what makes the area so remarkable is that the river passes directly through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
As the name implies, this area is one of the best places to see bald eagles in Alaska, and is home to one of the largest concentrations of America’s national bird that you’ll find anywhere.
Although these birds are still a relatively rare sight in most of the lower 48 states, in Alaska, they are common. Here along the Chilkat River, passengers on rafts can expect to see incredible numbers of eagles swooping, soaring, and fishing for salmon.
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