It's springtime. The days are longer and warmer, and the water on America's rivers has begun to rage. It's time to wet a paddle, whether it's from your kayak, whitewater canoe or in a big ole rubber raft with the entire family.
Fortunately, this doesn't necessarily mean a long flight, a difficult hike into the wilderness or a multiday road trip to get to a good spot.
We've assembled a crack team of whitewater experts to help us pick out the 10 best whitewater towns in America. The list spans the country, from the southeast to the Pacific Northwest — and includes urban spots as well as country outposts. There are plenty of top whitewater spots for city slickers and country bumpkins alike.
To find America's best whitewater rafting spots, we sought advice from Joe Jacobi, who in 1992 won America's first-ever Olympic team whitewater canoeing gold medal; Brett Heyl, three-time national kayaking champ, a 2004 Olympian and a 2012 Olympic hopeful; and Scott Shipley, a whitewater park designer, freestyle kayaking legend and three-time World Cup champion.
All three mentioned some classic outdoor spots in naturally beautiful settings, as well as some within sight of skyscrapers and taxi cabs.
In the back woods
We caught up with Jacobi in the town of Kernville, Calif., where he was hosting his annual whitewater skills camp. Jacobi had high praise for both the sheer length of the whitewater on the nearby Kern River — more than 100 miles — and its variety, from Class I (the easiest rapids) to Class V (the most difficult and dangerous in size and speed). He says the Kern River Brewing Company, owned by two kayakers, is a mandatory post-paddle stop.
Another Jacobi favorite: Friendsville, Md., in the rural northwest corner of the state, home to the Youghiogheny River. It's the Valhalla of American whitewater rivers, where the legends still paddle the five miles of Class V water. "When I was 16, I skipped Fridays at school to go up there," says Jacobi.
A rural spot that's a favorite of Heyl's is Durango, Colo., a "low-key town" home to the Animus River. He also likes San Marcos, Texas, which boasts a whitewater park in town and miles of casual Class I and Class II rapids winding through Texas hill country.
Unlike Heyl's choices of inland spots, Shipley likes the coasts — two towns on opposite sides of the country, in fact. He likes Hood River, Ore., a "funky, outdoor town," for its excellent rafting at the base of the pretty Cascade Mountains on the Hood, some novice water on the Klickitat and some serious stuff on the White Salmon.
On the East coast, Shipley likes Deerfield, Mass., "a sleepy town in the winter, which picks up in the summer" when hundreds of rafts float its eponymous river. Deerfield puts you within a day's drive Vermont's West River and the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers in Maine.
Honking, sirens ... rapids?
It may come as a surprise, but some of the best whitewater rafting in the country is either in or very near urban areas.
Jacobi flagged his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. While not necessarily known as a whitewater paradise, Jacobi points out that countless creeks in the area churn with whitewater after a good rain. He calls the town a "hub for the great rivers of the Southeast," like the Ocoee River, site of the whitewater events in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Shipley loves Boise, Idaho, for its proximity to the Class V water on the Payette and the wilderness rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which, he says, "may be a better trip than the Grand Canyon."
Heyl is partial to his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., home of the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a whitewater park on the banks of the Catawba River, just minutes from downtown. Charlotte is another gateway to the Southeast, within a morning's drive of North Carolina's Broad, Green and family-friendly Nantahala — as well as South Carolina's Chattooga, where the movie Deliverance was filmed (hopefully your whitewater rafting excursion goes slightly better).
Heyl's other favorite: Washington, D.C. The city has been the training ground of many U.S. Olympians, including the brother-sister pair of Davey and Cathy Hearn. Great Falls of the Potomac, just 15 miles up river from D.C., is Class V+, one of the classic “hairy” runs in worldwide whitewater.
If you don't associate the nation's capital with top-class outdoor adventure, consider this: Whitewater legend and 28-time national champion Davey Hearn was arrested by the National Park Service when he ran the Potomac at flood stage while training for the Olympics in 1996. (The charges were eventually dropped.)
One thing to keep in mind: No matter where you're paddling, remember to stay within your own limits. While a world-class paddler like Hearn may be able to shoot Great Falls and kayak a river at flood stage, that doesn't mean testing the limits of human skill with a paddle — and the law — is for everyone.