Short of measuring the size of every wave, it’s impossible to create an empirical list of the world’s best whitewater. In addition to the water itself, we looked at the quality of the company and the immeasurable awe, like how many grizzlies you might encounter along the shoreline. Be prepared to grumble: A few “iconic” rivers didn’t make the cut. But one thing is for certain: All 10 will rock your raft—and your world.
Never rely on a guide again. On this 24-day full-immersion backpacking and whitewater course that starts in Haines, Alaska, students learn state-of-the-art minimum impact camping skills, practice route-finding, gain technical competence in backcountry whitewater, and learn how to execute emergency scenarios while in the field. All this while rafting the smaller, more technical tributaries and the giant braided glacial drainages farther downriver on the Tatshenshini.
Exact logistics are weather dependent, but students start out with a Swift Water Rescue training and certification, continue with three days of rafting the Upper Tatshenshini River where rapids like Rock Garden and Twin Holes keep students wide-eyed and attentive. The course ends with an overnight on the mostly Class III Tutshi River, with a few sections of Grade IV and V thrown in. By the end of this trip, students will have enough skills in river rescue, hydrology, raft maneuvering, oar and paddle strokes, and captaining to paddle almost anything. $3,500; offered June, July, August.
Idaho has the largest contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48 and quite a few rivers running through it. No matter which pick we make here, one or two classics will be left out. For pure whitewater terror, however, it’s hard to beat the two-day paddle on the free-flowing Lochsa. The continuously explosive, 40 class III-IV rapids—with names like Grim Reaper and Bloody Mary—are the result of both big volume (10-20,000 cfs) and steep gradient (30 feet per mile). This kind of whitewater is akin to more famous rivers, like the Gauley in West Virginia, but the Lochsa is bigger and longer.
For the full Idaho experience, front-load the Lochsa with a five-day paddle on the Snake River through Hells Canyon. With Grand Canyon-style rapids through North America’s deepest river gorge, 70-degree water temperatures, and pictographs and pioneer homesteads along the way, Hells Canyon is awe-inspiring. Seven-day combination, $1,995; best in June.
Guides here jokingly refer to the Alsek as a Class V Float Trip. There may be rivers with more concentrated rapids than the 140-mile-long Alsek, but looks can be deceiving. The Alsek, which is surrounded by massive glaciers and giant peaks as high as 15,000 feet, drains one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. This translates to furiously fast, massively voluminous water that rockets out of the mountains at a much steeper gradient than, say, the Yukon.
The water temperature here averages 33 degrees so if you flip, you freeze—dry suits are mandatory. To amp up the adrenaline factor, the Alsek runs through Kluane National Park, home to the highest concentration of grizzlies in North America. Then there’s Turnback Canyon, the five-mile Class VI stretch so deadly that it must be portaged by helicopter. Twelve-day trips from $3,795; best time to go is June.
More and more travelers are paying the $200-$250 per night tariff just to enter the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, but it’s still a rare opportunity to raft the country’s sacred rivers. This 11-day trip floats four Class II-III rivers past some of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world, including the Punakha Dzong, a 17th-century monastery that sits on the banks of the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and has survived six fires, two floods, and one earthquake.
You’ll also hike to Tiger’s Nest, a famous monastery chiseled into a cliff 2,000 feet above the Paro Valley floor. Forewarning: Don’t be shocked when you visit the Temple of the Divine Madman. The shrine to Bhutan’s most famous saint (who had a wicked sense of humor) is adorned with giant phalluses—which the Bhutanese believe ward off evil. $3,795; best time to go is November.