The West's desperate water shortage may get a year's reprieve. Last winter's epic snowpack—in some places the biggest since the 1960s— is fueling the best whitewater season since the invention of self-bailing rafts. The timing couldn't be better: 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The once-obscure bill, which was signed into law by a war-tainted, outgoing President Johnson in 1968, has protected 165 American rivers from damming and development. To celebrate, we sifted through the country's top Wild and Scenic River trips and picked the best.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Tuolumne River
Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho River Odysseys West's six-day, Class IV raft trip on central Idaho's celebrated river will see the biggest boost from high flows. Most years, low water in late summer makes the upper 23 miles—the prettiest part of America's most pristine mountain stream—unnavigable. This year, guests will likely experience the entire 100-mile float, including all of the hot springs, through August ($2,000; rowadventures.com).
Tuolumne River, California OARS's three-day raft outing down California's 18-mile, Class III–IV Tuolumne starts at the northern border of Yosemite National Park and descends pounding rapids through a granite gorge. The Tuolumne flows mostly over bedrock, creating an effect similar to that of a theme-park inner-tube ride with much wilder water—this year especially (from $570; oars.com).
The Rio Grande, Lower Salmon, and the Forks of the Kern River
Rio Grande, New Mexico The Lower Taos Box of the Rio Grande usually dries out by the end of June. This year, Santa Fe–based Kokopelli Rafting Adventures will likely run Class III–IV day trips through July, thanks to runoff from Colorado's Wolf Creek range (day trips from $100; kokopelliraft.com). Kayakers who want to take it up a notch can put in at Little Arsenic Trailhead and tackle the Class V Upper Box.
Lower Salmon River, Idaho The Garden Company's five-day, Class III Rite of Passage trip on the Lower Salmon threads the basalt canyons of Nez Percé country. This year, the river will benefit from a late-season combination of big rapids and clear water—perfect for swimming or kayak-surfing the standing waves around Riggins ($360; thegardencompany.com).
Forks of the Kern River, California Only three hours from Los Angeles, the Forks of the Kern offers one of California's most intense Class V commercial raft trips, and the cathedral-like geology of the Kern Canyon rivals any national park's (two-day trips from $725; whitewatervoyages.com).