The Upper Tuolumne River
Tumbling over tight chutes, ten-foot waterfalls, and granite boulders that form goalposts only a raft-width wide, the Upper Tuolumne is an expert kayaker's nirvana—and arguably one of the most difficult raftable rivers in the country. Potential rafters must complete an hour-and-a-half training seminar and swim across Class II rapids before tackling the T. Distance: 9 miles; 1 day Gradient: 110 feet per mile Season: June-October; best July-August Do It Yourself: Put in at Cherry Creek; take out at Meral's Pool. Call the Stanislaus National Forest, 209-962-7825, for a permit (required). Guided Trips: Sierra Mac River Trips (800-457-2580; www.sierramac.com) runs one-day raft trips for $255 per person.
Southern British Columbia
Twenty-three miles from its source, the relatively calm Chilko squeezes into 11-mile Lava Canyon and becomes a roller coaster full of towering waves, house-size hydraulics, and jagged boulders. The canyon's sheer walls prevent paddlers from scouting several Class IV-V rapids, making the run even more harrowing. Distance: 40 miles; 2 days Gradient: 50 feet per mile Season: June-August; best in August Do It Yourself: Put in at Chilko Lake; take out at Tsieko Junction. No permit required. Guided Trips: Chilko River Expeditions (250-398-6711) offers weekend raft trips ($300 per person) that include two runs through Lava Canyon.
Upper Youghiogheny River
A run on the Upper Youghiogheny (known as the “Upper Yock”) begins in lush, wild-ginseng country with a peaceful, one-and-a-half-mile float. But don't get too relaxed: Once you hit Bastard Falls, the Yock rages, with more than 20 successive Class IV-V rapids that exhaust even expert rafters and kayakers. The real test: Miracle Mile, which drops 140 feet and ends in a maze of cabin-size boulders. Distance: 10 miles; 1 day Gradient: 114 feet per mile Season: April-October; best in May. Do It Yourself: Put in at Sang Run; take out in Friendsville. No permit required. Guided Trips: Precision Rafting (800-477-3723; www.precisionrafting.com) runs one-day trips for $105-$115 per person.
Labyrinth & Stillwater Canyons, Green River
Your only concerns as the Green zigzags through the red rocks of Canyonlands National Park? Taking a few paddle strokes now and then—and admiring one jaw-dropping view after another. Distance: 120 miles; 6-8 days Gradient: 1.6 feet per mile Season: Year-round; best in September and October Do It Yourself: Put in at Green River State Park; take out at Spanish Bottom. For a permit (required) call Canyonlands National Park, 435-719-2313. Canyon Voyages Adventure Company (800-733-6007; www.canyon voyages.com) rents canoes and rafts for $32Ð$75 per day. Guided Trips: Moki Mac River Expeditions (800-284-7280; www.mokimac.com) runs six-day canoe and raft trips for $995 per person.
Eleven Point River
This Wild and Scenic River blows off most of its steam high in the Ozarks. By the time it reaches Thomasville, in a valley rimmed with dolomite and sandstone bluffs, it musters up little more than a few Class II riffles—perfect for an easy canoe or float trip through the Mark Twain National Forest and the Irish Wilderness. Distance: 35-44 miles; 4 days Gradient: 5 feet per mile Season: April-August; best in May Do It Yourself: Put in at Thomasville or Cane Bluff; take out at Missouri 142. No permit required. Richard's Canoe Rental (417-778-6186) rents canoes for $35 per day. Guided Trips: Doug's Outdoor Adventures (616-468-5203 ) offers two- to five-day canoe trips for $135-$300 per person.
Grande Ronde River
You can paddle this river in four easy days just by letting the gentle Class I-II current carry you from the Wallowa Mountains through Umatilla National Forest. But the riverside campsites—shaded by Douglas firs and carpeted with pine needles—are so cush you'll want to tie up your boat and dally at least a week. Distance: 46 miles; 4 days Gradient: 20 feet per mile Season: Year-round; best April-June Do It Yourself: Put in at the confluence of the Wallowa and Minam Rivers; take out in Troy. No permit required. The Minam Store (541-437-1111) rents rafts for $65 per day. Guided Trips: Little Creek Outfitters (541-963-7878; www.oregonrivers.com) runs four-day raft trips for $250 per person per day.
Northwest Territories, Canada
Carve the Grand Canyon a bit deeper, plunk it down in Canada's Mackenzie Mountains, and you've pretty much got the Nahanni. The Class II-III route plunges past 5,000-foot mountains and through 4,000-foot canyons. Distance: 180 miles; 14 days Gradient: 8 feet per mile Season: June-early September; best in September Do It Yourself: Put in at Rabbitkettle Lake; take out at the Laird River. For a permit (required), call Nahanni National Park Reserve, 867-695-3151. Nahanni Wilderness Adventures (888-897-5223; www.nahanniwild .com) rents canoes for $21 per day. Guided Trips: Nahanni Wilderness Adventures runs 14-day canoe trips for $2,130 per person.
You'll likely see caribou and grizzlies—along with stranger-looking creatures like long-billed dowitchers and musk oxen—as you paddle the Class I-III Noatak from Gates of the Arctic National Park to the wetland tundra of Noatak National Preserve. Distance: 340 miles; 24 days Gradient: 13 feet per mile Season: June-early September; best in September Do It Yourself: Put in at Pingo Lake; take out at Noatak village. No permit required. Brooks Range Aviation (907-692-5444) rents canoes and rafts for $25Ð$50 per day and offers float-plane service to put-in and take-out points. Guided Trips: Equinox Wilderness Expeditions (877-615-9087) leads 24-day canoe trips for $3,600 per person.
Think of the Hayes as a wide, meandering highway (with a few Class II-III rapids and a portage or two thrown in for good measure) through the vast boreal forest of the rocky Canadian Shield. About 50 miles before the river dumps into icy Hudson Bay, you'll start spotting playful ring seals. Distance: 225 miles; 14 days Gradient: 4.5 feet per mile Season: June-August; best in August Do It Yourself: Put in at Oxford Lake; take out at York Factory. No permit required. North River Outfitters (204-778-6979) rents canoes and kayaks for $20 per day. Guided Trips: Wilderness Spirit (204-774-2140, www.wildernessspirit.com) runs 14-day canoe trips for $2,750 per person.
Cache la Poudre
North Central Colorado
Leave the fancy French pronunciation at home: Locals know this Class II-IV river, which twists and churns through a 2,000-foot gorge just north of Rocky Mountain National Park, as “The Pooder.” Duck as you race through the Class IV Death by Dismemberment. Distance: 19 miles; 1 day Gradient: 60 feet per mile Season: May-August; best in June Do It Yourself: Put in below Poudre Falls; take out at the Narrows picnic area on Colorado 14. No permit required. Poudre River Kayaks (970-484-8480; www.poudreriverkayaks.com) rents kayaks for $20 per day. Guided Trips: Rocky Mountain Adventures (800-858-6808, www.shoprma.com) runs one-day raft trips for $82 per person.
Central West Virginia
Thought waterfalls were only for adrenaline-crazed hair boaters? Not so. Spend a day on the Tygart and you'll get the hang of it. The Tygart's half-dozen four- to 15-foot-high waterfalls, all Class II-IV, are runnable in a kayak (all summer) or raft (May-July). Distance: 9 miles; 1 day Gradient: 27 feet per mile Season: May-August; best in June Do It Yourself: Put in two miles west of Arden; take out at Cove Run. No permit required. The Riversport School of Paddling (814-395-5744; www.shol.com/kayak) rents kayaks for $25 per day. Guided Trips: Wilderness Voyageurs (800-272-4141; www.wilderness-voyageurs.com) leads one-day raft or inflatable-kayak trips for $65 per person.
In May, there are about as many crashing waves on the Class III-IV Dead River as there are moose staring out from the forest along its banks. In June, when the waves shrink to shoulder height, beginners take inflatable kayaks and canoes all the way to the Kennebec River. Distance: 16 miles; 1 day Gradient: 20 feet per mile Season: May-early October; highest water in May Do It Yourself: Put in 23 miles west of U.S. 201; take out in West Forks. No permit required. Three Rivers Whitewater (207-663-2104) rents inflatable kayaks for $25 per day. Guided Trips: Unicorn Expeditions (800-864-2676; www.unicornraft.com) leads one-day raft trips for $79-$104 per person.