Paddle Wild and Scenic Rivers for a Wild and Scenic Summer


You’re invited to join outdoor and river enthusiasts in a national celebration of rivers! Whether you’re floating down a lazy river, fishing in a clear eddy or charging through churning whitewater, river trips are fun and fascinating. They’re more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- they can also improve your health as part of a river-lovin’ lifestyle. 

Come explore deep gorges, serene stretches of meandering channels and exhilarating rapids by planning an adventure on a wild and scenic river.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a historic landmark in river conservation. Since 1968, 12,734 miles of some of the nation’s most impressive rivers have been protected in their free-flowing state. What better way to celebrate our nation’s rivers than by enjoying some river time with friends and family?

Blue kayak on Delta Wild and Scenic River in Alaska with forest and mountain in the background.
Paddling the placid waters of the Delta Wild and Scenic River in Alaska provides breathtaking scenery. Photo by Bureau of Land Management.

Picking a River

Like any trip, it’s important to plan beforehand so you’re prepared to embark. Trip preparation reduces risks and helps everyone in your group have a safer and more enjoyable experience.

River trips come in many different flavors. Different watercrafts allow you to experience various aspects of rivers. Kayaks, canoes, and rafts are great for both quiet and rapid water. Are you interested in a more individualized immersion on the water? Consider a boat you can pilot yourself, like a kayak. Are you interested in using teamwork to get down a stretch of river? Check out canoes and rafts. 

Inner tubes and stand up paddle boards are a lot of fun for calmer stretches -- and maybe some simple rapid sections. Inner tubes are generally easier to get a hold of and use, while stand up paddle boards give you a chance to challenge yourself and your balance. Whatever you choose, you will walk away with a unique and truly memorable experience!

Looking to start your adventure? Check out the National Rivers Project and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Map to find a designated river near you.

Two canoes paddle through the St. Croix Wild and Scenic River at sunset.
Canoers immerse themselves in fog and wonder on the St. Croix Wild and Scenic River in Wisconsin and Minnesota, one of the first rivers to be protected as wild and scenic 50 years ago. Photo by National Park Service.

Understanding River Currents

By design, a river trip means you need to literally go with the flow. You should be prepared to work with the river while you’re on it, which means understanding the river’s fast and slow currents as well as where they may take you.

What is whitewater? It’s river currents that bounce off boulders to form frothy waves. Whitewater can be lots of fun in a raft or boat. It also means business, so you should have the skills to safely navigate rapids before attempting whitewater sections of river. Knowing the international standard levels of whitewater difficulty will help you choose the best experience for you and your group:

  • Class I – Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. There are few or no obstacles, which can be easily maneuvered around.
  • Class II (Novice) - Easy rapids with wide, clear channels and small waves. Some maneuvering may be required.
  • Class III (Intermediate) - Rapids with high, irregular waves. Tight passages and obstacles require complex maneuvers in fast current. Scouting (looking at a rapid before paddling) is advised for inexperienced parties.
  • Class IV (Advanced) - Intense, powerful but predictable rapids. Complex maneuvering is often required in constricted passages and turbulent water. Rapids may require “must” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting is often necessary.
  • Class V (Expert) - Extremely difficult, obstructed or very violent rapids. Rapids may continue for long distances down congested chutes with complex and demanding routes, which expose a paddler to added risk. Scouting should happen from shore, but may be difficult. There is a significant hazard to life in the event of mishap, and rescue opportunities are usually challenging. Class V is the upper limit of what is possible in a commercial raft.
Kayaker navigates whitewater rapids.
Boaters, like this whitewater kayaker, can enjoy class III and IV whitewater on the Wild and Scenic Snake River in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Thomas O'Keefe.

Prepping Your Party  

Commercial Trip or Do It Yourself?

You have many options to get out on the water, whether you go through a commercial outfitter or on your own personalized trip with your friends and personal equipment. The choice depends on your expertise level, type of river trip and preference.

New to the river? Seek a commercial outfitter to rely on their river expertise and paddling gear. They may also provide you with a guide, trip itinerary, safety instructions, meals and shuttle back to your vehicle especially for multi-day trips. Some outfitters only rent canoes and kayaks but are often happy to provide basic shuttle services too. Another option is to hit the water with a friend who has experience. 

Paddlers navigate their bright green rafts through whitewater rapids and rocks in Oregon's Donner und Blitzen Wild and Scenic River.
Experienced paddlers navigate their inflatable kayaks through rapids on Oregon’s Donner und Blitzen Wild and Scenic River. Photo courtesy of Zachary Collier.

Experienced paddlers may choose to plan their own trips, which allow more flexibility for the group to enjoy the river at its own pace. Remember, you’re responsible for planning the trip, securing appropriate permits and ensuring everyone in the group has a safe and enjoyable time. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to help you get started! 

Additionally, at least one person in your group should know first aid and what to do in the event of an emergency. Find wilderness first aid course near you.

Man in red life jacket paddles blue canoe through Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River.
Canoeing on the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in Texas along the United States/Mexico border is a great way to experience the Chihuahuan Desert. Photo courtesy of Thomas O'Keefe.

Know Your Limits

When choosing a paddling trip, understand that there is a chance you could end up in the river -- either from a flip or from being tossed overboard. It happens to the best of us. That means, you must be a competent swimmer. Rivers can have cold and fast currents, so be honest about your own swimming and paddling abilities when you’re picking a stretch of river, and choose a trip with a level of difficulty that matches your skills.

The same goes for a group trip on the river. Make sure you know what your fellow tubers, paddlers and anglers are comfortable with before you hop in the car and head out for your adventure. The trip you design should suit the most inexperienced members in your group. Agree on a buddy system and stay together as a team.

If you’re with a commercial group, listen to your guide and follow instructions. And remember, sometimes the best option for getting down a section of river may be to portage around the rapids.

Group of people hold blue and orange tubes while standing in river.
Tubing is a popular summer activity on the Farmington Wild and Scenic River in Connecticut where easy floating sections are punctuated by class I and II rapids. Photo by Joni Gore, National Park Service.

Know the Logistics

Some rivers -- especially wild and scenic rivers -- are so popular that they require permits to launch. If you’re planning your own trip, look online to see if you need to get a permit in advance of running the river you’ve chosen.

Group of people in orange life jackets paddle through whitewater rapids.
Outfitters on the Rogue Wild and Scenic River in Oregon are prepared with permits for their guests. Photo courtesy of Zachary Collier.

Just like any trip outdoors, the weather and other conditions (like streamflow) are subject to change and should influence your planning. Check weather forecasts and river gauge levels. If you’re planning a trip on a dam-controlled river, search how releases of water from the dam will affect levels while you’re on the water. Plan your arrival time and estimate your trip duration with time to spare. Talking to rangers and other boaters when you arrive will help you learn if there’s anything unusual or notable on the water. If you’re on a commercial trip, your guide will know current river conditions and plan accordingly.

Get Geared up!

Anglers paddle a boat on the Missouri Wild and Scenic River.
Anglers on the Missouri Wild and Scenic River in Montana paddle a boat full of supplies for a lengthy fishing expedition. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Is your trip an overnight fishing trip on the Missouri Wild and Scenic River in Montana, or is it a splashy afternoon on the White Salmon Wild and Scenic River in Washington? Knowing these specifics will help you plan out how much food, water and other gear you will need to pack. Things to consider for your river trip: 

  • Life jacket – This simple item, if worn properly, could save your life. The name says it all.
  • Watercrafts come in many shapes and sizes—rafts, whitewater kayaks, sea kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, surfboards, river boards, inner tubes and more.
  • Paddling gear should include a helmet, paddle, rope/throw bag, dry bags and inflated float bags for kayaks.
  • First aid kit – You can purchase a ready-made first aid kit or design your own. Consider packing supplies for cuts, bruises, bleeding, bites, infections and allergic reactions. A remote multi-day first aid trip kit will be larger than a simple kit used for a day trip.
  • Proper clothing – Check the temperature of the river you will be on and dress appropriately.  Although the water may not seem very cold, prolonged exposure to cool water can lead to hypothermia and an emergency situation. Thankfully, these risks can be mitigated with a bit of preparation! Wear close-toed shoes and clothing made from synthetic fabrics that wick away moisture. A wetsuit or drysuit may be necessary when paddling in very cold conditions.
  • Food and water – Be sure to bring plenty of water and stay hydrated. If you plan on going through rapids, attach your water bottle to your boat with a locking carabiner to make sure it stays put. Never bring glass on the river.
  • Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen – Even if it’s cloudy, remember to protect your eyes and skin from damaging UV rays, which intensify when reflected off water. Don’t forget a leash for your glasses or you may donate them to the river gods!

On the Water

Girl in blue life jacket stands on paddle board in river.
Get Active in the Park at New River Gorge in West Virginia is a program for people to experience river activities, like stand up paddleboarding. Photo by National Park Service.

Now that you’ve checked off all your preparations, it’s time to get out on the water and have some fun! Throughout your trip, make sure you and everyone in your group live by the three H’s of outdoor recreation: stay happy, humble and hydrated. Ultimately, a safe trip is a happy trip! 

And while you’re having fun, remember to Leave No Trace, be respectful to other guests and private landowners, and ALWAYS wear your life jacket. Contrary to what some may think, life jackets are quite fashionable in the river community. So wear it!

At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your own safety, starting before a trip is planned and after a trip has ended. Make decisions early in the trip planning process to prevent accidents and ultimately have a good time on the water. For more information about boating safety, check out the National Park Service’s boating safety website.

Share the Fun!

River trips are best when they’re shared, so bring friends and family along to make lasting memories. Post photos of your adventures on social media using the hashtags #findyourway and #makeyoursplash so others can learn about your experiences.

Young boy paddles boat through water with family in back.
Wild and scenic rivers, like the Lower American Wild and Scenic River in California, offer experiences for the entire family. Photo courtesy of Think Out Loud.

Whether you’re new to paddling or a veteran boater, 2018 is a great year to get out on a wild and scenic river!