A few rapids loom larger than others when river guides tell tales around the campfire. Here’s a list of the biggest rapids from a river guide’s perspective – in alphabetical order.
Not big enough for you? If you’re an accomplished kayaker or extreme rafter, you’ll want to scroll down to the bottom of this page to see a round-up of rapids that are bigger, but not commonly discussed among river guides.
1. Blossom Bar (Rogue River, Oregon)
You don’t get to be known as “the most expensive rapid in the West” for nothing. A successful run on Blossom Bar requires a straightforward Class IV maneuver simply known as “the move,” but the consequence of a mistake is typically a badly wrapped boat.
There are hundreds of raft frames, camp stoves, groovers, and an immeasurable amount of personal gear buried in the Rogue River below this notorious rapid.
2. Clavey Falls (Tuolumne River, California)
Originally a portage, Clavey Falls was the definition of a Class V rapid in the 1960s. As equipment and techniques have improved, the rapids scale has shifted but Clavey Falls is still a classic Class IV+/V, depending on flows and how you rate rapids.
At normal summer flows (≈1000 cfs), you fall over an eight-foot drop before a complex series of moves to avoid wrap rocks and hydraulics. At higher spring flows, there is a tough Class V maneuver between the famous boat-flipping Clavey Hole and the more menacing hole formed by Dinosaur Rock.
3. Gore Rapid (Colorado River, Colorado)
Gore Rapid is in the heart of Colorado’s famous Gore Canyon on the Colorado River. This large, complex rapid is typically scouted and/or portaged on the railroad tracks on the right side of the river.
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The entrance is a particularly tricky affair that offers several options, depending on the river flows, your craft, and your taste for an extra challenge. There is little time to recover from a mistake before the next two rapids, Scissors and Pyrite Falls.
4. Green Wall (Illinois River, Oregon)
Scouting this iconic Class V beast on Oregon’s legendary Illinois River requires scrambling a quarter-mile through boulders punctuated with poison oak bushes. It’s a long, complicated rapid that has a few different routes to choose from, depending on your boat and the water level.
River flows on the Illinois River are volatile, making this rapid different every time you run it. At low flows, you must squeeze through a narrow slot before dodging a pour-over hole that has kept rafts surfing for up to 20 minutes. At high river flows there are several places to flip and little time to recover before the not-so-little Little Green Wall.
5. Ladle (Selway River, Idaho)
Ladle is always intimidating due to its large boulders and holes scattered randomly throughout the rapid. There are options, but none of them are easy!
One well-known rock is called “Coffee Pot” — if your raft gets stuck in it, you might as well start making some coffee because you’re going to be there a while – Aaron Cavagnolo
At low water, the chutes all seem to contain a small rock making passage problematic with huge wrap rocks at the bottom. Sometimes there are trees stuck in the favorable chutes, forcing boaters to take even less desirable ones. At high water the huge boulders form huge holes and continuous whitewater with the “Moose Juice” just downstream.
6. Lava Falls (Colorado River, Arizona)
Lava Falls is the most famous and challenging rapid on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. It has a huge hole to avoid at the top, followed by the infamous V-wave which flips 18-foot rafts like bath toys. The adventure ends with large Kahuna waves. This rapid is so famous that it has other rapids named after it: Lava South on the now-dammed Bio Bio River in Chile and Lava North on the Alsek River in Alaska.
7. Mushroom (Tuolumne River, California)
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The “Cherry Creek” section of the upper Tuolumne River is the most challenging commercially run whitewater in the United States. Commercial companies require a challenging swim training and warm-up where rocks are intentionally hit to tests the paddlers’ abilities to hold their position. If paddlers fail the test, they have to hike out before the big rapids.
Mushroom (a.k.a. “Skull”) is the biggest rapid on “Cherry Creek” with four distinct maneuvers that command respect. Only a handful of guides in the world have the skills to consistently guide Mushroom with success.
8. Sweet’s Falls (Gauley River, West Virginia)
With reliable flows and big rapids, West Virginia’s Upper Gauley River is one of the most famous rivers in the world. It has several world-renowned rapids, but perhaps best-known is Sweet’s Falls named after John Sweet, the only person to run it on an exploratory descent.
After the main drop is Postage Due, a big rock that you can splat your raft or kayak into. During the fall Gauley season, there is almost always a big crowd watching rafters and kayakers paddle through—it’s like your very own whitewater red carpet.
9. Terminator (Futaleufu River, Chile)
This rapid was named in honor of the first raft descent which “terminated” after an epic flip at the top.
River guides who have been there tell stories from other rapids like Inferno, Mundaca, Mas o Menos, Casa de Piedra, and others, but Terminator is the most notorious. The rapid has three distinct sections, with the middle being the crux.
“Whether you’re threading granite boulders down the technical class V sneak or charging the center into the abyss of house sized waves and hydraulics, you better dig in and hold on for a wild ride.” – Cade Hertz, Earth River Expeditions
10. Velvet Falls (Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho)
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Velvet Falls is one of the signature rapids on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. At high flows (above five feet), the main drop forms a hole that is tough to avoid and can easily flip any raft.
To make matters worse, the river is fairly continuous downstream, making it difficult to wrangle boats and flip them back over.
Many more rapids were considered for our “10 Biggest” and deserve respect. Some of these are just as mighty as the ones listed above — just not so devilish in their reputations.
Big Drop Rapids on the Colorado River (UT), Boulder Choke on the Paro Chhu (Bhutan), Bull Sluice on the Chattooga River (SC, GA), Caldera Rapid on the Upper Klamath (OR), Carson Falls on the Kern (CA), Chamberlain Falls on the North Fork of the American (CA), Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork of the Salmon (ID), Freight Train on the Cal Salmon (CA), Hakapur Rapid on the Sun Kosi (Nepal), Granite Dome Falls on the Middle Fork of the Feather (CA), Hermit on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado (AZ), Husum Falls on the White Salmon (WA), Lava North on the Alsek River (Canada), Mundaca on the Futaleufu River (Chile), National Falls on the Upper Youghiogheny (MD), Pillow Rock on the Gauley (WV), Pine Creek on the Arkansas River (CO), Rapid #7 (aka Stairway to Heaven) on the Zambezi (Zambezi and Zimbabwe), and Tunnel Chute on the Middle Fork of the American (CA).
The 10 biggest rapids for kayakers and some rafters
If you’re a serious kayaker and/or rafter, here’s the list you’re looking for.
- Big Brother on the White Salmon (WA)
- Cherry Bomb Falls on Cherry Creek (CA)
- Curtain Falls on the Middle Fork of the Feather (CA)
- Flight Simulator on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon (ID)
- Gorilla on the Green Narrows (NC)
- Jacob’s Ladder on the North Fork of the Payette (ID)
- Last Exit on the Wenatchee (WA)
- Oceana Falls on the Tallulah (GA)
- Skyscraper on South Silver Creek (CA)
- Spirit Falls on the Little White Salmon (WA)
The 10 biggest rapids paddled by the “best of the best”
Finally, here’s a list of the biggest rapids that have been run by elite kayakers and/or rafters.
- Final Falls in the Salmon River Canyon (OR)
- Grand Inga Rapids on the Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo)
- Huka Falls on the Waikato River (New Zealand)
- Insanity Falls on Fordyce Creek (CA)
- Minus Rapids on the Zambezi River (Zambia and Zimbabwe)
- Palouse Falls on the Palouse River (WA)
- Scott’s Drop on the North Fork of the American River (CA)
- Site Zed on the Stikine River (BC)
- Sunset Falls on the Skykomish River (WA)
- Turnback Canyon on the Alsek River (AK)
Do you have any other rapids that deserve to be on this list? Please let me know in the comments below.
How many of these rapids have you paddled?