Shortly after touching down in Oklahoma City, we bopped across the street for lunch at Pitchfork in the Park then made a beeline for our first activity of the trip: whitewater rafting.
I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it, too. But Oklahoma is so flat! There are no mountains in sight! Is there even a river? How on Earth do they have whitewater rafting? This would be the first of many things that surprised me about OKC in the coming days.
Straddling the banks of the man-made, seven-mile Oklahoma River, the multipurpose Boathouse District was created from Oklahoma City’s innovative MAPS funding, which has transformed the relationship between public spaces, businesses and civic community across the area for several decades. The river was finalized in 2004, and the formerly dry, flood diversion channel has been turned into a championship training site for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic rowing, canoe and kayak teams.
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As a result, Oklahoma City is now one of the only places in the country where you can go urban whitewater rafting.
But you don’t have to be a pro to dig the activities offered here (I’m certainly not!). Visitors to the $45.2 million Riversport Adventures development can choose from two different whitewater experiences: rafting and kayaking. We chose rafting because, well, it seemed a little less scary!
A hilarious Aussie guide took our group through the safety briefing, before we were handed over to our Ecuadorian boat captain; the team that Riversport employs is some of the best in their field anywhere, and even though I’ve only gone whitewater rafting a handful of times in my life, I felt completely confident with them guiding us through the process. We went down each of the two courses—the recreational and competition channels—and then the third and final lap was paddlers’ choice.
But the complex is so much more than just rafting. After our hour of rafting was done, we decided to mosey on around beyond the 11 acres of whitewater adventure.
The Boathouse District as a whole was established in 2006 with the construction of Chesapeake Boathouse, a public-private partnership between Chesapeake Energy Corporation and the city. The $3.5 million building evokes oars and the bows of a grand rowing vessel while anchoring activities in the district with training facilities, dramatic viewing stands of the water, event spaces and boat bays for storage of equipment.
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Rand Elliott, who has revitalized many other locations around town like the flat-iron, 1924 Como Hotel on Harrison Avenue, was involved with creating the strikingly angular buildings making up the soul of the water park. From every angle, the crisp lines of white buildings seem to jut confidently into a blue sky, invoking motion and sailcloth.
The area is one popular with competitive rowers, kayakers, paddleboarders and really anyone who loves to get out on the water. But even if you aren’t proficient at any of the aforementioned sports, there are plenty of lessons, camps and workshops offered throughout the year in the Boathouse District, so you can get up to speed with your skills—or simply rent equipment to test out the waters, literally. Additionally, there are paved running and biking trails and even a pump track.
Next to these fascinating buildings comprising the Boathouse District, Riversport has what I like to think of as an adventure tower; its “Reach for the Sky” area consists of a sky trail, slides (both water and dry), a youth zone, a climbing wall, a bungee jump and even a zipline that goes from one side of the river to the other. Obviously, we had to try this. You know I’m not one to pass up on a zipline!
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The process to get up there was very cool, too; after getting all harnessed up at the bottom of the tower, a Riversport employee clicks you into a self-guided trolley system, and you walk all the way to the top—note: a whole lot of stairs!—of this slightly menacing, rail-less tower before shooting across the Oklahoma River, then back again.
And best of all, other than the ziplining, which is an added fee, you can use all the rest of the facilities for a day pass of $49—that includes the whitewater rafting and all other land activities. If you just want land and flatwater activities, you can get the adventure pass for $39. If you’re local, you can also get a season pass for $99, which for comparison’s sake, is less than one day at Disney. I love that Riversport doesn’t try to upcharge everything, and I think that’s a very reasonably rate for as top-notch as their amenities are.
The day we were visiting, Riversport closed early for a private corporate event—I wish I worked for a company that shut down an adventure park like this one for employee amusement!—so imagine this scene absolutely teeming with rafters, rowers and kayakers. From what the locals tell me, that’s what it looks like on an average summer weekend, and I can’t wait to go back and try alllll the things next summer.