Written by Brad LaneMar 10, 2020
Among its wide array of recreational adventures, the state of Washington offers amazing white water rafting and kayaking opportunities. With plenty of rainfall on the western side of the state, and glaciated peaks contributing to the flow, Washington’s rivers and gorges surge with access to some high-adrenaline adventure from early spring to late summer.
Whether you hop in the kayak, or raft with a commercial outfitter, be prepared to transport yourself into a fast-moving environment full of Pacific Northwest scenery and plenty of chances to get your feet wet. All the white water adventures in Washington offer different rapids and unique experiences. The common aspect of all river runs in Washington, however, is the flow that pushes you forward and provides a fantastic time on the water.
Find the best places to paddle with our list of the top white water rafting and kayaking adventures in Washington.
1. Methow River
The Methow River is perhaps the best suited river for rafting and kayaking in the state and adds to the large amount of recreation found in the area. Just north of scenic Lake Chelan in eastern Washington, with waters gushing out from North Cascades National Park, the Methow River is a central artery of the entire Methow Valley. This world-class river is accessible from the tourist-friendly towns of Winthrop, Twisp, and Methow.
The prime time to ride the white water of the Methow River is between May and June. This is when the banks swell with springtime rain and melting snow, which provide a wide range of rapids and amazing scenery. Notable features on the Methow River include “Hurricane Rapids” and “Another Roadside Attraction.”
The river drops more than 500 feet in 19 miles where most commercial guiding companies put into the water at McFarland Creek. Paddlers here can expect Class II-III rapids to practice their paddle strokes. The river quickly slides into the impressive Black Canyon Rapids and treats rafters to some adrenaline-pumping action in the form of Class IV rapids and features. One such feature is the Giant Black Hole, which paddlers are advised to avoid.
Several commercial outfitters in the Methow Valley offer guided trips of the Methow River. Other commercial services include kayak tours and tubing shuttles.
2. White Salmon River
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Fed by the glacier melt of Mt. Adams and surrounding underground springs, the White Salmon River rushes 45 miles down to the Columbia River Gorge. For 25 of these miles, the water is designated as a federally protected Wild and Scenic River. The White Salmon River in south-central Washington provides some of the most unforgettable white water action you’ll find in the entire country.
Many commercial trips start at a section known as BZ corner and drop you right in the action the of the Class III-IV rapid, Top Drop. From there, the Class III-IV rapids don’t stop, and near the end of the trip is Husum Fall. This Class V, 12-foot waterfall is one of the few commercially guided waterfalls in the state.
Whether you hop in a boat that’s going over the falls or simply spectate from shore, if the white water doesn’t draw you back to the White Salmon River, the lush scenery surrounding the river will.
3. Upper Skagit River
The scenic Skagit River is accessible from the Goodell Creek Campground in North Cascades National Park. The River provides some of the most scenic rafting and kayaking experiences in the state. With moderate rapids ranging from Class I to Class III, it’s also a great place to start your white water river experiences.
The Skagit River is the second longest river in Washington. It’s really the first 25-mile stretch between Goodell Creek and Sauk River that’s enticing to white-water sports. The Upper Skagit River has a variety of rapids, while the Lower Skagit is generally flatter and easier for most paddlers to navigate.
The summer months and late fall tend to attract the most boaters to the Skagit River. The winter is still filled with activity in the winter, however, and the area is a prime place to spot bald eagles flying near the banks.
4. Skykomish River
Rafting on the Skykomish River, also referred to simply as the “Sky,” can be accessed in less than an hour from Seattle. This challenging river section isn’t recommended for your first white-water outing. The river offers exciting white water most of the year, but most commercial trips on the Sky take place from April to July. Trips generally start from Gold Bar and require a shuttle.
Rafters and kayakers can expect to hit a good handful of Class III rapids right off the bat. This prepares them for the real challenge, the Class V Boulder Drop, where boats are required to navigate around house-sized boulders. It is often said to be the longest and most challenging rapid in the state.
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Though the crystal-clear waters of the Skykomish River are inviting, the white water and rapids of this raging river should be tackled by experienced paddlers only. Commercial guides are readily available to raft the Skykomish and provide a safer approach for non-expert paddlers.
5. Wenatchee River
Many things add up nicely to make the Wenatchee River one of the most popular white water rafting and kayaking spots in the state. Just outside the West Coast rain shadow and most commonly accessed from the Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth, the Wenatchee River gets plenty of sunshine and clear weather. Some of the best paddling on the river occurs from April through October.
In addition to the beautiful weather and outstanding scenery, the Wenatchee River also offers something for every level of white water enthusiast. From casual floats on class I rapids to expert-only runs in Tumwater Canyon, the Wenatchee has river trips for every type of paddler.
The most popular section to work through is the 19-mile stretch running from Leavenworth to Monitor. This often-guided route contains iconic Class III features like the Rock and Roll wave series and Drunkard’s Drop. The river is just as popular for kayaking as it is for white water rafting.
6. Green River Gorge
Despite its proximity to Seattle, the Green River Gorge is one of the best-kept secret stashes of fantastic rapids in the state. The ability to run the Green River Gorge depends on the release of the Howard Hansen Dam, which typically only happens in March and April. The predominantly Class III & IV rapids, like the notorious Pipeline, Paradise, or Nozzle rapids, also mean less people tackle the Green River Gorge.
But what makes the Green River Gorge so great is what you’ll find in that short window of time. Most commercial trips span the section of the Green River between the scenic Kanaskat-Palmer and Flaming Geyser State Park. This route takes riders down a boulder-strewn river surrounded by high canyon walls. Features follow one after another on the river, which tends to keep heartbeats high throughout the run.
The Green River Gorge might not cater to the first-time white water experience, especially if you’re hesitant about staying calm in the water. With a few practiced paddle strokes, though, the Green River Gorge offers a great weekend adventure from Seattle.
7. Toutle River
The Toutle River offers a unique white-water experience in Washington. The north fork of this wild river originates in the crater left behind by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The eruption all but devastated the river, sending a rush of volcanic debris and wreckage tearing throughout its banks. Much like the rest of the habitat surrounding Mount St. Helens, however, the river has managed to bounce back.
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Alongside mangled pieces of bridge occasionally on the banks, the eruption still leaves an impression on the river with a brown colored water. A popular stretch to run the river is a 10-mile section that heads west from Highway 504 near Toutle. Few commercial companies offer guided services on the river. Paddlers should expect consistent Class III rapids as they head downriver.
8. Tieton River
For eleven months of the year, the Tieton River is virtually ignored by kayakers and river rafters alike. Come September though, when the waters from Rim Rock Dam are released, the big waves and steep decline of the Tieton River makes for one of the best final runs of the season.
On the east side of White Pass, only 45 minutes from Yakima, the Tieton River is easily accessible by enthusiasts traveling from Seattle and Tacoma. The river has several Class II & III features, like the High Noon and Waffle Wall rapids, and continuous white-water action for nearly 11 miles.
Due to its technical difficulty and fast-moving features, the run is not recommended for first-time boaters to tackle by themselves. Several guiding companies offer white water rafting trips throughout September.
9. Nisqually River
Under an hour drive from Olympia, the section of the Nisqually River between McKenna and the Yelm Hydro Plant offers a leisurely escape from the city. Rafts and kayaks encounter Class II rapids on this seven-mile stretch of river. Maybe class III’s if the river is running high. Alongside a mellow pace, several boulder gardens along the river offer places to practice paddle strokes.
Despite its proximity to major metropolitan areas, the Nisqually River provides a peaceful nature scene much of the way. Late spring into early fall is the best time to get on the river, though paddlers can float the Nisqually throughout the year. Sections of flatwater exist along the route.
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Other Washington Wonders: The top attractions of Washington State stretch from urban centers to wild natural spaces. To explore more of Washington’s wild side, the best state and national parks in Washington highlight the several different landscapes in the state. For some winter adventure to balance out the rafting season, our guide to Washington ski resorts offers equally fast-paced recreation.
Hiking and Camping in Washington: To find somewhere to camp between white-water adventures, the best campgrounds in Washington deliver with stunning landscapes. Land lovers will also love checking out our guide to the top hiking trails in Washington State.