Water is such a rejuvenating and calming natural force, and getting to spend your summers visiting all of the float trips around the United States can be a perfect way to relax and recharge. Whether you live on the East Coast or West Coast, or somewhere in-between, there are tons of rivers for you and your family to float down. Take a look at some of the best float trips and learn a bit about finding the perfect float trip for your next vacation.
Discover the Pleasure of a Float Trip
A float trip refers to an aquatic activity where you literally float down a river in an inner tube, paddle board, canoe, kayak, or raft. Generally, float trips are meant to be smooth and easy, meandering through miles of clear waterway. You can spend a day floating downstream, or if you plan to take a really long trek, you can stop and make camp at the riverbanks overnight and head out again in the morning. Both ways are super fun, though most people choose to do single-day floats, often as part of an event, holiday, or family gathering.
Note the Rapid Class Before Finding a Float Trip
One of the most important things to note when you're looking for potential float trips is the rapids classifications of the rivers that you're researching, measured according to the International Scale of River Difficulty. Rivers have varying levels of intensity for their currents and subsequent rapids; the higher the class, the more intense and difficult the route is.
Stick to rivers with lower classifications for float trips. Class I rivers are perfect for lazily making your way down the river. Class II rivers have water fast enough to generate 1- to 3-foot high white caps. These may also be suitable, but check ahead and be comfortable with your experience level before choosing these trips. Class II+ rivers are on the upper end of the range, and may be too advanced if you are looking for a calm float trip. Visit the American Whitewater website for more information on classifications and safety precautions.
Top Float Trips to Take in the United States
With the thousands of rivers, creeks, and tributaries that traverse the American countryside, there are an impressive number of areas perfect for all kinds of floating trips. Here is a sampling of the top float trips in the United States.
Jacks Fork River, Missouri
Jacks Fork River is a famous tributary of the Current River in Missouri. Because river accessibility is limited, it has some of the most primitive and undisturbed natural habitats in the region. With 44.6 miles of floatable river and both class I and class II areas, Jacks Fork makes for a perfect floating experience. In fact, the first 25 miles from Prongs to Bay Creek are located inside a deep valley that offers incredible views of the native landscape. There are also multiple campgrounds you can stay at should you want to extend your trip at Jacks Fork for longer than a day or two.
Elk River, Missouri
Elk River is another famous location for lovers of canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and all sorts of floating activities. What makes it such a perfect choice for all types of water-bound visitors is that it's only a class I to class II waterway, meaning that people of all experience levels can enjoy their time in the Missouri countryside. Given its substantial popularity in the floating community, there are tons of rental companies you can contact for your day-to-day floating needs.
Big River, Missouri
Another slow-moving tributary in Missouri, Big River, sits in the eastern-central part of the state and flows through three counties: Washington, Saint Francois, and Jefferson. You get to enjoy the natural wilderness of the Ozarks on this class I, 145-mile river. Choose from two rental companies, Washington State Park or Cherokee Landing, for your gear and avoid the larger crowds of some of the more boisterous rivers around the region.
Chattooga River, Georgia
If you're looking for something that's a little more adventurous and fast-paced, try out the Chattooga River located near Cashiers, Georgia. With rapid classes II, III, and a IV finish, the river has a lot more oomph to it than other ones do. Given its higher rapids class, you don't want to pick the 58 miles of nationally protected Chattooga if you just wanted to inner tube the day away. If you're more than a casual canoer or rafter, this float trip is perfect for you.
Yakima River, Washington
The Yakima River's nexus is in the Snoqualmie Pass in the northwestern part of Washington. It empties into the Columbia River. According to Seattle Magazine, there's a specific 16-mile stretch of the river between Ellensburg and Yakima that is particularly popular with floaters during the summer months. Due to its popularity, there are multiple places for you to launch your trips, meaning you might be able to beat some of the crowds if you choose a less-frequented spot. At a class I to class II ranking, the river is a great option for people in the western portion of the United States to enjoy a calm floating experience.
Salmon River, Idaho
The Salmon River stretches across central and eastern Idaho, and is well known for its pristine natural landscape and its impressive granite-walled canyon that the river runs through for upwards of 180 miles. It's reported that about 10,000 people float and raft down the Main Salmon River every year, making it one of the premiere floating destinations in the United States. In order to float down the wild part of the Salmon River, you have to acquire a permit, which commits you to specific rules and regulations such as a leave-no-trace ethical guideline to keep the natural wilds as untouched as possible. Certain areas of the Main Salmon River are class III and IV, which are not appropriate for most float trips. The section of the Upper Salmon River from Challis to North Fork is more mellow, with class I and II rapids.
Nantahala River, North Carolina
If you find yourself on the East Coast, you can make the trek up to the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and set up a float trip on the Nantahala River in the Nantahala National Forest. Perfect for most beginner to intermediate paddlers with its class II rapids, this 48-mile river stretches throughout a narrow gorge and is surrounding by beautiful greenery. Although the Nantahala River can make for a great floating adventure, there is a section lower down the riverway that is a class V rapid, so be sure to have your route properly mapped and plan to exit the river before you hit that section.
Namekagon River, Wisconsin
One of the first eight rivers that were protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Namekagon River belongs to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The smooth-running river is bordered by exceedingly beatific scenes, which earn the river its reputation as the cleanest of all Mississippi tributaries. If you plan on floating down its class I and II rapids, you can rent your gear from five different companies at the lower part of the river and four at the upper. Similarly, if you want to turn your day trip into a multi-day outing, there are primitive campsites along the river where you can camp overnight.
Similkameen River, British Columbia
For Americans that are close to the Canadian border, you can skip across and visit some of the best waterways Canada has to offer. One favorite is Canada's Similkameen River in British Columbia. Part of its charm is the isolated feeling that comes from having to bring your own gear and schedule your pickup wherever you exit the river. There are three main routes you can take, offering trips between 2 to 5 hours floating down its class II rapids.
Flumin' Kohala, Hawaii
You'd be remiss in curating a list of float trips to visit if you didn't include one from America's island paradise - Hawaii. Flumin' Kohala located in the town of Hawi on the northern tip of Hawai'i is a guided float trip that takes you through a historic sugar plantation's deserted irrigation system. The network of archways and overgrown flora makes your inflatable kayak trip feel like it has come straight out of a fantasy film. The approximately 3-hour trip is a bit expensive at $135 per adult, but it's absolutely worth the cost.
Floating Through the National Parks System
The National Park System is the premiere American conservation organization that protects, maintains, and oversees a sizeable portion of the American natural landscape. Within its purview are many massive waterways that stretch both within and across state lines. Here are some of the best rivers located in National Park areas that you can float down:
- New River, New River Gorge National River
- Snake River, Grand Teton National Park
- Yukon River, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
- Saint Croix, Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
- Jacks Forks, Ozark National Scenic Riverways
- Boquillas Canyon, Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
Where To Start Your Own Search
If you already have a trip planned and want to see if you can fit in some floating time, here are some helpful tips to get you started:
- Look for the Nearest National or State Parks - National Parks and State Parks are designed to protect and preserve the natural world, and chances are if there are parks near you with waterways, they will have some sort of floating system in place.
- Use Social Media - People often love to tag their locations, and you can see what activities people in the area frequent, and if there are any good places to go floating.
- Investigate the Costs - Most people who go floating just rent equipment, but this can be expensive. Check all of the rental companies that service the area so you're getting the best deal.
- Contact Outfitters Before Your Trip: Local outfitters have updated information about water levels, weather, and accurate float times for the trip you're taking. Make sure to contact them closer to the time of your trip to be fully prepared.
- Recognize the Best Time to Float - The winter months are notoriously terrible for floating, given the temperatures and penchant for snowfall, but not every area has the same peak seasonal window for floating. Check out the best times to float your chosen area during the year so you have the greatest experience possible.
- Look for Guided Adventures If You're Unsure - If you don't feel confident in embarking on one of these float trips by yourself, you can look for guided tours and trips that'll take you down a section of the waterway with ease. Guided tours can be somewhat scarce and expensive, however.
Float Like a Butterfly Down the River
Floating trips are the wild version of the lazy river, meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. These are perfect for people who love the aesthetic and experience of the natural world. If you're not a seasoned adventurer, picking a float trip is a great opportunity for you to explore the outdoors from a comfortable vantage point.