Traveler's Top 10 Rivers to Ride in the National Park System

From the Yukon River in Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve to the Namekagon River in Saint Croix National Riverway, the National Park System has countless rivers to paddle down. NPS photos.

Sure, the most iconic river in all the land is the Colorado that flows through Grand Canyon National Park. But that doesn't mean you can't find quality river trips elsewhere in the National Park System.

Indeed, so hallowed is the Colorado that the waiting list for private trips is measured in years, plural. And why not? Great white water, that gigantic rift in the Earth that you float through over a period of two or more weeks, the simple thought of retracing Major John Wesley Powell's exploration of the uncharted Western territories in the late 1800s.

But the Colorado is not the only quality river experience you can find in the National Park System. Some aren't as rocking and rolling as the Colorado is, some are more, and some are simply nice rides into solitude. With that understood, here's the Traveler's 10 best float trips in the national parks, in no particular order.

1. Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park. See above.

2. New River, New River Gorge National River. You float the New in a day, not a handful of days, but within its scenic gorge you'll find some of the most technical white-water in the land. Rapids named Surprise, Greyhound Bus, Middle Keaney and Double Z are not to be trifled with. And when you do find a flat section, the gorge, which hugs one of the oldest rivers on the continent, is a marvel to take in.

3. Gauley River, Gauley River National Recreation Area. Few states are blessed with two such potent white-water rivers as West Virginia. While the New might attract more paddlers than the Gauley, that no doubt is due to the short season the Gauley endures as a result of the necessity of releases from the Summersville Dam to give it some punch, and due to the punch it gives. As the American Whitewater Association puts it, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet's Falls are world famous and deserve the notoriety.

4. Green River, Dinosaur National Monument. Floating through the Gates of Lodore and on south through Disaster Falls, Triplet Falls, and Hell's Half Mile en route to the confluence with the Yampa River before heading further south all the way to Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River, the Green is a classic three- four-day float if you take out at Split Mountain, or you can take it all the way on through the Grand Canyon, courtesy of the Colorado, of course. High desert landscape, sandstone cliffs, and memorable rapids earn this river its inclusion in this list.

5. Yampa River, Dinosaur National Monument. Outside of Alaska, you'll be hard-pressed to find one unit of the National Park System with two incredible rivers such as the Green and the Yampa. True, the Yampa can be downright sedentary in comparison to many other "white-water" streams, but you'll be hard-pressed to surpass the beauty of its sandstone canyons.

6. Snake River, Grand Teton National Park. The Snake is something of an oddity. It's not exactly renowned for its white-water, but it can be an extremely dangerous river below Deadman's Bar due to its swift currents, cold water, and braided nature. Choose the wrong channel and you'll definitely regret it. And while the river is not in a wilderness setting, with U.S. 191/26/89 not too far off to your left, it's hard to beat its picturesque nature, what with the Tetons looming overhead just to your right, bison grazing on the banks and meadows, bald eagles perched in snags, and river otters and moose appearing at times.

7. Yukon River, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. According to John Quinley, the assistant regional director for communications in the National Park Service's Alaska Region Office, "The Yukon is big and fast, but essentially flat water. I've gone down various sections with Boy Scouts, reporters and a superintendent -- so it can't be too hard! In the preserve, we have several free public use cabins (although in mid-summer warmth and bugs, I'd prefer being on the shore or on an island with more breeze). Gold rush era history is there too, especially at Slaven's Roadhouse and the dredge at nearby Coal Creek. The trip is made reasonably economical because Circle and Eagle are on the road system, and there is a canoe rental outfit in Eagle making a fly-drive combo possible."

8. Noatak River, Noatak National Preserve. "Once on the river, the water is flat and relatively easy paddling," says Mr. Quinley. "Not nearly the size of the Yukon, a very different feel, and for the section we were on all north of treeline. Lots of potential hiking in the tundra, caribou in the area, fishing's decent and there's little sign that anyone has been here before (but, of course, people have been tromping around there for 10,000 years -- just not the cabins, dredges, etc like on the Yukon.) Pretty magical place as you get toward fall with tundra colors, caribou migration."

9. Saint Croix and Namekagon rivers, Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. We're not talking extreme paddling here, just a nice, tranquil set of rivers for some relaxing paddling and great scenery. The Saint Croix River offers 150 miles of paddling, best done top to the bottom by canoe, while the Namekagon contributes 98 miles of water. Primitive campsites can be found for those interested in multi-day paddles. As with any river, check on the latest water conditions.

10. Alaska. Ok, we're tossing in the towel. There are just so many options in Alaska that trying to stick to ten rivers overall, and with two already from Alaska, would do the state's national park units an injustice. There are just so many more streams that demand to be listed. In Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve alone you can choose from the Chitna, Copper, and Nabesna rivers. Look to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and you've got the Mulchatna National Wild River, Chilikadrotna National Wild River and Tlikakila National Wild River, all which carry promise of solitude, rugged wilderness, and wildlife.

No doubt there are other wonderful paddle trips to found across the National Park System. Which ones did we overlook?


The Alsek River at the northern tip of Glacier Bay National Park has to be in the top 10.

Seems like any list that doesn't include the Buffalo National River system in Arkansas is somewhat lacking. Not many rivers in the lower 48 states that allow for 7+ day trips down a river with no dams.


I just realized that you left of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River as well as the Main Salmon, the Lower Salmon, and continuing even further downstream, Hells Canyon (although technically at that point, we're back on the Snake).

But *no* river list for the US can be complete without the Middle Fork of the Salmon. That's probably the crown jewel of continental rivers. Right up there with the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

If we're hanging out in Idaho, we should also probably mention the Selway (which is impossible to get a permit for)...


A sleeper candidate that's astounding, but much harder to catch, is the 50+ miles on Arizona's Salt River. The day trip is nice, but the full trip through the Salt River wilderness area is spectacular.


Reinharden, you're definitely right about the Middle Fork being a fabulous river. But, alas, it's not in the National Park System, which is the area this post focused on.

Now, if the Forest Service wouldn't mind swapping that section of the forest to the NPS, we'll definitely add it in next year's Top 10 list!

As for the Buffalo River, yes, it's a great stream, but I'm told it can get awful boney during the summertime, making it a chore of sorts to paddle.

FYI - the NPS canned the waiting list for non-commercial Colorado River launches. It's now a weighted annual lottery system, where those who were on the old waiting list get more chances. I'm thinking a lot of people remember the scene from "Into the Wild" where Christopher McCandless is at the Lees Ferry ranger station, and finds out the wait for a launch date will be over a decade.

I greatly enjoyed my trip down the Colorado downstream of Hoover Dam. It's a real treat to paddle into a little cove and find a hot spring leaking from the rocks. Concessions at Lake Mead NRA provide guided raft trips and kayak rentals.

I'll strike a blow for the little guys here with one from my personal top ten list: Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park. It lacks the scope and scale of the western rivers that dominate this discussion, but it's a great paddle in a pristine environment about 20 minutes from a capital city. Old growth cypress isn't easy to find these days, and if you're the romantic type that believes (or wants to believe) that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist, this is often mentioned among the spots where they may have hunkered down.

I'm sure Professor Janiskee won't mind me mentioning this one. ;-)

Pics from Cedar creek

Cedar Creek is indeed a gorgeous little stream, Kirby, and we're fortunate to have a put-in just half an hour from downtown Columbia. But alas, Cedar Creek is not a top-tenner. The flow is just too undependable, especially in the warmer months. After extended periods of low rainfall (of which there have been plenty in recent years) the water level in Cedar Creek drops so low that rangers advise visitors to consider waiting until conditions improve. Repeatedly hauling your canoe over logs exposed at low water can take a lot of fun out of your trip. Bottom line: If you are considering a Cedar Creek trip, be sure to call the park and ask about water conditions.

Thank goodness for the National Parks Traveler, for I do believe only you have recognized the excellent Noatak River.

However, my favorite part of the Noatak starts in Gates of the Arctic National Park (and designated Wilderness), with its beautiful mountains and lakes. Then, you get to keep going down the 400-mile river through the Noatak National Preserve.

Thanks for the correction, poetrycreek - I've fixed the link in the story.

Here is a chronicle of a 14day solo canoe trip down the Noatak.

I'd have to put in a vote for the Green River in Mammoth Cave National Park, KY. We did this float last fall and it rivaled our Snake River trip in Grand Teton for peacefulness and wildlife.