Animas River, DurangoSteve Lewis

Down by the river. These Western cities and towns are where it’s at for mountain waters

Jackson, Wyoming

Cliff Ghiglieri

Jackson isn’t just for ski bums. The Snake River curls through the landscape, Yellowstone and Grand Teton country, two staggering national parks that define wild and scenic western America.

“I think that Jackson Hole and that whole area is the most beautiful place on earth,” says veteran guide Cliff Hance with OARS Whitewater and Travel. “It’s just spectacular.”

The Snake River is wide and deep with a variety of opportunities and endless miles of fishing, rafting and kayaking. It has it all, from Class II and III whitewater to wildlife viewing float trips, crashing waves to swimming holes, plus Yellowstone and Jackson lakes make for incredible flat-water outings.

Missoula, Montana

Destination Missoula

This place might be the best kept whitewater secret around.

With three rivers converging right in town – The Bitter Root, The Black Foot and Clark Fork – there’s something for everyone, from quality fly fishing and wildlife to flat-water paddling to Class III and IV whitewater and a killer surf spot: Brennan’s Wave.

Destination Missoula

“We’re lucky here,” says Mike Johnston, owner of Montana River Guides.

“People haven’t realized what a river mecca Missoula is.” And the city is catching on. Parks and trails have sprouted along the banks and businesses are building toward the waves instead of against them. “We’re not nearly as crowded as other parts of the country,” Johnston said. “(But) in 20 years, this will be everybody’s whitewater destination.”

Boise, Idaho

The Greenbelt is a 26-mile park/paved path lining the beloved Boise River. This favorite for relaxing floating and boating slices its way through the city of 215,000, with access to 20 parks, terrific trail hiking, biking and running opportunities, aesthetic foot bridges and even an outdoor amphitheater.

The Boise River Whitewater Park draws local paddlers, but for bigger water, head an hour out of town to the north and south forks of the Payette River.

“It’s a big river system,” says Georgia Lawler of Idaho Whitewater Unlimited. “The rivers are fed out of two reservoirs, so we’re pretty much guaranteed water. We don’t run out.”

Buena Vista, Colorado

The Arkansas River and all its glory feature perhaps the most popular stretch of whitewater in the United States: Browns Canyon, a few miles south of Buena Vista, a growing outdoor community emerging as one of the coolest adventure towns in the Rocky Mountain West.

North of town are the famous Numbers Rapids, and the whitewater park, practically downtown, has seven manmade features that draw in paddlers.

“The unique thing about it is the access,” says Travis Hochard of River Runners in Buena Vista. “Day use, put ins, take outs and evening runs are no problem.” Hochard said the thriving local commercial rafting industry saw more some 220,000 guests in 2016, bringing a flood of river-minded people, aspiring guides, river-enthusiast families and seasoned river runners. “It’s a great place, and a great place to get people into paddling.”

Flagstaff, Arizona

The Colorado River.Cliff Ghiglieri

This Northern Arizona mountain town doesn’t exactly scream river running when you roll through. Really, only one river to comes to mind when boaters are anywhere near, and it’s a good two hours away. But, that’s OK, because when you’re talking about the Grand Canyon, everything takes a little more planning.

“There’s really no other trip you can do in the West, in America or even in the world that’s quite like going down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon,” says Cliff Hance, a 12-year guide with OARS Whitewater and Adventure Travel. “They’re two-week-long river trips. You have to go 277 miles. If you’re rowing down, that’s the minimum length. It’s a full on expedition.”

Taos, New Mexico

Northern New Mexico is full of mountains and Taos sits at the epicenter of them. It’s a ski town, a mountain town, an artistic community, a pueblo and a booming river town. The Rio Grande Gorge is 1,000 feet deep with an expedition feel that takes boaters into another world. Known for The Taos Box, The Race Course, the Gorge, there is far more than meets the eye, according to Matt Guntram, who owns New Mexico River Adventures with his wife, Wendy.
“There are so many great sections,” Guntram said. “The Ute Mountain stretch, The

Razor Blade, the La Junta. I’ve never been in a canyon that is inaccessible, deep and big feeling that you can get in and out of in one day.”

From a mellow float trip to the raging Class V spring runoffs closed to commercial boating, and other nearby waters like the Rio Chama, Rio Pueblo and others, this is the best of New Mexico for a river lover. Plus, the Rio Grande season lasts from March through October, a longer season than other mountain waters.

Durango, Colorado

The Animas River runs right through the heart of this Southwestern adventure city. Calm waters make for meandering paddles up stream, with Class II to IV whitewater sections cresting in throughout city limits, but that’s not all. “You’ve got a number of classic river runs in the area,” says 4 Corners River Sports manager Matt Gerhardt. “The Upper Animas, Vallecito Creek, the San Juan, the Colorado, the Chama and some years the Dolores, all those being close and accessible.”
Summers see carloads of tubers, stacks of boats pulled behind full buses of rafters while kayaks towed on bicycle trailers stream up and down the paved Animas River Trail. SUPs top roof racks and flat water everywhere and surfers break waves in the Santa Rita Whitewater Park. And 4 Corners River Sports, perched on the banks of the Animas, in business for nearly 35 years, is a hub for river rats. Gerhardt said the scene explodes every season. “It’s the Animas being here in town, and the people it attracts.”

Cully Brown won first place in the Kayak Rodeo in Animas River DaysSarah Friedman/Durango Herald
The Animas River as seen from the Ninth Street bridge in Durango, Colorado Shaun Stanley/ Durango Herald

Moab, Utah

Colorado River in Moab, UtahBrandon Mathis

This is no secret stash. The mighty Colorado River runs right through the canyon country surrounding Moab.

The river offers up a variety of adventures: easy-to-get-to put ins and take outs for cruiser day floats, the Class IV and V whitewater of Westwater Canyon, tubing, SUP tours, lunch spots on sandy beaches and multi-day excursions deep into the desert backcountry.

Wildlife on sandbars is fun to watch, camping opportunities line the banks and day play spots like Gold Bar Rim make for nice lazy afternoons.