Traveling alone is very different from traveling with others, and whitewater rafting trips are no exception. When planning a rafting adventure with many friends or family members, you can’t pick just any destination. While many rivers in the United States offer an unforgettable rafting experience, when it comes to accommodating larger-than-average party sizes, some are better than others. For this reason, we’ve compiled a list of the best group-friendly rafting destinations in North America.
What Makes a Whitewater Rafting Destination Group-Friendly?
In picking the best whitewater rafting destinations, we used the following criteria.
- Popularity: If a river attracts many rafters from all over, there’s often a good reason for it. Many of the destinations we listed draw rafters from all over the country and around the world.
- Reputation of the outfitters: Even if a river offers unforgettable views and big rapids, if your group can’t find any outfitters with experienced, fun guides or clean, reliable equipment, your experience will be considerably less memorable — and in some cases, ruined. We’ll talk more about finding a good outfitter below.
- Group rates and accommodations: In searching for group-friendly destinations, we also researched the group discounts the local outfitters offer. Since most whitewater rafting for groups are in fairly remote locations and require visitors to spend the night nearby, we checked to see if there were nearby accommodations that were both comfortable and reasonably priced.
- Balance of adventure and fun: The rule of thumb with group travel is that the larger your group is, the harder it is to please everybody. For this reason, we picked rivers that offer a variety of difficulty levels. If you take a large group to a river with only Class IV and V rapids, there will likely be at least a few people who will — perhaps very literally — get in over their heads. The best whitewater rafting for large groups feature both exciting and relaxing stretches.
- Availability of other activities: As mentioned above, many of the best rivers for rafting are in remote areas, which means if you spend the time and money to get there, you’ll probably want to stay for a while. Luckily, whitewater rafting destinations usually offer other outdoor activities that don’t involve getting soaked. These commonly include hiking, horseback riding and zip lining.
Top 10 Whitewater Rafting Destinations for Large Groups
Now we’ll share with you the 10 rafting destinations that best meet our above criteria. While some have more name recognition than others, they all likely have something to offer for every member of your large group.
Colorado River, Grand Canyon, Arizona
The section of the Colorado River that meanders through the Grand Canyon is perhaps the most famous rafting excursion in the world — and the reasons are not hard to understand. It offers exciting waves, great holes and, of course, stunning views of the canyon towering above. Even if you’ve already seen this magnificent canyon from the rim, taking this rafting trip would be worth it just to view the canyon from this dramatic new perspective — and one most park visitors never see.
Large groups considering a rafting trip to the Grand Canyon have no shortage of group-friendly outfitters to choose from, as nine companies operate on the river. However, keep in mind you’ll have to book your trip here far in advance, as trips can sell out up to two years ahead of time.
If your group consists mostly of beginners — or you all would prefer a more relaxing experience — you can choose the single-day trip that runs through the Hualapai Reservation. This stretch offers rafters stunning views of the canyon walls’ rich orange colors, and the rapids tend to be either Class II or III, both of which are fairly moderate.
Tuolumne River, California
The Tuolomne River offers the best rafting in California — and this state is by no means lacking in thrilling rivers. This scenic river first flows through the breathtakingly beautiful Yosemite National Park, after which it plunges into the Cherry Creek section, which many consider to be one of the most intense whitewater rafting destinations in North America. Of course, if your group wants to enjoy thrills with slightly less intensity, you can opt for an 18-mile trip on the less difficult, but just as scenic, Main Tuolumne section.
Arkansas River, Colorado
The great Arkansas River begins in Colorado and travels all the way to the Mississippi River Arkansas, passing through Kansas and Oklahoma on the way. However, this river offers its most thrilling whitewater rafting destinations in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and many consider it to be the Rocky Mountains’ premier rafting adventure. After flowing through a broad glacial valley surrounded by peaks reaching 14,000 feet into the sky, this river then plunges into a 1,000-foot-deep canyon. Rafting on the Arkansas River is a great way to take in the dramatic landscape Colorado is known for.
Many outfitters on this river offer half-day, full-day and multi-day trips, and regardless of whether your group is seeking a relaxing outing or thrill-packed adventure, they can find what they’re looking for on the Arkansas River. The upper stretch, which is just downstream of Buena Vista, offers a calmer, easier rafting experience. Farther downstream, where the river passes through the Browns Canyon, rafters will encounter Class II and III rapids, including the Big Drop and the Zoom Flume.
Nenana River, Alaska
Alaska is well-known for many outdoor activities, and whitewater rafting is no exception. Its premier rafting destination is on the Nenana River, a glacial river that originates at Mt. McKinley and flows through the iconic Denali National Park. As it meanders through the canyons, it offers unforgettable views of landscape and wildlife, including sheep on the hills and golden eagles in the sky.
One of the most popular sections of the river is called Canyon Run, a day trip offered by the Denali Outdoor Center. Parts of this river vary significantly in difficulty and offer something for all rafters, including Class IV rapids for those who want an exhilarating full-body workout.
Recommended outfitters: Denali Outdoor Center
Other activities: hiking, visiting the Denali Visitor Center, attending a sled dog demonstration, taking a Denali bus tour
Gauley River, West Virginia
It would seem the Gauley River in West Virginia was made for whitewater rafting adventures. It’s the site that gave birth to whitewater rafting culture on the East Coast, and it is home to one of the most famous annual rafting events: On the weekends in the fall, an upstream dam releases water that creates world-class whitewater rapids, attracting visitors from around the world.
This river features a 35-mile section with big rapids rated Class V and higher, and more than 100 of them are among the most difficult in the United States. That challenge, paired with the stunning natural scenery, attracts many avid rafters to this river every season. Groups wanting less excitement can enjoy a more laid-back trip on the nearby Upper New River, which is mostly calm but offers an option to experience Class III rapids.
Salmon River, Idaho
Idaho’s Salmon River, beloved internationally for its unrivaled views and exhilarating whitewater sequences, offers a wide variety of scenery and rapids. Rafters will pass through granite canyons, grasslands and high country forests, and may spot animals including bighorn sheep, bears, mountain lions and moose. This river cuts through the largest expanse of untouched wilderness in the lower 48 states and is ideal for those who want to disconnect from civilization entirely.
The river has three sections — the Middle Fork, Main Salmon and Lower Salmon — and offers a wide variety of options in terms of trip length. The Middle Fork, for example, has five- to six-day trips that begin on a turbulent alpine river and end by passing through a stunning arid canyon. The Main Salmon section offers everything from seven-day to half-day trips.
Recommended outfitters: Holiday River Expeditions, Rocky Mountain River Tours, Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures
Other activities: Hiking in the alpine forests, bathing in the hot springs, driving along the Salmon River Scenic Byway, visiting the Lewis and Clark Trail, visiting the Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural and Education Center
Rogue River, Oregon
The Rogue River in Southwest Oregon flows through the Klamath Mountains until it reaches the Pacific Ocean. In 1968, the river received protection from Congress as one of the country’s eight “wild and scenic rivers,” and it’s not difficult to understand why. This river offers gorgeous views of forested canyons and is home to eagles, herons, ospreys, otters and bears. The Rogue River has rapids of varying difficulty, including the Class II Argo rapids, the Class III Black Bar Falls and the Class IV to V Blossom Bar.
Recommended outfitters: Northwest Rafting Co., Morrisons Rogue Wilderness
Other activities: fishing, zip lining, wine tasting
Kennebec River, Maine
Maine’s 170-mile-long Kennebec River flows south into the Atlantic Ocean and passes through some of the state’s most rugged, remote wilderness along the way. The 12-mile whitewater stretch of the Kennebec River in Maine features Class III and IV rapids and some more challenging stops, including Magic Falls and the Three Sisters.
Chattooga River, South Carolina and Georgia
The famous Chattooga River forms the border between South Carolina and Georgia and boasts some of the Southeast’s most challenging rapids and stunning scenery. In the springtime, when waters are high, adrenaline-seeking rafters can enjoy Class V rapids, and when the waters go down in the summertime, the river offers more family-friendly options, although challenging rapids are still available throughout the season.
This river was the site of whitewater rafting events during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and many of its rapids, including Bull Sluice, Five Falls, Sock-em-Dog and Woodall Shoals, are known and loved by avid rafters around the country.
Recommended Outfitters: Southeast Expeditions
Other Activities: horseback riding, zip lining, tubing, mountain biking, hiking, fly fishing
Ocoee River, Tennessee
Rafters who choose the Ocoee River can tackle fun Class III and IV rapids while taking in the beautiful, wild scenery of the southern Appalachians. Unlike many other rafting destinations in the U.S., Ocoee’s rafting season is exceptionally long, lasting from March through October. The water is also typically warm, making it even more fun to splash through its raging rapids.
The Ocoee River was also one of the whitewater rafting sites for the 1996 Olympic Games, and rafters have the opportunity to take the six-hour Olympic Course.
Recommended Outfitters: Raft1
Other Activities: mountain biking, zip lining
How to Choose a Whitewater Rafting Outfitter
When picking an outfitter, you don’t want to go with the cheapest option. While price is an essential factor, you should also keep the following considerations in mind.
- Experience of the guides: Being a good rafting guide requires years of training and experience, and the more expertise your guide has, the safer and more enjoyable your rafting trip will be for your group. Guides with more experience can control the boat better, allowing them to avoid the troublesome spots and hit all the exciting splashes. Having more experience also allows them to speak more comfortably with the guests during the trip.
- Quality of the equipment: Clean and up-to-date equipment is essential for both your safety and comfort, so choose an outfitter that offers this. Make sure they sanitize their wetsuits after every use.
- Variety of difficulty levels: While it may be impossible to find a trip that is perfect for everyone in your group, a good outfitter should still offer a wide variety of trips and helpful, informed staff who can help you choose the best one for your party. Make sure to let them know the age, physical fitness and swimming abilities of every person in your group.
Enjoy the Best Rafting in the Southeast With Excellent Group Packages
If your group is interested in a rafting tour in the Southeast, the Chattooga and Ocoee Rivers are the premier rafting destinations in the region, offering long seasons, unforgettable scenery and a wide variety of trip options.
Southeastern Expeditions, which offers tours on the famous Chattooga River, provides discounts to groups of 12 or more. And Raft1, the top rafting outfitter for the Ocoee River, offers great packages for groups of 13 or more and can accommodate large groups in one of our two lodges. Your next adventure awaits — start planning today.