A Complete Guide to the Best Packrafting Locations in America

Adventure Outdoor Activities Paddling Travel By Emily Leikam

Packrafting is a sport that is literally blowing up right now! The unique ability to carry a pack that turns into a raft provides opportunities to explore new regions by way of a lake or river. There are so many amazing meandering rivers and peaceful lakes all across America that range from extreme class V rapids to calm, mirror-like waters. Each one is just waiting to be explored. From west to east, and everywhere in between, here’s a complete guide to the best packrafting locations. 

Man carrying a Packraft out of river
Easy entry into the river carrying a packraft. Photo by: Robert Thomson.

NORTHWEST

1. Alaska 

Twin Lakes

Twin Lakes is a complex of two lakes within Lake Clark National Park. There is a 6-mile-long upper lake and a 4-mile-long lower lake. This stunning location offers clear blue waters, giant mountain views, and plenty of backcountry hiking. Most of the paddling is on flat waters, which makes these lakes perfect for beginners.

Sanctuary River

Sanctuary River is located in the wild and rugged terrain of Denali National Park. This amazing route takes you through 13 miles of hiking and 17 miles of packrafting. Begin east of Sable Pass on Denali Park Road, and end your trip at the Sanctuary River Campground. This is an ideal way to experience Alaska.

Winner Creek to 20 Mile River Loop

Winner Creek to 20 Mile is a classic adventure perfect for a first-time packrafting experience. Expect to traverse many miles of hiking through untouched nature and float along miles of calm waters. 

2. Oregon

Rogue River

The Rogue River’s scenic section is a classic multi-day rafting adventure in Oregon, with thrilling rapids set amid a forested and mountainous river canyon. The journey begins west of the tiny town of Merlin. For approximately 40 miles, rafters will paddle their way downstream. Rainie Falls, Mule Creek Canyon, and Blossom Bar, possibly Oregon’s most famous rapid, are noteworthy highlights of this trip. You’ll also discover amazing campgrounds along the way.

Grande Ronde River

The Grande Ronde is a moderate river with easy whitewater flowing through a beautiful landscape hidden in the pine-clad mountains of northeast Oregon. The Grande Ronde runs from May to mid-July, making it ideal for families or individuals looking for an easy beginning to rafting.

Snake River

The Snake River, which runs through Oregon and Idaho, creates North America’s deepest canyon. Hells Canyon, which is 2,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon, is a spectacular sight. Huge rapids, warm water, breathtaking landscape, and great wildlife sightings make this one of America’s best rafting trips. Combine world-class rapids with treks to historic homesteads, Indigenous rock art, and more on this adventure!

A Man Paddles on Moonstone Lake
Moonstone Lake in the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska. Photo by: Paxson Woelber.

WEST

1. Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon is one of the most iconic locations in the United States, so to be able to experience this area while packrafting is truly special. The Colorado River has been carving its mark, creating the Grand Canyon, for the last six million years. You must apply for a permit, and enter a lottery for a chance to ride solo through the canyon. For the lucky winners, it’s the trip of a lifetime. 

Black River

The Black River is a 114-mile-long river located in the White Mountains of Arizona. The river, known for its great trout fishing, is composed of class II, IV, and V rapids and is not recommended for beginners. The Black River is set in a beautiful, remote location which makes it the perfect setting for a packrafting adventure.

2. Wyoming 

Buffalo Fork River

The north, south, and main forks of the Buffalo Fork River, a significant tributary of the Snake River, offer thrilling packrafting in the wilderness of Wyoming. Part of the Teton Wilderness, grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions can be spotted in good numbers on the Buffalo Fork.

Turpin Meadow is a popular starting location for packrafting the Buffalo Fork. It’s a short 5.5-mile trip from Turpin Meadow to Soda Fork Meadows, where the Soda Fork and the North Fork of the Buffalo merge to form the North Fork. Soda Fork Meadows is a great place to camp. Numerous mountains in the vicinity offer excellent hiking opportunities and fantastic views of the Teton Wilderness.

Green River

This is a fantastic introduction to wilderness packrafting that includes an overnight stay in the Wind River Range, one of America’s most spectacular wildernesses. Follow the Highline Trail for five miles from Upper Green River Lake to Beaver Park, a lovely camping location and the perfect starting point for a climb up the renowned Squaretop Mountain. Five miles of gorgeous and delightful packrafting, with one simple Class II/III rapids, are required to return to Green River Lakes. The emerald-green headwaters of the Green River remain navigable all summer long because they are fed by melting glaciers. 

3. Utah

Escalante River

The Escalante River is a 90-mile tributary of the Colorado River located in south-central Utah. One of the top wilderness packrafting expeditions in the contiguous 48 states is on the Escalante River, along with Thorofare Creek and the South Fork of the Flathead. The river traverses some of the country’s most fascinating canyons, providing visitors with beautiful red rock scenery. The river mostly consists of class II rapids, but some areas can be treacherous.

Virgin River

The Virgin River, flowing through Zion National Park, provides packrafters with an exciting journey through a massive sandstone temple. The river consists of class III and IV rapids and is not meant for complete beginners. This is a thrilling location if you’re looking for a solid rafting adventure in the vast state of Utah.

4. Montana

Flathead River

The Flathead River is a 158-mile river originating in the Canadian Rockies, just north of Glacier National Park. For packrafters, this is one of the best rivers to experience the rugged wilderness of Montana. The South Fork of Flathead River offers some of the cleanest and clearest water you’ll ever encounter – not to mention amazing opportunities to catch some cutthroat trout along the way. The only way to access this area is by foot, which means you’re less likely to encounter crowds.

5. Colorado

Browns Canyon

Packrafting is a great activity in Browns Canyon. You can raft a 13-mile stretch along the Arkansas River with stunning views of granite cliffs. The route contains multiple areas of class III rapids that may be challenging for beginners. This is a fun location to raft if you enjoy whitewater. 

Gunnison River

The Gunnison River is one of the Colorado River’s largest tributaries. This 180-mile-long river flows east to west through the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest. There’s plenty of opportunity for all skill levels along this river as you’ll encounter class I to III rapids. Expect to pass by 2,000-foot giant granite cliffs, and experience Colorado’s remote wilderness at its finest.

reflection of the mountains on the lake at dawn
Dawn at Upper Green River Lake. Photo by: Robert.

MIDWEST

1. Minnesota

Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a 1,090,000-acre wilderness area located in Northern Minnesota within the Superior National Forest. Encompassing thousands of miles of pristine, protected wilderness, this location is a paddler’s dream come true. You’ll discover more calm waters than rapids here, which makes it a fantastic place for all ages and levels of expertise. 

2. Michigan 

Manistee River

The Manistee River runs 190 miles through the northwestern Lower Peninsula of Michigan before entering Lake Michigan. This is a beautiful area for a packrafting trip where you’ll experience a combination of secluded nature and rural towns. 

Isle Royale

Isle Royale is an island National Park located in Lake Superior. This unique location is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Bring a packraft for a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the park. The waves will be choppy, but when you see the historic sites, endless hiking trails, and all the wildlife, it will be worth the journey.

Body of water near island with trees
Wavy coats of Isle Royale. Photo by: Luke Tanis.

SOUTH

1. Texas

The Rio Grande

The mighty Rio Grande River, spanning 1,250 miles, forms a natural boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. Where it runs through Big Bend National Park, be prepared to view seldom-seen, stunning canyons jutting up from the earth. There are several areas throughout Big Bend National Park where you can enter the river. No matter where you decide to start your packrafting journey, you’ll discover untouched nature, open deserts, and deep canyons throughout. 

SOUTHEAST

1. Kentucky

Big South Fork National River

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is revered for its remoteness and wild, pristine beauty. Park at the Ledbetter trailhead for a two-mile hike to the river. Most of the river in this area is flat, but you may encounter Class I-III rapids. Watch out for a Class IV chute called Devil’s Jump – you can avoid packrafting through it by taking the river to the left.

2. Tennessee

Cumberland River

The Cumberland River is a major, 688-mile-long river that flows through southern Kentucky and north-central Tennessee. Taking the Big South Fork of Cumberland River is a great opportunity to catch some fast-moving rapids while enjoying serene nature. 

Tellico River

Tellico is a 52.8-mile river located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. There are two sections; upper and lower. The upper section contains Class III-IV rapids, while the lower has class II-III rapids. This is an enchanting location with waterfalls, streams full of trout, and many trails that lead to eye-opening views.

3. Alabama

Little River Canyon

The Little River Canyon National Preserve offers everything from peaceful, scenic packrafting above Little River Falls to heart pounding Class IV, V, and VI rapids below the falls. The river is rain-fed, making it only navigable from November through April. If you’re a beginner, it’s advised to keep your packrafting journey above Little River Falls.

Packrafting in turbulent water
Be prepared for turbulent waters. Photo by: Esben~dewiki.

EAST COAST

1. Maine

Kennebec River

The Kennebec River runs 170 miles from north to south through the middle of Maine. You’ll encounter everything from easy-going call II rapids to adventurous class IV rapids. The river rises out of Moosehead Lake and flows southward, branching off into multiple outlets and eventually meeting at Indian Pond. This is where many packrafters begin their journey. Along the way, you’ll pass through many drops, waves and holes like the Rock Garden, Big Mamma, and the Three Sisters. The scenic beauty is some of the best you could ask for in the state of Maine.

Dead River

Don’t be fooled by its name – the Dead River is the longest continuous track of whitewater on the east coast. The full length of the river is 43 miles and is not recommended for beginners. This river traverses class II to class V rapids that are rather extreme. The Fork is where Dead River and Kennebec intersect to create powerful, fast moving rapids. If you have the experience and the time, consider adventuring down both rivers.

Penobscot River

The Penobscot River begins in North-Central Maine and travels southeast for 109 miles towards the coast. If you include the west and south branches of the river, the complete mileage adds up to 264 miles, making Penobscot the second longest river in Maine. Expect to flow through class III and V rapids that take you down steep drops like “Lose Your Lunch Falls.” The area is incredibly scenic and offers breathtaking views of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak.

Androscoggin River

Before combining with the Kennebec River, the Androscoggin runs through the heart of Maine. The Upper Androscoggin is perfect for slow, scenic paddling while the Lower Androscoggin contains some moderate rapids for a more exciting ride. 

2. Delaware

Delaware Water Gap

The Delaware Water Gap sits on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania where the Delaware River carves through a giant ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. This trip is perfect for beginners and experienced pack-rafters alike. View the majestic Kittatinny Mountains and observe flora and fauna you wouldn’t normally see anywhere else.

Brandywine Creek

Brandywine Creek is a tributary of the Christina River that flows through Wilmington, Delaware. This is an ideal location for beginners or those looking for a relaxing trip through nature. The stream meanders through rural landscapes with fantastic opportunities for hiking. The lower Brandywine is 20.4 miles and offers plenty of overnight camping opportunities. 

Packraft on the rocky shore
Photo by: Paxson Woelber.

3. Maryland

Upper Youghiogheny River

The Youghiogheny River, or the Yough for short, is a 134-mile-long tributary of the Monongahela River that runs through Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The Upper Yough is well-known to many rafters and provides some exceptional class IV to V rapids that will really test your skills. 

Potomac River

The Potomac River is a 405-mile-long river that flows from the Potomac Highlands, all the way into the Chesapeake Bay. Expect to encounter beautiful scenery, some challenging rapids, and plenty of offshoots that lead to quaint campgrounds. Spring is a great time to go if you’d like to experience more waves and fewer people.

4. West Virginia 

Bluestone National Scenic River

The Bluestone River is a 10.5-mile river located in Summers and Mercer counties of southern West Virginia. This beautifully calm river leads to secluded hiking trails deep in the forest where you’ll be able to find primitive campgrounds to stay for a night or two. 

New River Gorge

Contrary to its name, the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world. Located in Lansing, West Virginia, this 53-mile river has much to offer for anyone willing to endure some wild rapids. The river is split into two sections; the lower and upper. The upper portion is much easier with Class I and II rapids. The scenery is outstanding, the rapids are fun, and the local trails are full of primitive campgrounds.

5. North Carolina

Green River

The Green River is a dam-release river that flows through the mountains, just south of Asheville. The lower Green River is a great place to start unless you’d like to experience the class V Narrows section further upstream. The lower section contains class II rapids that can be enjoyed by anyone. 

French Broad River

The French Broad River ranks as one of the oldest rivers in the world. Located deep in Pisgah National Forest, this river provides tremendous mountain scenery and plenty of exciting rapids to push through.

Morning Light and a Reflection of a Tree in the River
Morning light at Androscoggin River, Maine. Photo by: Paul VanDerWerf.

Get Ready to Blow Up and Flow Down

Hiking and biking through the remote wilderness is an experience that makes you feel alive. When you take it to a whole new level, the experience will take your breath away. Packrafting allows you to view seldom-seen areas of the country and witness untouched nature at its finest.

Before you go, acquire any necessary permits for backcountry camping or paddling. Always pack out whatever you bring with you and, most importantly, be safe and enjoy the waves!

Featured image by: Patrick Hendry.

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Emily Leikam
Emily is an avid traveler and has been all around the world from Alaska and Iceland to Peru and Bali. Her home base is Nashville, TN and when not traveling you can find her hiking, practicing yoga or cooking/baking!