Rough Guides' adventure sports expert Helen Abramson gives us her top tips on some of the world’s best adrenalin-pumping whitewater rafting. Rapids are classified from I–VI, where grade VI is “un-runnable”, so the Grade V rivers listed here are essentially as thrilling as it gets.
1. Zambezi River, Zimbabwe
Africa’s most exhilarating rafting is found on a 24km stretch between the narrow walls of Batoka Gorge, via 23 terrifying Grade IV and V rapids such as the “Gnashing Jaws of Death”, plus some huge drops. The put-in point on the Zambezi River is at Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall by volume, making this among the most dramatic surroundings you can get while sitting in an inflatable raft. Just to add to the excitement, you might also get to see crocodiles and hippos up close. Trips run from half-a-day to eight days.
2. Colorado River, Arizona/Utah, USA
You can take in unique perspectives of the Grand Canyon from the wild Colorado River, which runs for 226 miles (363km) through Utah and Arizona, on this hair-raising rafting trip down class IV–V rapids in the world’s deepest gorge. You can mix things up with visits to ancient Navajo ruins and side grottos, or with hikes to spectacular waterfalls. If you don’t feel up to a full-on eighteen-day belter, three days is usually the minimum to really get to grips with the river, though some companies run half-day or day excursions too. Vessels vary from motorized, oared or paddle rafts to little wooden dories, and the season lasts from May to September.
3. Magpie River, Canada
Rafting down the Magpie in eastern Québec offers the chance to see more than just stunning secluded forests, intriguing wildlife and the impressive Magpie Falls – you might also catch a glimpse of the wonders of the aurora borealis. As if that’s not enough, the rafting begins after an epic seaplane trip onto Magpie Lake. The rapids get increasingly more aggressive and difficult to navigate as the eight-day trip downriver progresses, climaxing in Grade V rapids on the last day at Magpie Falls.
4. Noce River, Italy
Easily one of the top rafting destinations in Europe, fed by the melting glaciers of the Brenta Dolomites, the Noce River churns out Grade III–V rapids throughout the summer. Astounding views of sheer cliffs and distant snowcapped summits abound, as the river thunders through the gorges of Mostizzolo and across the remote Val di Sole (Sun Valley). The navigable 28km of the river can be done in one adrenalin-pumped day.
5. Río Pacuaré, Costa Rica
One of the world’s best rafting rivers, the Río Pacuaré snakes its way through the untouched wilderness of Costa Rica's Cabecar Indian Reservation rainforest, where tropical birds, monkeys, jaguars and dwarf leopards reside. Day-trips on the Lower Pacuaré, where waterfalls flow into the river, cover 29km through Grade III and IV rapids. Multi-day trips include stays at remote ecojungle lodges where guests can enjoy the tranquillity of the nature reserve after tackling their way through tumbling rapids with chilling names such as “Terciopelo Snake” and “Pinball”.
6. Kali Gandaki, Nepal
The Kali Gandaki is named after the Hindu goddess of destruction for a good reason. It runs fiercely down from high in the Himalayas through one of the earth’s deepest ravines, with an excellent alpine view of the snow-capped Annapurnas. Suitable for both rafting novices and connoisseurs, a three-day trip from the lakeside town of Pokhara involves tumbling down grade IV rapids, encountering numerous waterfalls, temples and suspension bridges, and camping on isolated whites-and beaches under an impossibly bright star-filled sky. Conditions are best from mid-October to mid-December and March to April, conveniently crossing over with the peak seasons for trekking.
7. Futalefú River, Chile
In October 2014, plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Chilean side of the Futalefú, in Patagonia, were successfully quashed after a long struggle by organisations determined to save the communities, wildlife and environmental beauty of the area. This means that, for now at least, rafters can still plummet down stunningly clear glacier-fed waters. There are sections to suit all abilities, from for beginners to those willing to brave some seriously intense Grade V rapids. Chances of getting bored here are pretty slim – you can also go hiking, canyoning, ziplining, horse riding and abseiling. And to cap it all off, riverside camps all have hot tubs.
8. North Johnstone River, Australia
Deep in the lush volcanic gorge of North Queensland’s Palmerston National Park runs 80km of the North Johnstone River, offering Grade IV and V rapids which are boosted by the region’s heavy rainfall. The adrenalin stakes are upped on this trip with the compulsory arrival at the put-in point via helicopter ride. On this four-day adventure into the heart of pristine rainforest, Aboriginal burial sites and 3,000-year-old trees are interspersed with wildlife such as saltwater crocodiles, pythons and water dragons, as well as eerily luminous fungi that grows on the riverbank rocks.
9. Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho, USA
Dive into one America’s largest wildernesses outside of Alaska on a trip down the roaring Salmon River, Idaho – often referred to the “river of no return”. With over 300 Grade I–III rapids over 105 miles (169km), a total drop of 3000 feet (900m), hot springs and wildlife such as brown bears, it’s no wonder that this is one of the world’s most popular rafting spots, and it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience. July and August are the best times to go, and trips usually run for 5 or 6 days.