If it’s any testament to the beauty of this New Mexico river, the Rio Chama’s high desert and sandstone cliffs so inspired Georgia O’Keeffe that she settled permanently in the area in the 1940s. A tributary of the Rio Grande, the Chama is hemmed by a steep red-rock canyon with walls soaring up to 1,500 feet. Dvorak Expeditions’ three-day trip leads beginners and children as young as five through Class I and II rapids over the course of 31 miles. This is mountain lion territory, so be on the lookout. The Chama was once home to the Anasazi Indians, and the canyon also holds some extraordinary cliff dwellings, which Dvorak rafters explore on a series of guided hikes ($523; dvorakexpeditions.com ).
Willow, alder, and cottonwood groves flank the Upper Kern River, one of the most adrenaline-charged stretches of whitewater in the lower 48. Kern River Outfitters runs a trip called Thunder Run, which is a challenging sequence of five massive Class V rapids on the Upper Kern, where (between heart-pounding drops) riders can expect to see mule deer grazing on the riverbank and rainbow trout nipping at mayflies. The run can be tackled in less than a day, but paddlers must first pass a battery of swimming and maneuvering tests due to the powerful nature of the rapids. A sign at the mouth of Kern Canyon says as much: “Danger. Stay Out. Stay Alive” ($225; kernrafting.com).
Containing the steepest section of water in the Southeast—a drop of 75 feet over just a quarter of a mile—the Chattooga is a dream come true for rafters. Its 57-mile Wild and Scenic stretch flows between South Carolina and Georgia and bisects three national forests. The Nantahala Outdoor Center operates an overnight trip for those who want to conquer both the mild (Class II–III) and the rowdy (Class IV and up) rapids on a two-day run. Plan on pitching a tent under pines and hickories, then riding waterslides and rope swings set up near camp ($300; noc.com).
The prize of the upper Midwest, Wisconsin’s Wolf River packs about a dozen Class II and III rapids into its 28-mile Wild and Scenic segment on the Menominee Indian Reservation. The water is fairly warm, and the whitewater unpredictable—rafting companies recommend a helmet, a wetsuit, and an intrepid spirit. Shotgun Eddy, an outfit based 25 miles outside Shawano, runs a short six-hour course that includes a plunge over Smokey Falls, a Class III cascade featuring a rooster tail—a geyser of whitewater just to the left of the falls—that catapults riders over the eight-foot drop ($35; shotguneddy.com).