10 of the World’s Most Notorious Whitewater Rapids

10 of the World’s Most Notorious Whitewater Rapids

How do you choose the world’s most notorious rapids, when arguably, there’s an infamous rapid on every great whitewater run on the planet?  Well, to us, it comes down to the rapids that leave lasting impressions and hook people on rafting for life.  They’re the incredible rides we never forget.  They’re the rapids where legends are made.  So we polled some pros, and these ten whitewater favorites made the cut…

1) Terminator – Futaleufú River, Chile:  With five Class V rapids, the Futaleufú is known for its big water, but it’s Terminator that’s considered the biggest and baddest of them all.  In fact, many pros say it’s the most challenging commercially run rapid in the world.  And when asked about this long and technically challenging rapid, our guides say Terminator has every feature that will make your belly groan: Towering waves, pummeling holes, massive black boulders strewn everywhere…all embraced by brooding cliffs and echoing thunder.  Even the “cheat run” on river left is bigger than anything you’ve ever run.

Chilko River Rafting

2) Bidwell – Chilko River, British Columbia:  Lava Canyon on the Chilko River offers up 14 miles of non-stop excitement through what is often boasted as the longest stretch of commercially run Class IV whitewater in North America.  And at the start of it all you’ll find Bidwell, an exciting Class IV “S-bend” rapid with big breaking waves and a huge hole at the bottom. Seasoned pros say it’s an intense way to start off the Chilko’s infamous White Mile. If you don’t make the correct move at the top, you have continuous whitewater below. Translation: You don’t want any swimmers here.

3) Big Drops 2 and 3 – Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, Utah: Cataract Canyon‘s Big Drops 2 and 3 (ok, technically two rapids) might be a surprising pick considering most of the season they’re a fun Class III ride, but those who’ve experienced these infamous back to back drops at high water know their unforgettable nature.  Longtime O.A.R.S. guide Jeffe Aronson, who claims to be the first to run the Big Drops on an 18-foot raft at 75,000 cfs says, “They’re bigger, scarier, harder and more consequential than anything else we run, period.” At their peak, these rapids are two of the top ten biggest rapids in North America offering up waves bigger than the biggest rapids in the Grand Canyon.

Lava Falls, Grand Canyon Rafting

4) Lava Falls – Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, Arizona: Speaking of the Grand Canyon, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Lava Falls, the biggest rapid in the canyon and definitely the most fabled.  Navigating through a maelstrom of whitewater as the river falls 37 feet over the span of several hundred yards, paddlers pretend they’re in control as they try to avoid Big Black Rock and boat-flipping Ledge Hole for any hope of making it to Tequila Beach for post-Lava celebrations. Rated Class 10 (the highest degree of difficulty in the Grand Canyon), Lava can be twenty of the scariest (and best) seconds of an entire Grand Canyon rafting trip for guides and passengers alike.

5) Godzilla – Rio Upano River, Ecuador:  When it comes to the “River of the Sacred Waterfalls” deep in the Andes Mountains, Godzilla is the most memorable rapid on the Rio Upano, according to Peter Grubb of ROW Adventures.  “It’s in a deep and dramatic jungle canyon with high waterfalls plummeting in from both sides of the river, making for a wave train that boasts 15-foot waves when flows are in the 15-25,000 cfs range,” he describes. “As you run this rapid you have to be working from right to left, without getting caught in strong eddy lines on left, so that when you come out of the train of waves you are on the left side of an almost river-wide hole!”

10 of the World's Best Whitewater Rapids

6) Pillow Rapid – Gauley River, West Virginia:  There are five legendary rapids on West Virginia’s notorious Gauley River, but when we talked to Heidi Prior from ACE Adventure Resort, she said that everyone on their crew would agree that Pillow Rapid takes the cake.  As this Class V rapid drops 30 feet boats pummel down a narrow chute directly into Pillow Rock where they have to “ride the pillow” just right to avoid the worst case scenario.  But according to Heidi, “Just like the name suggests, it’s a soft, fluffy ride of water…it’s the best 10 seconds of life.”

7) Ghostrider – Zambezi River, Zambia:  The Zambezi, another legendary big-water river, doesn’t skimp on excitement which is clear from the name of some of its iconic rapids like Stairway to Heaven, Gnashing Jaws of Death and Oblivion. But it’s the grand finale to the trip, notorious Ghostrider, that ensures even the most avid river runner a little adrenaline, according to Hamish McMaster of Water By Nature. “Nowhere in the world have I seen expedition size rafts disappear for 2-3 seconds before they resurface from inside the three gigantic waves that make up the crux of this Class V rapid,” reports Hamish.

10 of the World's Best Whitewater Rapids

8) God’s House – Karnali River, Nepal: Post-monsoon season in early October, the Karnali River in Western Nepal offers some of the best big-volume rapids in the world through pristine jungle and dramatic Himalayan gorges.  But all of that aside, the pinnacle of the trip for many is no doubt God’s House. Running through the narrowest gorge on the river this Class V rapid serves up a large runnable wave on the left before you have to fight your way to the right to miss an enormous hole that has the capacity to flip a small vehicle let alone a raft.

9) Bull Sluice – Chattooga River, Georgia:  While well-known rapids like Jaw Bone and Seven Foot Falls are obvious choices for best rapids on Georgia’s scenic Chattooga River (made famous in the movie Deliverance), Charles Conner from Nantahala Outdoor Center thinks Bull Sluice deserves the official title. The grand finale to rafting on Section 3 of the river, this Class IV+ thriller dishes out a 14-foot elevation drop with a tricky line that includes a difficult to maneuver ledge, aptly named Decapitation Rock, and finally a big hole that you have to surf to escape.  “To me, it’s the perfect rapid,” says Charles. “There are multiple routes through the rapid and it flows over a rugged sandstone ledge surrounded by house-sized boulders.”

Clavey Falls, Tuolumne River Rafting

10) Clavey Falls – Tuolumne River, California: Anytime the word “falls” shows up in the name of a rapid, you can guarantee it’s going to be a thriller.  And Clavey Falls at the confluence of the Clavey River and Tuolumne, with its series of dramatic staircase drops, is no exception. “The quarter mile of Class I water leading up to Clavey Falls is the ‘calm before the storm,’” according to O.A.R.S.’ California Manager Chris Moore. “As you approach the horizon line—the initial drop of Clavey Falls—your senses are dulled due to the thunderous sound emanating just downstream.”  On this Class IV+ rapid you’ll drop 8 vertical feet before dropping again and trying to avoid a massive hole.

Got a best rapid to add to the list?  Chime in below.

Photos: White Mile, Chilko River, BC – Photo: Justin Bailie; Lava Falls, Grand Canyon – Photo: Justin Bailie; Pillow Rock, Gauley River – Photo: ACE; Karnali River, Nepal – Photo: Whitehorse Canoe Club; Clavey Falls, Tuolumne River, CA – Photo: O.A.R.S.



RELATED: Rafting Trips to Avoid if You Answer ‘No’ to These Questions… 

  • Scott

    Twelve times through Lava, over twenty in Big Drop, once through Clavey, once on the Chilko. I have never been so emotionally and physically exhausted as after Lava Canyon. My first time captaining a paddle boat (was just informed I would be on our long drive to the put in), no pool and drop here 😉 . . .

  • Dennis

    Not sure why Tunnel Chute wasn’t mentioned but when you tackle the Middle Fork of the American River when it’s at a peak of a Class IV this is a classic, and one of my favorites.

    • Cari_Morgan

      So true, Dennis. So true! Thanks for the comment.

    • beekay31

      Ha, Tunnel Chute… 1st real rapid ever… 1st capsize ever…

  • s

    Mushroom on Cherry Creek, anyone?

    • Cari_Morgan

      This is why no list like this can ever be complete. Love hearing other people’s thoughts. Thank you!

    • Tom McDonnell

      I was thinking the same thing! But, this is a notorious themed article, and not many people even know about the upper Tuolumne.

    • Barry Kruse

      I would’ve listed the Miracle Mile on Cherry Creek/The Upper Tuolumne as perhaps one rapid. Mushroom is a classic. But the section downstream with Chuck’s Wave and the whole 250’/mile sequence is the most fun I’ve ever had in a raft. It’s almost nonstop.

  • vrooman

    El choro, naranja river quepos Costa Rica; lava north, Alsek river YT Canada; mordor, north Johnston river Queensland Australia.

  • Larry the Plumber

    I remember running a river in the Canar province with three of my high school buddies who had grown up in Africa. They SWAM the rapids!

  • devin

    I’d say bear creekfalls on the cheoah in robbinsville, NC holds a special place in my heart for sure.
    14′ drop at 2000-2500cfs gets the heart going.

  • Glenn Sivak

    well with the FU, Gauley, Chattoga, and most recently the Zam under my belt I can honestly say that these are terrific rapids BUT the short but exhilarating section of the Burnt ranch on the trinity should carry some weight. And for those that have the opportunity in the future- you must consider a trip to Zimbabwe and do the Zam with Shockwave. You wont be disappointed

  • I survived the Clavey. Feeling pretty badass right now.

  • Mdvk

    Pillow is in there, but not Gore rapid on the upper upper Colorado? You show me a Gore guide that doesn’t get an adrenaline kick from a punter boat in Gore, and I’ll show you a pink elephant. Cold as ice to guide that.

  • Colorado River Discovery

    These pictures are amazing, I’ve only been on one rafting trip, but i’m eager to try another course.

  • heather l

    Great to see Pillow Rock Rapid on the Gauley River make the list!! (And it is Pillow ROCK rapid, I think)!

  • PSAGuy

    Ashbury pond….Naperville IL. Bad !

  • flowmo

    Three rocks on the Arkansas at 4000cfs plus!

    • CORoadie

      Kayaked it at 5k… a raft came down right after us, when we got everyone to shore the guy who owned the raft told us if we tracked it down we could have it. One of the great toaster flips I had ever seen. Spike Buck and several other of the rapids at that level are fun, but man you don’t want to miss the line in 3R no matter what you are running in.

  • River Explorers

    What about Perú, the Apurimac River. Every river has his own enchantment and the Apurimac gather all the conditions to be in this list. This River offer more than 300 rapids of level IIi to V in 68 miles. This river is one of the most challenging Rivers for commercial white water, and is even more difficult to run with volume of water. I have been running a lot of Rivers around the planet and I must say that the Apurimac is one of of my favorites. During the season, this river offers volume of constant level IV and V rapids, giant waves, technical rapids with rocks as the sizes of a mansion.

  • sierrapaul

    Here are some that have not been mentioned that I would definitely add to the list, in no particular order: (1) Mushroom/Toadstool combination on Cherry Creek (Upper Tuolumne), (2) Blind Faith on Cherry Creek, (3) Rosasco Ravine on the Upper North Yuba, (4) Vortex on the Forks of the Kern, (5) Carson Falls on the Forks of the Kern, (6) Burnt Ranch Falls I, II, and III on Burnt Ranch Gorge of the Trinity, (7) Green Wall on the Illinois, (8) Cascade Falls on the Cal Salmon, (9) Pine Creek on the Upper Arkansas, (10) Tunnel Falls on Gore Canyon (Colorado River), and (11) No Name Rapid on the Upper Animas. No Name is the scariest rapid I have ever run, due to the fact that it is a violent Class V S-turn on a frigidly cold river at high elevation. In my opinion, the temperature of the water is the most underrated factor in whitewater boating. And everything in Burnt Ranch Gorge is worthy of special caution, due to the large amount of undercuts, sieves, and weird hydraulics on that run.

    • Cari_Morgan

      Great additions, Paul! Thanks!

  • Theojob

    I’ve done the 9 day Colorado with Lava and Crystal but the Penobscot in maine is great for a short raft one day adventure.

  • Chris Rode

    I have 20 plus years rafting and I find this to be the most accurate list of the best rapids in the world. The thing I like the most is that not one is in Idaho. Yep, nothing to see here boys and girls. Keep moving on.

    • Cari_Morgan

      Appreciate the feedback, Chris. And nope, nothing to see in Idaho, not one bit. 😉

  • CORoadie

    No Pine Creek?

  • Johnny G Arch Sr.

    Niagara Gorge and Great Falls of the Potomac.

    • Cari_Morgan


  • Rob Curran

    Hi I am planning a South American honeymoon lots of stuff macchu pichu..patagonia…I’ve done some whitewater day trips but am by no means an expert….I am excited about idea of Fu River…companies are trying to sell me on Petrohue River…should I make Fu a no miss or settle for an easier hit?

    • Cari_Morgan

      If you’re up for high adventure and going to be there during the right season (December – March), the Fu is bucket list material, for sure. Go for it!

  • Vaibhav Kala

    Definitely “frigging ningguing’ and ‘pulsating palsi’ on the Siang

  • Manzar Mumtaz

    How about Astak Waterfall on Indus?

  • sb1983

    Sooooo, what about Inga rapids on the Congo? Or V Drive/ Site Zed on the Stikine? Or Jacob’s Ladder on the Payette? Lastly, I have to add the rapids on the Upper/Lower Tsangpo gorge.

    • Aaron Babcock

      I would also add #3 on the first canyon of the Rio Baker, and the “Portage Rapid” on the 3rd canyon. And while I’m here tack on the Rio Pascua.

  • William Newton

    Gorilla of the Green River Narrows anyone?

  • Milos Djurdjevic

    You also have great rivers in Siberia (Russa) Mongolia, China… chuja river in sibera sections are 5-6

  • Paul Jacoby

    they are saying notorious rapids. Lava and Bull sluice are a joke but everyone and their brother knows about them. This is not a list of the craziest hardest rapids in the world. But since people wanna make it that way Tunnel on Gore, zambezi, el horrendo on the Russell fork and Niagara falls