For the first 300-plus years of American history, rivers played an integral part in the country’s growth. Settlers and explorers ventured up and down rivers to discover new territory, and merchants floated products to market and harnessed the water to power early factories. As time went on, however, Americans took their rivers for granted. Industries dumped pollutants and cities and towns added raw sewage to these waterways, and government agencies built some ill-advised dams and levees that harmed the environment and led to catastrophic flooding. By the 1960s and 1970s, sentiments had changed, beginning with the 1968 passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Still, that act today protects less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the country’s rivers and waterways; many U.S. rivers are still under threat from development, pollution, or invasive species. While these problems still exist, tourists, photographers, boaters and anglers can still enjoy these 10 scenic rivers in the United States.
10. Columbia River
America’s seventh-longest river (1,250 miles), the Columbia’s deep-blue color is a big part of its charm, which is on full display in the Columbia River Gorge. Take a ride along Interstate 84, probably the greatest stretch of scenic interstate in America, and you’re treated to spectacular views of the river, towering cliffs, and the looming presence of Mount Hood, a panorama so enormous in scale it makes the lengthy freight trains chugging along the riverside seem like toys. For a really unique look at the river, stop in Cascade Locks, Oregon, about half an hour east of the Portland area, and take a ride on the sternwheeler Columbia Gorge.
9. Allegheny River
If you’re in the Western New York or Pennsylvania area and have a free day, take a float down the Allegheny River. There are no challenging rapids, or towering peaks like you’d find on the best scenic rivers in the Western U.S. Instead, you’ll be treated to views of the Allegheny National Forest and other lush greenery, small towns, rustic homesteads and many great picnic spots. If you don’t feel like getting on the river, the drive along U.S. 62 from Warren to Oil City, Pa., is a great scenic route.
8. Rio Grande River
Mention the Rio Grande River and many people will immediately conjure an image of “coyotes,” or human smugglers, hustling bands of illegal immigrants across this river along the Texas/Mexico border. There’s far more to this river than that. Rising in southern Colorado, the Rio Grande stretches some 1,800 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Almost 200 miles of the river are protected under the W.S.R. Act. Pollution remains a major concern along the Rio Grande’s run along the Mexican border, but stretches of the river still look as they must have appeared to the first European settlers in the region a couple of hundred years ago. Probably the most scenic stretch of the Rio Grande runs through Big Bend National Park’s Santa Elena Canyon.
7. Allagash Wilderness Waterway
The Allagash River in Northern Maine earned designation as the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in the 1960s. Almost 93 miles of this river, which flows through heavy forestland, are protected by the W.S.R. Act. Given the remoteness of this area, the Allagash takes some effort to reach, but outfitters offer multi-day boating trips (Class I-III rapids).
6. Chattooga River
For more than a generation, this river has been famous for its association with the fictional Cahulawassee River in James Dickey’s novel and the 1972 film Deliverance (which was filmed on the Chattooga). If you’ve seen the movie, you can understand the primitive beauty of this river that meanders along the borders of Georgia and the two Carolinas. The river is a popular destination for rafters, kayakers, hikers and campers.
5. Hudson River
Of course, millions of tourists from around the world have photographed this river’s Manhattan setting, but the scenic vistas that enraptured explorer Henry Hudson in the early 1600s are found further upstream. Rising in the Adirondack Mountains of eastern New York, the Hudson River’s great natural beauty inspired an entire generation of landscape artists to embrace what became known as the Hudson River artistic style. For a real challenge, check out a whitewater trip in the Hudson River Gorge, regarded as one of the best whitewater stretches in the United States.
4. Animas River
Part of the Colorado River watershed, this 126-mile river flows through southern Colorado’s picturesque and historic San Juan Mountains. Popular with whitewater enthusiasts and anglers, the river is best known as the route of one of the world’s great scenic train rides, the 45-mile Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
3. Alaskan Rivers
Alaska has some 365,000 miles of rivers, where incredible scenery is just around the next bend. There are plenty of outfitters across the state to help you find these experiences. Singling one of these rivers out from the pack is impossible, as snow-covered peaks, remote settings and abundant wildlife can be found in rivers across the state.
2. Snake River
Beginning near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, this river flows more than 1,000 miles through some of the most rugged and picturesque country in the U.S. before its confluence with the Columbia River in Washington. There are several areas you can catch the different faces of this river, including Grand Teton National Park (see the iconic Ansel Adams photo above) or in the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. But the best viewpoint — and unfortunately the most remote — is in Hells Canyon along the Oregon, Washington and Idaho borders. The deepest gorge in North America, the canyon draws rafters (Class II and IV rapids) and fishermen, who vie for bass, trout and catfish, not to mention the elusive Hells Canyon white sturgeon, which can reach lengths of 15 feet.
1. Colorado River
The river that carved out the world-famous Grand Canyon merits the spot atop this list. The ultimate Colorado River experience is a rafting trip through the canyon, but this is not the easiest feat. The hike into the canyon is strenuous, and trips are often booked a couple of years in advance, or distributed through a lottery. Yet the Colorado’s scenic beauty can be enjoyed in four other Western states along its 1,450-mile route. Try a moonlight cruise along the Colorado out of Moab, Utah. Or check out a rafting trip at many other points along the river.
(Author’s note: In my travels around the U.S., I’ve either been boating on, or hiked or driven alongside all but two of these rivers (Alaskan Rivers and the Allagash Waterway). There are so many other rivers I seriously considered, including the Arkansas River, the New River and the St. Lawrence River. I also considered many rivers that are featured in some of the country’s best national parks, such as the Merced River in Yosemite N.P., the Yellowstone River (in Yellowstone N.P.) and the Virgin River (Zion N.P.) But the rivers aren’t really the stars in those settings, and it would have been too easy to fill a list with rivers from America’s greatest national parks.)