Dramatic desert scenery and towering red rock cliffs are icons of America’s wild west, but some of the wildest times can be had on the region’s waterways.

The national parks of the west overflow with rafting and kayaking playgrounds, from white-water rapids to serene mountain lakes.

Of course the grandest, most legendary place to launch out is Arizona’s Grand Canyon; its waters are so varied that instead of using the usual white-water classifications of I to VI, it has its own system ranging from 1 to 10 – mild to wild.

Rafting the Colorado River through this classic American landscape takes you into Marble Canyon, past vibrant limestone cliffs, petroglyphs, Native American ruins and fairylike grottoes; these waterways cut through gorges more than a mile high, where the water has carved a path through a rainbow of ancient rock.

Lava Falls on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, photo courtesy of O.A.R.S.

Hikes into side canyons can be accessed from the Colorado River; this is your only way in, so you’ll be enjoying the views without the crowds. Along the way you’re likely to catch glimpses of bighorn sheep, deer, ringtail cats, coyote and various raptors.

The mighty Colorado River is just as dramatic in neighbouring Utah, where it carves its way through Cataract Canyon and Canyonlands National Park. The waters run between multi-million-year-old red rock formations, including Dead Horse Point, immortalised in the film Thelma & Louise. Rafting in and then hiking from the river gives you another chance to view stunning scenery from a unique angle: in this case, colourful sandstone mesa spires in the Needles District of Canyonlands. There’s a lot of history on this river, from ancient pictographs to a fading 1893 inscription from a steamer that turned around at Spanish Bottom, unwilling to take on the rapids below.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is famous for its geothermal waters – hello, Old Faithful! – but there’s a lot more in the way of rivers and lakes to explore here and in adjoining Grand Teton National Park. Kayaking and canoeing are popular at Yellowstone Lake as well as at Jackson, Jenny and Leigh Lakes, beautiful clear waters in mountainous settings, with picturesque campsites on their banks. Rushing creeks and waterfalls dot the region, providing excellent fishing opportunities.

Heading northwest – think forests rather than desert gorges – into Oregon, the region’s top white-water destination is the Rogue River. Here the rapids rush you through miles of scenic pine-forested gorges. This is a great river adventure for wildlife-watchers, with chances to see deer, elk, black bear, cougars, river otters, osprey, bald eagles and much more in the wilderness river canyon.

The Rogue River starts near Crater Lake National Park; the lake itself is a watery playground for swimmers and boaters.

Starting in the wilds of Yosemite National Park, California’s Tuolumne River offers a chance to take a real wilderness trip. There are some notorious white-knuckle-thrill rapids for the adventurous, but its side streams reveal swimming holes, cascading waterfalls, natural water slides and quiet fishing spots. The river’s a top vantage point for admiring the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

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