double clickwhitewater rafting levels and classifications
COVID-19 Updates: See what to expect here.
Whitewater Rafting
Levels & Classifications

Whitewater Rafting Levels of Difficulty

All rivers are rated on a "class" scale to help you determine the size and technicality of the whitewater. Many are in search of more moderate whitewater - simply to relax and soak up the beauty of the scenery. Others are looking for a more intense whitewater. Regardless of your choice, be assured that Western has one of the best safety records in the industry. Western's exclusive J-Rig raft provides accessibility for first-time rafters on even the largest whitewater rapids in Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon, Utah.

Note that the "class" scale was introduced after many of the rapids in Grand Canyon had already been rated. Learn more about that below.

Western River page divider

Interpreting the standard class I - VI whitewater rafting levels:

Whitewater levels infographic
Desolation Canyon, Green River


Moving water with small waves that tug at the boat in a downstream flow - it's a relaxing way to spend the day. Rafting trips on class I whitewater are generally labeled as "scenic float trips". Most rivers have stretches of calm Class I water, creating a pleasant break between larger rapids.

See: Best Trips for Beginners

Desolation Canyon, Green River


Easy rapids to navigate, generally broad sections of water moving fast enough to create 1 - 3 foot whitecaps. These are waves that are readily seen amidst broad channels that can be spotted without scouting the route from the shoreline. Some maneuvering is required during to keep boat headed straight into each approaching wave.

  • Onion Creek Rapid, Cloudburst, Rocky Rapid (Colorado River near Moab, Utah)

See: Southwest Sampler

Middle Fork, Idaho


Waves up to 4 or 5 feet tall that will crash over the bow. Currents (hydraulics) will feel stronger, possibly channeling between brief narrow passages such as boulders or cliff wall. Boats will shimmy and jolt with the increased punch of these larger waves, but generally the jolt is brief, with calmer and wider recovery area below each obstacle or wave. Plenty of excitement and fun with a guide at the helm! Non-guided rafters can find themselves in trouble in Class III rapids.

  • Cow Swim Rapid, Three Fords Rapid (Desolation Canyon Utah, Green River)
  • Marble Canyon, Big Hummer, Staircase, Funnel Falls, Bowling Alley, Sock-it-to-me, Last Chance - (Westwater Canyon, Colorado River near Moab, Utah)
  • Mile Long, Ben Hurt (Cataract Canyon, Utah, Colorado River near Moab, Utah)

See: Desolation Canyon

Cataract Canyon, Colorado River


Larger waves, narrow passages and multiple obstacles to avoid, which require precise maneuvering to avoid upset. These rapids tend to be longer, steeper and more "technical" which translates to turns, spins and lateral moves across the current.

  • Skull Rapid (Westwater Canyon, Colorado River near Moab, Utah
  • Big Drop 2, Big Drop 3/Satan's Gut (Cataract Canyon, Utah, Colorado River near Moab, Utah)
  • IV+ Sockdalager, Hance, Granite, Horn, Dubendorff, Upset (Grand Canyon, Colorado River)

See: Cataract Canyon

Cataract Canyon, Colorado River


Another deserved level up from Class IV rapids, these look different (bigger and more intense). Expect vertical drops, strong currents, big waves, boulders and holes large enough to flip or hold boats in their more powerful hydraulics.

  • Lava Falls, Crystal Rapid (Grand Canyon, Colorado River)
  • Big Drops in high water flows (Cataract Canyon, Colorado River)

See: Grand Canyon

White Water


Generally considered "un-navigable" or "un-runnable", these are amplified versions of what you would find in Class V rapids.

  • Costa Rica's Pacuare River can reach Class VI levels during high run-off. No rafting occurs during those high flows.

J-Rig in the Grand Canyon

Can I do big whitewater rapids, even if I am a first-timer?

Western River Expeditions matches the size of its boats to the size of the whitewater, so in many ways, it depends more on the raft you choose, or where you sit on that raft than which river you choose. If you can grip a rope and follow the guide's instructions, you are as ready as you need to be for starting out. On rivers where the rapids are more moderate (may vary on water levels), we may bring along paddleboats and inflatable kayaks to let the more adventurous get their thrill while the more conservative can simply grip the ropes on an oar-powered raft.

When the rapids are large (mid-high water Cataract Canyon and all season in Grand Canyon), we use our patented J-rig raft that is more stable and offers a very fun ride. Sit upfront for the whitewater rodeo, or stay back in the middle of the raft (a.k.a. the "chicken coop") where things tend to "buck" a lot less.

Learn: J-Rig Raft for First-Timers

Western River page divider

I'm nervous about whitewater...Which trips are best for starters?

Several of our trips offer a way to get your feet wet (pun intended) with whitewater rafting! You don't have to know a lot before getting to the river, our guides can give you all the instruction you need. But if you're still nervous (for yourself, your younger children, or Grandma & Grandpa that you're bringing along) then consider these trips for starters:

Southwest Sampler - Class I-II Rapids (possibly Class III in high water) »

Southwest Vacation Package Rafts Sunrise

Rapids on this stretch are fun, but not intimidating. Two nights of comfort in town and one night camping along a more mellow stretch of the Colorado River in gorgeous Castle Valley near Moab, Utah.

See: Southwest Sampler

Green River Desolation Canyon - Class I-III Rapids »

Desolation Canyon Utah Rafting Guide Possibly the best river trip for satisfying kids from ages 5 to 95. Enjoy nearly 60 rapids that are more fun than scary in an oar boat or an inflatable kayak. Moab, Utah also offers a lot of other fun one day-activities.

See: Green River in Desolation

Lower Salmon River - Class I-III »

Lower Salmon River Rafting Paddleraft

Western Idaho's Lower Salmon River is ideal for families with younger kids (Family Magic trips) with rapids that are fun and challenging, but not too crazy.

See: Lower Salmon Trip

Rogue River 3-4 Day Trip - Class I-III (possibly IV) »

Rogue River Rafting Gorge

The Rogue River has a reputation for having a high degree of difficulty, but this refers to the highly technical kayak runs in the upper portion of the river. From Merlin down, the Rogue offers a nice blend of exciting thrills without the drops and ultra narrow chutes.

See: Rogue River Rafting

Adventure Travel Web Design by Canyons Digital