Six of the Best River Parks in the U.S.

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River parks not only create economic benefits for a town, they act as engaging cultural centers.

Towns that take action to preserve or enhance rivers by removing old dams (such as Reno), or building whitewater features and trail systems (such as Buena Vista and Salida), enjoy big economic returns in the form of festivals and the growth of local tourism industries.

Here are some of the best examples of river parks in the country:

Great Falls Park, Potomac River, D.C.

Just 15 miles from Washington, D.C., the Potomac River constricts through one of the most impressive gorges in the eastern U.S. Here this large-volume river blasts over multiple 20-foot waterfalls and complex rapids. There are numerous hiking trails, overlooks, and areas to explore along the banks, as well as conservation and education programs year round. For advanced kayakers, the falls themselves are the site of the yearly Great Falls Race, one of the most famous Class V kayak races in the country.

Buena Vista River Park / Salida Riverside Park, Arkansas River, Colorado

The Arkansas River offers over one hundred miles of some of the most accessible and diverse whitewater in the country. It runs through two towns in short succession, Buena Vista and Salida, each with world-class river parks. Buena Vista River Park has hiking trails, bouldering gardens and a disc golf course. Green space abounds, including soccer and baseball fields. The section of river here has multiple constructed wave features, and is the site of the BV Pro Kayak Rodeo.

Salida Riverside Park is exceptional in that its epic playboating holes are located right next to the historic district downtown. It’s the site of (First in Boating on the Arkansas) the country’s oldest whitewater festival.

Sweetwater Creek State Park, Atlanta

Right outside of urban Atlanta a beautiful Class III-IV whitewater creek runs through rolling Piedmont forest with Native American historical sites, multiple sections of walkways and overlooks, and an innovative visitor center. There are flatwater sections of the creek as well for tubing or SUP options. While the other river parks on this list are located in areas that put them more “in the spotlight,” Sweetwater is relatively off the beaten path, and has a strangely remote, wilderness feel.

Truckee River Whitewater Park, Reno, Nevada

The Truckee River Whitewater Park is literally at the center of downtown Reno and within walking distance of casinos and the arts district. Unlike many western river parks, which don’t have sufficient water levels to be runnable in wintertime, the Truckee has year-round flow. The water quality is also very good. The park offers an amphitheater, walking trails and spectator areas, and is the site of the annual Reno River Festival.

The James River Park System, Richmond Virginia

The James River Park is an entire system of trails and recreation areas encompassing more than 500 acres along the James River. On the water are numerous natural whitewater features—shoals, ledges and play-waves—and the area has excellent bike trails.

Kelly’s Whitewater Park, Payette River, Idaho

Although it’s in the smallest town on this list (tiny Cascade, Idaho) Kelly’s (named in honor of the late outdoor sports enthusiast, Kelly Brennan) is a beloved river park and example of how investing in whitewater infrastructure can transform a place into an international destination. The design of Kelly’s Park has also allowed for SUP and river surfing. Kelly’s has twice hosted kayak world championships and was the site of the 2015 Payette River Games.

Photography credit: Payette River Games

  • Great summary of US river parks. Some of those parks are excellent for river surfing (on shortboards) too! http://riverbreak.com

  • Martin Jensen

    I think it’s ironic that Tulsa’s River Parks are not mentioned in this piece. I say that because REI likes our park so much, it appears to be ready to buy up a big chunk of it to put in a new retail store! How is this consistent with REI’s stated policy of stewardship? “The word ‘steward’ reminds us that we are taking care of something that came before us and will be sustained long after we are gone.” (REI 2014 Stewardship Report) See https://www.readfrontier.com/hyperlocal-blog-opposition-to-proposed-rei-site-growing/

  • I would also add Jackon Hole’s Snake River and Park. Some of the best whitewater rafting I’ve ever been on when I went with http://mad-river.com and their river guides. The scenery is beautiful and the wildlife is what I would say really sets the place apart from anywhere else. Kayaking is also really common on the river, and I know there are several other companies that offer tours and such out there. Had to add this one to the list since I actually experienced it 🙂

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