10 of The Most Beautiful Rivers in America (and How We Can Protect Them)
September 18, 2023
Rivers are the ultimate connectors. They connect mountains to oceans, cities to plains and they flow through all types of landscapes. Not only do they provide endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, but they provide an important life source for both humans and animals.
As the earth warms and the climate changes, rivers are more important than ever. We must do our part to protect them by learning about their impact, keeping them clean and spreading the word.
Full disclaimer – This is a sponsored blog post by Rivers Are Life, an organization that does amazing work in amplifying people who are protecting rivers. As always, my opinions are unbiased and my own. Be sure to read to the end to learn more about the Rivers Are Life mission!
Why are Rivers Important?
- Rivers connect natural habitats, our communities and more. Plus, they connect to our oceans, which cover over 70% of the world.
- Almost all of us are near some kind of river. In fact, 90% of the world’s population lives within walking distance of a river system.
- The movement of rivers also means that the pollution in rivers is extra impactful. Unfortunately, 80% of the world’s ocean plastics enter via rivers or coastlines.
- Rivers provide important habitats and food sources for many types of animals.
- Rivers provide drinking water, irrigation, power and more for humans. Plus, many of us enjoy the use of rivers for outdoor recreation.
10 of The Most Beautiful Rivers in America
Keep reading to learn about 10 incredibly scenic and beautiful rivers across the US. I'm covering the importance of each river, a few ways to enjoy each river and organizations that are making a difference.
1. Colorado River
The Colorado River is not only beautiful, but it’s a very important river in the American West. Over 40 million people rely on this river for food, water, recreation and power. The river passes through 11 different national parks and monuments, most famously passing through the Grand Canyon.
A visit to the famous Horseshoe Bend and Grand Canyon is sure to leave you in awe of how the Colorado River has carved away some of the most epic landscapes in the United States. You can also take in the beauty of this river at Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and many more incredible parks.
The Colorado River is a critical water supply for agriculture and industry, and it contributes to a $1.4 trillion annual economy. Not only is the river very important for humans, but it’s an important habitat for birds and fish. There are 30 fish species that call the river home that are found nowhere else in the world, and 16 of those are endangered or threatened. Hundreds of bird species also rely on the water.
Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point where the demand of the river’s water exceeds the supply. The Lower Colorado River (which provides water for Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and more cities), is running dangerously dry and is expected to only get drier as a result of climate change. In fact, the Colorado River is the Most Endangered River in the Country according to American Rivers.
While the future feels grim for this major river, there have been some success stories. The city of Tucson has put a major water conservation plan into action and innovations have been made to help save water. From removing invasive plants along the river to improving agricultural efficiency, a lot is being done.
A few organizations working to protect the Colorado River include the Water for Colorado Coalition, The Nature Conservatory and Save the Colorado. You can help by conserving water, voting for politicians who will pass laws to help this river and donating to nonprofits helping out.
2. Snake River
The Snake River flows through Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington before it joins into the Columbia River. The river is an important source of irrigation water for crops such as potatoes and sugar beets. More than two million wild salmon return to the river and its tributaries each year, and fishing is a major industry here. Sadly, the salmon are close to extinction and have reached record lows in recent years.
There are some awe-inspiring landscapes in the river’s path. It flows below the towering Grand Teton Mountains, down the ‘Niagara Falls of the West’ (Shoshone Falls) in Idaho and through plenty of other landscapes. One unique adventure to have on this river is kayaking through a towering canyon to see Shoshone Falls up close. It’s one of the best outdoor adventures in Southern Idaho.
The National Wildlife Federation is working with organizations such as the Idaho Wildlife Federation to bring back wild salmon in the Snake River. You can help by calling your legislatures and asking for dams to be removed, donating and attending grassroot activities. The Idaho Conservation League is another organization that is working to protect the Snake by raising concerns to policymakers, holding polluters responsible and more.
Whether you’re interested in kayaking to Shoshone Falls, rafting in Grand Teton National Park or going on a fishing excursion, make sure to learn more about the efforts to protect this river during your next visit.
3. Rio Grande
The Rio Grande River stretches 1,896 miles from Colorado all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, earning the title of the 4th longest river in North America. In South Texas, the river serves as a meeting point for the Central and Mississippi flyways, which are two major migratory paths for birds. This means that the Rio Grande is one of the most important migration routes for hundreds of species of birds.
One amazing area to enjoy the Rio Grande River is in and around Big Bend National Park. For a short hike, you can hike into Santa Elena Canyon for incredible views of the water surrounded by towering canyon walls. You can also go on a river rafting trip down the Rio Grande through Big Bend or nearby. There are day trip options, or you can enjoy a multi-day camping and floating trip.
The Rio Grande extends across several states and there are organizations working to protect the river at multiple points along its path.
Albuquerque is one city that hosts an annual river cleanup to remove trash from the Rio Grande. The national river cleanup takes place annually on the third Saturday of May. In Southern Texas, a nonprofit organization called Save RGV promotes environmental justice and sustainability by addressing the effects of climate change. In Colorado, the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust is a non-profit that works to conserve water and land in the San Luis Valley.
The Rio Grande River is a majorly important river and has been unable to escape the consequences of drought and pollution, especially in recent years. Be sure to do your part in conserving water when you visit the desert of Texas and New Mexico.
4. Arkansas River
The Arkansas River originates in the Rocky Mountains and extends through the Great Plains to Little Rock, Arkansas. It was an important river for westward expansion of the United States in the 1800’s, as explorers followed the river through Kansas as they headed west. Today, the river is still a major source of water for agriculture irrigation, recreation and industrial use.
One beautiful spot along the Arkansas River is in Buena Vista, where you can actually surf on the river during the summer months. The Buena Vista River Park has been engineered with strategically placed rocks and structures to simulate real whitewater conditions and standing waves.
One annual river cleanup of the Arkansas River takes place in Wichita, Kansas. The event takes place in May and has been occurring for over 20 years. In 2023, they removed 1.64 tons of litter and had 778 volunteers pitch in.
Another annual river cleanup occurs in May in Colorado. The Chaffee County Community Foundation facilitates an annual Arkansas River Green Up Clean Up that coincides with Colorado Public Lands Day. Volunteers can select a location from Granite to Cotopaxi, CO to pick up trash.
The city of Little Rock also hosts an annual cleanup that includes the Arkansas River. The event takes place in March and is part of the Great American Cleanup.
Whether you’re surfing in Buena Vista or touring the city of Little Rock, make sure to pack out your trash as you explore along the epic Arkansas River.
5. Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River is special for numerous reasons. It’s the last major undammed river in the lower 48 states and provides an important food source for grizzly bears and other wildlife. Plus, it’s a stunningly beautiful waterway that you can see during a visit to Yellowstone National Park.
To take in the best views of this epic river, be sure to visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The canyon is twenty miles long, gets up to 4,000-feet wide and 1,200-feet deep. There are viewpoints and hiking trails on both sides of the canyon. One of the most famous spots is Artist’s Point, which provides a fantastic view of the Lower Falls.
While the most famous portion of the rivers flows through the national park, the river is 692 miles long and a large portion of it flows through Montana. The Yellowstone River Research Center in Billings, Montana hosts an annual river clean up that has had a huge impact. Over the past 16 years, they’ve removed and recycled over 139,000 lbs of metal, over 180,000 lbs of trash and 700 tires. The cleanup generally takes place on the second Saturday of September.
Keep in mind the importance of this river on your next trip to Montana or Wyoming, and be sure to take extra care to pack out all of your trash.
6. Niagara River
The power of the water flowing through the Niagara River and over Niagara Falls is almost unthinkable. In fact, over 3,000 tons of water flow over Niagara Falls every second. The Niagara River connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, making it an important connector of the Great Lakes.
The Niagara Falls area has a storied history of human development and protection of lands. Niagara Falls was harnessed to power factories, mills and electricity starting in the 1890’s. When a large portion of the Schoellkopf Power Station collapsed in 1956, it paved the way for Robert Moses and others to beautify the American side of Falls. At the same time, Niagara Falls State Park was established in 1885, making it the oldest state park in the United States.
To take in Niagara Falls, you can enjoy the views from both the American side and the Canadian side. Take the Maid of the Mist boat tour to get up close with the falls. In addition to the boat ride, take the elevator down to see the Falls at Cave of the Winds on the US side and Journey Behind the Falls on the Canadian side.
Buffalo Niagara Water Keeper is a local organization that actively works to protect the freshwater sources in the region. They host cleanups, educate the community on pollution, train volunteers and more. Their largest event is the Spring Sweep, which is part of the Great Lakes CleanUp. The first two years of the Great Lakes Cleanup led to the collection of 146,502 pounds of litter across 9,000 acres.
Whether you take a trip to Niagara Falls, or any of the famous Great Lakes, be sure to make a commitment to packing out all of your trash and picking up anything litter that you see.
7. New River
The New River is one of the oldest rivers on the continent. The river has 7 fish species not found anywhere else in the world, has many rare plants along the shore and is well renowned for outdoor recreation such as hiking, rafting and fishing.
The river flows through New River Gorge National Park, where you can enjoy white water rafting. There are also some epic viewpoints to see the river. Admire a curve in the water at the Concho Rim Overlook or enjoy the views gazing down from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. And if you’re up for a hike, the Endless Wall Trail and the Long Point Trail provide great views of the water.
ReNew the New is an organization working to take care of this epic waterway. They have made littering penalties more enforceable, installed trash pick ups at boat ramps, hosted river cleanups and more. If you visit, be sure to take extra care in not littering and pick up any trash you happen to see along the trails or nearby.
8. Green River
The Green River is a tributary of the Colorado River in the American West. This beautiful river is one of the major waterways in Utah and flows through some epic scenery, including Flaming Gorge and Canyonlands National Park.
One way to experience the Green River is on a rafting trip. You can enjoy a multi-day rafting trip through Desolation Canyon and take in towering canyons, dramatic cliffs and epic mountains. You can also take in some epic viewpoints of the river in the Islands of the Sky area of Canyonlands National Park.
The city of Green River, WY hosts an annual spring cleanup of the Green River each Spring. As this river connects to the vitally important Colorado River, be sure to take extra care to conserve water and pick up any litter you see nearby.
9. Buffalo National River
The Buffalo National River is an Arkansas river famous for being one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. It was America’s first National River and is located in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. The river is surrounded by towering bluffs, caves and beautiful natural areas. The water provides a habitat for smallmouth bass, and herds of deer and elk live nearby.
A trip to Buffalo National River offers incredible opportunities for hiking, spelunking, camping, rafting and more. It’s certainly an underrated area that makes an incredible stop on an Arkansas road trip.
The Buffalo River Foundation is a non-profit that works with Buffalo River watershed landowners to conserve their land. Through years of efforts, the organization has been instrumental in purchasing land areas that have become protected.
Make sure to practice leave no trace principles when you visit Buffalo National River and help keep this area pristine and beautiful.
10. Payette River
The Payette River in southwestern Idaho is a major tributary of the Snake River and provides some wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation. The river originates in the Sawtooth Mountains and the waters are home to a variety of fish, such as smallmouth bass and rainbow trout.
There are epic opportunities for whitewater rafting in the South Fork of the Payette River. It’s a great place to try out rafting for the first time or go on a multi-day river trip. Another neat feature of the South Fork Payette River are the hot springs! There are some hot springs right along the river, such as Kirkham Hot Springs and Pine Flat Hot Springs.
The towns of Payette and McCall Idaho usually host annual river cleanups around portions of the Payette River and nearby. The Idaho Conservation League also does work in protecting all of Idaho’s public lands, including the Payette River.
When you’re enjoying the unique hot springs in Southern Idaho, make sure to pack out all of your trash and keep the river clean for the future.
How Can We Protect Rivers?
Here are a few simple ways that you can make a difference in protecting waterways all over the world.
- Always pack out all of your trash while you’re exploring the outdoors. Ideally, take that a step further and pick up any other trash you see.
- Vote for leaders that are willing to take action against climate change. Also, call your representatives to let them know the changes you would like to see.
- Donate to non-profit organizations that are doing great work in protecting waterways.
- Amplify the voices of people and organizations doing great work to protect our waterways.
- Join in on a river cleanup near you. If you can’t find one, start one yourself!
- Join the Rivers are Life movement to stay connected to the ways you can protect our waterways.
Join the Rivers are Life Movement
If you’re interested in protecting our world’s rivers, Rivers are Life is a fantastic platform where you can get started. Rivers are Life aims to build human connection with rivers by inspiring action to protect, preserve, and explore them.
Rivers are Life amplifies and supports “River Heroes” who are on the ground working to solve pollution and waste issues head on. The organization seeks to fund these heroes and spread awareness for their causes. You can check out documentaries on River Heroes from around the world on their website.
Rivers are Life has the goal to support 1,000 projects that focus on the protection of river ecosystems, waterways and wildlife across the road. The projects range from small, community initiatives to larger efforts.
To be a part of the mission, be sure to stay connected with Rivers are Life through their email newsletter and social media platforms.
It’s important for anyone who loves the outdoors to understand how important rivers are. They are great connectors and provide vital resources for both humans and animals alike. I hope you feel inspired to visit some of America’s most beautiful rivers, but also feel compelled to take action in protecting our rivers for generations to come.
For more US Travel Guides that include beautiful rivers, check out these blogs:
- The Best Things To Do in New River Gorge National Park, WV
- A Guide to Buffalo, NY and Niagara Falls in the Winter
- The Best Hiking near Ithaca, NY
- How to Spend 3 Days in Yellowstone
- Things To Do in Crystal River, Florida
- The Best Outdoor Adventures in St. Cloud, MN
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