America is full of stunning views in every state, and rivers are central to many of them. Of course, that's no surprise: There are a staggering 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams from sea to shining sea. And while beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, we've rounded up some of the most picturesque rivers, according to local experts as well as state and federal scenic-river designations.
The 194-mile Cahaba, Alabama's longest free-flowing river, is special not just for its beauty, but its biodiversity. The river claims more native fish species — 128 — than any other river of its size in North America, according to the Cahaba River Society. It's also easy to access, with canoe and boat launches right outside Birmingham.
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Turquoise waters make the glacier-fed, 80-mile Kenai one of the most picturesque of Alaska's many stunning rivers. While too popular with salmon fishermen to afford much of the state's trademark solitude, the Kenai is also more accessible than many of Alaska's rivers. It also offers plenty of chances for rafting and bear watching.
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The Colorado River figures heavily into Arizona's most stunning vistas, cutting a path through deep gorges in the northwestern corner of the state that include the Grand Canyon. The Colorado actually passes through 11 national parks and monuments on its 1,450-mile journey to the Gulf of California, providing water to 36 million people along the way. For one of the most iconic views of this iconic river, head to Horseshoe Bend in Arizona's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
America's first designated national river is a bucket-list attraction for anyone who finds themselves in the Ozarks. Unencumbered by any dams, the 135-mile, bluff-lined river is popular with kayakers, canoeists, anglers, tubers, hikers, and campers. It also has scenic swimming holes where visitors can cool off during sweltering Arkansas summers.
The 122-mile Merced River is the stuff of any outdoorsy person's dreams, flowing through alpine forests and meadows, and past peaks including Yosemite National Park's iconic Half Dome. Hiking, camping, and rafting opportunities abound, and you may even catch a glimpse of the limestone salamander, a threatened species that lives nowhere else in the world.
You'll find the headwaters of Colorado's only federally designated Wild and Scenic River high in Rocky Mountain National Park. From there, it tumbles about 7,000 feet through stunning forested canyons until it joins the South Platte River, about 140 miles later. It's a popular spot for campers, anglers, hikers, hunters, and rafters. Wildlife watchers may spy elk, black bears, bighorn sheep, bobcats, mountain lions and the distinctive tassel-eared squirrel.
This federal Wild and Scenic River flows about 47 miles through picturesque northwestern Connecticut, and it's one of the state's go-to spots for fly-fishing and tubing. In fact, it offers three sets of rapids that make floating down the Farmington more than a lazy way to beat the heat on a summer day. The river has also hosted nesting bald eagles.
Placid and picturesque, Brandywine Creek feeds the Christina River, which in turn feeds the mighty Delaware. Visitors to Brandywine State Park can canoe, kayak, tube, or fish on the shady river, watch for migrating hawks, or hike through two nature preserves.
What this 7.6-mile river lacks in length, it makes up for in scenery. Just a short drive from West Palm Beach, paddlers will find a thick canopy of cypress trees, plentiful ferns, and tangled branches lying low over the water. Expect to spot turtles on logs, alligators, ospreys, and maybe even manatees or bald eagles.
Though it begins in neighboring North Carolina, the 48-mile-long Tallulah River reserves some of its most gorgeous stretches for the northeastern corner of the Peach State. It cuts a 1,000-foot-deep path through the spectacular Tallulah Gorge State Park, where visitors must obtain a permit to carefully hike their way down to the river's edge. A suspension bridge provides a bird's-eye view for anyone not up to the challenge.
You'll find this 20-mile-long river on Kauai, which boasts Hawaii's only navigable rivers. Wailua is the largest, and the waterfalls and thick rainforests along the way also make it one of the prettiest. Visitors can explore via kayak, canoe, paddle board or boat tours, some of which also show off the romantic lava-rock Fern Grotto.
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"The River of No Return" may have an ominous nickname, but this 420-mile river offers some of the most pristine scenery you'll find in the Gem State. One of North America's last undammed mountain rivers, much of the Salmon is surrounded by towering pines and rocky canyon walls. A variety of rapids make it an ideal choice for rafters of all skill levels, while hot springs, swimming holes, and wildlife viewing are slower-paced diversions.
The only Illinois river to earn the federal Wild and Scenic designation, the sleepy 28-mile Vermilion's Middle Fork passes through a wide variety of landscapes, including high bluffs, forests, and prairie. There are plenty of sand bars for paddlers to hop out and observe hawks, turtles, and other wildlife, and the river valley hosts two dozen threatened or endangered species.
This southern Indiana waterway winds 57 miles before merging with the mighty Ohio. On the way, it offers some of the best paddling in Indiana, experts say, as well as eye candy including bluffs, caves, cliffs, gentle rapids, and lush tree-lined banks.
Winding 150 miles on its path to the Mississippi River, the Upper Iowa is best known for dramatic stretches that flow past imposing limestone bluffs. It draws paddlers, tubers, anglers, birdwatchers, campers, and hikers from around the region. On the Mississippi River Flyway, the Upper Iowa is also a fertile spot for birdwatchers, who can often spy bald eagle nests and hundreds of migrating species in the spring.
This major tributary of the Missouri River, the 148-mile Kansas River offers glimpses of the placid prairies that make the Sunflower State so unique. Officially designated a river trail, the "Kaw" has plenty of boat ramps, and camping is encouraged on the river's ample sand bars.
Chief among the Bluegrass State's many scenic waterways is the 97-mile Red River, the state's only river to earn the federal Wild and Scenic designation. Visitors will easily be able to see why: The boulder-studded Red is often surrounded by sandstone bluffs and lush trees. Its most famous stretch, the Red River Gorge, boasts natural arches, cliffs, and popular hikes.
The highlight of this wide-ranging river system on the Louisiana-Mississippi border is undoubtedly the Honey Island Swamp, where cyprus and tupelo trees grow out of the still water. Yes, there are alligators; no, there is probably not a gator-chimp hybrid with yellow eyes, despite local lore. However, the wildlife management area encompassing the Pearl is a great spot to spy bald eagles, egrets, herons, and wood ducks.
The 190-mile Penobscot has several claims to fame: It's the largest river entirely in Maine, the second-largest river in New England, and home to the largest remaining Atlantic salmon run. The river traverses pristine forests, tumbling through rapids suitable for everyone from beginning paddlers to whitewater experts. Anglers can catch not just salmon, but wild brook trout, small-mouth bass, and striped bass.
The Patapsco forms Baltimore's Inner Harbor before merging with the Chesapeake Bay, but follow it further upriver, beyond the city, and you'll find plenty of gorgeous scenery. Some of the best is in the 16,000-acre Patapsco Valley State Park, where visitors can get out on the babbling, tree-lined river to paddle or fish, or stay on dry land for hiking, camping, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
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A tributary of the Connecticut River that begins in western Massachusetts' Berkshire Hills, the 78-mile Westfield is noted for its whitewater canoeing and kayaking, fishing, and scenery that includes historic bridges and riverside villages. It also boasts Glendale Falls, the state's highest waterfall, and the dramatic Chesterfield Gorge
In a state loaded with lovely rivers, the Pine stands out for both its beauty and abundant opportunities for recreation, including canoeing, hunting, swimming, and hiking. The 53-mile river, much of which flows through the Huron-Manistee National Forests, is also a draw for anglers as a designated Blue Ribbon Trout Stream.
For a true taste of the northwoods, the Temperance River delivers. This 39-mile river is in Minnesota's uncrowded northeastern corner, ensuring that those who make the trek will find solitude. The river's rushing waterfalls and gorges are surrounded by the birch, pine, and cedar forests of Temperance River State Park, where visitors can camp, fish, hike, and picnic on the shores of Lake Superior.
The only Mississippi river to earn the federal Wild and Scenic designation, Black Creek is the beating heart of the 5,000-acre Black Creek Wilderness Area. As its name suggests, it's a blackwater river, which means the water has darkened from decaying vegetation; scenery includes low-hanging branches, bluffs, and lots of sand bars.
This spring-fed National Scenic River in the Ozarks is a reliably lovely place to cool off during brutal Missouri summers, with its forested banks, bluffs, and mossy boulders insulated from rolling farmland nearby. Much of it flows through the Mark Twain National Forest, which offers access points for paddling, fishing, and tubing.
Northwestern Montana's 158-mile Flathead River originates near Glacier National Park, which might give you some idea of the scenery: jagged peaks, tall pines, crystaline water, and absurdly clear night skies. Efforts to stop a series of dams from being built on the river even spurred the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Seventy-six miles of the 568-mile Niobrara have been designated a National Scenic River, and the unique prairie scenery is certainly part of the reason. The water snakes along Nebraska's famous sandhills, tall bluffs, and Ponderosa pines, attracting visitors on rafts, canoes, kayaks, and tubes. The river valley also boasts a number of world-class fossil sites.
This 121-mile river begins at neighboring California's famous Lake Tahoe, but soon crosses the border and eventually ends at Nevada's otherworldly Pyramid Lake. Along the way, Sierra Nevada scenery dominates until the river rushes through Reno, where a whitewater park brings a taste of the river's wilder reaches to the city.
"The Pemi" is 65 miles of clear, rushing waters and tree-lined banks in central New Hampshire. In Franconia Notch State Park, it surges through some of the park's most popular sites, including the picturesque Basin, a large granite pothole. Further down the river, opportunities for tubing, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and fishing abound. Experienced hikers may also want to check out the 31-mile Pemi Loop for mountain views.
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The basis for one of New Jersey's few national parks, the 59-mile Great Egg Harbor River has been designated a national scenic and recreational river. Winding through mostly rural southern New Jersey, it's long been a draw for paddlers who want solitude (and don't mind navigating around the occasional fallen tree). Birdwatchers are also in luck, as the river is a major habitat for migrating birds.
While most of the 649-mile Gila runs through neighboring Arizona, it's at its most picturesque in New Mexico, near its headwaters. There, it flows through the pristine Gila National Forest and alongside ancient cliff dwellings at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Only a few stretches of this rushing mountain river are calm enough for paddling, but hiking, birding, hot springs, and petroglyphs provide plenty of other reasons to make the trip.
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New York's most famous river remains one of its most scenic. The 315-mile Hudson rises in the Adirondacks and is at its most rugged there, particularly in the massive Hudson Gorge Wilderness, which offers chances for whitewater paddling. Further down, the river widens, but the lush Hudson Valley is no less spectacular, and scenic views are almost too numerous to list. Don't miss Poughkeepsie's Walkway Over the Hudson, the world's longest elevated pedestrian bridge.
Southeast of popular Asheville, the Green River tumbles through the lush Blue Ridge Mountains. Its upper reaches include expert-level whitewater, and every year, the river hosts the Green River Narrows Race, the "Super Bowl of whitewater kayaking," For a less death-defying experience, grab a tube and while the day away on the river's lower reaches, watching for herons along the way.
This 560-mile river cuts through some of North Dakota's most classic badlands scenery, especially as it winds through often-overlooked Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Rugged buttes and grasslands abound, as does wildlife: Explorers may spy eagles, falcons, bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, and buffalo near the banks.
This lazy tree-lined river flows 111 miles through Southwest Ohio, drawing visitors from around the region for canoeing, kayaking, or biking on the adjacent Little Miami Scenic Trail, one of the nation's best rail trails. A nationally designated Wild and Scenic river, the Little Miami's origins are worth exploring on a hike through Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve. Follow it up with a trip to nearby Yellow Springs, a quirky small town with a hippie spirit you might not expect to find in the Buckeye State.
A tributary of the Arkansas River, the 145-mile Illinois River flows through stretches of Oklahoma's Ozark Hills that are far removed from the unyielding plains in the rest of the state. Paddlers will spy forests and bluffs, and maybe even some of the area's abundant bald eagles, while anglers can cast for walleye, sunfish, and bass.
The 1,240-mile Columbia River dumps more water into the Pacific than any other North American river, so it's only fitting that the Columbia River Gorge is the nation's largest National Scenic Area. Along the river, visitors will find some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the U.S., including 620-foot Multnomah Falls, and plenty of opportunities to swim, hike, paddle, fish, and even windsurf.
You can shorten this tongue-twister to "The Yough," but whatever you call it, there's no denying its beauty. A 132-mile tributary of the Monongahela River, the Youghiogheny has white water for rafters of all abilities. Some of its most scenic stretches rush through Ohiopyle State Park, where Ohiopyle Falls is the centerpiece of the river.
In tiny Rhode Island, you're never more than an hour from the lovely Wood River, which is surrounded by mostly undeveloped land. There are swamps, marshes, gentle rapids, and plenty of shade trees for paddlers and hikers on hot summer days. It's also a prime destination for trout fishing.
The 250-mile Edisto, which flows into the Atlantic south of Charleston, is a blackwater river. That means the waters have been stained by decaying vegetation; it's also one of the continent's longest free-flowing rivers of its kind. Low-hanging cypress trees, twisted floating branches, and untamed swamps make paddling here an atmospheric experience.
"The Mighty Mo" bisects South Dakota, and while you won't find a pristine, remote mountain stream, you will find sweeping views of the state's prairies and rolling hills from its wide waters. Four major reservoirs along the Missouri provide ample chances for boating and fishing, and the Native American Scenic Byway offers tribal history with a side of river views.
Cutting through East Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau, the 45-mile Obed is home to some top-notch whitewater, and the sandstone cliffs lining the banks also make it a destination for climbers. It's also a haven for nearly 1,100 species of plants and animals, including six that are federally threatened or endangered.
U.S.-Mexico border drama aside, the 1,900-mile Rio Grande remains one of Texas' most scenic rivers, especially where it winds through Big Bend National Park and its surrounds. The area includes five major canyons up to 1,500 feet deep, and there are plenty of outfitters that lead paddlers on tours of the loveliest spots. The area also offers some of the nation's best bird watching.
This 162-mile river flows through some of Utah's most gorgeous nooks and crannies, including the stunning canyons it has carved inside Zion National Park. Visitors can get up close and personal with the river on a trip through the Narrows, one of Zion's bucket-list activities. There, adventurers can hike, wade, and swim in spots where canyon walls tower 2,000 feet above, but are less than 20 feet wide in some places.
This corner of New England has more than its fair share of gorgeous waterways, and the Missisquoi River is certainly among them. It flows for roughly 80 miles in Northern Vermont and Quebec, and paddlers can enjoy views of the area's dairy farms and distant mountains. Highlights include Big Falls, a 35-foot waterfall where visitors can swim or fish at the base.
The James River, Virginia's longest river at 348 miles, offers ever-changing scenery, from its pristine beginnings in the mountains to its impressive 7-mile-long falls through Richmond. Head to the Upper James River Trail for paddling and fishing on the river at its most unspoiled, but don't forget to pay homage to its extensive role in U.S. history, too.
The Skagit rises in the Cascade Mountains, flowing 150 miles through lush forests, mountain valleys, and farmland before emptying into the Puget Sound. Conservation efforts have helped boost the numbers of snow geese, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, and other species. The river's upper reaches attract whitewater rafters, but the main draw might be for anglers. Native fish include Pacific salmon, steelhead, and trout.
The 320-mile New River may actually be one of the oldest rivers in the world. The water has exposed rocks that are 1 billion years old, and scientists think the New might be older than any of the world's mountain ranges. Today, it's a center for adrenaline junkies who get their fix on the river's whitewater, scale the gorge's rock walls, and even BASE jump from its iconic bridge. Fishing, paddling, hiking, and horseback riding are on tap for anyone who wants to relax and enjoy the stunning Appalachian scenery.
Dubbed "Wisconsin's moving national park," this mostly undeveloped 100-mile river bisects the state's heavily forested northern reaches. The scenery, gentle rapids, and abundant fish and solitude attract paddlers, anglers, and tubers, as well as hikers and snowshoers along the banks.
Though it welcomes more than 300,000 visitors a year, the mighty Snake River still has a wild feel befitting the Cowboy State. With headwaters in Yellowstone National Park, the 1,078-mile river also flows through mountainous Grand Teton National Park, past ranchlands, and through its namesake canyon, with eye-popping scenery along the way.