- North America
- Alexia Wulff
Since the beginning of American history, rivers have served a significant purpose in transforming the US from a developing country to a modernized, flourishing nation. These major arteries, coursing throughout the country, provided a means for exploring distant regions, transporting goods for trade, and providing water for arid communities, especially during the westward migration. Rivers, despite their contributions to the development of American cities, have sadly been harmed, polluted, and flooded (due to poorly built dams), with many of the natural ecosystems contaminated or completely destroyed. While the US has made some improvements to protect these waterways, these issues are still alive and well. Although many rivers remain threatened, naturalists, artists, and lovers of the great outdoors can still take advantage of the natural beauty that resonates throughout our nation. For the most scenic rivers in the US, read on.
The Kenai, Alaska
Could you imagine a more picturesque waterway? The Kenai River, situated in south-central Alaska, boasts turquoise waters rushing through alpine forests set against a snow-capped, mountainous terrain. The river, a ‘meltwater’ river formed by melted glacial ice, runs for 82 miles from the Kenai Lake to the Cook Inlet of the Pacific Ocean. The region is home to abundant wildlife – expect to see moose and caribou grazing along its edges – and has drawn people for thousands of years as a prime region for fishing.
Kenai River, AK, USA
Columbia River, Oregon
The Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, travels 1,234 miles from British Columbia, through Washington, and into Oregon before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Boasting deep-blue colors, the river is best seen from the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. A host to many species of fish that migrate between the salt waters of the Pacific Ocean to the freshwater of the river waters, the Columbia has played a key role in the development of the western United States as a center for fishing and fur trade. While the river has since been polluted and environmentally harmed, its beauty still resonates alongside the verdant forests, steep cliffs, and rolling hills that border it.
Columbia River Gorge, OR, USA
Hanalei River, Hawaii
The Hanalei, located on the island of Kauai, flows from the peaks of 3,500-foot-high Mount Waialeale down to Hanalei Bay in the Pacific Ocean, traveling through lush tropical forests, numerous taro farms, and the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. Cruise down its waters on a kayak for a vision of the island’s epic flora – all thanks to its record-breaking rainfall it receives annually, the highest in the world – before spending a day on the shores of its stunning bay.
Hanalei River, HI, USA
Hudson River, New York
The Hudson has been a famous waterway since the early 1600s when explorer Henry Hudson stumbled upon its magical waters, later serving as a gateway to the interior of the US that created competition between the English and Dutch for control. The beauty of the Hudson was so captivating that its pastoral landscapes led to its own style of artwork – called the Hudson River School – and served as inspiration for author Washington Irving’s short stories. Rising in the Upstate Adirondack Mountains, the river flows through the Hudson Valley until it reaches the Atlantic Ocean, serving as the boundary between New York and New Jersey. While the Hudson makes for a popular Manhattan photo op, the river is best seen in its eastern corners, where it’s surrounded by serene wilderness and leafy foliage.
Hudson River, NY, USA
Colorado River, Arizona
Rushing rapids, aquamarine waters, and steep canyon walls are what makes this river’s beauty unparalleled. Responsible for carving out the red-tinged walls of the famed Grand Canyon thousands of years ago, the Colorado River is a favorite amongst naturalists and photographers, boasting dramatic canyons and serene desert landscapes. To best experience its natural beauty, book a rafting excursion or multi-day hike along the canyon floors, or opt for one of the many other points along its 1,450-mile-long route from the Rockies to Mexico.
Colorado River, AZ, USA
Snake River, Wyoming
Flowing for over 1,000 miles through Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington, the Snake River boasts some of the most picturesque views of the countryside in the nation, surrounded by rugged mountains, rolling plains, and deep valleys – the aftermath of glacial erosion in the last Ice Age. As the largest tributary of the Columbia River, the Snake River provides many opportunities to experience its beauty along its route from the Yellowstone National Park through Jackson, Twin Falls, Idaho Falls, Boise, and Lewiston; the best views, however, come from Hells Canyon – a deep gorge near the borders of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.
Snake River, WY, USA
Rio Grande River, Texas
The Rio Grande, flowing 1,896 miles from south-central Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, is sadly diminishing in various parts – including the section from El Paso to Ojinaga – due to drought and over-appropriation between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, with only 20 percent of its natural discharge emptying into the Gulf. While the river remains threatened by pollution and deterioration, its beauty can still be enjoyed in Texas’s Big Bend National Park, where the deep blue waters flow freely.
Rio Grande River, TX, USA
Tennessee River, Tennessee
Famed for its mention in the 1979 novel Suttree and country music artist Alabama’s song ‘Tennessee River,’ this tributary has been a significant route for boat travel since the late 17th century when it was used as a major highway for transporting goods and explorers – many of which settled along its shores. Once the ‘River of the Cherokees,’ the river rises at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers where it continues to flow for 652 miles before joining with the Ohio River in Kentucky. As part of the Great Loop, the Tennessee River allows for the circumnavigation of the southeastern US by cutting the trip to the Gulf by hundreds of miles.
Tennessee River, TN, USA