Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Where there’s even the hope of a wave to be surfed, surfers are finding it or creating it.
River surfing is a colorful subset of our global community that shows ingenuity and a healthy addiction to waves so acute that you literally see them anywhere, like skateboarders seeing a skate park in every empty pool and intricate staircase.
In this article, we'll break down everything you need to know about river surfing, from its history to the 7 best river surfing destinations today.
What is River Surfing?
River surfing was first documented in Great Britain in the 1950s and Germany in the 1970s, and Munich’s Eisbachwelle remains the world’s best-known river wave.
Today, more and more locations are being pioneered, proving that river surfing is a viable option for surfers landlocked or surfers looking for a unique experience.
The 7 Best River Surfing Locations in the USA
Luckily, you don’t need to splurge on a EuroTrip to give it a try: here are seven rippable rivers right here in the USA.
Snake River, Wyoming (Lunch Counter)
The Snake River stretches from Yellowstone National Park in western Wyoming through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, and its expansive tributary connections make it the largest North American river that empties into the Pacific Ocean.
But back at the start of the river, where the flow rises near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, surfers come to catch the rapids forming as the full river courses through a stunning landscape of rock formations and towering pines lining the rushing cold water.
River surfing here is an exhausting effort full of intense paddling couples with how shredding up and down the Lunch Counter rapids until you get bucked off can lead 10-15 minute rides, followed by a jog up the rocks lining the shore to get back to the take-off point.
Training now for river surfing will be well worth it as you enjoy a mellow break with chill locals in a majestic mountain paradise.
Brennan’s Wave, Montana
Another river surfing option is found in Montana. The Clarke Fork River actually flows through the big little city of Missoula, Montana, and in 2006 the community created a fun river wave in the city’s downtown enjoyed by surfers, paddlers, and kayakers called Brennan’s Wave perfect for river surfing.
Named for the beloved local kayaker whose 2001 passing inspired the wave’s creation, this river surfing destination features two adjacent breaks: Main Brennan’s and Middle Brennan’s, both of which are good for beginners and fun for experts.
The river surfing wave is flowing well from summer through winter, but if you visit anytime besides summer you’re going to want a 4/3 or 5/4 hooded wetsuit.
River Run Park is a wave park crafted from the South Platte River as it flows through the town of Sheridan, not far from downtown Denver.
This river surfing park’s three waves increase in difficulty as you advance upstream, starting furthest downstream with the less turbulent river wave of Chiclets, which loves a high-buoyancy board. Just up the river is Benihana’s, a punchy little rapid considered to be the best break in the park for skilled surfers.
Benihana’s is formed by a WaveShaper that can be modified according to the river’s flow in order to optimize the creation of the break on which shortboards 5’ or under and even wakeboards will score you a great time.
The last wave in this river surfing option is in River Run Park, Nikki Six, which is about a half mile up the river.
Because it’s shallower and faster than the other two protective headgear is suggested.
Lochsa River, Idaho
As the Lochsa River courses through north central Idaho, whitewater rafting tours are common on the wild rapids formed by the rocky river bed.
But one rapid’s massive dip and residual rise creates a perfect natural standing river wave for people of all skill levels to try their hand at river surfing (depending on the velocity of the flow — when in doubt, don’t go out).
Nicknamed the Lochsa Pipeline, this mountain marvel and river surfing option sits in the foreground of a scene scape plucked from a fairy tale: tall evergreens and round boulders lining the rushing river with placid exits to shore flowing towards a dreamy mountain range.
You’ll want your heavy neoprene complete with booties and gloves for this northern US treasure that’s sourced from the Bitterroot Mountains, a subrange of the Rockies.
Bend Whitewater Park, Oregon
Another river surfing option: Bend Whitewater Park in Oregon.
The vibey town of Bend committed to creating an aquatic activity and recreation park in the Deschutes River for the outdoorsy adventurers drawn there, and they nailed it.
The Bend Whitewater Park consists of three distinct channels:
the Habitat Channel to protect native river species
the Fish Ladder for those who want to serenely float
the Whitewater Channel, which is comprised of four waves for surfers, kayakers, and paddleboarders to enjoy
The Whitewater Channel’s waves are masterfully controlled by an intricate system of wave-shaping technology to compliment the river’s natural flow with the goal of not just creating good waves, but world-class ones.
Each break increases in difficulty as you go upriver from the beach:
Jason’s Wave is great for beginners
Kricket’s Wave elevates the level for those with some river surfing experience
The Green Wave offers a glassy wall for experienced surfers
Eddy’s Wave is reserved for experienced river surfers
The Whitewater Park tragically experienced its first death on April 30 since the park’s opening seven years ago in what’s been called a “freak accident” at the Green Wave, causing the entire Whitewater Channel to be closed until June 18 so it could be thoroughly inspected and improved for safety.
Familiarize yourself with the rules of the park (including a no leashes rule) before you go for safety, but in true Bend fashion, you’ll notice that the majority of the rules are about maintaining positivity, respect, and kindness.
Waimea River, Hawaii
As if the North Shore of Oahu needed another one, surfing’s Mecca is also blessed with a river surfing wave that is occasionally formed from the river that flows from Waimea Valley out to Waimea Bay.
If the sand has been pushed too far into the point of blocking the river mouth or if an excess of rainfall requires a wider river mouth to keep the Valley from flooding, tractors show up to move the sand enough to maintain river drainage, creating a fun little standing Waimea wave.
Crowds line up on either side of the river wave as a childlike sense of fun and excitement buzz in the air, and nobody is more the King of Waimea River Surfing than Pipe legend Jamie O’Brien.
As soon as he sees the earth-moving equipment, he sounds the call to assemble a crew for a fun little something different, and in the video above he’s lucky to be hosting the King of Surfing USA, Ben Gravy, when the river is getting shaped.
Get ready to get so psyched you’ll add waiting for the chance to surf Waimea River to your Hawaii dream goals.
Tidal Bore, Alaska
River surfing in Alaska?
A tidal bore is when an incoming tide enters a narrow inlet, causing a large enough wave to provide novelty surfing opportunities in places like Alaska, where the Cook Inlet offers the only place to see a bore tide in the US.
In the Anchorage neighborhood of Girdwood, a tidal bore forms twice a day as high tide from the ocean meets low tide in an extension of the Cook Inlet called the Turnagain Arm, creating a single wave that can range from six inches to six feet, the later of which draws out the local surfers in cheerful droves to enjoy a party wave on the bore tide, which requires a healthy dose of lucky timing and conditions to witness.
If it happens, it’s usually 2-3 hours after low tide in the Arm with a minus low tide meeting a high tide of about 27 feet from the Cook Inlet to make waves big enough to surf.
Shallower inlet channels offer larger bore waves, so prior to a 1964 earthquake in Anchorage that lowered the earth in the Cook Inlet one could find triple overhead barrels ripping through.
Today, the occasional 10-foot day is more than enough for the locals to enjoy river surfing in the northernmost state in the union.
The Bottom Line: River Surfing in the USA
River surfing is vastly unique from surfing in the ocean or a wave pool, with natural elements providing waves that require a completely different skill set and an atmosphere that is nothing short of dazzling.
There’s a serenity behind the proximity to the mountains, and it’s impossible not to feel the sacred connection to the planet as a whole while river surfing, not just the ocean.
This thread of surfing’s fabric is nothing short of a blessing, and the USA has many spots to find it.