What are the top 5 best day rafting trips in New Zealand?

Gained from the experiences of 25 years rafting these rivers, this is our take on the Top 5, Day Rafting Trips in New Zealand.

Top 5 Best Day Rafting Trips in New Zealand

New Zealand is a young land with tectonic forces still aggressively pushing the mountainous spines of both major Islands upward.

Combine these mountain ranges with generous amounts of rain and what you get is some of the best technical white water rivers on the planet.

What better way to explore these rivers, than by raft.   Gained from the experiences of 25 years rafting these rivers, this is our take on the Top 5, Day Rafting Trips in New Zealand.

What We Considered

When considering which white water rafting trips would make this list, we took into account a number of factors. These factors included:

  • Accessibility
  • Number of and Style of Rapid
  • Length of Season
  • Scenery
  • Extras

**Helicopter only accessible rivers have not been included, nor have trips that have a rapid grading of Grade 2 or less.  Where there are multiple sections on one river, the highest graded section is the one that has been included.  Only trips of a duration of one day or less have been considered.

Who Makes the List?

Starting then at Number 5 - The Wairoa

The Wairoa River almost has it all. Great rapids and plenty of them, very accessible, spectacular put on, and the opportunity to do this fun run several times on the same day.

However keeping the Wairoa down at number 5 on our list is that this is a Dam release river that can only be rafted 26 days a year. Bearing this in mind, if it is flowing when you are nearby, grab youself a seat on this roller coaster ride.

The Wairoa is situated near the North Island city of Tauranga.

Grade IV+ to Grade V

Length – 2.7 kms

Season - 26 days per year

Moving to Number 4 - The Shotover

No list of rafting rivers in New Zealand would be complete without mentioning the Shotover. While the Shotover owes much of its fame to its proximity to Queenstown, it is still a fun river trip.

The drive in, down Skippers Canyon is spectacular and is worth doing just for that. Much of the action on this trip is contained in the last 1.5 kms, with the Oxenbridge Tunnel signalling the end of the trip.

This tunnel was chiselled through solid rock by early gold miners and at most rafting levels, is now floated through by rafts.

Grade IV to Grade V depending on river flow

Length – 12.5 kms

Season – All Year

Coming in at Number 3 - The Mohaka

Out of all the rivers that make the Top 5, the Mohaka would be rafted the least.

The Mokaha holds its place well, with number and style of rapids, often spectacular and rugged scenery and length of season. However, what sets it back to Number 3 on our list is accessibility.  

The Take Out from this trip is literally hours of driving from the Put On. If it was not for this, then we think the Mohaka could certainly jump a place to Number 2.

The Mohaka is accessed from the Taupo – Napier Highway.

Grade III+ to Grade IV+ depending on river flow

Length – 14 kms

Season – All year, but generally only rafted Spring, Summer and Autumn

Sitting comfortably at Number 2 - The Rangitata

My most poignant memory of the Rangitata, is many years ago spectacularly flipping in a hole known as Pigs Trough at quite high flows. What followed after the swim was a good helping of humble pie!

With the backdrop of the Southern Alps, this is a fun white water rafting trip. The river starts nice and easy with braided water typical of many Canterbury rivers.  

Unlike most Canterbury rivers however, the Rangitata flows through a section of bed rock, where most of the gradient and rapids are situated.

Grade IV+ to Grade V (harder at lower flows)

Length – 10 kms

Season – October to May

Taking out Number 1 - The Rangitikei - A River of Legend

“If there was one single river with every ingredient for the evolutionary recipe of trip, into epic, into story, into legend – it is the Rangitikei.”   Taken from ‘New Zealand Whitewater’, by Graham Charles

The Rangitikei really has it all. Not only does it top our list of New Zealand rafting trips, but it is also one of the top half day Grade 5 rafting trips on a global scale.

This central North Island river section is normally run from River Valley Lodge, with a short scenic 25 minute drive to the put on.  The trip starts nice and easy with numerous Grade 2 and 3 rapids before the real action starts, about half way through the trip.

What follows from this half way point is the Gorge. 10 major rapids, one after the other, just like a staircase - steep rapid, pool, steep rapid, pool and so on. Another section of Grade 3 rapids rounds out a fantastic river rafting trip.

The finish point is right outside the front door of the Lodge. The Fulcrum Pit Bar at River Valley Lodge has often seen, with the aid of some amber liquid, a days rafting trip turn into an epic, then a story and occasionally a legend.

Grade IV to Grade V depending on flow

Length – 11 kms

Season – All Year

Every River is Different

While we have compiled a list here of what we think are the best day rafting trips in New Zealand, we encourage you to explore them all.

Every river is different – the water, the rock, the rapids, the scenery. Each is totally unique and all of them can be a fantastic experience.

See you on the river.

Brian Megaw

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