When it gets scorching hot during the summer, there are only three tried and true escapes: cold beers, movie theaters, and hopping in the water. While all three work for beating the heat, getting wet is usually the most fun. And though we would never speak poorly of a day spent by the pool, cooling off in the great outdoors beats a tub full o’ chlorine in every way (check that: almost every way, cabana boys are all too rare at swimming holes and hot springs). Just try cliff diving, white water rafting, or surfing in your buddy’s pool (unless your buddy is Kelly Slater).
Ready for another classic summer-spent-soaking-outside adventure? Try tubing. There isn’t much else on earth better at combing scenic views and sipping brews. Add a few dozen friends and you’re making priceless memories, pal. Given the abundance of great rivers that traverse our country, we asked travel writers for their favorite floats and then hand-picked the best in the country. Some of these rivers are naturally beautiful, others bring the party, and others still are just plain old relaxing as hell.
Go get your float on.
Russian River — Guerneville, California
Sonoma Country sits in the heart of California’s wine country. When the weather turns warm, visitors and residents alike love nothing more than to cool off on a tubing adventure down the Russian River. It’s a fairly shallow river in which currents are rather mild — making it perfect for tubing. Plus, there are a lot of chill beaches along the shore that make for perfect pitstops to break out a picnic or lie out in the sun. While you are off the river, look for rock walls to jump from and rope swings to take for a ride.
The multiple beaches also mean that you can plan a variety of routes for your ideal trip length and time. If you opt to go from Sunset Beach to Johnson’s Beach, you can be on the water for more than six hours. But a trip from Mother’s Beach to Sunset Beach only takes a little more than an hour. It’s best to start early in the day to make sure that you have parking, but you can also grab a Monte Rio Taxi or an Uber back to town at the end of the day if you don’t want to wrangle parking with your crew.
If you just want a tube or other inflatable for the day, score a rental from King’s Sport & Tackle, or hit up Soar Inflatables & Russian River Adventures. Or commit to being a full tube person and snap up your own personal inflatable at Guerneville 5 & 10. They’ll even inflate it for you.
San Marcos River — San Marcos, Texas
The Austin area is ripe with tubing opportunities. The Comal River offers an urban float through New Braunfels. The Guadalupe River is the party river, with lots of beer and co-eds. But our fav is the San Marcos River, which offers two kinds of floats: a family-friendly version and a grown-up good time. A lot of people say that the tiny hippie college town of San Marcos reminds them of Austin before it became super popular, which means it has all the weird appeal and none of the crowds and gentrification. It also offers a spring-fed, cold and clear river that is 10 times cleaner than the EPA standards for drinking water. It also sits at a constant 72 degrees, making it perfect in the Texas summer sun. No wonder college kids love to load up inflatables and coolers and hit the water.
Start tubing in City Park, where you can rent tubes from Lions Club Tube Rental or use your own. It’s an hour from City Park to Rio Vista Park. But there are other sections of the 15-mile stretch of river you can also hop in. For instance, Texas State Tubes offers a pick-up package that uses a less crowded part of the river — one which tends to attract young adults and college kids.
Keep in mind that while alcohol is totally legal on the river, it is not legal in the parks, per a city ordinance. You can’t even legally stand on the shore with an open container. Be sure to limit your drinking to the times when you are actively floating on the river and finish up your Lone Star before you return to land.
Snoqualmie River — Fall City, WA
The Snoqualmie River is located 30 minutes west of Seattle, so it isn’t exactly a warm, tropical tubing location. The water does take a minute to get used to, but when the sun is high overhead and temperatures climb into the 90s (or higher), it’s perfect for relaxing into as you float along. And the chill doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer some of the most amazing float action in the United States — it does, mostly because the scenery is freaking spectacular. This is a purely Pacific Northwest river with tall pines and rugged outcroppings lining the shore. There are also a lot of rope swings at the river’s edge that invite people to venture off of their tubes and cast caution to the wind as they swing above the water and cannonball into it. Numerous logs also serve as perfect diving boards.
The perfect float goes from Snoqualmie Falls to Fall City and takes about four hours. Alternately, you can put in at Plum River Access Point and hop out at the SR202 Bridge, which also takes about four hours. The water meanders slowly, but there are sections where the water gets shallow and you have to be aware in order to avoid losing your beer or scraping your butt. Keep that in mind.
If you’re cool with crowds, make sure you come out for the Annual Snoqualmie Falls River Tubing Adventure, where literally thousands of people all come together for an all-day party. The date changes yearly but typically falls in late July or early August. Also, keep in mind that alcoholic beverages are prohibited on Washington Rivers, so you will totally see people with coolers full of beer (you may even be one) but doing so risks trouble with the law.
Truckee River — Reno, Nevada
This is another river that leans a little cold thanks to the snowmelt cascading down from the Sierra Nevadas. It is because of this mountain water that the area became known for some of the best whitewater rafting in the world. However, a decrease in the snowmelt has made parts of this river calmer than in previous years. These days, people come from as far away as San Francisco to escape the summer heat at a party that rivals those held on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
The Truckee River is perfect for a relaxing float that includes slow-moving pleasure boats with captains and passengers that are happy to invite you aboard to party or spray you with super soakers as your tube passes them by. Consider putting in at Truckee Regional Park and getting picked up at the Glenshire Bridge, which makes for a two-hour journey. This isn’t a float where you can fall asleep because the California drought has made the river a bit low, and that makes it choppy. But there are plenty of rock outcroppings and tiny rapids that are fun to move through and around. The few deeper areas that remain are perfect for diving into, especially from the rocks along the shore.
Most people float along the first five miles of the river outside of Lake Tahoe, which is fairly calm with only a few mild rapids. Expect to pass meadows and mountain views that will make you want to snap pic after pic. However, the river also parallels Highway 89, so summer traffic means a lot of cars will watch you and your friends live it up on the water. You’ll probably be having so much fun you won’t notice.
Chattahoochee River — Atlanta, GA
You know a river is perfect for tubing when locals have a slang term for doing it. “Tubin’ the Hooch” and “Shootin’ the Hooch” are both used to describe this effective way of escaping the sweltering summer heat. The slow-flowing, long-running waters of the Chattahoochee makes for the perfect float setting, and the river’s proximity to Atlanta means a lot of city people take advantage of this when they can.
People who want to spend a couple of hours on a slow, scenic float along calm waters will want to put in at Don White Park and meander to Azalea Park. But those bold few who want their day to be longer and a little wilder will want to start at Johnson’s Ferry and float down to Paces Mill. Keep in mind, that people who opt to float near the Buford or Morgan Falls Dams near Atlanta need to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device because the dams release water on a regular basis.
The Powers Island portion of the river is a lot of fun because it goes right through the metro Atlanta area. It’s a bit more crowded because of that, but you won’t care when you’re letting the gentle undulations of the Chattahoochee relax you on a core level or when the whitewater class I-II rapids are making your tube into a wild ride.
Apple River — Somerset, Wisconsin
People hear Wisconsin and they think tailgating, beer brats, and cornhole. They aren’t wrong to think those things, Midwesterners do love all three. What Wisconsinites also excel at are float trips. And a weekend float down the Apple River is the foundation for one of the best summer shindigs in the nation. A sandbar halfway down the river sets this tubing experience apart from the others on this list because merrymakers stop here and set up full-blown parties with drinks, food, games, and anything else you would expect seasoned tailgaters to whip out of their bag of tricks. This includes revelers wearing and throwing beaded necklaces up and down the river just like a mini Mardi Gras.
On the river, most people travel in packs with their tubes tied together around a central cooler. Obviously, no styrofoam coolers or drinks in glass bottles are recommended.
Tubing events are also popular in the summer. The Apple River Extravaganza takes place from June 21 to the 23rd. It’s a camping, tubing, and music-centric gathering of “cool people with independent ideas.” A camping admission grants free admission to the Extravaganza and the donation of an approved food item for a local food pantry covers your first drink.
From August 9th to August 11th, you can take part in the Apple River Music Weekend and Beer Olympics — in which people team up in groups of two and compete in beer-based events like slip-n-slide tippy cup.
Ichetucknee River — Fort White, Florida
Located in Ichetucknee Springs State Park, this clear river is fed by nine different natural water springs, making the whole thing feel like an unspoiled Old Florida treasure. The Ichetucknee River is where people go to float past jumping fish, turtles lounging on logs, and storks making their way along the shoreline under a canopy of tall oaks and pine trees. When floating through the 72-degree water, let the adventurous voice within you inspire a climb up one of these trees. Then leap from its branches into the water. It’s an easy swim back to the shore, where you can climb another tree and start over.
This river is unusual in that there’s a daily limit of 750 tubers, so it is important to arrive at the North Canoe Launch early in the day to avoid losing one of those spots. From this put-in point, you float for three to four hours in the pristine waterway. At the put-out location, you can climb out and catch a tram back to the parking lot near the launch. The majority of tubing rivers allow people to choose when they ride the currents based on the water level, weather, and number of other people on the water. That’s not the case on Ichetucknee River, where tubing is only permitted from Memorial Day to Labor Day. During that time, paddlers are kept off the water in favor of the tuberazzi.
You aren’t allowed to bring food or drink (other than a water bottle) on your tubing trip, so you need to plan the party around your time off the water. You can try sneaking something in, but there are random baggage checks and it could jeopardize your chances to tube. It’s not worth it for a beer. Trust us: this is a seriously gorgeous place unlike any other in the country. You don’t wanna miss out.
Yampa River — Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Yampa River is unique in that it is the singular free-flowing river in Colorado. That means there are no obstructions like dams along its entire relatively calm 261-mile length. The city of Steamboat Springs, three hours west of Denver, makes for an unusual tubing experience because unlike most experiences of this kind, you don’t put in and get out in the middle of some natural wonderland. Nope. You can finish your trip in the middle of the city and spend the remainder of the day hitting up breweries and restaurants and locally owned shops. We love Butcherknife Brewing Company’s taproom and their award-winning Amputator IPA.
If you’re looking for a short tubing session that lasts about an hour, drop in at the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown and float to the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge, just outside of town. The city and the Colorado Division of Wildlife have separated the river into zones, and rental tubing is only allowed downtown from the Fifth Street Bridge, while private tubers are allowed to float from Fletcher Park but no further. This way, everyone gets time in the river and the quieter upper stretch can be reserved for fishing.
Be aware that no alcohol is allowed when tubing on the river and parking is pretty limited at put-in points. If you opt to take the bus to avoid hassling with your car, you also need to know that neither inflated tubes nor wet people are allowed on public transport. Dry off and deflate first.
James River — Scottsville, Virginia
The beaches along the banks of this Central Virginia river are an ideal place to bake in the blazing summer sun while enjoying some cold beers, but being a floater is way better. To best experience the river, rent a tube, grab a cooler and a 12-pack, and slide into the water for a great ride among the green hills of Virginia. Keep in mind that even though the James is considered a party spot, alcohol isn’t legally allowed on it. If you decide to join the ranks of the scofflaws, be sure to avoid glass bottles, keep track of your empties, and bring along some nonalcoholic drinks to stave off dehydration.
Most people put-in at Pony Pasture Rapids Park and make plans to get out at Brown’s Island or Belle Island. People who go that route will experience a speedy set of rapids and some shallow water that give you a chance to make any changes you need to in your gear and set up. Once you arrive at the Powhite Parkway Bridge, you’ll hit some Class-II rapids for a mile or so. Expect to spin and potentially tip over. Most of these trips take from two to six hours, depending on water levels.
When you float down the James River, you will come to a large rock. You will want to jump off of this rock, but tubing company representatives will tell you not to do it because the rock is considered private property. However, after a lazy float and several beers, most people ignore the warnings, climb the rock, and toss themselves off of it into the river. When you do your tubing, ask yourself, if all your friends jumped off a privately-owned rock, would you jump off it too? There’s your answer.
American River — Sacramento, California
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Too shallow for boats, the American River is ideal for kayaks and inflatables. That means the peaceful waters remain undisturbed by larger crafts that could upset a chill float among the green trees. People often underestimate Sacramento (as they do for most state capitals, actually), and sleeping on the city’s outdoor recreation scene is a real mistake. Though the summer’s triple digits make a lot of people hide inside, the cold water of the American River makes for a refreshing alternative to hunting down some air conditioning.
For a fun three to four-hour float, put-in at the Sunrise Boulevard river access point and float to River Bend Park, which is also known as Goethe Park. After about a half hour, you’ll hit what are called the San Juan rapids — which make for a dynamic change of pace but really aren’t too wild. If you go to the river on a weekend, consider making a stop at the Gilligan’s Island sandbar, a notorious party locale. It can get a little rowdy, but it’s hella fun (you can say “hella” in Sacramento). There also tend to be “armed” floaters with long-range water guns that they use to soak unsuspecting tube enthusiasts.
There is no time at which glass containers are allowed on the water, and on Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day weekends no alcohol is allowed between Watt Avenue and Hazel Avenue. Be sure to plan your trip accordingly.