La maudite rivière enragée. The accursed mad river. Early French trappers can be forgiven for their less-than-charitable assessment of Wyoming's Snake River. The snowmelt-engorged Snake, where it squeezes through its namesake canyon, was a writhing obstacle to their dreams of getting rich on beaver pelts. Today the Snake is still ornery, but visitors deem it a blessing, for it offers the only whitewater kicks within 100-odd miles of Jackson Hole.
Those who want a big-water thrill should arrive in early- to mid-June for a short-but-soaking rocket trip through daunting holes and Class II-III rapids. The eight-mile trip begins 25 miles south of Jackson, in the imposing canyon where Engelmann spruce wear rags of moss and bald eagles perch like scowling gargoyles. The real crucible for rafters, however, begins just beyond Blind Canyon, where boats say hello to Big Kahuna, a hole that's buried at highest flows but more often looms as a 6-foot wall of water. Grip hard; you don't want to be out of the boat for the canyon's premier plunge, which follows. Lunch Counter Rapids is a wave train of 5- and 6-foot swells, including one so massive that locals ride surfboards on it. One steering goof by the guide here, or insufficient paddling by rafters already distracted by a boatful of river, can turn this portion of the Snake into a 50-degree dunk tank.
When the river's really moving, you'll be toweling off back in Jackson in less than three hours. What's next? Meet the mellower side of the Snake on a two-hour, 10-mile scenic float through Grand Teton National Park. Here in the shadow of the Grand Teton, the rapids' roar is gone, freeing you to enjoy Jackson's subtler pleasures. Water ouzels dive for stoneflies. Moose pose on banks lined with bouquets of margarine-colored monkey flower. Grains of sand whisper against the boat's bottom-the sound of Yellowstone National Park being carried to the Pacific, one grain at a time. The morning's mad river may have scared you; this Snake will charm you. -Christopher Solomon
A half-dozen companies offer trips into Snake River Canyon, including Charlie Sands Wild Water River Trips (800-358-8184, sandswhitewater.com) and Barker-Ewing River Trips (800-448-4202, barker-ewing.com). Prices range from $41-$130 for adults. Several outfitters, including Solitude Float Trips, also offer mellower float trips farther upriver, through Grand Teton National Park ($40, 888-704-2800, grand-teton-scenic-floats.com). Demand is high; reservations are recommended.