Natural Waves Versus Whitewater Parks: What Type of Wave is Best for River Surfing?

Natural Waves Versus Whitewater Parks: What Type of Wave is Best for River Surfing?

As river surfing has increased in popularity over the past 15 years inland surfers have never had more options for riding standing waves. Surfing a standing wave in a river has moved past novelty status. There’s now a growing cadre of dedicated inland surfers with different types of waves from naturally occurring waves in rivers to established whitewater parks. As the sport grows in popularity, more surf spots are being developed every year.

River waves, standing waves, hydraulic jumps. There are several terms for wave forms created in rivers that flow downhill at a steep enough grade. When you combine enough volume of water, a steep enough drop in the bed of the river, and (typically) an obstruction like a large boulder, bedrock shelf, or artificial drop, the river will create waves to dissipate the energy that is created. 

For river surfers, these waves create a “surfing treadmill”.  Instead of the wave pushing you forward to the beach, the water flows under you — allowing you to surf back and forth on the face of the wave for as long as your quads will hold up. 

Three Major Types of Standing Waves for River Surfing

There’s no one type of wave for surfing the river that yields a superior performance or experience. But, as the sport expands, there are three main types of waves for river surfing that you should be aware of. 

The three main types of waves for river surfing are 

  • Natural river waves
  • Whitewater park waves
  • Wave pools

Each creates its own unique experience and has its own unique set of challenges and rewards. 

Natural River Waves

There are some very famous natural river waves found in whitewater rapids in rivers around the country. 

These features are often found at the top of rapids where the water flowing out of a pool makes the initial drop over a rock or ledge and a wave is formed. These waves can provide the ultimate river surfing experience with the imperfections and changes in character that come with rising or falling flows. 

Miles Harvey surfing in Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River 

However natural waves also come with more potential hazards. Natural river waves are less predictable and there are more uncontrolled variables at play. 

It’s important to surf with knowledgeable partners, have a safety plan, and be ready to swim whitewater if you are going to surf a natural wave. Natural waves also often have the most challenging access, sometimes requiring confidence in swimming through whitewater, hiking into to the wave or maybe even floating in to a spot with a raft. 

Some famous natural waves include the waves found around Great Falls in Washington DC, Canyon Doors on the Gauley River in West Virginia, and the Pipeline wave on the Lochsa River in Idaho.

Whitewater Park Waves 

More and more whitewater parks are being built on local rivers around the United States. 

Whitewater parks are engineered features in rivers designed to create surfable waves. The structures that are placed in the river are designed to mimic the natural features that create standing waves. 

In the case of whitewater parks, some of the inherent hazards found on a natural wave are reduced. Whitewater Parks are free to use and, if there’s enough water, a whitewater park will provide a reliable place to learn to river surf or improve your surfing.


Izzy Hughes surfing the Scout Wave in the Salida Whitewater Park

Colorado has the most whitewater parks in the US. The newly revised Scout Wave in Salida, Colorado has quickly become the premier river surfing destination in Colorado. Other popular whitewater park river surfing waves in the country are found in Dayton, Ohio, Bend, Oregon, and Boise, Idaho.

Wave Pools 

Artificial surfing pools are a new trend around the world.

Many of the technologies used to create wave pools produce an ocean-style wave. However, there is also a popular wave pool technology that creates a standing wave in a pool — reminiscent of river surfing. This type of wave pool creates a “sheet flow wave”. That means the water drops down a steep slope and is forced up into the wave form by a wedge shape on the bottom of the pool. 

This type of wave has the potential to unlock the highest-performance river surfing. 

The wave is adjustable, and the speed and consistency of the wave allow river surfers to take their surfing to the next level. While these pools eliminate natural river hazards, falling and flushing off the wave can be a little rougher on the body. Don’t be afraid to wear a helmet and start slowly. 


Zack Hughes setting up for a backside turn at Lakeside Surf

These facilities are sure to grow in popularity however for now there are a limited number of wave pool facilities in the US. The best facility for standing wave surfing in the US right now is Lakeside Surf in Lake Chelan, Washington.

Ready to Dive Into River Surfing?

River surfing isn’t just for those who are trapped inland. 

Over the past decade, surfing on standing waves has developed into its own sport with unique skills, hotspots, and a vibrant culture. That said, river surfing is still in its infancy and early adopters who get into the sport now have a rare opportunity to help grow and shape what river surfing and the community will become in the future. 

If you want to get a taste of this experience firsthand, the revamped Scout Wave in Salida, Colorado is one of those river surfing hot spots mentioned earlier. Come check out the wave, culture, and community this spring and summer season. We’d be glad to hook you up with the gear you need to hit the water. Our retail location, Badfish Surf Shop is just feet away from the renowned Scout Wave on the Arkansas River. 

Get stoked. Check out river surfboards and river surfing gear here.

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1 comment

Great article Mike.

Kurt Glaser

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