9 Best Rivers for Surfing

Surfers riding waves on a narrow waterway
Photo: Guido Radig/Wikimedia Commons

Surfing is an ocean sport. The most surfable waves in the world break over reefs, sand bars or shallow areas near the shoreline. Rivers can also provide surfing excitement, too, far away from these powerful ocean swells. Admittedly, surf-worthy river waves are few and far between, but when they do occur, they often offer consistent conditions and the kind of never-ending rides that ocean surfers can only dream about.

River waves come in two varieties. The first are tidal bores, and they occur when ocean tides are funneled into slow-flowing rivers. The result of this rare phenomenon is a wave that surfers can ride upstream for miles and miles. There are approximately 60 tidal bores in the world.

The other type of freshwater surf wave, the standing wave, occurs when a high volume of water rushes over a rock or shallow area in a rapidly-moving river, such as in Munich's Eisbach (pictured). This results in a stationary "wave" that surfers can ride continuously by pointing their boards upstream.

Because of the ability to ride for long periods of time and the relative predictability of river waves compared with ocean waves, the sport of river surfing is growing in popularity. Here are nine destinations that have earned buzz from the surfing community.

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Photo: Tarso Sarraf/AFP/Getty Images

The name Pororoca means "great roar" in the language of the Tupi people, who live along the banks of the Amazon River and its tributaries in Brazil. Caused when high tides from the Atlantic push water into the rivers, the Pororoca has waves that peak at 12 to 15 feet. Because surfers can ride the bore for as long as 30 minutes, an increasing number come to visit when the wave is at its highest, usually during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

The idea of surfing nonstop for half an hour is attractive to all surfers, but only skilled riders take on the Pororoca. Water scooters and boats are needed to support surfers, while wildlife — including venomous snakes and piranhas — often get caught up in the bore and swept along with the wave, to say nothing of large pieces of debris, including whole trees. Whenever surfers fall off their boards, they are exposed to all these hazards.

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Severn bore

Photo: PapaPiper/flickr

England is not known for its surfing, but another major tidal bore draws wave riders to several points along the River Severn in the southwestern part of the country. When conditions are ideal, around the new or full moons, this wave can reach 6 feet or more in height. Because tides are predictable, surfers know when the wave will pass certain points on the river. The height of the wave can vary depending on river level and recent rainfall, but the height of the tide is predictable based on the date, so everyone has a rough idea of the conditions well before the bore's arrival.

A British World War II hero named Jack Churchill (no relation to Winston Churchill) was the first to surf the Severn bore. He rode the wave using a board he made himself. The Severn bore is admittedly not quite as dramatic as the Pororoca, but it is much more accessible. Like the Pororoca, however, the Severn does have its own significant dangers. Surfers will not have to worry about piranhas or venomous snakes, but large pieces of debris, strong currents, and waves crowded with other surfers and kayakers can lead to very dangerous situations.

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Qiantang River

Photo: 三猎/Wikimedia Commons

The highest tidal bore in the world is in eastern China near the historic city of Hangzhou. During full moons in the autumn, the wave reaches more than 20 feet high and can travel at more than 25 mph. Because of these speeds and heights, most of the people who attempt to surf the Qiantang are professionals or experienced surfers with safety and support teams. Red Bull holds a contest, called the Qiantang Shootout, on the wave each autumn.

The tidal bore draws thousands of spectators whether surfers are on the wave or not. There is an annual wave-watching festival during the eighth lunar month. More than 100,000 people line the river to watch the wave when it reaches its highest point. There have even been instances of people on the banks being knocked over by unexpectedly high crests, caused by storms in the ocean.

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The Eisbach

Photo: Underclass Hero/Wikimedia Commons

The Eisbach is a man-made stream that stretches for just over a mile through Munich, Germany. It runs into the city's famous English Garden, an urban park that is bigger in area than New York's Central Park. Because of the speed of the water, the cement barriers and the shallow depth, it is recommended that only experienced surfers try to ride this 3-foot wave. A second, less challenging wave is reportedly located a few hundred yards downstream.

Surfing had long been illegal on the Eisbach, though this did not deter earlier surfers, who would try to keep their activities as quiet as possible. YouTube videos eventually drew more attention to the spot, and surfing was legalized in 2010, after Munich bought the land near the Eisbach. Ironically, the Eisbach's biggest attraction was created because engineers wanted to slow the flow of water in the river, so it would create a more serene atmosphere inside the English Garden. The concrete blocks they used to slow the flow are actually what caused the wave to form.

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Habitat 67 on the St. Lawrence River

Photo: Marc-André Desrosiers/Wikimedia Commons

Habitat 67, or H67, is the name of a standing wave in the St. Lawrence River in Montreal. Actually, the wave is named after a housing complex with eye-catching experimental architecture that sits on the bank. H67 is popular with photographers because they can shoot surfers riding the wave and also capture the urban architecture in the background.

The wave — usually waist to shoulder height, depending on the flow of the St. Lawrence — can be surfed all year round. Of course, colder temperatures and floating ice chunks can make it dangerous during the wintertime. The current moves quickly, so riding Habitat 67 is usually attempted only by experienced surfers with good swimming abilities. Kayakers, who were actually the first to take advantage of the feature, also use the wave.

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The Lunch Counter on the Snake River

Photo: B Brown/Shutterstock

Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is a major ski destination, but for a few weeks in the early summer, it becomes a surf town. The Lunch Counter Rapids, just outside of town, have surfable waves caused by a high volume of water from snowmelt and runoff from a nearby dam. Conditions can be inconsistent, but the waves are high enough to surf in May and June. If there happens to be a higher amount of snowfall and other precipitation, the season can last much longer.

According to local legend, skiers from California were the first to try surfing the Lunch Counter in the 1970s. A strong local surf scene has since developed, with a lineup of both surfers and freestyle kayakers when conditions are at their best. Like other standing waves, this one has its own set of dangers. Anyone who falls is quickly swept downstream, and must know how to handle the rapids and exit the river safely.

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Waimea River

Photo: Michael Ocampo/flickr

Oahu's Waimea Bay is known for its towering waves. When conditions are right, the waves that break near the mouth of the Waimea River can reach over 30 feet in height. Only the most experienced surfers attempt to ride this and other waves on the famous North Shore. There is another Waimea wave, however, that is more accessible to everyone.

Occasionally, during the winter, the Waimea River floods because of heavy rains. Local surfers, with the help of conservationists, dug trenches that helped direct the floodwaters into the bay. This not only helped to relieve the flooding and erosion, it also created a surfable standing wave. Some of the world's best surf pros live in the Waimea area, and when the river floods, locals and enthusiasts have a chance to surf the river alongside them on this man-made, but nature-fed, wave.

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The Bono, aka Seven Ghosts

Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

This tidal bore in Indonesia flows up the Kampar River. Locals call the bore Bono, which means "truth" in the local tongue. The name is a reference to the wave's consistent arrival upon a full moon. The bore is also known as Seven Ghosts, a reference to local legends about seven angry spirits who live in the river and cause the wave. This name has stuck, in part, because a 2011 surf film featuring the Bono used it in its title.

Some of the pros featured in the film called the Bono the longest wave they have ever ridden. It can reach 10 feet in height, and those who remain on their board and upright could theoretically surf it for an hour and cover a distance of about 30 miles. Dangers like crocodiles (mainly far upriver) and malarial mosquitoes might put some surfers off, but the biggest difficulty is getting to the wave. The nearest population center is seven hours away, so getting there is not a simple undertaking.

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Boise River Park

Photo: AhXiong/Shutterstock

This wave in the middle of Boise, Idaho, is quite unique. The river has a wave shaper, so it can be adjusted to change the height and speed of the wave. It was first constructed for kayakers, but surfers are also welcome. There is a set schedule for changing the wave shape, so people who want to surf can come when the wave is better for surfing instead of kayaking.

There are plans to expand the whitewater park to include family-friendly areas, conservation areas, additional waves and sections of whitewater for all skill levels. Both the city and private foundations are involved in financing the ongoing project.