While cities around the country are transforming their riverfronts to encourage recreation, Oklahoma City is taking the Oklahoma River to the next level. The seven-mile-long formerly swampy stretch of land on the edge of downtown has been brought back to life through a series of dams and structures for adventure sports including kayaking, rowing, zip lines, climbing walls, hiking trails, high speed slides, and paddle boarding. The latest addition: RIVERSPORT Rapids, a 45.2 million, 11-acre whitewater rafting and kayaking center along the river; one of many attractions in a 60-acre stretch called the Boathouse District.

The whitewater center, engineered by Lyons, Colorado-based whitewater design firm S2o, is located just adjacent to the river. It includes two roughly 3,000-foot-long concrete channels (their angular lateral surfaces softened with plastic barriers), each stepping down about 24 feet. The average trip down takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Six 12,000-pound pumps send water from the bottom back up to the start, and large conveyor belts bring racers back up while still in their vessels.

“We put a Rocky Mountain experience in the Great Plains,” S2o president Scott Shipley said. His firm also engineered the London Olympic rowing center, Dorney Lake, and the U.S. National course in Charlotte, North Carolina. The nonprofit OKC Boathouse Foundation will operate the new center, offering rafting, kayaking, and tubing, among other activities.

S2o specializes in whitewater rapid engineering. (Courtesy Rand Elliott)

S2o specializes in whitewater rapid engineering. (Courtesy Rand Elliott)

“Oklahoma is a sports place. It’s really embraced this, and it’s helped create a renaissance here,” added architect Rand Elliott, whose Oklahoma City firm, Elliott + Associates, has designed and master planned the Boathouse District, a compilation of boathouses, entertainment venues, offices, and more, over the past 13 years. The rapids and the district were funded as part of MAPS 3, a one-cent sales tax initiative (already renewed four times since the early 1990s) that will give $777 million to new development citywide, with $60 million earmarked for the Oklahoma River. 

For years, the river, once known as the North Canadian River, was an almost dry waterbed that locals joked about mowing instead of rowing. A $53 million project completed in 2004 rejuvenated the river.


The Central Boathouse. (Courtesy Scott McDonald/Gray City Studios)

The CHK Central Boathouse. (Courtesy Scott McDonald/Gray City Studios)

Along this stretch Elliott + Associates has designed angular glass and steel buildings that line up along the river like boats about to race. They include, among other structures, the Chesapeake Boathouse, CHK Central Boathouse, Devon Boathouse, CHK Finish Line Tower, and the SandRidge Sky Trail, a zipline course that resembles a crazy straw. At night the buildings are lined with different colors of LEDs, creating a mesmerizing draw for visitors.

“We’ve poured our whole life and soul into this to make it an architectural masterpiece in that everything is connected yet still individual and interesting,” said Elliott.

But the main event is still the water sports.

“As more people move to cities, they need this kind of recreation in their lives,” said Shipley, “We can bring it to where they live and work.”

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