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California River Rafting Adventures

Think of a river, and chances are you’ve got your own daydream. Maybe you want to float on inner tubes, or maybe your style is to careen through raucous rapids in an eight-person inflatable raft. No worries—California’s got it all when it comes to river rafting, from gentle half-day float trips for first-timers and mellow family adventures, to adrenaline-pumping multi-day thrillers. Plus there’s glamping, wildlife watching, side trips to Yosemite, and even wine and craft beer tasting.

Unlike some parts of the country where rafting seasons are fairly short, California has commercially run outfitters, including O.A.R.S., All-Outdoors, and Tributary Whitewater Tours, plying rivers from March into September. According to Ron Stork, policy director of Friends of the River, California’s Mediterranean climate brings wet and snowy winters and long, hot summers—perfect for filling rivers, and the reservoirs that feed them, for months. Even in drier years, carefully timed releases from reservoirs keep levels high enough for safe rafting.

“The same river is endlessly interesting in different seasons,” Stork says. “In spring, canyons are covered with wildflowers. You raft through hillsides that are painted blue from lupine and orange from poppies.” In summer, rising temperatures make cooling dips and friendly water fights almost mandatory. Autumn is California’s secret season on late-running rivers, says Stork, noting that crowds thin, and “it’s one blue-sky day after another.”

When choosing a raft trip, class matters. Gentle Class I and II rivers are perfect for self-guided floats and families with youngsters. Class III rivers require some paddling skills—beginners should join a guided trip. Class IV (intermediate) and Class V (advanced) rivers generally require a guide and helmets. No little ones are allowed, and these courses shouldn’t be attempted by beginners.

—Ann Marie Brown

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South Fork American River

South Fork American River
River-raft on a Gold Country favorite, with glamping too

The South Fork of the American is the people’s river. Rafting this waterway is perfect for anyone age 7 to 77 (or more), ideal for first-timers, yet still fun for repeaters. This Class II-III paddle provides a thrill or two—like the infamous Troublemaker rapid—but there’s little chance of bouncing out of your raft. (And if you do, it’s usually nothing more than a refreshing dunk and no-big-deal hoist back into the raft.) This quintessentially Californian trip even includes a Golden State history lesson: The river runs right past the spot where the 1849 Gold Rush began, at Sutter's Mill in Coloma.

A slew of companies guides half- and full-day trips on the South Fork, with trips offered April into September. For a spoil-yourself twist, consider joining a two-day trip with EarthTrek Expeditions, which will set you up in a riverfront tent with comfy cots (bring your own sleeping bag). Conquer the South Fork’s Lower Gorge on Day 1, and you’ll be ready for the wilder eight-mile Upper Gorge on Day 2, where rapids like Triple Threat and Meatgrinder leave you dripping wet and grinning from ear to ear. Your guides cook and serve you meals, including a Wild West barbecue on weekend trips. It’s your job to relax and take in the sunset from your cabin’s deck, which juts out over the river.

Another luxurious way to paddle the South Fork is on American Whitewater Expeditions' two-day excursion. Taste wines at premiere El Dorado County vineyards on one day and go rafting on the next. Meals and camping are included.

Upper Cache Creek
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Upper Cache Creek

Upper Cache Creek
Do-it-yourself river rafting on a friendly waterway

If you just want to get your feet wet—pun intended—but don’t want a white-knuckle adventure, sign up for a do-it-yourself float on Upper Cache Creek, about two hours northeast of San Francisco. Paddle your own rubber raft through the foamy-but-friendly rapids of Cache Canyon, then pat yourself on the back for being such a finely skilled captain.

Cache Creek, which flows out of Clear Lake in Lake County, offers fun but tame Class II rapids—plus a couple of keep-you-on-your-toes Class IIIs that offer brief thrills. That makes it mild enough for first-timers to have a blast commandeering their own boats. This trip is ideal for people who don’t want to share a raft with a bunch of strangers—typically the case on organized trips on other rivers. You can go it alone in a little two-seater inflatable raft, or invite your favorite first mate to climb aboard and grab a paddle too.

One- and two-day DIY trips start near the Central Valley town of Rumsey along State Highway 16. The season generally runs June through July. While you can just go cool off for a day, the two-day trip runs the full 20 miles of Cache Creek’s sheer volcanic canyon—a wonderfully scenic mini-adventure.

Two rafting companies, Cache Canyon River Trips and Whitewater Adventures, provide equipment, instruction, shuttles, meals, and camping gear and sites. Whitewater even shows free movies—with popcorn!—under the stars on Friday nights.

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California Salmon River

California Salmon River
Join a white-knuckle whitewater adventure in emerald-green wilderness

If you’re into adrenaline, you’ve found your whitewater dream trip. The California Salmon River, or simply “Cal Salmon,” isn’t for the faint of heart—or paddle. This two-day trip is filled with pulse-quickening Class IV-V rapids. Two hours northeast of Eureka near the California-Oregon border, starting in deep in the Six Rivers National Forest near the tiny community of Somes Bar, this is a wilderness lover’s paradise. But plan accordingly: Cal Salmon’s pristine waters have a short rafting season, usually only late March until the end of June—much earlier than many of California’s rivers.

Unlike many California rivers lined with rugged and often sunbaked terrain, the Cal Salmon, which is an offshoot of the mighty Klamath River flowing south from Oregon, winds through canyons that are green, lush, and wet. Dramatic geology provides the whitewater excitement—car-size boulders, emerald-green waters, a granite inner gorge, and thrillingly steep drops. Think “wet and wild” and you get the picture. Deer and black bears patrol the riverbanks, bald eagles ply the waters for trout, and city life seems a long way off. Cell reception? Forget about it.

Although the trip is advanced, Momentum River Expeditions lets adventurous beginners and intermediates take the plunge on the Class IV section on Day 1 of a three-day trip and, if they’re ready, progress to the Class V rapids on Days 2 or 3. All camping gear, river equipment, and meals are provided. If you’re short on time, All-Outdoors offers one-day trips, and W.E.T. River Trips offers two-day trips.

Cherry Creek
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Cherry Creek

Cherry Creek
Tackle the Upper Tuolumne River near Yosemite for ultimate whitewater

Cherry Creek is often called the most difficult commercial rafting trip in California—and some say in the entire U.S. This is California’s gnarliest whitewater, rated Class V+ all the way, with fast-flowing rapids, whitewater plunges, and waterfalls galore. Technically the upper stretch of the Tuolumne River, Cherry Creek’s waters are so wild that the rafting season may not start until July, when booming snowmelt slows, and water flows drop to a safe enough level. Even then, it’s still at the upper end of the thrill threshold—and for very experienced paddlers only.

Cherry Creek’s geology creates its mighty whitewater fervor. This granite-walled canyon funnels the river so it’s fast and steep, dropping more than 100 vertical feet per mile. Paddlers must navigate their way through narrow, boulder-choked passageways and more than a dozen churning rapids. Expect a serious upper body workout as you paddle, paddle, paddle to stay on course. Unexpected swims in icy water are the norm. Only two outfitters run trips on Cherry Creek, All-Outdoors Rafting and Sierra Mac River Trips—making this one of the most exclusive whitewater experiences in the state. Put-in is near Groveland and State Highway 120, so you could easily combine your day on the river with a visit to Yosemite National Park, just east of your put-in site. Depending on the outfitter and conditions, trips run from June to mid-September.

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Lower Klamath River

Lower Klamath River
Kid-friendly paddling with swimming holes, wildlife, and waterfalls

Turn your landlocked toddler into a happy river rat on this three-day, two-night camping and rafting trip on the warm waters of the Lower Klamath. The mellow Class II rapids are just splashy enough to be exciting for kids, yet not too nerve-wracking for Mom and Dad. Parents can kick back while river guides do all the work: set up camp, fix meals, explain the region’s fascinating mining history, and teach the kids how to look for Bigfoot. Children as young as four are welcome, and they don’t need to know how to swim; personal floatation devices keep everyone safe. The whimsical name of the trip’s toughest rapid—Dragon’s Tooth—says it all.

The days are so warm during the June to August rafting season that no one gets boat fever on this trip. You’re out of the boat more than you’re in it, enjoying the Klamath’s sandy beaches and warm water for splashing around. Don’t miss the hike through the rainforest of Ukonom Creek, where two side-by-side waterfalls cascade into a deep swimming hole. In the evening, paddle up to camp and savor the sunset while you dine, then sleep like the righteous under starry skies.

Wildlife watching is a big highlight on the Lower Klamath. Bald eagles and ospreys soar above the alder- and fir-lined canyon, and beavers and river otters glide through the water. Trips start in Happy Camp, an hour and a half drive west of Yreka, so it’s easy to combine this watery adventure with a visit to Redwood National and State Parks. Several companies, including O.A.R.S. and Tributary Whitewater Tours, offer guided overnight trips.

Merced River
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Merced River

Merced River
Whitewater thrills for first-timers on the edge of Yosemite

If you’re searching for shoot-the-rapids thrills and chills on a family-friendly river rafting trip, the Merced River is your ticket. Plus it’s an incredibly scenic float, on the western border of Yosemite National Park. It’s also cool knowing that these are the same snowmelt waters that boomed down the waterfalls of Yosemite Valley. All that, plus plenty of good splashing fun make this adventure down a designated Wild and Scenic River stretch of the Merced a popular trip (with plenty of choices for outfitters) that packs a whole lot of excitement into a half- or one-day adventure.

The 16 miles of river below El Portal include several rollercoaster-like Class III-IV rapids, interspersed with placid stretches where rafters can catch their breath (or have a few water fights). Put-ins are along State Highway 140, a short drive from the national park entrance. Trips include lunch, parking, wetsuits if the water is cold, and a round-trip bus shuttle to and from the river. Two-day trips are also available. The season begins in mid-April and runs through July, but it’s most exciting before June, when snowmelt swells the flow.

You can float the Merced inside the park too, but you’ll be drifting along at an ultra-mellow pace, not paddling furiously like you do farther west. In June and July, rafting is one of the best ways to sightsee in busy Yosemite Valley. Rent an inflatable four-person raft at Half Dome Village Recreation Center and float three miles downriver, passing many of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks, including El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.

Lower Kern and Kaweah Rivers
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Lower Kern and Kaweah Rivers

Lower Kern and Kaweah Rivers
Wet and wild early-season thrills close to Los Angeles

For a kickback day on a river—all within driving distance from downtown Los Angeles—you can’t beat the Kern and Kaweah Rivers. Southern Californians love to leave the city bustle in the rearview mirror, crank up Merle Haggard singing, “I’ll never swim Kern River again…” and head for the Kern through oak- and sycamore-dotted foothills north of Bakersfield. Further north, near Visalia, the Kaweah offers watery fun.

Adventure seekers can head to the Upper Kern, with a season running April to June. Kern River Outfitters and other companies offer half- and full-day trips on this stretch, with rapids ranging from gentle Class II to heart-thumping Class V. May to July (sometimes later if conditions allow), outfitters also run half- and full-day-day trips down the lively Lower Kern. The river, which is fed with controlled releases from Lake Isabella near Kernville, pulses with Class II-III rapids for most of its 20-mile length, culminating in Class IV thrills near the trip’s end. Two-day adventures include plenty of time to practice the art of (intentional) raft-flipping in inviting pools, and you’ll welcome the chance to swim (river temperature rises to a balmy 70°F).

If you’re an experienced paddler yearning for a full-on adrenaline rush, sign up for a spring trip on the Kaweah River. Beginning in Sequoia National Park, the mostly free-flowing Kaweah tumbles 10,000 feet in 20 miles, creating plenty of Class IV action—crashing waves, big holes, and steep drops over smooth granite slabs. Rafting takes place early, typically April through June. Rafters put in downstream from the national park entrance at Three Rivers, so it’s easy to combine this adventure with a trip to see Sequoia’s goliath trees and soaring peaks. Outfitters including Whitewater Voyages run regular trips.

Tuolumne River
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Tuolumne River

Tuolumne River
Escape from civilization

This wet-and-wild rafting adventure on the Tuolumne (too-all-uh-me) River gives you two or three blissful days of kiss-your-digital-life-goodbye freedom. You’re only four hours east of San Francisco, but this rugged land of deep gorges and forests is as wild as you can get in California. Once the shuttle bus drives you down the dirt road to the put-in site in the Stanislaus National Forest, you and your fellow rafters are pretty much outnumbered by birds, beasts, and big trout along an 18-mile stretch of Class IV rapids.

Known simply as “the T,” this designated Wild and Scenic section of river often gets the nod as having some of the best whitewater in California. Class IV rapids are the rule, not the exception. Clavey Falls, a series of three staircases, creates the biggest drama, but expect nonstop whoops and hollers on this exciting trip. May to early September, ARTA, Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions, and several other outfitters offer fully outfitted one-, two-, and three-day rafting adventures. For a worth-it splurge, join a “Wine on the River” or “Craft Beer Tasting” trip offered on select dates by O.A.R.S. After a full day of rafting, beach your rafts at a riverfront campsite and enjoy a gourmet dinner. Grownup beverages are paired by a brew master or wine expert who accompanies you on the trip. After dinner, watch bats swirl above the water as shadows deepen, then share river-rafting war stories with your new friends.

The Tuolumne’s put-in is off State Highway 120 midway between Groveland and Yosemite National Park. Water flows are dependent on releases from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and only two trips are allowed to launch per day, so you won’t see many boats on this river. Graduates of “the T” might want to try a float on the Upper T, better known as Cherry Creek—an even more thrilling whitewater stretch.

Truckee River
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Truckee River

Truckee River
Join the summer fun at Lake Tahoe with a laid-back party float

Drive into Tahoe City on a warm summer day and you can’t miss them—the big tents set up alongside the sparkling Truckee River, where operators rent out inflatable rafts and inner tubes for a do-it-yourself day on the water. Perfectly suited for lazy-day floaters, the Truckee River is the ideal place to spend a July afternoon trailing your fingers in the water, catching some serious rays (bring the sunscreen!), and just going with the lazy flow. The roughly five miles between Tahoe City, on the west side of Lake Tahoe, northwest to River Ranch Lodge can be navigated by almost anybody in almost any kind of boat, from inner tubes to kayaks to canoes. Rent gear from Truckee River Raft Company or Truckee River Rafting, then just jump in and go, with nothing more than a gentle Class II ripple to add just enough spice for first-timers (especially kids), and cool pools for dunking and water fights.

The Truckee’s flow is controlled by sluice gates beneath Tahoe City’s Fanny Bridge (a cheeky name for the span, based on the common practice of strollers bending over the side to look for trout in the clear river below). On this self-guided trip, the goal is to meander. Most people take two or three hours to float the Truckee, but the slower you go, the more fun you have. Pull up your raft on a sand bar and have a picnic. Go for a swim. Canine lovers, rejoice: Dogs are welcome to paddle alongside or ride in your boat. The trip ends at the historic River Ranch Lodge, where you can order lunch on the outdoor patio (no dogs allowed) before the shuttle bus takes you back to Tahoe City.

If you want more excitement from the Truckee River, head for the Lower Truckee, which serves up Class II and III rapids all summer long. Two companies, Tahoe Whitewater Tours and Tributary Whitewater Tours, offer half-day trips rafting on the seven-mile stretch from Boca to Floriston. This great beginner/intermediate run is an easy add-on to a Tahoe vacation.