Think of a river, and chances are you’ve got your own daydream. 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 trips that offer a wine and craft beer tasting theme.
Useful info: 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.
Read on to learn about 9 of California’s best river rafting adventures.
1. South Fork American River
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. A slew of companies guides half- and full-day trips on the South Fork, with trips offered April into September. (read more)
2. Upper Cache Creek
Looking to go it alone? Sign up for a do-it-yourself float on Upper Cache Creek, about two hours northeast of San Francisco. You’ll get outfitted to paddle your own rubber raft through the foamy-but-friendly rapids of Cache Canyon. The waterway offers fun but tame Class II rapids—plus a couple of keep-you-on-your-toes Class IIIs that offer brief thrills. 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. (read more)
3. California Salmon River
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. Filled with pulse-quickening Class IV-V rapids, it tumbles through a wilderness lover’s paradise, where deer and black bears patrol the riverbanks, bald eagles ply the waters for trout, and city life seems a long way off. 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. (read more)
4. Cherry Creek
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 rate of snowmelt slows, and the flow of water drops to a safe enough level. Even then, it’s still at the upper end of the thrill threshold—and for very experienced paddlers only. (read more)
5. Lower Klamath River
Turn your landlocked toddler into a happy river rat on a relaxing camping and rafting trip on the Lower Klamath. Parents can kick back while river guides do all the work, and there’s no need to worry about little ones getting restless—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 or splashing around in the warm water. Don’t miss the hike through the rainforest of Ukonom Creek, where two side-by-side waterfalls cascade into a deep swimming hole. Trips start at 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. (read more)
6. Merced River
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. All that, plus plenty of good splashing fun make this stretch of a designated Wild and Scenic River a popular trip. In addition to rafting, the more mellow stretches of the Merced within Yosemite make it a favorite destination for fishing, camping, and swimming. (read more)
7. Lower Kern And Kaweah Rivers
For a kickback day on a river—all within driving distance from downtown Los Angeles—you can’t beat the Kern and Kaweah Rivers. Leave the city behind and head for the Kern through the oak- and sycamore-dotted foothills north of Bakersfield. Adventure seekers can head to the Upper Kern, with a whitewater season running April to June. 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. (read more)
8. Tuolumne River
Known simply as “the T,” this designated Wild and Scenic section of the Tuolumne (too-ALL-uh-me) River often gets the nod as having some of the best whitewater in California. Class IV rapids are the rule, not the exception. Once the shuttle bus of the rafting outfitter of your choice 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. If you’d like to camp while in the area as well, there are several options. (read more)
9. Truckee River
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. If you want more excitement from the Truckee, head for the Lower Truckee, which serves up Class II and III rapids all summer long. (read more)