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 trips that offer a wine and craft beer tasting theme.
Unlike some parts of the country where rafting seasons are fairly short, California has commercially run outfitters, including O.A.R.S., All-Outdoors, American Whitewater, and Tributary Whitewater Tours, plying rivers from March into September. According to Ron Stork, senior policy advocate 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.”
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.