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. It’s an intense experience, and not for those who may be faint of heart or out of shape; rafters must pass a number of basic swimming tests before embarking on the trip.
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, and occasionally boulder-hopping downriver is necessary as rafts are led by the guide, empty, through a pass that is particularly treacherous (safety is the top priority).
Only two outfitters run trips on Cherry Creek, All-Outdoors Rafting (AO) 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. Rafting trips include breakfast and freshly-prepared riverside lunches, and 2-, 3-, and 4-day trips are available as well. Depending on the outfitter and conditions, trips run from June to mid-September.