After a winter of drenching rains and record-breaking mountain snowfall, California’s lakes are brimming and rivers are racing. This wetter-than-normal year has produced a spectacular spring wildflower display and an extended ski season, but the benefits don’t end there. For the summer months, more water equals more perfect days to raft rivers, hike to waterfalls, go boating on lakes, and catch fish.
Here's how and where to make the most of California’s H20 abundance:
Where to Go River Rafting
California’s rivers and streams are running extremely high and fast, says Nathan Rangel, spokesperson for the American River Outfitters Association. “We’re dealing with all the water that’s coming down the rivers from the mountains right now. We’re looking at a lot of water, and that’s exciting.”
Rangel expects the whitewater to be pumping well into autumn. “We'll have great rafting opportunities through September and October for sure,” he says.
For outfitters, high flows mean extra safety measures to maximize the fun and minimize the risks, Rangel says. Some companies are launching larger and more stable rafts, requiring rafters to wear wetsuits, and adding extra safety personnel on the water. Others are increasing the minimum-age requirement, which means families with young children will have to wait until mid-July when river flows start to decrease.
For an early summer trip, Rangel recommends the South Fork American River out of Coloma, 45 miles northeast of Sacramento. “The South Fork is the most popular whitewater west of the Rockies,” he says. “Even in a high-flow year, guided trips are suitable for most beginners.”
Stephanie Collins-Sowers, supervising ranger at Auburn State Recreation Area, says that experienced rafters looking for new terrain should consider a trip on the North Fork American River, starting near the foothill town of Colfax.
“We’re going to have a full rafting season on the North Fork, so this is a great opportunity to try something new and go see a river stretch you may never have seen before,” she says. The undammed North Fork, a designated National Wild and Scenic River, is the most difficult of the American River’s three forks.
Collins-Sowers stresses the importance of booking river trips with a licensed outfitter. “This isn’t the year to try rafting on your own. The rivers are running very high, and people need to be extremely cautious near the water even if they’re just camping, fishing, or standing near it.”
Vacationers who want to launch an inner tube or inflatable kayak for a lazy river float—no rollicking rapids, just a mellow cruise—should expect later opening dates and a longer season on the Truckee River in Tahoe City,Cache Creek near Rumsey, and the Lower Klamath River near Happy Camp.
Where to See Waterfalls
With massive amounts of snow and rain sending more water into rivers and creeks, California’s waterfalls are more spectacular than ever. This summer is a great time to see Yosemite Valley’s misty marvels—Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, and more—plus the national park’s lesser-known waterfalls like Chilnualna Falls near Wawona and Wapama Falls at Hetch Hetchy.
As of May 1, Yosemite’s snowpack still measured about 250 percent of average, so park visitors can count on a long summer of plummeting snowmelt. The watery barrage may also mean temporary closures of roads or trails, so check the park’s current conditions before leaving home.
Other bucket-list waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains include Roaring River Falls in Kings Canyon National Park, Angel Falls in Sierra National Forest near Bass Lake, and Rainbow Falls in Devils Postpile National Monument. Farther north, Redding’s Whiskeytown Falls, Lake Shasta’s Potem Falls, and the trio of falls on the McCloud River are at full flood right now.
Southern California’s cataracts are also putting on a big show. East of Los Angeles, Millard Canyon Falls, Eaton Canyon Falls, and Switzer Falls are making a splash. Near Big Bear Lake, Big Falls is fed by deep snow melting off Mount San Gorgonio. San Diego County is also rich with water: Reserve a permit to visit 80-foot Cedar Creek Falls near Ramona, or take an easy trek to Green Valley Falls in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
Where to Catch Fish
“A lot of water is great for most of the things that are fish-related. It's great for bugs. It's great for amphibians. It’s great for producing little fish that the bigger fish eat, so it will most likely be a really good fishing season,” Henéry says.
“In many places, it will be a later fishing season than what we’ve seen in the last few years. The water is high and fast, and there's a lot of sediment moving through the rivers. If you usually camp and fish near a river or stream in June, this year you might want to wait until July.”
The same advice applies to alpine lakes, Henéry adds. “The snow is melting on high mountain lakes much later than usual. There’s still ice on the highest lakes, but when everything melts out, the fish should be really hungry because they’ve burned up their fat supplies.”
Where to Spend Time on a Lake
If you’re looking to paddle a kayak or kick back on a pontoon boat this summer, the state’s reservoirs are filled to the brim, and marinas are fully stocked with rental boats and other watercraft, from stand-up paddleboards to Waverunners. Tailor your California lake vacation to suit your watery style: In Northern California, send up perfect roostertails as you water-ski across Clear Lake, sleep on a houseboat at Shasta Lake, or join a cocktail cruise on Lake Tahoe. Rent a lakefront cabin at Bass Lake near Fresno. Wakeboard or ski on the slalom course at Lake Nacimiento in San Luis Obispo County. Cruise around in a pedal boat at San Diego’s Lake Murray, or take a road-trip from Los Angeles to rev up the speed on Lake Elsinore or paddle a kayak on Big Bear Lake.