Best places to go white water rafting in California

Best Places to go white water rafting in California

Updated March 5, 2024

White water rafting is a scenic and breathtaking warm-weather sport in California. When the sunshine melts the snow on the mountains, it raises water levels, speeds up the current, and creates a thrilling activity for all ages.

There are a lot of rivers to choose from in California, and a lot of information on each of those rivers. Here’s a closer look at some of the best white water rafting rivers throughout California so you can get your thrill on from just about any corner of the state.

What do I need to know before I choose a rafting trip?

• There are rivers for every level of experience, just about anyone can go!
• Different rivers will have varying classes of rapids, from Class I (the easiest) to Class V (the wildest and most dangerous).
• You can choose from a variety of trips, ranging from half and full-day trips to multi-day adventures.
• The rapids will be fastest in the spring, but some rivers have whitewater rafting year-round.
• Always pick a certified outfitter with a lot of experience.

Northern California Whitewater Rafting

The American River

The 3 forks of the American river are some of the most popular rivers in California, and even the country! With stretches for beginners and advanced rafters, there is a trip for everyone, and 2 of the 3 flow all summer long.

South Fork American River

The South Fork American River, nestled in the small historical town of Coloma, CA, offers accessible adventure just an hour from Sacramento and 2.5 hours from San Francisco. With stretches ranging from 11-21 miles of class 2-3 rapids, it’s suitable for all levels and kids aged 7 and up. Younger ones aged 4-7 can enjoy the Young Rafters Adventure, a gentle 2-hour float. Half and Full day trips are the most common on this river and rapids like Troublemaker, Satan’s Cesspool, and Hospital Bar provide excitement for all. If you are looking for an overnight trip, you can split the 21 miles into 2 days of rafting, and enjoy 2 nights of camping along the river and meals provided for you. Trips range from half-day to multi-day with private camping by the river.

Middle Fork American River

Paddlers who are looking for a bit more white water excitement can check out trips on the Middle Fork of the American River. The launch point for this trip is also about 1 hour outside of Sacramento and 2.5 hours from the San Jose area. This 18-mile stretch of river has Class 3 and 4 rapids, some with steep drops and churning whitewater. In addition to the heart stopping excitement, you’ll be treated to some of the most beautiful canyon scenery in the state.

Some of the memorable rapids you’ll want to watch for include Kanaka Falls, Tunnel Chute, and Ruck-a-Chucky Falls. Trips on this section range from 1 day to 3 days, and the minimum age to participate is 12. Participants for the rafting the Middle Fork American river should be in good physical condition, know how to swim, and be on the adventurous side.

Rafting class 4 Middle Fork American

North Fork American River

hose looking for the ultimate Spring Time whitewater thrill in Northern California should book a trip on the North Fork of the American River. This is the most difficult fork of the American Rivers, and trips are only available during the early spring and summer.

You’ll meet in Auburn, CA, which is about 45 minutes outside of Sacramento and a little over 2 hours from San Francisco. The length of the trip is 12.5 miles and, when you aren’t paddling furiously or grinning from ear to ear, you’ll be treated to views of gorgeous forested gorges.

A few of the unforgettable rapids on this river include Entrance Exam, Chamberlain Falls, and Staircase Falls. This is a full-day trip for advanced paddlers, and the minimum age is 14.

Combination Trips

Can’t decide between these American river rafting trips? Try combining the South Fork and Middle Fork/North Fork and make it a American River combination trip! These trips include 2 nights of camping at a private riverside campground, and 5 delicious meals cooked by our private chef.

Merced River near Yosemite National Park

The Merced is known as the “Gateway to Yosemite,” and its namesake river draws its water from the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains. While the river flows through the heart of Yosemite National Park, there isn’t any whitewater rafting within the park’s borders, but just outside the Park, the Merced is ready to raft. This is still one Central California river that should be firmly on any adventurer’s list.

The put-in for the Merced River Rafting is just a 3.5-hour drive from San Francisco and about 6 hours from Southern California. The best time for this adventure is from April to mid-July. Expect to experience Class 4 and 4+ rapids on this 16-mile run with memorable experiences named Ned’s Gulch, Corner Pocket, and Split Rock, just to name a few.

Southern California River Rafting

Lower Kern River

If you live in Southern California and don’t want to make the trip up to the Merced River (we still recommend it), the lower Kern River is closer. Located just northeast of Bakersfield on the southern edge of the Sequoia National Forest, this dam-controlled section of river serves up rapids ranging from mild Class II to wild Class IV during the early spring.

Need Help Deciding?

Whitewater rafting is exhilarating and fun, but it can also be dangerous. We strongly recommend hiring a guide for your upcoming adventure. Check out the available tours on the American River and Merced River with Whitewater Excitement or contact us today with any questions. It would be our pleasure to help you find the perfect white water river rafting trip near you.

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