Did you know that whitewater rafting has been around since the early 1800s? At that point, the adventurers didn’t have enough experience and equipment for a successful float. However, it began the favorite tradition of navigating fierce rivers in a boat for the thrill of it.
Today, you can find whitewater sports in the Olympics and almost any state with a few thousand miles of river under its belt. California, in particular, has the land and topography for pretty incredible rafting experiences.
Discover the best rivers for whitewater rafting in California, and some of the top spots to avoid when embarking on your journey.
Whitewater Rafting in California
California ranks as one of the best places to whitewater raft in America for the sheer number of different rivers that provide an awesome experience. With nearly 200,000 miles of river in the state, it’s no wonder there are so many opportunities for a great rafting experience. Not only do adventurers have the option to pick one of many different sites; they can start rafting as early as March and keep going until after October.
The 12 Best Rivers for Whitewater Rafting in California
In no certain order, here are some of the best rivers in California for whitewater rafting.
Russian River (Classes I through III)
This river allows paddlers to enjoy the diverse nature scape around them — and practice their paddling skills — without the danger of tough rapids. Most of the Russian River consists of Class II and Class III rapids, but some of the openings even have Class I. This is a great starting river for both rafting and canoeing.
Rapids to get excited about: Squaw Rock (Class III); Graveyard (Class III)
Upper Cache Creek (Classes II through III)
If you’re a lone wolf, Upper Cache Creek has the rapids for you. Once you’ve donned your gear, embark into Cache Canyon where you’ll encounter Class II and a few Class III rapids. This river offers the perfect marriage between thrilling rapids and a private boat so you don’t have to share with or bump into strangers.
Rapids to get excited about: Widow Maker (Class II); The Infamous Mother (Class II)
Truckee River (Classes II through III)
While the larger Truckee River is a great choice for lazy river floating, the Lower Truckee River has some serious rapids that infuse your summer trip to Tahoe with some thrill. If you need a break while rafting on the Truckee, the river has many outcroppings, spots for picnicking, and even swimming holes to relax in before you get back onto the rapids.
Rapids to get excited about: Jaws (Class III+); Bronco (Class III+)
The Klamath River (Classes II through IV)
Uniquely situated in Oregon but ending in California, the Klamath River provides a variety of river adventures for families.
The Lower Klamath River is fabled for its easy rafting for kids; parents can rest assured that even toddlers can be part of the safe fun while river guides expertly navigate through bumpy Class II rapids. Part of the joy with this river is the sandy beaches, swimming holes, and nature trails that line the Klamath on either side.
Rapids to get excited about: Devil’s Toenail (Class III); Rattlesnake (Class III)
American River (Classes II through IV)
This long river has not one but three distinct sections on which to enjoy a rafting experience. The North Fork, as well as the Middle Fork, provides more challenging rapids and paddling than the splashy Class III rapids on the South Fork. Still, each part of the run on the American River provides unparalleled views of the neighboring cliffs, forests, and more.
Rapids to get excited about: Tunnel Chute (Class IV); Staircase (Class IV)
Trinity River (Classes II through V)
The Trinity River provides a range of experiences for first-timers to experts. Staying on the lower side lets paddlers and recreational swimmers enjoy floating on the current and spying some wildlife on the banks of the shore. From there, Pigeon Point denotes the start of some more intense rapids and heart-pounding thrills.
Rapids to get excited about: Pigeon Point Run (Class III); Burnt Ranch Gorge (Class V)
Upper Sacramento River (Classes III through IV)
If you’re ready to navigate through a mountain on a raft that dances through a variety of challenging rapids, the upper Sacramento River is among the best destinations for whitewater rafting for you. Many organized tours of this river offer a beachside lunch after the rafters have conquered the rapids of White Horse, Little Freight Train, and Eye of the Needle. The river offers over 50 different rapids to enjoy.
Rapids to get excited about: White Horse (Class III); Eye of the Needle (Class III)
Kern River (Classes III through IV)
Bakersfield has both the Kern and Kaweah Rivers; two very different rafting experiences!
As a river, the Kern is pretty mild throughout. However, there are some great rapids on the Upper Kern, with a whitewater rafting season reaching between April and June. Most of the Lower Kern has slower rapids, which is why some sections are great for kids, but the dam-controlled sections can serve up rapids as high as Class IV during the early spring.
Adventure awaits below the Democrat Dam in the Kern, where you leave Class II behind and jump into Class III and above rapids. There are dozens of named rapids to traverse, including the White Maiden, Royal Flush, the Hari-Kari, and Pin Ball. Also watch out for the Cataracts of the Kern, which can become a Class V+ rapid depending on weather.
Rapids to get excited about: Westwall (Classes III to V)
Merced River (Classes III through IV)
Prepare to get soaked on your journey down the Merced River, which has a rapid whose claim to fame is flipping boats. You wouldn’t assume this river has huge, crashing waves with a heightened intensity that can catch you and your group off guard in an instant. Beginner and intermediate rafters should aim to visit in the early spring for a mellow river with some Class III rapids. Those who want a challenge can come to the river a little later, between June and July, for Class IVs that will delight and astound.
Rapids to get excited about: Ned’s Gulch (Class IV)
Tuolumne River (Class IV)
From Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest comes the Tuolumne River. This massive Class IV+ river is only dotted with a few pleasant moments of serene floating. The 18-mile stretch includes challenging rapids, boulder gardens, waterfalls, narrow chutes, big drops, and more. Tuolumne’s excitement also extends to the nearby camping sites, where side streams offer places to swim, fish, and enjoy the nature of the highlands.
Rapids to get excited about: Clavey Falls (Class IV); Mushroom (V)
Cal Salmon River (Classes IV through V)
The Cal Salmon River remains one of California’s most dangerous waterways for rafting and kayaking. Experts will have a great time attempting to navigate the many Class IV and Class V rapids along the route. The entire trip, which is approximately 10 miles long (called the Nordheimer Run), is a steep, remote, and scenic trip for seasoned whitewater rafters.
Rapids to get excited about: Freight Train (Class V); Last Chance (Class V)
Yuba River (Classes IV through V)
Sorry, beginners — the Yuba is reserved for skilled rafters and kayakers who have the experience and know-how to command the Class V rapids. Unless, of course, you’d like to face down a massive circulating hole that there’s no way to avoid! The North Fork Yuba, in particular, has a section from Union Flat to Downieville that must be treated with caution and respect, especially on private trips.
Rapid to get excited about: Maytag (Class V)
Places to Avoid Whitewater Rafting in California
Every river in California has its place in the catalog, but some spots are better suited for specific groups.
Avoid for Beginners: Cherry River
Known to some as the most difficult commercial rafting trip in the state, Cherry Creek (or Cherry River) has a Class V+ difficulty throughout its expanse. It’s a heart-pounding combination of fast-flowing rapids, whitewater plunges, and waterfalls. As such, only experienced paddlers and rafters should attempt to wrangle the rapids of Cherry Creek.
Avoid for Experts: Kern Canyon to Lake Ming
Some rafters who have embarked on the trademark expedition of River’s End Rafting in Bakersfield, California have complained about the river being slow and boring. This is especially true when the river level is low, and you might get stuck on rocks as you search out the small rapids.
For any expert rafter seeking a solitary or group challenge, this three-and-a-half-hour tour may not be the best use of time or money.
Avoid During the Off-Season: Kaweah River
The only reason to avoid the Kaweah River in the off-season is because the on-season between April and June brings snowmelt — making this one of the best experiences in California’s whitewater rafting repertoire.
Kaweah River’s on-season brings snow melt gushing down the peaks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, making this steep river an expert rafter’s dream. Narrow chutes, obstacles, and Class IV rapids await if you choose to float on Kaweah during the best season.
Get to Paddling!
California’s many whitewater rafting spots offer a day (or more) of excitement on the water to beat the state’s dry heat. Coming with a variety of difficulty, trip lengths, and challenges, the 12 rivers in California mentioned above offer unique, thrilling whitewater rafting experiences.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Malachi Jacobs/Shutterstock.com
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.