How Dangerous Are Northern California Rivers

Written by Kristen Holder
Published: August 15, 2023
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Despite the fame surrounding California’s most popular waterways, the state has one of the lowest fatal drowning rates in the United States. About one in 100 thousand people die by drowning every year in California despite it being the most populous state, and the third largest state, in the nation. How dangerous are Northern California rivers? We’ll take a look now.

How Dangerous Are Northern California Rivers?

The rivers in Northern California are dangerous because they are cold and unpredictable.

The rivers in Northern California are dangerous because they are cold and unpredictable.

©randy andy/

Northern California rivers can be very dangerous. That’s because they are often very cold, and the water levels are often very unpredictable. It is highly recommended that you never enter a Northern California river without personal protective equipment like a life jacket as even calm waters are deceivingly fast-moving.

The variability of the water level is affected by rainfall totals, snowmelt speed, and the amount of water being released downriver by reservoirs. Every day, these factors change. They need to be monitored very closely if you decide to head out on any of Northern California’s river waters.

Why Are Northern California Rivers More Dangerous in 2023?

A snow covered road in Lake Tahoe, California

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada created in the winter of 2022 to 2023 was immense.

© irwin

During the winter of 2022 to 2023, California experienced an enormous amount of storms. This caused a huge accumulation of snow at higher elevations, and as temperatures have heated up during the summer, this snowpack has melted very quickly. This means that the rivers are flowing very quickly and the water is very cold even when the weather is hot.

In the Sierra Nevada mountain range that runs along the eastern part of California, the snowpack total for the 2022 to 2023 winter season was around 56 feet. Near Lake Tahoe, the snowpack was so deep that skiing was still available on the Fourth of July. This immense snowpack has created extreme river conditions and violent rapids that most Californians haven’t seen in a decade.

This summer, the water temperature in May at some popular river spots along the American River was a chilly 45 degrees, and it hasn’t gone up much as summer has progressed. That’s cold enough to cause hypothermia after only an hour in the water. It’s also enough to seize up muscle function within minutes. A loss of muscle control easily leads to drowning.

How Is Recreation Affected When Northern California Rivers Are Dangerous?

Some recreation providers have chosen to refrain from renting equipment to water goers in some Northern California rivers in 2023 due to dangerous conditions. An example of this is a company called American River Raft Rentals in Rancho Cordova, CA. They operate along the lower American River in Sacramento County.

Over Memorial Day weekend, which is usually a huge moment of profit for this rafting operation, they suspended raft rentals to discourage customers from using the river. That’s because the river was running exceptionally high and fast which may put their customer base in danger.

Make sure to check local alerts in your area of interest. Local officials release statements shutting down parts of a river to any recreation when conditions are dangerous.

Sometimes, casual swimmers and unlicensed recreational users are banned from the water while professional expeditions are allowed to continue. It is your job to make sure that you understand the risks associated with your designated activity before entering a Northern California waterway.

How Many Drownings Have Occurred on Northern California Rivers This Season?

Swimmers die every year in Northern California's American River.

Swimmers die every year in Northern California’s American River.

©James Sakaguchi/

Due to the increased danger caused by a massive snowpack, at least 10 people have fatally drowned in Northern California’s rivers this season. Unfortunately, this number is expected to rise as summer temperatures continue to climb.

A man who jumped into the American River at the Auburn State Recreation Area was found dead 10 miles downriver in Folsom Lake. Another swimmer on the North Fork of the American River drowned and was found weeks later in Lake Clementine.

In April, a Washingtonian kayaker drowned in the South Yuba River after becoming trapped. Near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers in Sacramento, a man drowned under a boat. A swimmer in the Feather River’s West Branch drowned after jumping into the water at Head Dam.

In late May, a woman swimming near God’s Bath in the Clavey River died. In early June, one of 3 family members died after being overcome by the Sacramento River’s current. They were chasing a football into the water near Sand Cove Park.

The South Fork of the American River claimed an 81-year-old man after he became trapped in branches when a raft overturned. In Monte Rio, the Russian River drowned a man in the middle of July. The East Fork of the Russian River close to Potter Valley drowned a swimmer a few days later.

How Dangerous Are the Rivers and Waterfalls at Yosemite National Park?

Two people died in July 2023 near the waterfalls at Yosemite National Park.

Two people died in July 2023 near the waterfalls at Yosemite National Park.

© Mustafa

The rivers and waterfalls at Yosemite National Park are dangerous because the water runs cold and fast. As a result, fatal drownings are the second most common form of death for park visitors.

In July 2023, 2 people died in and around the waterfalls in the park. Because of the immense snowpack melting in the region, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall are still going strong well into the summer season.

In 2023, the situation at Yosemite is exceptionally dangerous. The amount of water flow torrenting through rivers and over waterfalls is much higher than average. While the beauty of this phenomenon is drawing crowds, it also puts those who get too close to the water in danger.

Visitors are advised to keep away from the waterfalls and to be careful around any rivers and creeks. Slippery stones can lead to accidental falls into the water, and the waters are incredibly swift.

It’s easy to be swept away before you realize you’re in danger. Almost all of the people who drowned in the park were not there to go swimming.

In an average year, up to 20 people are rescued from Yosemite’s waterways. In especially dangerous areas, there are signs posted that say no swimming is allowed. These signs need to be heeded at all times regardless if the water looks calm.

Before visiting Yosemite National Park, it’s always prudent to check projected weather conditions. Keep yourself informed about park alerts, and make sure the roads and trails you plan to use are open.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Jeffrey T. Kreulen/

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About the Author

Kristen Holder is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics related to history, travel, pets, and obscure scientific issues. Kristen has been writing professionally for 3 years, and she holds a Bachelor's Degree from the University of California, Riverside, which she obtained in 2009. After living in California, Washington, and Arizona, she is now a permanent resident of Iowa. Kristen loves to dote on her 3 cats, and she spends her free time coming up with adventures that allow her to explore her new home.

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