Rafting in California is a great way to get back to nature and enjoy some of the world’s best whitewater. The state offers an incredible variety of options, from high-adrenaline rapids on the Truckee River to more serene floats down the American River near Sacramento. So whether you are looking for family fun or world-class thrill rides, there are plenty of opportunities to get wet! Here are ten rafting spots in California that will suit every taste and budget.
1. San Juan River
Rising in Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, the San Juan River is a national wild and scenic river. The watercourse flows about 55 miles through canyons to join the Colorado River at Lake Mead near Needles, CA. Several access points for rafting along this section of the river, including Boca Dam (about 10 miles east of Redding) and Mineral Bar (near Mount Shasta).
Day trips typically run about 12-13 miles on the San Juan. Highlights include Desolation Wilderness with steep granite cliffs and deep pools below volcanic knobs; Castle Rock Rapids; and Mossbrae Falls, “a 40′ waterfall that drops into a large pool.”
2. American River
Outside Sacramento is the American River, which forms the border between Placer and El Dorado Counties as it flows from Loon Lake to Folsom Lake near Granite Bay, CA. The lower section of the river offers calm waters perfect for rafting families with small children or novice rafters. From Coloma to Folsom/Granite Bay, whitewater torrents provide thrills for intermediate+ rafters seeking thrilling Class IV rapids. Raft rentals are available via several outfitters along this stretch of the river who can shuttle passengers back to their cars at put-in/ take-out locations downstream (no parking fees required).
Highlights include Oregon Hole, a Class III+ rapid that is often portaged as it contains many rocks and “occasional standing waves”; the ‘Hundred-Mile Rapids,’ an eight-mile run of Class IV rapids that start about two miles downstream from Oregon Hole; and Beals Point (also called Salmon Falls) which offers several exciting rapids, including Ruck-A-Chucky – a short but thrilling stretch of water containing numerous standing waves and strong eddies.
3. Kern River
The Kern River is well known for its vast volume and variety of public access points. It is one of California’s longest free-flowing rivers (225 miles), with popular rafting ranging from mild 2-3 on the “Kern Scale” to Class V+ whitewater. The river surges with rapids and impressive canyons, especially near Bakersfield, where four different forks converge.
A typical starting point for rafting trips in Lake Isabella, which offers Class II-III rapids; downstream, there is less traffic (and sometimes more water) than popular put-in/takeout spots like Kernville or Lake Ming. Highlights include White Wolf, a Class III+ rapid that starts about 12 miles upstream of Isabella; Wrinkles which features challenging class IV+ rapids; and Forks of the Kern, which provides several exciting class III+ play waves.
4. San Joaquin River Gorge
This gorge stretches from the Sierra foothills to the San Joaquin Delta and is known for its rugged beauty and Class II-IV rapids. The upper stretch of the river near Yosemite National Park is ideal for rafting families with children. At the same time, more experienced rafters can look to other areas, such as the French Meadows Reservoir (below Bucks Lake), which provides five miles of class III+ rapids. Highlights include Horseshoe Bend and Zumwalt Meadow (known for perfect play waves).
5. Truckee River
The Truckee River provides about 16 miles of “a wide variety of conditions,” ranging from flatwater trips suitable for kayakers to exciting whitewater runs through spectacular granite canyons. Highlights include the Class III+ Lower Gorge and Class IV Middle Gorge; about 20 miles south of Reno, the river converges with the East Fork Carson River, “forming a large pool above Prosser Creek Reservoir.” Here, Five Mile Rapids (class III+) provides sound play waves before the watercourse joins the main channel near Verdi.
The Truckee section of whitewater rafting is managed by California State Parks (Truckee River Rafting) and USA Water Ski & Wakeboard – who run guided trips on this historic stretch for boaters – skiers – and wakeboarders – alike.
6. Russian River
The Russian River features incredible scenery, including redwood forests, lush fern canyons, and rocky river bluffs. Rafting trips run from the base of Waterdog Lake to Monte Rio (Class II-III) or further south to Duncans Mills (Class III-III+). Highlights include Forks of the Russian River where the South Fork joins the main channel; Rodeo Beach, which offers “some of California’s best Class III play waves”; Salmon Creek Falls, which is known for its steep drop followed immediately by a strong eddy line; and Bean Rock which hosts frequent friendly surfing conditions in summer months.
7. Klamath River
The Klamath River boasts about 34 miles of primarily flatwater rafting with mild Class I-II rapids. Highlights include the stunning redwood forests along the banks, several access points to accommodate all experience levels and abundant birdlife. According to Klamath River Adventures, “The Klamath River has many faces – it is a deep river gorge with waterfalls & whitewater, but also has peaceful flat water where you can drift quietly through old-growth temperate rain forests packed with banana slugs!”
On their trips, rafters can expect to see numerous species of seabirds, eagles, osprey, kingfishers, and waterfowl, as well as otters, beavers; mink; deer; black bears, and cougars.
8. Merced River
According to Klamath River Adventures, the Lower Merced is one the best rafting rivers in California for “wilderness class IV-V whitewater rapids.” The river passes through steep granite gorges, home to thousands of animal species, including bears, deer, mountain lions, and skunks. Highlights include Kennedy Meadow Falls (Class V), Hells Gate at Ponderosa Way (Class IV), and several other Class III-V rapids.
8. Stanislaus River
California State Parks manages the Class II to Class IV whitewater rafting on the Stanislaus River (ideal for families with children). Highlights include the Devil’s Post Pile, which has an excellent play wave, and Donnell Vista (known as one of the best places in California for riding standing waves). According to Klamath River Adventures, “It’s easy to catch big green waves that you can huck off of, or just drop into perfect holes where even beginners will feel right at home. Rafters go over three major drops – 4th Street, Rippers Whirlpool & The Car Wash – all of which are big, challenging & provide lots of hoots!”
9. Trinity River
The Trinity River boasts an incredible array of scenery, wildlife, and geology on its 94-mile course that runs through California along state highway 299. Multiple guide companies offer whitewater rafting trips, including Trinity River Expeditions, which describes the Trinity as “a typical sunny California day at the river.
Wildflowers are in bloom on both sides of State Highway 299. You run a series of small rapids that drop into deep pools where you drift before running more shallow rapids.” Highlights include Little Slide Rapid (Class III), which features giant boulders and is one of the larger rapids to expect; Slick Rock Rapid (Class III); and Pothole Rapids (Class II), followed by Big Slow Riffle (Class I).
10. Yuba River
The Yuba River offers about 10 miles of thrilling whitewater rafting with Class III rapids between Smartsville and Wheatlands. Highlights include Browns Ravine where “you can catch some more advanced standing waves”; Strawberry Hill, which is known for its powerful hydraulics; and the Half Moon Wave Pool (known as one of California’s “must-do” play spots). According to Klamath River Adventures, “Yuba City is another good place to go if you want to catch some excellent wave action on a leisurely day run – there are certainly worse places than Yuba City to find yourself in need of a tow truck. “
Rafting in California is a great way to enjoy some of the country’s most beautiful and challenging rapids! The best time for rafting on these rivers is during summer. Although there are many locations throughout California where you can go, we recommend starting with one of our favorite spots: Klamath River Adventures.
Rafters will experience stunning redwood forests along the banks, several access points to accommodate all experience levels (including calm waters perfect for families), and abundant birdlife such as otters; beavers; mink; deer; black bears, and cougars – not to mention more than likely seeing numerous species of seabirds, eagles, osprey, kingfishers, and waterfowl while out on their trips.