Chris Moore watched in awe this winter as the snow piled up on his multiple trips to Bear Valley Mountain Resort in the central Sierra.
“I’ve never seen a winter quite like this,” said Moore, California regional manager for O.A.R.S. rafting company.
“What all this snow means is it’s going to be a long and exciting whitewater season, so I’m stoked.
“We’re going to have big flows in the late spring and early summer and a more drawn-out whitewater season on rivers here in California.”
Moore’s enthusiasm is widespread among rafting outfitters up and down the state, some of whom are still recovering from the drought, which just two years ago saw April 1 snowpack measurements of 5% of normal throughout much of the Sierra.
This year, however, the snowpack is 140% of normal for the Northern Sierra and 169% of normal for the Central Sierra, according to the California Data Exchange Center.
Here’s how the season is shaping up.
Matt Volpert, owner of Wofford Heights, Calif.-based Kern River Outfitters, said snowpack measuring stations in the Kern River drainage area in the southern Sierra had registered depths of more than 200% of normal at the start of March.
“This could be the most runoff we’ve had in company history,” Volpert said. “So conservatively, we are going to be booking trips into September and possibly October on the Class III (fun, with moderate rapids) 20-mile section of the Lower Kern that we do. Usually, we are finished by the end of June.
“For Upper Kern [10 miles, Class III], we’ll be starting trips April 1. We normally go to the end of July, but we’ll likely push that into August.”
The Kings River snowpack is also far above average for this time of year, said Justin Butchert, who runs Kings River Expeditions on a 10-mile, Class III section of the stream.
He said the snowpack above the river, which flows out of Kings Canyon National Park, could be more than 200% of normal by April 1 if it keeps snowing.
“It’s going to be a great year,” predicted Butchert, who said his company nearly folded during the drought. “We’ll start training staff at the end of March, have our first paying customers on April 8 and go into late August.”
Scott Armstrong, whose All Outdoors rafting company operates on a Class III and IV (technical and exciting) nine-mile section of the Kaweah River, which has its headwaters in Sequoia National Park, said he’s concerned that the pounding winter rains, huge snowstorms and photographs of dams spilling massive amounts of water may scare away some customers.
“We think this will be a super year for whitewater, but we’re also dealing with the public’s fear factor,” Armstrong said.
“The streams will be running high early on, so some folks might not want to go in May. But we want them to know it will be a long season, so rafting in July or August when the levels are down would still be a great option.”
Moore, who has worked for O.A.R.S. for 15 years, said the commercial rafting season on the 16-mile section of the Merced River, which features mostly Class III rapids, will start in May and continue into the second week of July.
In a normal year, the Merced, flowing out of Yosemite National Park, would be too low to raft by mid-June.
The Tuolumne River, which also tumbles out of Yosemite and is considered the queen of Sierra whitewater streams, will have high flows into July on its 18 miles of Class IV rapids.
By then, water levels will be more moderate, and the river will still be an exciting choice for a family with older kids, Moore said.
“The age cutoff ... is always 12 because it’s a wilderness trip,” said Moore, who said the season will start in early April and run past Labor Day.
“But when the water jumps to 3,000 cubic feet per second we raise the age level to 14 or even 16. When it reaches 8,000, the cutoff goes to 18.
Because of high flows, Cherry Creek, a Class V (very technical and extremely difficult) stream that tumbles out of Yosemite, won’t be runnable until at least July. And even then, the age cutoff is 15 or sometimes older because Cherry Creek is arguably the hardest section of California whitewater run by commercial outfitters.
The Middle, North and South forks of the American River, as well as the North Fork of the Stanislaus River will have high flows in May and June, moderating as the summer progresses.
“The South Fork of the American, which is normally a fun Class III river that’s great for even young kids, is not going to be the kind of stream you’d want to take your 6-year-old on around the start of the season” Moore said. “But it will mellow out, too, as the season unfolds.”
Because the water on the South Fork will be roaring early, O.A.R.S. will offer its one-day, “21-Miler” trips seven days a week from April through June.
These wild rides combine the upper Chili Bar section with the lower Gorge section. At lower flows, covering all 21 miles of the South Fork would make for a long day, but not this spring and early summer.
On the 16-mile Class IV section of the Middle Fork, rafting will last into October because the reservoir above it is full. And on the Class IV, six-mile, free-flowing section of the North Fork of the Stanislaus, the huge snowpack means the season will be extended by several weeks into mid-June, he said.
Near the Oregon border, Momentum River Expeditions owner Pete Wallstrom said the Class IV California Salmon River and the Class III Klamath River will be pumping into June and September, respectively.
Momentum also runs a Class V section of the Scott River in far Northern California from April through early June, with a minimum age of 16 because of its difficulty.
For those who want to paddle an inflatable kayak, Momentum offers three-day trips on the Class III and IV Smith River near Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in May and early June.
Not far north of the Oregon-California border, Zach Collier, who runs Northwest Rafting Co., is predicting a long and thrilling whitewater season on the Class III Rogue River and the Class IV Illinois River.
The Class III Owyhee near the Idaho border will also be flowing in April and May.
Candy Bening of ROW Adventures said her company could put in at Boundary Creek on the Class III and IV Middle Fork of the Salmon River and offer 102-mile trips into August, several weeks longer than usual.
She said the Main Fork of the Salmon and the Snake River would be running strong all summer.
Because of the abundant snowfall, ROW will be able to outfit trips on the high-desert Bruneau River south of Boise, which is raftable only in May and June.
Elsewhere in Idaho, the famed big wave trains on the Snake River through Hells Canyon will offer thrilling rides from May into September. It’s a good late-season trip for families with kids as young as 7, but high flows early on will raise the cutoff age to 12 for many outfitters.
The snowpack above the popular whitewater run on the Arkansas River near Salida, Colo., is about 120%, promising lots of action on single- and multiday trips on rapids that range from easy to very challenging.
More than a dozen rafting and kayaking companies, members of the Arkansas River Outfitters Assn., offer trips on this stream, which starts high in the Rockies near Leadville. It has more than 100 miles of what some say is Colorado’s best whitewater.
The Yampa River snowpack also stands at about 120%, meaning rafting will be good from mid-May until early July.
Its neighbor, the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument, will have trips into September. About a dozen outfitters run these rivers. For info go to the National Park’s Dinosaur Monument site.
The Colorado River through Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park will have huge flows in April and May that could make it unsafe for outfitters to run commercially.
By late June, however, the rapids will be tamer. More than a dozen outfitters will offer four-day trips into October, and most of the rapids from midseason on are in the Class III to IV range.
For something more mellow, O.A.R.S. spokesman Steve Markle recommends the Class II San Juan River, which flows along the edge of the new Bear Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
It has gentle rapids as early as March and April, ideal for families that want to go rafting early this summer but don’t want to take on big water. Even at higher flows, kids as young as 7 can go on an O.A.R.S. trip on this river.
The San Juan is a relaxing trip with great hikes into stunning red rock canyons that have Pueblo ruins, pictographs and petroglyphs, he said.
Spring flows on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park will be high and the rapids exciting.
Trips offered by O.A.R.S. and 15 other outfitters that are members of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Assn., will range from a week to as many as 18 days, depending on where outfitters put in and take out.