One hundred fifty years ago one-armed explorer and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell led his team of nine men in four wooden boats down the Green and Colorado rivers into the Grand Canyon on one of this country’s most famous whitewater adventures.
It took another century, more or less, before commercial outfitters began guiding clients in inflatable rafts, offering them thrills and watery spills in often deep river canyons.
Powell is long gone, of course, but I think he would smile at the sizable — in some areas downright huge — snowpacks this year in the West, which means this year’s whitewater rafting season should be epic.
Mountains in the Golden State had a snowpack of well over 150% in late March, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley and other ski resorts in the Sierra Nevada recorded historic snowfalls in February.
Matt Volpert of Wofford Heights, Calif.-based Kern River Outfitters said the drainage that feeds the three moderate-to-challenging runs his company boats on the Kern River has a snowpack of more than 180%.
The American River drainage east of Sacramento also has nearly twice the normal amount of snow. One survey, at Phillips Station near Lake Tahoe, in early April showed 106.5 inches of snow, the equivalent of 51 inches of water.
“It’s going to be a great season,” said Volpert, noting that the Kern is the closest whitewater river to Los Angeles.
“It’s quite a rebound compared with 2018, when we only had about 50% of normal.… But we’ve kinda been getting whipsawed the past few years. On April 1 of 2016, we only had a snowpack of 5%. The next year, 2017, was a monster for snowfall. Last year so-so and this year is huge again. Weird.”
More good news
Farther north, the Kaweah River, which has its headwaters in Sequoia National Park east of Visalia, is rocking, said Scott Armstrong.
His Walnut Creek, Calif.-based All-Outdoors rafting company operates on a un-dammed Class III and IV nine-mile section of the Kaweah, which he said he hopes to run into July.
“This should be an awesome season for the average rafter, almost a mirror of 2017,” said Armstrong, whose company runs nine other California streams, including wild and woolly Cherry Creek, a tributary of the Tuolumne River outside Yosemite National Park.
“But if anyone is apprehensive because of the high flows early on, I’d suggest waiting until perhaps mid-summer arrives and water levels drop a bit,” he said.
The Upper Kings River, which has an abundant snowpack, is another southern Sierra river popular with Angelenos, said Justin Butchert, who operates Kings River Expeditions in Clovis, Calif. His company will be running a moderate 10-mile section of the river through the summer, he said.
Steve Markle of Angels Camp, Calif.-based OARS, which runs numerous rivers in the West, said this will be a “banner year” for rafting in California, Idaho and Arizona.
He said early-season high water will bring higher levels of risk, “which means we’ll be stepping up our training and screening clients even more carefully.”
OARS, which was started 50 years ago by George Wendt, is the only outfitter that has permits for every leg of Powell’s legendary 1869 expedition down the Green River through Flaming Gorge, the Gates of Lodore, Desolation Canyon and onto the Colorado River, which will have plenty of water this year.
Outfitters on the popular South Fork of the American River will be enforcing increased minimum ages because of higher, colder flows that may last through June, said Jessica Wallstrom, who heads OARS American River operations. More moderate family-friendly flows are expected through September. OARS’ age limit will be raised to 12 from 8 years old until high water subsides.
Rafters 13 and older who are looking for something more exciting can combine the upper Chili Bar and Lower Gorge stretches of the South Fork for a one-day, 21-mile river adventure, said Wallstrom, who has been guiding for 18 years. The Middle and North Forks of the American are also exciting options for older, more experienced rafters.
On the Oregon border, the difficult California Salmon River (age 15 and older) should have challenging flows through June. The more mellow Klamath River will have good flows and will be raftable into the fall.
“Things were lookin’ a little thin in January, but we got a real shot in the arm up here in February, especially on the Owyhee Canyonlands of eastern Oregon, which now have a snowpack that is 125% of average,” he said.
“The Owyhee was only runnable last year for a couple weeks, and this year we’re expecting good water through the end of May and possibly early June.”
Candy Benning of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho-based ROW Adventures said the Middle Fork and Main Fork of the Salmon River will have good flows, as should St. Joe, Lochsa, Snake and other rivers that the company runs in the Gem State.
The same is true for whitewater streams in Colorado such as the Arkansas, Animas and Roaring Fork rivers.
Whitewater rafters and kayakers have a love-hate (or perhaps hate-love is a better description) relationships with dams.
Most are environmentalists, so they mourn when dams back up rivers, forming miles-long reservoirs that flood canyons, drown rapids and destroy habitat. However, those reservoirs provide releases during the summer and into the fall that allow us to paddle on rivers that otherwise would have minimal flows.
Several streams in the Sierra and beyond are still free-flowing and offer exciting, whitewater thrills in April, May and sometimes June when average to heavy snowpacks are melting. (Conversely, when winter snow is light, they are often un-runnable.)
The Forks of the Kern River is the exception to the spring rule, with safe flows for commercial rafting from July through August.
Salmon River, Calif.
April through June
The Salmon, a tributary of the Klamath River, has renowned — and difficult — Class IV and V rapids. One in particular, Freight Train, has a long, complicated series of big waves and holes that require deft maneuvering to keep rafts and kayaks upright. Several sections of whitewater can be done as day trips, with a base at one of the nearby Forest Service camps. Most people take two to three days to explore this river known for its clear water and lovely scenery.
North Fork American, Calif.
April through mid June
The North Fork of the American may be California’s most stunning in a state full of beautiful rivers. This clear river has beautiful rock formations and in the spring the hillsides are covered with orange California poppies. There are several sections of whitewater, but most people do the nine-mile Chamberlain Falls section with nonstop Class IV and IV-plus drops. Some of the better rapids include Zig-Zag, Achilles’ Heel and Bogus Thunder. The one-day outing is sometimes combined with the South Fork of the American for a fun weekend of rafting.
Merced River, Calif.
During peak flows, typically mid-May to early June, the Merced (near Yosemite) turns into a classic big-water trip with exciting, Grand Canyon-size wave trains. For the rest of the season it mellows out to a more moderate trip full of fun, rollicking rapids. Some of the memorable rapids include Ned’s Gulch, Split Rock and Corner Pocket. Minimum age 14 at high water.
Forks of the Kern, Calif.
July through August
The “Forks,” as it’s know among river runners, is an 18-mile, two-day trip with 40 challenging Class IV rapids and three very difficult Class V rapids. It runs through a beautiful river canyon full of huge waterfalls and granite spires. This gem of a river in the southern Sierra isn’t run as often as others because it requires a two-mile hike to the beginning of the trip. Westwall, Vortex and Carson Falls are three of the most difficult commercially run Class V rapids in the West. Only for the bold; minimum age 16
Illinois River, Ore.
The Illinois River runs through the northern end of the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness in southern Oregon and is known for its serpentine geology and clear water. The 32-mile rafting trip can be done in three or four days and should appeal to those who like challenging rapids in remote places. The Illinois is also home to the Darlingtonia Californica, or pitcher plant, a rare carnivorous plant that grows along the river banks.
The Owyhee River flows through beautiful basalt desert canyons with great hikes, birding, hot springs and beautiful wildflowers. The Middle Owyhee is a 37-mile, four-day trip with a few challenging Class IV rapids, including the perilous Class V-plus Widowmaker Rapid that is usually portaged. The Lower Owyhee is a 48-mile, five-day trip with easy Class II and III rapids, stunning campsites and wonderful hikes. Several rapids on the Lower Owyhee are Class IV at some flows.
Jarbidge and Bruneau rivers, Idaho
A truly adventurous 71-mile, five-or-six-day trip down two desert rivers that flow through a canyon full of difficult Class IV and IV-plus rapids that includes a portage around Jarbidge Falls. This is a bucket list adventure for those who like river trips few have done.
Yampa River, Colorado/Utah
May into July
The Yampa River is the last free-flowing tributary of the entire Colorado River system. In May, the river springs to life with surging runoff from the melting snow of the Colorado Rockies. Rafters can explore sandstone canyons, paddle through fun-to-challenging Class III-IV whitewater, including legendary Warm Springs Rapid, camp on big, beautiful sandy beaches and enjoy lovely side hikes in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. Minimum age 12 at high water.
If you go
All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting, 1250 Pine St., Suite 103 Walnut Creek, Calif.; (800) 247-2387. $199 for a one-day Kaweah River trip (Class IV rapids).
Kern River Outfitters, 6602 Wofford Blvd., Wofford Heights, Calif.; (760) 376-3370. Two-day trips from $350 per person.
Kings River Expeditions, 1840 Shaw Ave., No. 105-70, Clovis, Calif.; (800) 846-3674. Two-day trips from $289 per person.
Northwest Rafting Co., 913 Hull St., Hood River, Ore., (541) 450-9855,
OARS, Angels Camp, Calif.; (800) 346-6277. From $129 per person for a one-day trip on the South Fork of the American River.