An illustration of a raft in rough waters surrounded by colorful circles
(Illustration by Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Photo courtesy of Kern River Outfitters)

The time to book your whitewater rafting trip is now. Here are California’s 8 best rivers

When I taught whitewater kayaking classes at UC Davis, I liked to tell my students that every year, I got to enjoy California’s snowpack twice: Once in the winter when I went skiing, and then again in the spring and summer when the snow melted and tumbled down from the Sierra in rivers — with rapids ready for rafting.

(OK, and perhaps a third time to shower or drink a glass of water, depending on where I was living.)

This year’s snowpack is on the light side at around 65%, which means that most of California’s streams will have shorter seasons. But for rivers that are backed up by water-storing reservoirs — such as the Tuolumne and the American — boats will be bounding over cascades large and small into August and perhaps beyond.

Here’s a rundown on eight of the state’s best whitewater streams, where outfitters offer mellow trips suitable for nervous novices to those who don’t mind occasional raft flips or a swim downstream. Gulp!

Showing  Places
A group of people rafting on the Kern River.
(Kern River Outfitters)

Kern River

Kern County River
The Kern in the southern Sierra offers whitewater rafting trips from an afternoon to two days, with options for everyone from families with children to adrenaline junkies. Better yet, it’s the closest whitewater to Los Angeles.

The Lower Kern section flows from June into August, when farmers release water from the Lake Isabella reservoir and the river tumbles through a granite canyon. The eight-mile, family-friendly “Jungle Run” has gentle, Class II and more exciting Class III rapids with names like “Wasco’s Wash” and “It’s a Dilly.”

The Upper Kern, which flows into Lake Isabella, also offers Class II, III and IV rapids on shorter sections with names like “Lickety” and “Limestone” and is suitable for families with older kids. Commercial outfitters will begin offering trips here in early April that will end in June because the river is dependent on snowmelt.

For those who like big-time thrills and are fit, the Forks of the Kern trip has more than 100 Class III, IV and V (technical and scary) rapids on a two-day outing that covers 21 miles and starts with a 2.5-mile hike to the river put-in. This section of the river was closed the last two years because of dangerous burned trees overhanging the trail.

Insider tip: If you go on the Forks adventure, be sure to hike up Meadow Creek to the Seven Teacups, where the freshet cascades into pools carved out of granite.
Route Details
A group of people rafting on Kings River.
(Annie Butchert/Kings River Expeditions)

Kings River

Kings County River
Sitting low in the Sierra foothills east of Fresno, the slopes of the Kings River are now bedecked with red poppies, blue and purple lupines and other colorful flowers. Rafting companies will begin offering trips on a 10-mile section of the stream above Pine Flat Reservoir in mid-April.

This fun Class III snowmelt stream has about 25 rapids with names such as “Mule Rock,” “Fang Tooth” and “Sidewinder.” The Kings should be flowing into at least early July. It’s a bit off the beaten path, about a 3½-hour drive from L.A.

Insider trip: Since you’ve probably traveled a distance to reach the Kings, consider overnighting. King’s River Expeditions offers two-day trips that include a barbecue dinner with ice cream sundaes, camping at its base camp, a hearty breakfast and a second 10-mile run.
Route Details
Trees in the Sequoia National Park, where the Kaweah River flows from. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Kaweah River

Tulare County River
The Kaweah flows out of Sequoia National Park and offers a passel of nonstop Class III and IV (fun and challenging) rapids. They have monikers like “Powerhouse,” “the Flood,” “Suicide Falls” and a two-part drop called “the Slickies” with a center chute and a shallow slide that tumbles into a reversal, where the river curls up and falls back on itself with a punch. Because the Kaweah is a free-flowing river with no dams above it to release water during the summer, it will have a short season this year, starting around the second week in April and running perhaps until mid-May.

Insider tip: Since you’re close, head on up to Sequoia National Park and check out the Giant Forest, where five of the 10 largest trees on Earth are located, including the General Sherman Tree, which measures more than 36 feet across its base. Fortunately, this grove was not affected by last year’s devastating fires.

Route Details
The welcome sign to the Merced River.

Merced River

Mariposa County River
Flowing out of Yosemite National Park, the Merced offers a series of roller coaster-like wave trains that roll past pine forests and poppy-filled canyon slopes. This federally protected Wild and Scenic River has lively, Class III rapids with names like “Cranberry,” “Ned’s Gulch,” “Split Rock” and “Corner Pocket.”

Outfitters will run trips on a 16-mile stretch of the Merced starting in April and going into June. It’s suitable for aggressive beginners.

Insider tip: Do the Hite Cove hike on the South Fork of the Merced River in April while there’s still an explosion of wildflowers. It’s an easy, 6-mile round trip that starts at Savage’s Trading Post on Highway 140.

Route Details
Rafts on the Tuolumne River.
(James Kaiser/OARS)

Tuolumne River

Stanislaus County River
The Class III and IV Tuolumne (pronounced Too-all-uh-me) River, which also flows out of Yosemite National Park, is one of my all-time favorites. I think I’ve kayaked it several dozen times at a variety of water levels. The run is 18 miles long and can be done in one-, two- or three-day trips. The most challenging rapid on the “T,” as paddlers call it, is Clavey Falls.

This Class IV-plus cascade tumbles 8 feet, has two big drops in it, regularly flips rafts and sometimes sends folks swimming. There are plenty of other Class IV rapids on the river too, with names such as “Nemesis,” “Sunderlands Chute,” “Ram’s Head” and “Grey’s Grindstone.”

A one-day trip is all adrenaline, while two- and three-day outings offer more time to relax and explore side canyons. Due to releases from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir upstream, the “T” — which also has a Wild and Scenic designation — will be good for rafting into September.

Insider tip: If you get the chance, be sure to hike up the Clavey River and North Fork canyons to swim in pools and launch yourself off jump rocks.
Route Details
A group of people whitewater rafting on the Middle Fork of the American River.
(Dylan Silver/OARS)

Middle Fork of the American River

This is an exciting, Class IV stream near Auburn. Because it’s a dam-release river, raft trips will be offered into September.

It tumbles down a pristine, secluded canyon through what the Angels Camp-based Oars rafting company calls a “melee of pounding whitewater” on rapids such as “Guide Slammer,” “Organized Chaos,” “Cartwheel” and the Class V “Ruck-a-Chucky,” which is so perilous that passengers must walk around it.

In 1889, in search of gold buried beneath the river, miners blasted a tunnel through the side of a cliff to divert the water, creating one of the most unusual whitewater features anywhere in the world.

Route Details
Rafts float down the South Fork of the American River.

South Fork of the American River

East of Sacramento, this is one of the most popular rivers in the country. With 21 miles of whitewater, it offers half-, one- and two-day trips on rollicking Class II and III rapids that make it suitable for families with kids as young as 8. It will run all summer and into the fall.

The upper section of the trip starts at a put-in called Chili Bar and rolls downstream through small cascades with names like “Meatgrinder,” “Troublemaker” and “Triple Threat.” The lower Gorge run is home to one of my favorite rapids. Dubbed “Satan’s Cesspool,” it’s a devilish rapid that’s flipped my kayak a time or two.

Insider tip: A number of raft companies offer “elevated” camping on the river with showers, flush toilets and even safari tents. And if you are a history buff, check out Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma, which has a museum, original and restored buildings and docents in Gold Rush period costumes.
Route Details
A child rafting on the Lower Klamath River.

Lower Klamath River

In the far north of California, the Lower Klamath is considered one of the best whitewater streams in the West for young families, suitable for kids as young as 4 on trips offered by outfitters.

Another of California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers, it flows 180 miles from just south of the Oregon line to the Pacific. Rafting companies offer two- and three-day outings on a 20-plus mile section of the “Klam,” which boasts warm water, swimming holes, gentle Class II rapids and a couple of mild III’s with names like “Savage” and “Dragon’s Tooth.”

Insider tip: Bring your binoculars because the Klamath hosts eagles, ospreys, egrets, herons, ducks, mergansers and other birds. Oh, and yeah — ask your guide to tell you some Big Foot stories. You might even see a black bear, which is sorta-kinda like Big Foot.

Route Details