Some of my favorite summer memories involve water. Floating on an inner tube in a lake, or a shallow river, is among life’s most blissful moments.
I remember when our daughter was 8 or 9, we went to Yosemite National Park. What I remember of that trip was not the soaring trees or the magnificent vistas. My most cherished memory is of the lazy day we spent tubing down the Merced River.
Your perfect river might be one where you float gently along on inner tubes, or maybe your style is to careen through raucous rapids in an eight-person inflatable raft. No problem. California has got it all when it comes to river rafting, from gentle half-day float trips for first-timers and mellow family adventures to adrenaline-pumping, white water, multi-day thrillers.
Unlike some parts of the country where rafting seasons are fairly short, California has commercially run outfitters, plying rivers from March into September. The same river can be endlessly interesting, depending on the season.
When choosing a raft trip, class matters. Gentle Class I and II rivers are perfect for self-guided floats and families with youngsters. Class III rivers require some paddling skills and beginners should join a guided trip. Class IV (intermediate) and Class V (advanced) rivers generally require a guide and helmets. No little ones are allowed, and these courses shouldn’t be attempted by beginners.
Many trips by outfitters include meals and camping experiences. Despite touting white water excursions, they also offer tranquil family-friendly rafting adventures. Many trips are surprisingly affordable.
South Fork American River
Rafting this waterway is perfect for anyone age seven to 77 (or more) and ideal for first-timers. This Class II-III paddle provides a thrill or two — look for the infamous Troublemaker rapid, but there’s little chance of bouncing out of your raft. This river experience even includes a Golden State history lesson: The river runs right past the spot where the 1849 Gold Rush began at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma.
A slew of companies guide half- and full-day trips on the South Fork.
The Upper Sacramento River is an excellent Northern California whitewater rafting trip, providing pure fun on 50-plus rapids in its nearly continuous 30 miles of white water.
However, for more family-friendly adventures head to Redding. Rafting is a great way for river novices to get comfortable with the current, and depending on the stretch of water, anyone over age 4 can join in. With the Sacramento River running right through town, it’s easy to plan for an afternoon of rafting, and the most common trip — from Redding to Anderson — will take you under six bridges (including Sundial Bridge) and through some of Northern California’s most beautiful stretches.
North Fork of the Yuba River
The free-flowing North Yuba River is a unique rafting experience for the adventurous first timer or return rafter. The nearby mining towns of Downieville and Sierra City offer restaurants, lodging and camping options, saloons and historic landmarks.
Upper Cache Creek
This is a great place for do-it-yourself river rafting on a friendly waterway.
If you just want to get your feet wet, but don’t want a white-knuckle adventure, sign up for a do-it-yourself float on Upper Cache Creek, about two hours northeast of San Francisco.
Paddle your own rubber raft through the foamy-but-friendly rapids of Cache Canyon. These are tame Class II rapids with a couple of keep-you-on-your-toes Class IIIs that offer brief thrills.
One- and two-day DIY trips start near the Central Valley town of Rumsey along State Highway 16. While you can just go cool-off for a day, the two-day trip runs the full 20 miles of Cache Creek’s sheer volcanic canyon … a wonderfully scenic mini-adventure.
Lower Klamath River
The perfect kid-friendly river with swimming holes, wildlife and waterfalls. Hook up with one of several outfitters that offer fun, family adventures on this beautiful river. Turn your landlocked toddler into a happy river rat with a three-day, two-night camping and rafting trip on the warm waters of the Lower Klamath.
The mellow Class II rapids are just splashy enough to be exciting for kids, yet not too nerve-wracking for mom and dad. Parents can kick back while river guides do all the work: set up camp, fix meals, explain the region’s fascinating mining history and teach the kids how to look for Bigfoot.
Children as young as 4 are welcome, and they don’t need to know how to swim; personal floatation devices keep everyone safe. The whimsical name of the trip’s toughest rapid … Dragon’s Tooth, says it all.
Enjoy the Klamath’s sandy beaches and take a hike through the rainforest of Ukonom Creek, where two side-by-side waterfalls cascade into a deep swimming hole.
Bald eagles and ospreys soar above the alder- and fir-lined canyon, and beavers and river otters glide through the water. Trips start in Happy Camp, an hour and a half drive west of Yreka, so it’s easy to combine this watery adventure with a visit to Redwood National and State Parks.
The Merced River offers two completely different experiences. If you’re searching for shoot-the-rapids thrills and chills on a family-friendly river rafting trip and an incredibly scenic float, you want to head down a designated Wild and Scenic River stretch of the Merced. The 16 miles of river below El Portal include several rollercoaster-like Class III-IV rapids.
You can float the Merced inside Yosemite, too, but you’ll be drifting along at an ultra-mellow pace. In June and July, rafting is one of the best ways to sightsee in busy Yosemite Valley. Rent an inflatable four-person raft at Half Dome Village Recreation Center and float three miles downriver, passing many of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks, including El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.
The Tuolumne River is the crown jewel of California whitewater rafting trips. It’s a true “escape from civilization” on this wet-and-wild river. You’ll see a rugged land of deep gorges and forests as wild as you can get in California.
Known simply as “the T,” this designated “Wild and Scenic” section of river often gets the nod as having some of the best whitewater in California. Class IV rapids are the rule, not the exception. Clavey Falls, a series of three staircases, creates the biggest drama. Graduates of “the T” might want to try a float on the Upper T, better known as Cherry Creek … an even more thrilling whitewater stretch.