Best White Water Rafting Spots in California

White water rafting is an adrenaline-fueled recreational outdoor activity with several advantages: It’s packed with adventure, you get to soak in vitamin D, it’s a great workout – both cardiovascular and resistance, and the teamwork it entails is a perfect bonding opportunity for family and friends.

Did you know the Middle Fork American River has a mining history? Miners came to the river in search of gold, and one of the unique rapids, Tunnel Chute, was formed when miners blasted a tunnel through a side of the cliff in search of gold.

That said, California has so many whitewater rafting spots (a whopping 47), so selecting which one to do can be daunting. To make it easier, we’ve listed for you the best white water rafting spots in California.

Top 10 Whitewater Rafting Spots in California

After extensive research, we curated this list of the best whitewater rafting spots in California:

1. Cal Salmon River

The Cal Samoan River is steep, remote, and amazingly scenic. It’s one of the most challenging whitewater rafting spots in California. 

The most popular trip is the 10-mile Nordheimer Run, where you’ll encounter Class IV+ rapids interspersed with cascades and ultimately the boulder-strewn Freight Train Rapid. Hence, it’s considered an expert run best left to those with ample experience.

Cal Salmon has a river rating of Class IV-V, and the rafting season here runs from April through to July. The closest town to the river is Eureka.

2. Lower Klamath River

The Lower Klamath River‘s warm waters make rock jumping, swimming, and beach time popular, and these are the river’s hallmarks. 

Winding through the Cascades and Coastal Ranges and into the Pacific Ocean, this river is packed with recreational activities. And although the Upper Klamath offers various recreational activities and more adventurous whitewater, the Lower Klamath River has easy Class II rapids, making it ideal for little whitewater rafters. 

Besides bouncy, easy rapids, you’ll enjoy amazing birdlife and solitude in the 18-mile stretch running from the Sluice Box put-in and back to Happy Camp.

Klamath has a river rating of Class II-III and a rafting season running from May through  September.  

3. Trinity River

Trinity River is a remote river canyon located in the northwest of California, offering several experiences. 

On the Lower Trinity is a primeval wilderness area where you can view wildlife. Further up is the more adventurous Class II-III Pigeon Point with big rolling rapids most suited for first-time rafters and families. And finally, the Trinity’s Burnt Ranch Gorge with the most extreme whitewater conditions – a series of Class V rapids and the Burnt Ranch Falls. 

This versatility singles it out as a whitewater rafting spot offering something for everyone.

Trinity has a river rating of Class II-V, and its season runs from April to September. The nearest town is Willow Creek.

4. North Fork of the American River

The North Fork of the American River is a wild and scenic river between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento that offers tranquil Sierra Nevada beauty and spectacular spring rafting excursions.

It flows through a beautiful forested gorge packed with foot cliffs (at least 2,000) and Class IV rapids that appear to be never-ending and is quickly followed by several less arduous Class II-III rapids.

The river boasts a 10-mile stretch with staircase drops, rushing falls, and boulder gardens that promise intense paddling and adrenaline-inducing activities, making it a whitewater rafting spot ideal for adventurous paddlers seeking a thrilling challenge.

The North Fork of American River is rated as a Class IV, and the season tends to be in March to mid-June. The town closest to the river is Auburn.

5. South Fork of the American River

The South Fork of the American River near Sacramento is a most popular whitewater that seems to never get old with rafting activities.

It’s a 21-mile Class III whitewater offering various options. You can run the upper Chili Bar stretch with about nine rapids or the lower Gorge run, which starts with  Class II whitewater before the river narrows and gets more challenging with rowdy rapids such as Hospital Bar and Satan’s Cesspool.

The South Fork of the American River whitewater is not so challenging. And with several rapids and in between swimming, this popular whitewater stretch offers a range of options for family outings, a day with friends, or a team-building work event, qualifying as a whitewater rafting spot for any occasion

This river has a rating of Class II-III, and the season runs from May through to September. The closest town to it is Coloma.

6. Middle Fork of the American River

The Middle Fork of the American River is a big whitewater with lovely scenery and can enjoy tranquil moments.

Interestingly, though today it’s an exciting whitewater, its river canyon has remnants of mining history. In the mid-1800s, miners came to this river in search of gold, and one of the rapids the river boasts of – Tunnel Chute – was actually formed when miners blasted through a cliff to divert water!

The Middle Fork of the American River has a fun, savory 16-mile excursion that starts with Tunnel Chute, where you’ll encounter a 6=foot drop followed by an 80-foot long tunnel. Next is an exhilarating whitewater followed by a stretch of calm water during which you have the opportunity to take in the beautiful pine-covered wilderness. 

Then finally, to end your excursion, there’s another stretch of fun rapids.

This big whitewater seems to have it all, too, with its terrific scenery and moments of serenity all about two hours from the Bay Area, making it the best whitewater rafting spot near San Francisco.

The river has a rating of Class IV, and the season here runs from May through September. The nearest town to the river is Auburn.

7. Merced River

The Merced River meanders through Yosemite National Park and has some of the best rollercoaster wave trains.

While no whitewater rafting occurs within the park boundaries, paddlers get to enjoy Merced’s exhilarating wave trains (some of which are the best you’ll find anywhere). This boisterous whitewater is just past the park’s Hwy 140 entrance.

In the early season (typically April to mid-June), there’s a peak snowmelt. The river flows freely, and paddlers can enjoy 18 miles of huge, splashy wave trains and exhilarating Class IV whitewater with memorable rapids such as Ned’s Gulch, Corner Pocket, and Split Rock.

Well into July, the snowmelt subsides, and the river calms to a Class III level, equally exciting and more favorable for families and first-timers.

These exciting activities come as a pleasant surprise to many because you typically wouldn’t expect to find this much action in the Merced River (with the absence of rafting within the park boundaries and all).

And the scenery is great, too, especially in the spring when wildflowers blanket the rocky canyon, classifying it as an unexpectedly awesome whitewater rafting spot.

As mentioned, Merced River has a rating of Class III-IV, with a season running from April to July. The town closest to it is El Portal.

8. Tuolumne River

Tuolumne River spills from Yosemite National Park’s highlands and boasts of natural waterslides, spectacular side streams that lead to waterfalls, and secret swimming holes.

It has an 18-mile stretch from Meral’s Pool to Ward’s Ferry with almost non-stop Class III-IV whitewater. Paddlers can expect challenging rapids with narrow chutes, tricky boulder gardens, and big riveting drops such as Clavey Falls.

With its many hidden wonders, it’s no wonder it’s considered a leading whitewater and qualifies as a big adventure whitewater rafting spot.

Tuolumne has a river rating of Class III-IV, and the season runs from May through September. The nearest town is Groveland.

9. Lower Kern River

The Lower Kern River has two exhilarating stretches that offer exciting adventures.

It flows from the Southern Sierra then enters into Lake Isabella, where the river’s flows fluctuate depending on water releases. Hence in the early spring, it provides a more challenging whitewater compared to the summer months.

There’s an 8-mile Class II-III whitewater on the Lower Kern’s Jungle Run, which ends at Miracle Hot Springs – a more challenging Class IV whitewater. Rafters often combine both stretches for an exhilarating adventure.

While Northern California is spoiled with whitewater options, the Lower Kern River is a blast and, without a doubt, the best whitewater rafting spot in Northern California.

It has a river rating of Class III-IV, and the season here is April to September. The closest town to River Kern is Kernville.

10. Kaweah River

The Kaweah River is one of the steepest river drainages in the US, and as such, offers some of the best whitewater in California.

It flows into the Terminus Reservoir, and the trick is to catch it at the right time, which is during the window when the snowmelt is at its peak, typically April through June.

There’s also a 6-mile stretch seasoned paddles can challenge that’s just outside of the park, but the 10-mile lower section of whitewater with river-wide ledges, hydraulics, and boulder-filled obstacles is what most people run.

It’s a blast during the spring, qualifying it as the best spring trip whitewater rafting spot.  

The Kaweah has a river rating of Class IV+, and the season is – you guessed it – April to June. The nearest town to it is Three Rivers.

(You might also be interested in exploring about the Best Snorkeling Spots In California)

A Few Other Whitewater Rafting Spots Worthy of Mention

  • Upper Sacramento River
  • Russian River

Conclusion

Whatever adventure you’re seeking, whether it’s steep exhilarating rapids, some serene moments, or a scenic float, there’s a whitewater rafting adventure just for you in one of these California rivers. 

Scroll to Top