California's Top Whitewater Rafting

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Rafting the Kern River, California
Rafting the Kern River, California  (Whitewater Voyages)

Thanks to fresh snowmelt that churns its way down from the Sierra Nevada and other rugged ranges, the state of California has a wealth of rafting rivers snaking their way through a variety of wild landscapes. The High Sierra, Trinity Alps, and Mount Shasta are iconic backdrops to unforgettable adventures of a few hours or an entire week. From frothy roller coasters to gentler tributaries, springtime is prime time for a trip merrily (and, at times, urgently) paddling down one of the legendary waterways that crisscross the Golden State.

1. Merced River
After lolling through Yosemite Valley, the Merced River rages out through the park's west entrance and becomes an ideal rafting river a few miles beyond the gateway town of El Portal. Depending on your experience and the conditions, you can either raft on your own on the relatively slow waters in the park (rentals and shuttles are available from the park concessionaire) or take your pick of the many outfitters that offer rafting trips on the Merced outside of the park. One-day trips run from Indian Flat to Railroad Flat when the water is high, but many guides offer the final five miles of this trip as a day-trip later into the summer. The most difficult whitewater on this run comes in at Class IV. Another classic Yosemite-area option is the Tuolumne River, featuring Clavey Falls, the river's only Class V rapid at the confluence with the Clavey River.

Nearest city: Mariposa, California

Outfitters: ARTA River Trips, O.A.R.S., Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions

2. Kern River
Considered one of the state’s top rivers for an overnight trip, the Kern offers paddlers a number of options in the southern Sierra Nevada. The Forks of the Kern is dotted with Class IV and V rapids as well as needle- and dome-bedecked scenery. Note, though, that it requires a two-mile jaunt to the put-in. If you're looking for a tamer stretch, consider the Upper Kern, with lots of accessible Class III water near Kernville. The Lower Kern is much more challenging, with plenty of Class V+ rapids to run in high water. Bisected by the Kern River, Kernville is a picture-perfect whitewater town that's a favorite of paddling river rats from all over and perfect for a base camp.

Nearest city: Kernville, California

Outfitters: Kern River Tours, Kern River Outfitters, Whitewater Voyages

Published: 20 Mar 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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