Kayaking California

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Kayaking CA

Kayak CA

Kern River North Fork Headwaters


Stretch: Junction Meadow to Little Kern Confluence
Difficulty: class V with multiple portages, harder at higher flows
Distance: 21 hiking plus 37 river miles, many days
Flows: kayaks 500 – 2500 cfs, raft minimum 800?
Gauge: take-out similar to flow at Kernville (by Army Corps)
Gradient: 90 fpm average, steeper and flatter at times
Put-in: by hiking over Whitney Portal to Junction Meadow, 8000′
Take-out: by hiking up from Little Kern confluence, 4660′
Shuttle: 162 miles (4 hours) one-way, mostly on paved roads
Maps: USFS Sequoia NF, AAA Sequoia Region
Season: spring and early summer, from snowmelt
Agency: National Park, USFS (permit required below take-ou

The Smith in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class III, IV, & V

Gradient: 44 ft/mi (North), 20 ft/mi (Middle), 50 ft/mi (Oregon Hole), 40 ft/mi (South)

Length: 13 miles (NF), 14 (MF), 2 (Oregon Hole), 11.5 (SF)

Season: December – April (or whenever it rains!)

Sections: North Fork, Middle Fork, Oregon Hole Gorge, & South Fork

Who should go: Anyone who is willing to drive the distance one of California’s most spectacular

to get to The Smith River, California’s last undammed river system, is remote and wild in every aspect. The only thing predictable about a Smith River kayaking trip is that it is unpredictable. From weather to flows, the Smith River is almost guaranteed to change last minute. For this reason, not many commercial outfitters run trips on the Smith. It is dependent on rainfall and rises quickly. If it is raining, there will most likely be runnable flows for the next few days.rivers.


The Lower K in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class II-III

Gradient:Less than 15 ft/mi

Length: 120 Miles, various shorter sections

Season: May – September

Put-in: Sarah Trotten Campground

Take-out: Weitchpec or Sommes Bar

Who should go: Families, school groups, fishermen, anyone who loves multi-day wilderness river trips.

Of all the class III river trips in California, the Lower Klamath is probably best experience in terms of getting away from civilization and spending some time in the wilderness. No matter how remote the canyon though, only YOU can make the choice to leave your Blackberry at home so keep that in mind.


Private rafters and kayakers are not required to obtain a permit for the Klamath River. Commercial Outfitters must have a permit to run trips on the Lower section of this river.


Since Highway 96 follows the Lower Klamath, there are many access points to the river and spots to stash vehicles. The total mileage for the full run from take-out at Weitchpec to put-in at Sarah Totten Campground is 95 miles. That means about two and a half merciless hours before you get on the water.


  • Take-out (Weitchpec): Most will be traveling from the south so, take Interstate 5 North to Redding. Once in Redding catch the 299 West and follow the Trinity River to the town of Willow Creek. From Willow Creek turn right on Highway 96 and you will arrive in Weitchpec. Those traveling South on Highway 5 will reach Highway 96 eight miles before Yreka.
  • Take-out (Salmon River Road, Sommes Bar): This popular put-in and take-out at mile 76 is used frequently by commercial outfitters. Continue driving west on Highway 96 through the town of Orleans. Look for a bridge that crosses the Cal Salmon River shortly after you leave the town. Turn right on Salmon River Road just after the bridge for river access.
  • Put-in: Sarah Trotten Campground: Continue heading west on Highway 96 to Sarah Totten Campground.

The Cal Salmon in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Nordheimer: IV+ (3 V’s); Butler: IV

Gradient: 54 ft/mi

Length: 10 miles, alternate run options

Season: March – June

Put-in: Norheimer

Take-out: Oak Bottom

Who should go: Expert kayakers and rafters, wilderness lovers, folks who want to “get away from it all.”

The California Salmon River, or “Cal Salmon” for short, flows through the California Coast Range in the Trinity Alps. The Cal Salmon is located one of the most remote wilderness areas in California and all three forks, as well as a tributary, Wooley Creek, are federally protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Cal Salmon is no doubt one of the state’s best kept secrets.

The rapids are long, powerful, and run at a steep gradient. Narrow canyon walls create tight space for flows and therefore the water rushes with increased intensity. There is less than a mile of warm-up before Bloomer Falls, the first big Class IV rapid. Bloomer is followed by a flurry of Class IV and V whitewater from Airplane Turn and Cascade Rapid, a tight 15′ chute of churning whitewater.

Another standout is the grand finale rapid, Class V Freight Train. This is the river’s longest, boulder-strewn area. It’s definitely one of the highlights of this magnificent river. Everything from boulder slaloms to enormous holes can be found on the Nordheimer run.

While the rapids are enough to make this run entirely worth the long haul into the NorCal woods, the scenery is no doubt the icing on the cake. Frequent wildlife sightings of black bear, deer, and many species of birds, found amidst a dense, lush forest, and snow covered mountains.

Permits aren’t needed to run the Cal Salmon, so as long as the flows are good, you can go any time of year, any day of the week, any hour of the day.



Most of the Nordheimer and Butler sections are roadside, so the Cal Salmon River shuttle is easy once you actually get to the river. It’s the getting there part that can be long and complicated, depending on what time of year you go. In the winter, some of the roads are closed due to snow, so make sure you check the california road conditions before you start driving. GPS devices don’t typically tell you if a road is closed for the winter and several parties of boaters have learned that lesson the hard way.


  • Put-in for Nordheimer Run: Nordheimer Campground There are several ways to get to Nordheimer, depending on what your start point is. If you are coming from North of Redding or from the Arcata area, directions will differ from ours. From Redding, take Hwy. 299 West through Weaverville and toward Willow Creek. Turn right onto Hwy. 96 north to Orleans. Drive 8 miles past Orleans and after you cross the Salmon River, take a right onto Salmon River Road. This road is not marked but there’s a sign that says “Forks of the Salmon”. You will be on Salmon River Rod for about 13.5 miles. Nordheimer Campground will be on your left. If you happen to get to Forks of the Salmon, turn around because you’ve gone about 4 miles too far.
  • Take-out for Nordheimer (Put-in for Butler): Just Upstream from Butler Creek There are several options for taking out, and you can always continue on to run the Butler section, but the most popular take-out is Butler Creek. On Salmon River Road, Butler Creek is about 6.5 miles downstream from Nordheimer Campground. Parking is plentiful.
  • Take-out for Butler: Oak Bottom Campground The main take-out for Butler is Oak Bottom Campground, about 5 miles downstream from Nordheimer, but you can really take out just about anywhere. Some people even choose to raft all the way to the Klamath River and then to the Pacific Ocean!
  • The Cal Salmon is a free-flowing river the depends on rain and snowmelt for good flows. Optimum flows for rafting are 800 – 4000 cfs, kayaking 500 – 5000 cfs, and the inflatable kayak minimum flows are 350-450 cfs.
  • Because it is a free-flowing river, Cal Salmon water levels can change quickly. In the winter months, rainy weather make the water rise quickly, and in the spring, hotter temperatures melt the snow and the river will peak a couple days later.
  • This is a great river for hardshell kayaks and rafts. Inflatable kayaks can also run this stretch at low flows between 350-450 cfs but should have some big water experience before attempting. Commercial trips are available if you would like to get to know the river before taking a private trip. Memorial Day is a popular time for private boaters to run the Salmon.



The Russian in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class II-III or Class I

Length: Up to 50 miles

Season: Year-rounds

Sections: Squaw Rock (class II-III) OR or Guernerville to Pacific Ocean; multiple put-in & take-out options.

Who should go: Class II-III section – private boaters looking for practice. Class I section – lazy day floaters.

Depending on the season and what stretch you’re running, the Russian River has a few class III rapids for those looking to improve their skills and a whole lot of “easy rider” miles for the float set. The class II-III section can give beginning whitewater rafting and kayaking enthusiasts a decent run in the winter months and early spring. At lower flows, this is a favorite run for intermediate and experienced canoeists. The class I section of the Russian runs for over 50 miles from below the town of Healdsburg to the Pacific Ocean at the town of Jenner. Those interested in floating can pick and choose their destination for put-in and take-out in public areas.


If you are looking to hone your skills as an white water canoeist or inflatable kayaker, the Russian River is a good place to learn.

The Russian River offers good class II-III rapids for private rafting trips and whitewater kayaking north of the town of Cloverdale. No commercial trips are run on this 8 mile stretch. There is also ample opportunity for private float trips below the town of Healdsburg. Canoes and kayaks can be rented at various locations from Healdsburg to Jenner.


No permits necessary. Be aware and respectful of private riverside property and only put-in and take-out in designated public areas.


The Russian River flows throughout the winter, but make sure to check flows before you go because it often floods during and after storms. Although the river is moderately easy, during flood stage it extremely dangerous.


Cache Creek in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Wilderness: II-III; Rumsey: II

Length: Wilderness: 17 miles; Rumsey: 8.5 miles

Season: Feb – August

Sections: Wilderness Run or Rumsey Run

Who should go: Novices looking to navigate their own raft, beginning kayakers, tubers. Experts only at high flows.

Cache Creek is part of the Wild and Scenic California watersystem. It is one of the major rivers in Yolo county, flowing southeast from Clear Lake through BLM land and then along Hwy 16. The wilderness area has both the second largest population of bald eagles and tule elk in California.


Class II-III rapids occur immediately. Watch for the low water bridge across the entire creek and portage on left. Taft’s Tumble, Rowboat and Rock Garden are the big class III rapids on this stretch and are even spaced over the 8 mile run.


Permits are not necessary on Cache Creek.


The Wilderness run can be done in a one-day trip but there are some really nice camp spots along the river that make a two-day excursion even more enticing. Rumsey Run is a one-day trip but camping is recommended either before or after the trip.


  • Wilderness Run – BLM River Access right bank, downstream from Hwy 20 bridge over the North Fork.
  • Rumsey Run – Access the river at Bear Creek in the Yolo County Regional Park.


  • Wilderness Run – To leave a car at take-out, from put-in drive east on Hwy 20 for 13 miles, turn south on Hwy 16 and travel 7 miles to Yolo County Regional Park.
  • Rumsey Run – There is parking along Hwy 16 near Rumsey bridge.
  • ache creek is one of the largest streams in Lake County. The South Fork begins at Clear Lake and parallels Route 20 then turns south adjacent to Route 16. Indian Dam and Reservoir supplies water to the North Fork. The South and North Fork converge at Wilbur spring where natural hot springs can be found. Bear Creek is the main tributary and its mouth at Cache Creek is a hub for whitewater activity. The Grigsby Riffle is a natural rock ledge near Rumsey Bridge (take-out for the lower whitewater run on Cache Creek) and this area limits the amount of water released from the dam upstream. The ledge slows water drainage and can create flooding at higher flows.
  • A large part of Cache Creek was designated a Wildlife Area by the State of California and the BLM and in 2006 a large portion of the creek and its surroundings was deemed Federally protected
  • Most of the whitewater activities enjoyed in the summer is supported by water release from upstream dams for downstream agriculture in Yolo County.

he North Yuba in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class IV-V (Goodyears)

Gradient: 49 ft/mi

Length: 19 miles

Season: March – June

Put-in: Union Flat Campground

Take-out: Right bank, Shenanigan Flat, Hwy 49 Bridge

Who should go: Experts only above Goodyears Bar. Intermediate (w/ portages) Downieville to Shenanigan.


The North Fork Yuba makes for some exciting whitewater if you have honed your rafting or kayaking skills. Especially on the section from Union Flat to Downieville. This area should only be for advanced skill levels if taking a private trip. The Yuba River is bordered by National Forests, recreation areas, state parks and intersected by the Pacific Crest Trail. There is plenty of riverside camping or campgrounds along the river so try to eek out as much adventure as possible and spend two days on the river.


The first eight miles of the North Fork Yuba are nothing but extreme whitewater. On mile two, the narrow class V Moss Canyon takes you down three huge drops in just a mile’s length. Flows increase dramatically at the Downie River convergence on mile six and then Rossasco Ravine pours on the relentless class V for another two miles. Luckily, for the less experience boater, there are class II-III at Goodyears Bar and river access to the class IV run below. Look out for Maytag at mile 16 and portage on either bank if you skipped the first eight miles or if it’s high water. The high-elevation scenery of this run is gorgeous and the canyon has the noted western slope high sierra elements typical of the region, such as granite bedrock and lower montane California Black Oak, Ponderosa Pine, Incense-Cedar and White Fir.

The Tahoe National Forest is located at 631 Coyote Street in Nevada City, off of Hwy 49. (530) 265-4531. Drop by the office to pick up permits, especially if you are hoping to have a campfire. Best to check in about this since fires are often banned in the summer months due to dry conditions.

  • : Union Flat Campground is six miles east of Downieville on Hwy 49. To get to Goodyears Bar drive four miles west on Hwy 49 to the sideroad that crosses over the river to the left bank.
  • Take-out: The best place to take out is the Hwy 49 Bridge, mile 19.

Flow Level Descriptions

  • More than 400 CFS: Expert kayakers can run the North Fork at 400 cfs and above.
  • More than 700 CFS: Large rafts should not run below 700 cfs. It is recommended that all boats be self-bailing.

North Yuba Watershed

The headwaters of this high elevation river in Tahoe National Forest drain from the Yuba Pass and its surrounding peaks. Running free from New Bullards Bar Reservoir, the Yuba River doubles in volume at the confluence of the Downie River. The Yuba River is a major tributary to the Feather River which eventually joins the Sacramento River and provides agricultural irrigation water to a large portion of the Central California Valley.

It is said that the Yuba River got its name from the wild grapes Spanish explorers encountered growing densely along the river bank. “Uva” being the Spanish word for grape transformed into its current state “Yuba” in the early 1900s.

The North Fork in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class IV

Gradient: 34 ft/mi

Length: 9.5 miles (can be shorter)

Season: February – May

Put-in: Colfax-Iowa Hill Bridge

Take-out: Shirttail Creek (Yankee Jim’s) or Ponderosa Bridge

Who should go: Rafters with previous experience rafting and strong paddling abilities. Kayakers should have strong skills and plenty of experience.

The North Fork of the American is unique among the forks of the American River because it is free-flowing. Without upstream dams regulating the flow of water this river peaks quickly in the spring and then, just as quickly, becomes too low for recreational boating. The canyon’s beauty and the challenges of the river make watching for the North Fork’s fleeting window well worth it.

Technical and difficult, the rapids on the North Fork create a thrilling and action-packed day. Chamberlain Falls Gorge starts things off with a rapid-fire succession of whitewater: Slaughter’s Sluice, Zig Zag, Achille’s Heel, and Chamberlain Falls’ seven foot drop. The rapids continue with Bogus Thunder, Staircase and several other fun Class III and IV rapids. The Chamberlain section is a boofing paradise, and a great training ground since many of the rapids can be made more difficult with alternate lines. The second half of the day has class II and III rapids like Nose Stand and Double Dip.

The North Fork of the American River canyon is a place of beauty: steep cliffs, clear green water, and a lush riparian environment. Waterfalls and rushing sidecreeks are also common during the spring season. The high walls of the North Fork canyon support Black Oaks, native pines, and many species of foothill birds. Despite a relatively short run, a day on “Chambies” feels like a wilderness experience because of the canyon’s isolation and high, steep walls.

The North Fork American is a popular after-work kayak run in the springtime. Folks head to the Chamberlain Falls section from Sacramento, Auburn, Coloma, and Truckee to get in some weekday paddling.

Permits are not required to do a private trip on the North Fork of the American River, but if you want to camp in the canyon, you need a wilderness camping permit from State Parks. Call (916) 988-0205 for more info about getting wilderness permits.

Some boaters combine a Chamberlain Falls run with a Giant Gap (upper section) run. Or, you can “do laps” on Chamberlain’s and get in a couple runs. Because the North Fork is free-flowing, you never have to worry about water releases.

The North Fork of the American River is a free-flowing run, which means upstream dams don’t control its flows. In addition, the drainage that feeds this river is fairly small and low in elevation. This means that the North Fork has a short window of time during which it has enough water for recreational boating. The spring snowmelt typically begins in April and is finished by May. Commercial rafters should call an outfitter early in the season to find out when trips are available, and private kayakers and rafters should be sure to look up flows before making plans for a trip.

When it rains, it flows. When it snows…go skiing! Typically, when the rain hits California, the North Fork American rises. However, when the snow level drops to 2,500-4,000 feet, the North Fork is usually low. In the spring, when the snow melts, it runs more consistently.


The Middle Fork in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class III-IV

Gradient: 40 ft/mi

Length: 16 miles, 1-2 days

Season: May – October

Put-in: Oxbow

Take-out: Greenwood

Who should go: Intermediate rafters. Adventurous first time rafters are welcome on commercial trips.

The Middle Fork of the American River is one of the most popular commercial whitewater runs in the Mother Lode. It’s the perfect “next step” for rafters and kayakers looking for a challenge because of its many class III and class IV rapids. A mellow stretch in the middle of the day lets you unwind and enjoy the beauty of the canyon too. The Middle Fork is 50 miles northeast of Sacramento up the Hwy 80 corridor, and 17 miles from the Gold Rush era town of Auburn. People coming from the San Francisco Bay Area also find it an easy day trip.

The most famous feature of the Middle Fork of the American River is rooted in the California Gold Rush. In the mid 19th century, miners diverted the river at Horseshoe Bend, a stretch of river particularly rich in gold and blasted a hole through solid rock in order to re-route the water and get the gold. The result is the infamous Tunnel Chute rapid that ends by flowing through a 90 foot rock tunnel. Other rapids include Kanaka, Cleavage, and Catapult. At mile 14, Ruck-a-Chucky is mired in myth and controversy. A 30 foot waterfall long considered unrunnable at worst and risky at best, Ruck-a-Chucky has started to be run by extreme boaters; commercial guests, however, continue to walk around or “portage” the rapid.

The Middle Fork American canyon is beautiful and striking. There are very few homes and no commercial development along the raftable section but you might see a fisherman or miner or two (there are still some small commercial dredges operating successfully in the canyon, which are certainly not lovely, but are an unmistakable reminder of the important history of this river and the surrounding area). Steep canyon walls are thick with trees and signs of wildlife–now and then people even see bears among the trees. Boaters with plenty of time to spare can also do side hikes to check out beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes.

Because the logistics on the Middle Fork are somewhat complicated (no public parking at put-in), and because there are several miles of Class II whitewater, more kayakers and private boaters tend to avoid the Middle Fork of the American


You don’t need a permit to do a private run on the Middle Fork of the American River, but if you camp, you will need a wilderness camping permit from State Parks. Call (916) 988-0205 for more info about this process.

Overnight Trips

If you want to do a two-day river trip on the Middle Fork you’ll need a wilderness camping permit. Make sure you understand what land is available for camping–private landowners tend to be pretty irritated when people camp uninvited on their property. Camping is available on the public land between Kanaka rapid (mile 4) and Ruck-a-Chucky (mile 14).

Don’t rely solely on your GPS device or Mapquest to get you to put-in, take-out, or even Foresthill. These hi-tech devices have taken many people down rugged forest service roads. Make sure to look at a map!


The Middle Fork American River is located near Foresthill, CA. From Sacramento, take I80 East and exit at Foresthill Road. Head south (right) on Foresthill Road for 15 miles to the town of Foresthill.

  • Put-in: Oxbow Powerhouse
    The put-in for the Middle Fork is below the Oxbow powerhouse. From Foresthill you’ll take Mosquito Ridge Road. Go over the bridge (over the North Fork of the Middle Fork) and then turn right at the stop sign to continue on to the Oxbow put-in. You’ll see the gravel put-in area.
  • Take-out
    Private rafters and kayakers can take out out at the Greenwood Bridge. Take the Foresthill exit off Hwy 80 in Auburn and drive across the bridge until you get to Driver’s Flat Road, about four miles down on the right. Be prepared for a bumpy ride–the pavement on Driver’s Flat gives out after the first half-mile or so.
  • The Middle Fork of the American is upstream of its confluence with the North Fork American. It is a dam-controlled river, which means you can expect reliable water all season long–typically late spring or early summer through the mid to late fall. Higher flows in the spring can delay the start of the commercial rafting season and private boaters should be sure to check flows to make sure they are aware of current conditions. Releases are regulated so Private Boaters should plan on getting on the water by 10 am and check Dreamflows to be sure.

The South Fork in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class III – Upper & Lower; Class II – C to G

Gradient: 25 ft/mi

Length: 21 miles, (shorter options)

Season: Apr to Oct; winter weekends

Sections: Chili Bar (Upper); Coloma to Greenwood Creek (C to G); Gorge (Lower)

Who should go: Beginner and intermediate rafters and kayakers, families, business groups, bachelor(ette) parties…

The South Fork of the American River is one of the most popular whitewater runs in the United States. Its popularity stems from its proximity to other cool places like the San Francisco Bay Area and Lake Tahoe and its accessible but fun Class III rapids. This is the perfect family rafting trip because it’s fun for people who have rafted before, but doesn’t overwhelm beginners.

Most Popular

The South Fork attracts thousands of rafters every summer, but is also host to a lively kayak community. Locals jump in inner tubes to cool off on blazing summer days. The small towns of Coloma and Lotus have food, entertainment, and places to crash as well as a gear shop for anything you forgot on the kitchen table.

Ideal Location

The South Fork’s whitewater may not be the gnarliest or the most spectacular in the state, but it is the most popular for a good reason. With an ideal location less than an hour east of Sacramento, the American River is nestled into California’s beautiful oak-covered foothills and runs right through Coloma, the town where gold was discovered.

Chili Bar (Upper)

The Upper section starts off with a rush as you drop into Meatgrinder, one of the longest rapids of the day. And Troublemaker, with its powerful right-hand turn and powerful hydraulics always brings a smile-which is good because of the crowds of photographers and sunbathers on the riverbanks. The Upper’s scenery is pure California, with golden grasses, tall oak trees, and stands of pine and cotton wood. In the spring, Mt Murphy is carpeted in a fantastic display of flaming California Poppies.


In the springtime, when the weather first begins to warm up, California’s state flower, the Poppy, blooms in abundance along the hillsides of the Chili Bar section.

Coloma to Lotus Park or Greenwood Creek (C to G)

The Class II section of the South Fork (C to G) is a gentle float trip, but tenacious kayakers find plenty of play spots along the way as well. The most popular spot is Barking Dog rapid, just downstream of Camp Lotus.

Gorge (Lower)

The Lower also has lots of fun class III rapids, starting with Fowler’s Rock–a notorious wrap rock. Other rapids include Satan’s Cesspool and Bouncing Rock. The scenery on the lower is lovely and slightly more open than the canyon on the Upper. Popular sights include the Lollipop tree and Gorilla Rock. You will also see Merganser ducks, birds soaring overhead, and a rich riparian environment.

The South Fork of the American, in addition to being California’s most heavily rafted river, is also one of its most heavily dam-controlled. The main whitewater section is upstream of massive Folsom Lake and Dam. Upstream of thatare like 49 other dams. Ok, not 49, but a lot–6, in fact. The water in the South Fork is fairly consistent. New water regulations also mean that recreational use gets priority in determining water flows so rafting outfitters, private boaters, and kayakers know they can rely on the South Fork all season long–typically releases of approximately 1300 CFS throughout the main rafting season: early spring to late fall all week, and on weekends in the winter.

Winter rafting and kayaking on the South Fork are do-able but be aware that flows can skyrocket to 10-20 thousandCFS during storms, and you might find yourself boating with stray picnic tables, porta-potties and travel trailors. Caution is a must unless you don’t find the prospect of surfing Troublemaker with an entire pine tree intimidating–in which case you might want to rethink your safety strategy. Standard winter flows (and guaranteed weekend releases) are less intimidating but the water remains fast and cold. Bring your wet and dry suits!


The Lower American in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class I-II

Length: 5-6 miles

Season: Year-round

Put-in: Sunrise

Take-out: River Bend or William Pond

Who should go: Families, do-it-your-selfers, serious water-fighters.

The Lower American River flows through the scenic American River Parkway, but it is hardly a wilderness experience. You will see lovely river banks, flocks of ducks, and maybe a fish or two, but the most common wildlife sightings are of sunburned frat boys, squealing kids, and ubiquitous wielders of water cannons, super soakers, and good old-fashioned buckets. Most people rent rafts or kayaks for an easy day of water-fighting and floating on the water, but if you have your own stuff, by all means bring it!

Whitewater and Scenery

The lower section of the American River flows from Folsom Dam to its confluence with the Sacramento River at the delta. Easy access and very gentle flows make it an extremely popular float trip. The bulk of this section of river is class I, but there are a couple class II rapids that are fun for play-boaters (San Juan Rapid is your best bet). Despite its popularity and gentle flows, common sense and life jackets are non-negotiable as deep currents, hidden debris, and other hazards are always present. This is especially true after a flood or during unpredictable winter weather. Caution should always be exercised in the hot summer months as well

No permits are required. Life jackets are mandatory despite the mellow water (do not become a grim statistic and underestimate the power of even “calm” stretches of this, or any river) and alcohol on the river has recently been outlawed. Authorities have been known to search coolers randomly.

Your watercraft could be a….raft, kayak, innertube, waterwings, floating alligator, inflatable kayak, canoe… Please make sure to always wear a coast guard approved personal floatation device!

Rental Equipment

If you don’t have your own raft, kayak, or other floating device, you can rent from either River Rat Raft Rentals orAmerican River Raft Rentals. They also rent life vests, paddles, and have various necessities such as sunscreen and hats.

Overnight Trips

There are no overnight rafting trips on the Lower American River, but if you want to camp locally you have several options like the Beals Point and Pennisula Campgrounds.


Rental companies offer shuttles for an additional fee; private boaters will have to arrange their own. Leave a car at River Bend Park or the William B. Pond Rec Area and then drive back to Sunrise for put-in. Since the river is lined by the American River Parkway you can also shuttle by bicycle if you’re fired up for a little bi-athalon action.


Those renting rafts and whatnot will be directed to put-in by rental staff. Private boaters put in at the Sunrise Recreation Area. There is a small fee for parking and launching.


If you rent equipment the company will give you info about take-out and will also shuttle you back to put-in for an additional fee. Private boaters can take out at River Bend Park. There is a small fee for parking and take-out. If eating on the river doesn’t appeal to you, the park is a great spot to picnic after your day on the water. You can also take out at William B. Pond Recreation Area.

The Lower American River is heavily dam-controlled. Directly upstream is Folsom Dam, one of many such hydroelectric and flood control facilities on the American River. The dam makes flows on the Lower American very reliable–even at “fish flow” you’ll be able to get out on the water.

Don’t be lured into a false sense of security though. Even during summer, the river has powerful currents and hidden hazards like brush, trees, and submerged rocks. During winter storms water levels can rise and fall quickly and the current gets much stronger. When the snow melts in the spring the water is also higher and temperatures drop considerably. Sorry to sound like your mother, but lots of people forget these basic rules and get into trouble on the Lower American each year so remember: always wear a quality life jacket and use common sense. Oh, and brush your teeth, too.

Although the Lower American is most popular for summer float trips, there are typically flows in this section year-round. Check before you go in the spring to make sure that flows aren’t too high, and if you are jonesing for some river time in the winter, head to San Juan Hole for a good surf session.


The North Stan in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class IV+

Gradient: 77 ft/mi

Length: 7 miles

Season: May – June

Put-in: Sourgrass Campground

Take-out: Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Who should go: Intermediate and advanced boaters who can withstand a little cold for one of the most beautiful runs in California

The North Fork of the Stanislaus River, or the “North Stan,” is an under-appreciated gem for rafting and kayaking. It is only runnable in the springtime when the snow melts and the river rises, since the upstream dam rarely releases water during daylight hours. When it does run, in May and early June, it is well worth making the drive up Highway 4 into Calaveras Big Trees State Park to raft or kayak and experience the excitement and beauty the North Fork of the Stanislaus River has to offer.

Because the Sourgrass run is at higher elevation (4000′) the landscape is quite different from other California foothill runs. Transparent turquoise water tumbles over granite boulders and meanders through giant redwoods creating an incredible array of contrasting colors. Although most people would argue that the scenery alone is worth a trip to the North Stan, the whitewater is also quite thrilling. Put-in just below a chunky Class V+ rapid that may look runnable, but is not advisable.

The run starts off just below with some of the hardest rapids, Beginner’s Luck and Rattlesnake. Depending on the flow, these rapids are quite challenging and are always worth a quick scout. The rapids continue to excite boaters all the way through the end of the run with rapids such as Bearclaw and the infamous Maycheck’s Mayhem, and the North Stan finishes with a grand finale at mile 7 with the Sequoia Sluices, three consecutive Class IV tiered rapids. Non-boaters can hike down to the bridge over the river at this point to watch their kayaker or rafter friends try their luck in these last three rapids. This is also a great spot to take photos. You can take your boats out here by hiking up to the bridge, or continue on down to McKay’s Point for a few more miles of Class V and some beautiful whitewater. The McKay’s section is for experts only. Most commercial rafting outfitters take out at the bridge.

Flood of ’97

The North Stan used to be a classic run in California, but the flood of 1997 wiped out a few Class IV rapids and left in its wake an unrunnable Class V+ rapid just upstream of the current Sourgrass put-in.

The main fork of the Stanislaus River, once the most popular rafting and kayaking run in California, gained notoriety in the late 1970’s and early ’80’s when the extremely controversial New Melones Dam was constructed and buried the Stanislaus River under New Melones Reservoir. Since then, California’s rafting epicenter shifted to the American River and even the runnable parts of the Stanislaus are boated infrequently. The Sourgrass Section deserves more attention for it’s continuous, difficult whitewater and the beautiful Sierra canyon it flows through. Located just east of the charming mountain town, Murphy’s, numerous foothill wineries, and just west of the beautiful Bear Valley Ski Resort, the North Stanislaus is perfectly situated for you to enjoy a fun and adventurous mountain vacation.

There are only a few commercial rafting companies that run trips on the North Stan, and the season is short, but they will take care of the shuttle, provide you with guides who are experienced on the river, and serve up a delicious lunch. If you’ve never boated Class IV+ or are unfamiliar with the run, going with a guide who knows it well is always a good idea.


No permits are currently required, but it’s good to remember that you are running through Stanislaus National Forest lands, so all normal rules and regulations apply.

Overnight Trips

Most people don’t do intentional overnight trips on the North Stan. There are great campgrounds (that are typically uncrowded in the spring) in the area if you are looking to boat for a few days.

Camping Tip

Camp at Calaveras Big Trees State Park and enjoy some of the most awe-inspiring Sierra Redwoods in California. You might even be inspired to become a “tree hugger” and see if you can wrap your arms around one of the giants.


You will have to run your own shuttle on the North Stan – no official shuttle services operate here. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find other boaters most of the time. With that being said, the shuttle is not too painful. A few long miles on dirt roads, but a 4wd vehicle is recommended in muddy conditions. Make sure the snow on the roads has melted though!


To get to the North Fork of the Stanislaus River, you will have to drive through some of California’s most beautiful foothill countryside. The North Stan is located on Highway 4, east of Stockton. In the town of Angel’s Camp, where Highway 4 intersects Highway 49, head east on 4 toward Murphy’s. If you have time to stop in Murphy’s it is well worth a visit, since it is one of California’s most charming foothill towns. Head past Murphy’s until you get into Calaveras Big Trees. You can set a shuttle here (follow directions below) and continue on to the put-in, or set your shuttle later. There are also places to camp in the state park or in Stanislaus National Forest.

  • Put-in: Sourgrass Campground
    From Highway 4, head east past Calaveras Big Trees State Park about 4 1/2 miles. Go right on Board’s Crossing Road. Go 2 1/2 miles and when a dirt road veers off to the right, STAY LEFT on Board’s Crossing (turns into 5N02) and drive about 3 more miles to Sourgrass Campground.
  • Take-out: McKay’s PointFrom Highway 4 in Avery (just a few miles east of Murphy’s) take a right on Moran Road. Go 1 miles and turn right onto Love Creek Road. Drive 4 miles and when you get to a Y fork in the road, take the right fork and head up a hill. You will come to a 4 way intersection. Keep going straight (onto 5N35), and head down to the river (less than 1 more mile)

Flow Level Descriptions

  • 400 – 600 CFS = Medium flows. Very technical Class IV+ rafting through tight chutes, and over radical drops. At these flows the river resembles a trout stream at a high elevation complete with boulders, fallen trees and small pools.
  • 600 – 1200 CFS = Medium-high flows. Less boulders and more drops. The river becomes more powerful and rapids increase in length. Plenty of Class IV+ whitewater.
  • 1200 – 1800 CFS = High flows. Rapids become longer and more powerful. The obstacles change from boulders to stomping hydraulics and holes. Oar-paddle raft option may be available.
  • 1800 – 3000 CFS = Extreme high flows. Rapids begin to “link” with one another and become very challenging. Calms between the rapids become shorter and some disappear.

CFS= Cubic Feet per Second

Flow Tip

The rafting season is unfortunately quite short on the North Stan, sometimes limited to just a few weekends in May. But if you watch the snowpack (near Bear Valley) and the weather, and hit the river when it’s flowing well, you’re in for a real treat.


The “Creek” in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Solid Class V

Gradient: 110 ft/mi

Length: 8 miles

Season: June – September

Put-in: Holm Powerhouse

Take-out: Meral’s Pool

Who should go: Expert, experienced kayakers and rafters; intermediate rafters should book a trip with a commercial outfitter.


Ah Cherry Creek, some of the most sublime and thrilling whitewater in the nation, let alone California. Its class V rapids provide a serious challenge and ultimate adventure to both expert kayakers and seasoned boaters. These waters should not be attempted by someone who has not had considerable class IV+ kayaking experience. Commercial rafting trips with a professional guide are recommended if you haven’t been commandeering your personal boat on other challenging Class IV+ & V rivers.

A run on the Creek is a mad dash down angled hydraulics and through a blur of what seems like almost constant rock gardens. The average gradient is 105 feet per minute. At mile three, Mushroom rapid followed by Toadstool make for a thunderous adrenaline rush and Miracle Mile offers up an extreme descent of 200 feet per minute. Be aware of dangerous current flowing under large boulders and undercut rocks which make for extremely technical rapids. Both kayakers and boaters need to follow precise lines. Kayakers should have “an unfailingly quick offside roll” and there should be someone in the group who knows the lines by heart. Rafters need serious technical boat control and the ability both to self-rescue and pick up swimmers quickly.

Cherry Creek is some of the most technical commercially-run white water in the United States. Expert groups sometimes run it privately, but most rafting trips on the creek are guided by professional river guides. For kayakers, it is considered the gateway to California’s Class V boating scene. Because it runs all summer, and many Class V runs peter off after the spring snowmelt, Cherry Creek is the most popular Class V summer run in California. Kayakers have even been known to camp out at The Creek and run it daily.

Cherry Creek Race

Every August there is an informal race on Cherry Creek. Kayakers “bomb down,” often in longer racing boats. This is not something to try unless you are an expert Cherry Creek kayaker!



The Stanislaus National Forest Service issues permits from May 1 – October 15, although checking flows to see if there is enough water

during early and late season is a good idea. You can purchase permits in advance, or you can pick up a day-use permit the day of your trip. Permits for Cherry Creek (Upper T) are free, but you still need one. The Forest Service office is located about 1/4 mile past Casa Loma at 24545 Highway 120. You can call them at 209-962-7825.

Overnight Trips

People rarely run intentional overnight trips on Cherry Creek. Some outfitters and private boaters link the Class V Cherry Creek section to the Class IV Main Tuolumne, making for a longer, more exciting trip. Generally, you would run Cherry Creek while they are rigging and getting everything set for the “T” trip, and you would meet them at Meral’s Pool and continue downstream.

Shuttle Tip

If you are doing a private Cherry Creek trip, you might be able to find a Main Tuolumne boater’s car to drive out from Meral’s Pool (take-out for you, put-in for them) and save both of you the extra shuttle time.


Getting a car shuttle on “The Creek” can be somewhat of a challenge. Although no commercial shuttle services are running these days, there are several ways to get your car from the put-in to the take-out. If you do pay someone to shuttle your car, the “going rate” is usually

somewhere between $50 and $100. The main meeting spot for Cherry Creek trips is at the old Casa Loma store, about 7 miles east of Groveland and 1/4 mile from the Forest Service office. You can leave cars at Casa Loma if necessary.


  • Put-in for Cherry Creek: Holm Powerhouse
    From Groveland, head East on 120, past Casa Loma store, and take a left on Cherry Oil Road (just past the South Fork Tuolumne bridge). Go left at the sign to Holm Powerhouse and park at the turn-out next to Cherry Creek.

Take-out for Cherry Creek (Put-in for the Main Tuolumne): Meral’s Pool
From Groveland, take 120 East towards Yosemite about 7 miles. Take a left at the 2nd Ferretti Road (at the Casa Loma Store). Take a right on Lumsden Road. Lumsden Road is a one lane, dire road maintained by the Forest Service. It has been upgraded in the past few years, but a 4×4 is still handy. The drive down Lumsden takes about 35 minutes. Park your car on the side of the road at Meral’s Pool. Bathrooms are available at Meral’s Pool.


Optimum flows for kayaks range between 600 – 1500+ cfs and rafts can maneuver well at 800 – 1800 cfs. Canoes of any kind are discouraged (let’s just say quick maneuvering in tight spaces=no room for a canoe), inflatable kayaks and catarafts can be dicey but a riot for those watching the carnage downstream and tubing (though supposedly it has been done) is just downright crazy!

Cherry Creek Flow Descriptions

  • 1000 – 1500 CFS = Medium flows. Challenging Class V+ whitewater, exciting for veterans. Previous experience needed. Big drops over and around huge boulders mean quick maneuvering around powerful obstacles. Difficult and long swims are possible should someone fall out of the raft.
  • 1500 – 2200 CFS = High flows. Very challenging Class V+whitewater, with powerful and fast moving water. Rapids consist of big drops into giant holes with very turbulent water. Calms between rapids are short and swift. Participants should be very athletic and aggressive and have previous Class IV+ rafting experience.

CFS=Cubic Feet per Second

Flow Tip

Cherry Creek is a challenging run, and the water stops releasing at 11am. You should definitely get started early, which probably means you should do your celebrating the night after instead of the night before your trip.

Tuolumne River Watershed

Cherry Creek is an upper tributary of the Tuolumne River. After winter, even normal spring runoff makes the water too high to run until the flow begins to be regulated by Holm powerhouse and upstream reservoirs. This typically begins by mid-July. Depending on the snowpack, this river runs well through Labor Day for whitewater rafting, kayaks can continue to navigate Cherry Creek into the fall.

The “T” in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class IV

Gradient: 35 ft/mi

Length: 18 miles, 1-3 days

Season: May – September

Put-in: Meral’s Pool

Take-out: Ward’s Ferry Bridge

Who should go: Wilderness lovers and intermediate paddlers who want to get away from it all.

The Tuolumne River is, in many ways, the perfect whitewater rafting or kayaking trip. Chock full of fun, manageable Class III and IV rapids in a beautiful California foothill canyon, the “T,” as river folks lovingly refer to it, is challenging enough to suit the adventurous souls, and while it’s not a Cancun beachcomber weekend, it’s relaxing enough to feel like a vacation.

If awards were given out for California’s rivers, the Tuolumne would win the “Best All-Around” award. The rapids on the Tuolumne are pool-drop, meaning there are moments of calm in between the whitewater excitement. Side streams such as the Clavey River, Big Creek, and the North Fork of the Tuolumne provide magical side hikes, fishing holes, and warm swimming pools during the summer months. The Tuolumne can be rafted or kayaked in a day, but it’s much better suited for an overnight trip. Two days are the most popular length of time, however if you like exploring side creeks, fishing, and lounging in the sun along with amazing whitewater, a three day trip might be ideal for your group.

Everything on the Tuolumne River seems to be divided up based on Clavey Falls. Before “The Falls,” Clavey Falls, and after Clavey. Many trips choose to camp at Clavey and do a side hike, others just stop for lunch and scout the rapid. Almost everyone scouts Clavey rapids, even advanced boaters.

Put-in to Clavey: Class IV Heaven

At Meral’s Pool (named after CA kayaking pioneer, Jerry Meral), the Tuolumne River starts out immediately with a series of challenging whitewater rapids: Rock Garden, Nemesis, Sunderland’s Chute, Hackamack Hole, and Ramshead. The river continues in this manner with more pool-drop Class IV rapids (India, Phil’s Folly, Sterns, Evangelist, and Framecrusher) down to its confluence with the Clavey River.

Insider Tip

If you have time to take a hike up Clavey, it is well worth a little walking. There are amazing pools, including the Olympic Pool and several fun jumping rocks.

The Clavey River: Primo Camp Spot, Beautiful Side Hike, Class V Rapid

The Clavey is one of the last free flowing rivers in the state and provides habitat for a rare pre-glacial population of native coastal rainbow trout. It is also a great place to camp on an overnight trip, or stop for a short day hike to the olympic-size swimming hole a little ways upstream. Just below the confluence is the biggest and most famous whitewater rapid on the T, Clavey Falls. While a clean line through Clavey makes it look easy and straightforward, the rapid has been known to “jump out and bite” many boaters. Most old-timers have some story or another about a time they flipped or wrapped at Clavey. Many people believe the rapid changed a few years ago, during the 2005 high water spring, so that Clavey Hole is no longer a force to be reckoned with. However, Clavey is still a powerful, exciting, and usually entirely fun rapid.

Below Clavey: Long Technical Rapids, Campsites & the North Fork Tuolumne

Below Clavey, the Tuolumne calms down for a few miles. There are fun jumping rocks, long calm pools to swim in, and easy Class II and III rapids. Big sandy beaches shaded by oak trees provide awesome campsites for overnight whitewater trips: Powerhouse, Grapevine, Baseline, and Driftwood. The river picks up again with a few long Class IV rapids, Grey’s Grindstone, Cabin, and Hell’s Kitchen. The last several miles are more mellow, but there are still Class II and III rapids interspersed to keep things fun. The 18 mile run ends in Don Pedro reservoir. If the reservoir is full, you may want to consider paying a boat shuttle service to tow your boat the last mile. When the reservoir is low, there are Class II rapids all the way to the take out at Ward’s Ferry Bridge. Prepare for a somewhat heinous hike up a steep trail to the car after your day of rafting or kayaking.


The Stanislaus National Forest Service issues permits from May 1 – October 15, although checking flows to see if there is enough water during early and late season is a good idea. You can purchase permits in advance, which we recommend doing for an overnight trip, or you can pick up a day-use permit the day of your trip. Permits are $15 for groups smaller than 10. The Forest Service office is located about 1/4 mile past Casa Loma at 24545 Highway 120. You can call them at 209-962-7825.

Overnight Trips

Most campsites are first-come, first-serve, although it is nice to talk with the other boaters at put-in to see where they are planning to camp. In order to avoid tension between private and commercial trips, the Forest Service has designated a few of the more popular campsites as commercial or private, depending on the year, however if no trips are planning to camp there, they are open to anyone. Clavey Right, Powerhouse, and North Fork (downstream) are commercial campsites during odd-numbered years. Clavey Left, Indian Creek, and North Fork (downstream) are commercial during even-numbered years.

For overnight trips there are firepan and groover (portable bathrooms) requirements. Make sure to check with the Forest Service so that you have all the required gear with you.

Shuttle Tips

During the height of summer, if Cherry Creek season is happening, you can often find a Class V, Cherry Creek kayaker who will happily drive your car or truck from Meral’s Pool back to Casa Loma for free. This is an oft-used method that saves everyone shuttle time and gas money.


Getting a car shuttle on the Tuolumne can be somewhat of a challenge. Although no commercial shuttle services are running these days, there are several ways to get your car from the put-in to the take-out. If you do pay someone to shuttle your car, the “going rate” is usually somewhere between $50 and $100. The main meeting spot for Main Tuolumne trips is at the old Casa Loma store, about 7 miles east of Groveland and 1/4 mile from the Forest Service office. You can leave cars at Casa Loma if necessary.


  • Put-in for Main Tuolumne (Take-out for Cherry Creek): Meral’s Pool
    From Groveland, take 120 East towards Yosemite about 7 miles. Take a left at the 2nd Ferretti Road (at the Casa Loma Store). Take a right on Lumsden Road. Lumsden Road is a one lane, dire road maintained by the Forest Service. It has been upgraded in the past few years, but a 4×4 is still handy. The drive down Lumsden takes about 35 minutes. You can park your car on the side of the road, just make sure you are out of the way. There are bathrooms available at Meral’s Pool.
  • Take-out for Main “T”: Wards Ferry Bridge 
    From Groveland, take 120 West for a few miles. Go right on Deer Flat Road. Go right on Wards Ferry Road. Head down until you see Don Pedro Reservoir and Wards Ferry Bridge. Something to keep in mind is that cars left overnight at the Ward’s Ferry Bridge often get broken into, so if you are doing an overnight trip, it may be worth hiring someone to pick you up or drive your car to take-out on your last day. For a one-day trip, you can set the shuttle yourself, but get an early start because water turns off at 11am (from Cherry Reservoir).

The Main Tuolumne is a dam controlled river with managed water releases throughout the spring and summer. The designated “Wild and Scenic” section of the Tuolumne begins northeast of the town of Groveland. Here you will find the spectacular whitewater runs of this protected river canyon. Though tightly regulated by the National Park Service, this popular section of the “T” is highly sought after for rafting and kayaking.

  • 900 – 1400 CFS = Low flows. Typical summer releases are perfect for kayaking and paddle rafting. Sometimes larger, heavier gear boats have a challenging time getting through more technical rapids at these flows.
  • 1400 – 2500 CFS = Medium flows. Great for aggressive first timers and experienced rafters. Plenty of Class III & IV whitewater.
  • 2500 – 4000 CFS = Medium-high flows. Great for experienced rafters and a few aggressive first timers. Plenty of Class III & IV+ whitewater.
  • 4000 – 8000 CFS = High flows. Challenging Class IV+ whitewater, exciting for experienced rafters. Big waves and swift moving water.
  • Above 8000 CFS = Extreme high flows. Fast moving water, with powerful waves and long rapids. Experience is highly recommended. Trips at these levels are best for very aggressive people who are not afraid of falling into a very fast river with long rapids.

Tuolumne Watershed

  • The Tuolumne is one of the major rivers flowing west from the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Originating in one of Yosemite National Park’s ice-age carved valleys, the canyon now fosters a perfect environment for whitewater enthusiasts.
  • The headwaters of the Tuolumne begin 13,000 feet above sea level at Mount Lyell. The river snakes its way to the sea by curving east to west, downstream until it connects with the San Joaquin River and eventually drains into the Pacific.
  • Flowing through what is called the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, the steep, V-shaped canyon walls hold flora distinctly characteristic of the coniferous forests of the foothills. The river canyon is blanketed with chaparral, manzanita, scrub brush, and oaks. Oddly enough the river canyon appears to be more lush than the Yosemite Canyon rim above even though the canyon floor typically receives less rainfall than the rim each year.
  • Just below O’Shaunessy Dam and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the Tuolumne begins to flow through Stanislaus National Forest and is joined by the Upper Tuolumne, better known as Cherry Creek. Clavey river joins the Tuolumne mid-way through the descent. At the confluence of the two rivers, the thrilling class IV+ rapid known as Clavey Falls, provides a landmark to rafters and kayakers heading downstream. If the chance to hike along the Clavey and swim in its warm, natural granite pools arises don’t miss this highly recommended experience.

The Merced In A Nutshell

Difficulty: Class IV-

Gradient: 34 ft/mi

Length: 29 miles total

Season: April – July

Sections: Redbud to Briceburg (15 miles); Briceburg to Bagby (14 miles).

Who should go: Intermediate kayakers; adventurous fi

  1. The Merced is free-flowing and Federally protected under the Wild and Scenic Act and it is one of the only Sierra Nevada rivers that is undammed in the upper reaches. Some people find it a bit ironic that the Merced River is “Wild and Scenic” since Highway 140 runs alongside it most of the way, but we are grateful that it is protected from any future dams or diversion projects. The only real downfall to the road is that cars drive by and honk or pull over to watch boats get drenched in Ned’s Gulch.

But the road has its perks as well, namely that you can scout a majority of the rapids from your car and that the shuttle is extremely easy. The first several miles and last few miles are fairly steep and more technical, but the middle stretch is mostly Class III with some bigger Class IV rapids interspersed.

Overnight Rafting Trips

Although it’s not uncommon for boaters to choose to do an overnight trip, the camping options are less than sublime, and the Merced River is easily rafted or kayaked in a day. It works out so that at higher water, people only raft or kayak the section above Briceburg and at low water they only run the Quarter Mile section below. So, a two-day trip usually ends up doing like Sublime and “singing the same song twice.”

Redbud to Briceburg

Commerical trips begin either at Cranberry or Redbud, depending on just how high the river is flowing. Nightmare Island and Chipped Tooth rapids are both above the Redbud put-in, but most of the fun Class III and IV rapids are below. The whitewater is pretty continuous, but make sure to find time to enjoy the blooming wildflowers and green hillsides. Can Opener, Balls-to-the-Wall, and Ned’s Gulch are just a few of the big-water, big-wave, big-splash rapids. For about five miles above the Briceburg take-out the Merced River mellows out with mostly Class II rapids. Many trips take out at Briceburg, but some continue on to Railroad Flat to run another five miles with some great whitewater.

Wildflower Tip

The boating season really begins on the Merced in April, but late March is when the wildflower season usually starts to show its true colors. Get on an early season rafting trip and see millions of poppies and lupins literally covering the hillsides.

Briceburg to Bagby (Quarter Mile Section)

Just a couple miles past Briceburg are two of the most formiddable Class IV rapids on the Merced: Split Rock and Corner Pocket. Split Rock is arguably one of best Class IV rapids in California at higher flows. You will have plenty of time in the flatter sections to enjoy the scenery, which includes the old Yosemite Railroad along the righthand bank. This part of the Merced River is away from the highway, so there is more of a feeling of remoteness (other than the topless women you might see at Bikini Beach). About five miles downstream is Quarter Mile Rapid, which is actually about a half-mile-long, technical, Class IV boulder slalom that is recommended running only at flows less than 1000cfs. Just below Quarter Mile Rapid, at about mile 23, is a mandatory portage at North Fork Falls. There’s a boat ramp on the right hand side you can use to carry boats around. The last six miles to take-out at Bagby are relaxing Class II ripples.


A permit is not required for private groups to run the Merced Rive

Overnight Trips

The Merced River is easily rafted or kayaked in one day, but there are camping options along the river below Briceburg Bridge. Camping is mostly accessible by car, so you can go gourmet, have a dry change of clothes in the car, and bring the big family tent.


There are no organized shuttle services, but shuttles are easy on the Merced. You can leave a car at any of the put-ins or take-outs. Briceburg is a great meeting spot for either section.

Overnight Camping Tip

You can camp below Briceburg on the left side of the river at several campsites. There is no car access there, but you can park your car on the river right side and row your gear across the river for a wilderness camping experience


  • Put-in (Red Bud to Briceburg): Redbud
    This upper section is best run at higher flows, above 1200 cfs. Cranberry Gulch is an alternate put-in for this section about 2 miles downstream. Head east on Hwy 140 towards Yosemite. The Merced River will be on your left the entire way. You can scout several rapids from the road. Cranberry and Red Bud are on your left a few miles before the south entrance to Yosemite National Park.
  • Take-out (Put-in for Briceburg to Bagby): Briceburg Bridge:
    Alternate take-out is Indian Flat. The Briceburg Bridge is on Hwy 140 about 15 miles north of Mariposa. It’s at the elbow in the road where Highway 140 leaves (or gets to, if you’re coming from Mariposa) the Merced River.
  • Take out (Lower Section): Bagby
    Bagby, at the east end of McClure Reservoir. From Mariposa, head north on Hwy 49. After about 18 miles, take a right on a dirt road that runs alongside the reservoir.

The Kings in a Nutshell


Difficulty: Class III

Gradient: 30 ft/mi

Length: 10 miles

Season: Spring to mid-Summer

Put-in: Garnet Dike Campgroundl

Take-out: Kirch Flat Campground

Who should go: Rafters coming up from Southern California , families, big-water addicts.


A trip down the Kings River is the perfect way to turn a visit to the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests into a multi-day, multi-sport adventure extravaganza. Near Fresno and Southern California, the Kings is an excellent introductory whitewater river trip. The high volume Class III rapids are accessible for first-time rafters and plenty o’ fun for old pros too.

As it flows down into the foothills from its source high in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the Kings River winds its way through rolling hills dotted with pines and oaks native to Central California. Though the Banzai section is not known as a wilderness river or beloved for its isolation, you can expect moments of natural beauty and glimpses of wildlife along the riverbanks.

The Banzai Run on the Kings River is known for high volume flows and large rolling rapids with powerful but straightforward hydraulics. Expect long wave trains, not tight and technical maneuvers. Flows on the Kings are highest in spring during the snow melt, but rapids like class III/III+ Banzai, which hits you right after put-in, stay fun at lower flows as well. Other highlights include Fang Tooth and Rooster Tail, which is known for its long and impressive class III wave train as the river flows around an island. The whitewater on the Kings River is spread out fairly evenly throughout the run–there are no long stretches of “float time.”

Advanced Boater Tip

While the Banzai run is the most popular for commercial rafting, there are numerous other sections that are more advanced including the Middle Kings, a multi-day Class V expedition kayak trip.


here are no river permits required to raft or kayak the Banzai run and on top of that there are also no fees for camping or boat launches.

Overnight Trips

Since there are no fees for camping on the river, an overnight trip is a great idea during a multi-day river trip. If you would like to camp before or after your trip the convenience of having both put-in and take-out at campgrounds brings the a certain little jingle to mind…”double the pleasure, double the fun!” If these campsites are filled during peak season then head on over to the Kings Canyon National Park campsites.

Insider Tip

The busiest time of year on the river is Memorial Day weekend and, for that matter, pretty much every weekend in May. If you don’t like fighting for riverside camping and aren’t looking forward to a traffic filled, dusty road leading to the river it’s best to avoid this time of year.


It is 10 miles from the Garnet Dike campground to the Kirch Flat camp and picnic area. So, you’re looking at a 35 minute drive because 7 of those 10 miles are on a winding dirt road.


  • Take-out: From Highway 99, take highway 180 in Fresno east to Centerville. Take a left on Trimmer Springs Road and drive through Piedra. Doyal’s Store in Piedra is the last gas station until you get to take-out, which is 30 miles away. Once you get to the north side of Pine Flat Reservoir be prepared for a winding 30 mile car trek to Kirch Flat Campground. Those who suffer from carsickness are forewarned that those 30 miles are a doozey.
  • Put-in: Travel upriver on Trimmer Springs Road, cross a concrete bridge, and continue on paved road to Rodgers Crossing bridge. You will see a dirt road that bears right along the south bank. It leads to more campgrounds at Mill Flat Creek. Stay on the paved road and cross the bridge, turn right onto another dirt road and drive for 7 miles until you reach Garnet Dike put-in. From here you can scout Banzai rapid.
  • Originating high in the mountains of central California near Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park, the Kings River boasts the largest watershed of any river in the Sierra Nevada range. Un-dammed and un-spoiled, the Kings river truly is one of the most scenic rivers in the West, and provides for an excellent whitewater rafting trip experience.
  • 500 – 1000 CFS = Lower flows. Great for eager first timers and experienced rafters. Class III+ whitewater.
    1000 – 1200 CFS = Lower flows. Forgiving Class IV and some Class V whitewater. Best for experienced rafters who like the challenge of difficult paddling and maneuvers.
    1200 – 2000 CFS = Medium flows. Challenging Class IV+ and Class V whitewater, exciting for veterans. Previous experience preferred and helpful. Bigger waves and swift moving water.
  • CFS: Cubic Feet per Second

·              Kings River Watershed

  • California whitewater rafting is a little bit different on the Kings River. The season on the Kings River is sometimes so short that Sierra-dwellers can almost blink and miss the transition from winter to spring. This is due to the fact that the Kings River is fed by the melting run off of winter snowcaps high in the Sierra Mountains. Since we seemed to be locked into winters becoming warmer and warmer, the rafting season on the Kings River has been short in the last few years.
  • Mid-April is the season for exciting springtime rafting on the Kings River. California whitewater rafting enthusiasts trek to the Kings River during mid April when the whitewater and waterfalls are gushing and the Kings River is at it’s mightiest. The mind set for the expert rafter is,” break out your gear right now or you will miss the season.” Summer is the best season for children, beginners and family rafting on the Kings River class III Banzai run.
    In a good year, the season runs April through August. The River calms down mid-summer (July and August).

The Kaweah in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class IV+

Gradient: 50 ft/mi

Length: 10 miles

Season: April – late June

Put-in: East Fork confluence

Take-out: Terminus Reservoir

Who should go:Adrenaline seekers who want fun, exciting rapids.

Only a few hours north of the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, and 45 minutes east of Visalia, the Kaweah is one of the best rafting and kayaking options in California for more experienced boaters with continuous Class IV-IV+ rapids. The upper stretch begins at the park boundary and is recommended only for expert kayakers.

Whitewater & Scenery

Technical and continuous, the Kaweah is a solid Class IV run. Views of Sequoia National Park backdrop the run, but boaters usually don’t have much time to look around.

Read more about Kaweah River Whitewater.

River Flows

Flows fluctuate regularly in the springtime, and higher flows = harder, more continuous whitewater.

Learn more about Kaweah River Flows.


Commercial raft trips begin just a little way downstream of the Sequoia National Park entrance at a private put-in. Most of the land along the Kaweah is privately owned, so scouting and finding alternate put-ins or take-outs is challenging.

The Kaweah River is one of the steepest river drainages in North America. Hailing from Sequoia National Park, the mostly free-flowing Kaweah tumbles and falls over 10,000 feet in 20 miles until it reaches Terminus Reservoir just west of the town of Three Rivers. Even though the Kaweah is far from “remote,” and Highway 198 parallels the run most of the way, the scenery is beautiful and the river offers some of the best whitewater in California.

Put-in to Town of Three Rivers

The Kaweah River pretty much starts off with a bang. If you are a private boater you will begin across from Gateway Restaurant under the East Fork Kaweah confluence bridge. There are a few Class IV+ rapids to navigate immediately. Commercial raft trips start a little less than a mile downstream at a private put-in on river left. The commercial put-in is mid-way through a Class III rapid, which often makes for an entertaining ride. Class IV rapids such as Willows, Lithium, Cyanotic, and Powerhouse are all in the first 2 miles. Excitement and adrenaline are forefront aspects of this run. Many rapids are a little like a maze; the river looks unnavigable until you realize there is a small chute, or a miniature line through bushes and trees, to get where you need to go. The Kaweah River is pretty open and if you have time to take a moment in between rapids and look upstream, views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains are spectacular.

Post Suicide Falls

After Suicide Falls and The Chair, the Kaweah flows through the town of Three Rivers and mellows out for a short while. There are very few legal places to stop along the river since most of the land is privately own. You will sometimes even be confronted by barking guard dogs at the river’s edge. If paddlers want to stop for lunch, there are several restaurants along the river serving hamburgers or deli sandwiches. Make sure not to eat too much though because there are challenging rapids such as Slickies and Holiday downstream. As the Kaweah River reaches Terminus Reservoir, it flattens out and winds its way through low hanging trees. Many people nickname the last couple miles “the Jungle Cruise.” Take out at one of the public boat ramps in the reservoir.

Insider Tip

There are several other sections of the Kaweah that are probably better for private boating, since most of the land along the Three Rivers section is privately owned, making put-ins and take-out somewhat challenging.


Permits are not needed to kayak or raft the Kaweah River. Make sure to check flows before you go because the water levels fluctuate constantly.


Overnight Trips

Although many people envision a river trip that includes camping under a starry sky and sitting by a campfire, overnight trips are not really an option since most of the riverside land is privately owned. The Kaweah River is easily rafted in a day and there are numerous options for camping or hotels nearby. If you want to spend a couple days rafting, running the Kaweah twice makes for a great weekend. Since flows fluctuate depending on how much snow is melting, you can end up with an entirely different ride from day-to-day.

Insider Tip

Because land along the Kaweah River is privately owned, many boaters, and just about all commercial outfitters, stop at the riverside restaurants along the way to grab a bite to eat.


Dave at the Hideaway runs shuttles for commercial outfitters, so if there aren’t many rafting trips that day, you may be able to hire him for a shuttle. Other than that, the drive from Terminus Reservoir to the Gateway restaurant is just a few miles on Highway 198. Parking is scarce at put-in, so many people opt for a bike shuttle.


From Bakersfield take highway 198 east (toward Visalia) about 35 miles until you reach the town of Three Rivers.

  • Put-in
    At the bridge on Highway 198 over the confluence with the East Fork Kaweah. It’s across from the Gateway Restaurant. From Three Rivers, head east toward Sequoia National Park on Highway 198. An alternate put-in is at Dineley Drive Bridge, a few miles downstream, however private boaters have run into trouble with land owners, so if you decide to put in at Dineley, make sure to stay clear of the “no trespassing” signs.
  • Take-out
    Terminus Reservoir boat ramp on Highway 198. From Three Rivers, drive west on 198. The boat ramp will be on the right. There is plenty of parking available. If the reservoir is low, there will be rapids all the way to take-out, if it’s high, you might have a longer, flatter paddle out.

Prime flows for rafts are between 1500 – 3000 cfs, kayaks can manuver 500 – 2500 cfs, while Inflatable Kayaks should seek out a minimum of 500 cfs.

  • 500 – 1000 CFS = Lower flows. Great for eager first timers and experienced rafters. Class III+ whitewater.
  • 1000 – 3000 CFS = Medium flows. Great for aggressive first timers and experienced rafters. Plenty of Class III & IV whitewater.
  • 3000 – 5000 CFS = Medium-high flows. Challenging Class IV whitewater, exciting for experienced rafters. Big waves and swift moving water. Wetsuits required.
  • Above 5000 CFS = Extreme high flows. Fast moving water, with powerful waves and long rapids. Experience is highly recommended.

CFS = Cubic Feet per Second

Flow Tip

The Kaweah is dependent on snowmelt, so if you’re wondering what the Kaweah season is going to be like in May and June, you can look at the snowpack reports, and then just watch the weather and when it gets hot, there will usually be more water.


Kaweah Watershed

Kaweah Watershed

Be prepared for some downright fun rapids surrounded by some scenic areas bursting with dense foliage and giant sequoias. Watch out for some tricky hydraulics and many long boulder slaloms. The class IV Ledges (also called the Slickies) is a playground for kayaks, but rafters can find maneuvering this area a bit hairy. Overall, this area is unusual to see for those on a commercial rafting trip because large expanses of granite bedrock have been formed into smooth shallow slides which are formations not typically seen on most rivers.


The “Forks” in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class IV+ – V

Gradient: 65 ft/mi

Length: 17 miles

Season: April – June

Put-in: Lloyds Meadow Campground

Take-out: Johnsondale Bridge

Who should go: Only expert kayakers and rafters should attempt this on their own, but several outfitters run the Forks.

The Forks of the Kern run is one of the best combinations of remote wilderness and high-adrenaline white water in California. In that regard, it’s a little like the Tuolumne, but cranked up a notch. Most boaters agree that the scenery is some of the best on any Sierra river, and definitely the top wilderness run in the southern Sierra.

The headwaters of the Kern is fed by snowmelt from Mt. Whitney. The Main Kern and the Little Kern combine to make what boaters now refer to as the Forks of the Kern. The Forks is part of the federally protected Wild and Scenic Rivers system and it is most definitely wild, scenic, and remote. The hike in to the river canyon is a 2 mile hike that commercial outfitters hire mules and porters to help them with, but some private boaters opt to save a few bucks and carry their own gear. Once you get into the canyon, you will enjoy, (or be terrified by), 17 miles of pool-drop Class IV, IV+ and V rapids. Most people take 2-3 days to do this run, allowing for time to enjoy the scenery and scout rapids. Kayakers who know the Forks of the Kern will sometimes “bomb down” in a day.

Short Story

Very few people ever venture above the Forks of the Kern, but there actually are runnable rapids in the Headwaters section, which flows from high Sierra peaks including Mt. Whitney. The Headwaters run involves too much portaging and backpacking with a kayak for most people, but every so often a group ventures out there. Read one of just a handful of Headwaters of the Kern stories.

The whitewater is some of the best Class IV and V California has to offer. Folks have been commercially rafting on the Forks since 1980 when Bill McGinnis and Jim Cassady proved to the Forest Service that all the rapids are runnable. Nearly 30 years later, the whitewater is still just as thrilling. You know the rapids are frequent and exciting when even some Class IV’s remain unnamed. Unless you are with professional guides who know the way, be prepared for and make time to scout many of the rapids. Class V rapids such as Westwall, Vortex, and Carson Falls will make your heart pound and your hair wet. And there are plenty of fun and challenging Class IV-IV+ rapids in between.

With side creeks cascading into the main river, pine-studded hillsides, and views of The Needles granite formations there is plenty to soak in while you’re not transfixed on the tremendous feat of navigating the whitewater. Creeks such as Dry Meadow creating beautiful waterfalls as they plummet into the Kern River. The Forks of the Kern is located deep in the Golden Trout Wilderness Area, named after California’s state fish. The nature of the pool drop rapids is such that fishing is excellent in the pools, depending on the water levels.

Commercial vs. Private

The Forks of the Kern River is one of the more logistically challenging runs in California. With that being said, the whitewater, scenery, and remoteness make it well worth the extra effort. Some kayakers choose to push the limits of daylight and run it in one day in lieu of brining rafts and camping gear. As far as raft trips go, going a commercial outfitter will make your life much simpler since they take care of all the logistics. Otherwise, you will definitely want to think about hiring porters for the long hike in to the river.


A Forest Service Permit is required to run The Forks of the Kern River. The Forest Service office is located in Kernville on Whitney Road. There are several other Sequoia National Forest offices as well: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/sequoia/contactus/. You will also need to obtain a fire permit from them if you are running and overnight trip on the Forks. Permits are $10 (only on the Forks).

Overnight Trips

If you are running an overnight Forks of the Kern River trip, you will need to bring your overnight gear along with you. Kayakers may want to find someone to be their raft support (although rafts can slow down a trip significantly), or else pack light and eat jerky for every meal.

Logistics Tip

Make sure to check with the Forest Service for rules about fire pans and groovers (portable toilets). Groovers or some form of “wag bag” are required on all overnight trips. Fire restrictions vary from year to year.


There are no specific shuttle services on the Kern River, but the shuttle isn’t exactly heinous. Leave one car at the put-in and the other at the Johnsondale Bridge take-out. The drive back to the Forks put-in shouldn’t take too long.


If you have decided on a private Forks of the Kern trip, you can hire porters to carry your gear in for you. Golden Trout Pack Trains are affordable and reliable.


To get to the Kern River, you will need to get to Bakersfield (if you traveling either from northern or southern California). Take 178 East towards Lake Isabella. Take 155 N out of Lake Isabella toward Kernville. From Kernville, turn Left (north) onto county road M99 towards Johsondale.

  • Put-in: Trailhead from Lloyds Meadow. Drive east on county road M99 from Kernville towards Johnsondale. After the bridge over the Kern River (this is your take-out) continue past the town of Johnsonale. 1/2 mile past the town turn right onto paved road (2S82) toward Lloyds Meadow and follow it for 15 miles. When you see a sign to “Forks of the Kern”, turn right onto this dirt road (20S67) and follow it for 3 miles until you see the trailhead.
  • Take-out: Johnsondale Bridge. About 1 mile east of Limestone Campground.
  • High in altitude and run only in the spring during the Mount Whitney snowmelt, whitewater rafting trips on the Forks of the Kern are serious business. Expect water to be running high, fast, and cold–remember to double check conditions before you go so you and your group are prepared. Pay special attention to your cold water/weather gear, too. Flows vary from year to year, of course, but you can usually run the Forks May to July.
  • The Kern River has a wide variety of whitewater sections–enough for many skill levels. The river and its tributaries create some of the most challenging and beautiful whitewater in the world. One of the Kern’s uppermost sections, and very high altitude (4690 ft!), the Forks run is particularly beautiful and remote, with the jagged “Needles” slicing into the skyline, and rugged granite slabs arranged haphazardly along the riverbank.

The Upper Kern in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class II-V, several sections

Length: 20 miles (for all sections)

Season: April – July

Put-in: Johnsondale Bridge

Take-out: Kern River Park

Who should go: Folks looking to escape the Southern California heat; there is something for everyone on the Upper Kern.

The Kern River is located in the southernmost part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, just an hour from Bakersfield and 3 1/2 hours from Los Angeles. One of the greatest things about the Upper Kern River is that there is incredible diversity in your boating options. It really has everything from Class II to Class V, and it’s all easily accessible.

The Upper Kern River is pool-drop, meaning that at normal flows, there are typically calm spots between each rapid. The rapids vary from technical boulder slaloms and S-turns, to big splashy wave trains. The Upper Most of the 20 miles of the Upper Kern have roadside access, but the road doesn’t intrude on the natural setting of the river. Pine trees and grasses line the canyon and in the springtime, wildflowers abound. One of the greatest things about the Upper Kern River is that there is incredible diversity in your boating options. The easiest way to divide the Upper sections is based on the difficulty of the rapids, in addition to some natural dividers such as dams, diversions, and portages. The Upper Kern drops over 1100 feet in 20 miles, making the river pretty steep in sections such as the Gold Ledge Run. Because the Upper Kern is a fairly narrow gorge, at higher water, all of the sections become much more pushy and challenging, so make sure to check flows before you go.

Insider Tip

One fun option near the Kern River is kayaking Brush Creek, a Class IV creek (V at higher flows) that has big, straightforward drops, including a 20 foot waterfall. In the spring, expert kayakers compete in a race on Brush Creek.

Sections of the Upper Kern River

  • Limestone (Class III-IV): This 2.5 mile section is perfect for intermediate paddlers. It runs in the springtime when the snow starts melting and has nice scenery and fun rapids such as Joe’s Diner and its namesake rapid, Limestone. This section cuts through limestone (hence its name) rather than the typical granite gorge. The Limestone section on the Upper Kern begins at the Johnsondale Bridge and ends at the Fairview Dam. Make sure to take out before the Fairview Dam!
  • Fairview (Class III+): The 2.8 mile Fairview section is a good adventure, with a few fun Class III rapids. Put in below the Class V Bomb’s Away rapids and take out at Calkins Flat Campground. The Fairview Run can be combined with the Chamise Gorge section for a longer, harder run, since there is no dam or diversion tunnel between the two. The reason they are separated is because of the difference in difficulty.
  • Chamise Gorge (Class IV-IV+): This section has a steeper gradient of 62 ft/mi. It is known for a few technical Class IV rapids such as Entrance Rapid and Satan’s Slot, but there are a few other fun Class IV rapids. The Chamise Run is one of the few parts of the Upper Kern that flows away from the road, into Chamise Gorge, making for a remote wilderness experience. Put in at the Calkins Flat Campground and take out before the Class VI Salmon Falls. It is a good idea to scout the take-out prior to starting your trip, to make sure that you don’t accidentally float into Salmon Falls.
  • Gold Ledge Run (aka “Thunder Run”) (Class V): This 7.2 mile run is the hardest section on the Upper Kern River. It can be combined with the easier Camp 3 and Powerhouse runs to make an 11.6 mile run. Several thrilling rapids such as Squashed Paddler, Sock-em-Dog, Fender Bender and Cable make the Gold Ledge section perfect for expert kayakers and rafters. The canyon scenery in this section is also quite nice, but you won’t have much time to look around and enjoy it since you’ll be paddling to avoid enormous holes and rocks and make your way safely through some very challenging white water. Put in is just below Salmon Falls (Class VI) and the take out is the Camp 3 Campground.
  • Camp 3 (Class IV): Although the camp 3 section is only a short 2.5 miles, it packs in some great Class III and IV whitewater. The Wall, Tombstone, Tequila Chute, and Pepsi Challenge are all excellent intermediate rapids. Take out just below Powerhouse rapid, or continue on through the Kernville run.
  • Kernville/Powerhouse Run (Class II-III): The Powerhouse run is the classic beginner run on the Upper Kern. Ewings, Powerhouse, and Big Daddy Rapids will either be a fun challenge or put the fear of God into beginner paddlers. Boaters often choose to run this short 2 mile section several times in a day. Outfitters usually run groups through this same run several times, once or twice in a raft and then on their own in an inflatable kayak if they want a bigger thrill. Once you get to the Kern playpark, you can take out or practice your skills in the Slalom Course Rapid where they have whitewa

The Upper Kern River is one of the logistically easiest runs in California. Highway 199 runs along most of the Upper Kern making shuttles sometimes shorter than the run itself and giving boaters multiple options for put-ins and take-outs. The Lower Kern flows away from the highway, but the shuttles are still very short, the roads are paved, and parking is convenient. There is even a park-and-play course in Kernville with a slalom course, play holes, and a nice 1/4 mile trail back up to the beginning so you can do it all over again. On this page you will find just about everything you need to know about shuttles, camping, and permits.


A Forest Service Permit is required to run any section of the Kern River. The Forest Service office is located in Kernville on Whitney Road. There are several other Sequoia National Forest offices: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/sequoia/contactus/. You will also need to obtain a fire permit from them if you are running the Forks of the Kern. Permits are $10 on the Forks and free for the Upper Kern and Lower Kern sections.

Overnight Trips

Camping is easy on the Upper Kern River. There is no need to bring your overnight gear along with you on the river because car camping is plentiful. You may want to make a reservation at one of the many campsites in advance to secure your spot and avoid driving around. Kernville and nearby Lake Isabella have plenty of options for hotels if you’d rather go that route.


There are no specific shuttle services on the Kern River, however it is incredibly easy to shuttle your own vehicle, especially on the Upper Kern.

Insider Tip

If you are an advanced boater, you can combine several sections of the Upper Kern River to make a longer run and spend less time shuttling back and forth.


To get to the Kern River, you will need to get to Bakersfield (if you traveling either from northern or southern California). Take 178 East towards Lake Isabella. Take 155 N out of Lake Isabella toward Kernville. The various sections of the Upper Kern are located north east of Kernville along the Kern River highway (County Road M99. The Upper Kern is really just one long run with a few breaks such as the Fairview Dam. Since it is so easy to put-in and take-out on this stretch (Highway 199 runs alongside most of the way) it is typically divided up by level of difficulty. Therefore, the take-out for one run is the put-in for the next.

  • Limestone Put-in: Johnsondale Bridge
  • Limestone Take-out: Above Fairview Dam
  • Fairview Put-in: Below Fairview Dam and Bomb’s Away Rapid (Class V)
  • Fairview Take-out (Chamise Put-in): Calkin’s Flat Campground
  • Chamise Take-out: Above Salmon Falls Rapid (Class VI)
  • Gold Ledge Put-in: Below Salmon Falls Rapid (Class VI)
  • Gold Ledge Take-out (Camp 3 Put-in): Camp 3 Campground. You can also run through Camp 3 and Powerhouse. There are no mandatory portages from this section down to the play park in Kernville.
  • Camp 3 Take-out (Powerhouse Put-in): Above Powerhouse Rapid
  • Powerhouse Take-out: River Park
  • While the Kern River shares many of California rivers’ common characteristics such as granite, ponderosa pines, and pool-drop rapids, the Kern definitely dances to its own beat. First, it spends most of its journey heading north to south, rather than the typical east to west flow of Sierra rivers. Second, it is both the longest river and largest watershed in the Sierra Nevada. And to top it all off, the Kern River is one of California’s oldest river drainages. If you need more convincing than bigger+longer+older=better, then you may have to head to the Kern River to test out the numerous options for rafting and kayaking.
  • 500 – 1200 CFS
    = Lower flows. Great for eager first timers and experienced rafters. Class III+ whitewater.
  • 1200 – 1700 CFS
    = Medium flows. Great for aggressive first timers and experienced rafters. Plenty of Class III & IV whitewater.
  • 1700 – 4000 CFS
    = Medium-high flows. Great for experienced rafters and a few aggressive first timers. Plenty of Class III & IV+whitewater.
  • 4000 – 8000 CFS
    = High flows. Challenging Class IV+ whitewater, exciting for experienced rafters. Big waves and swift moving water.
  • Above 8000 CFS
    = Extreme high flows. Fast moving water, with powerful waves and long rapids. Experience is highly recommended. Trips at these levels are best for very aggressive people who are not afraid of falling into a very fast river with long rapids.

CFS: Cubic Feet per Second

Flow Tip

Some sections of the Upper Kern flow longer than others because of diversion tunnels and mini dams. Most of the water gets diverted back into the main river, and you don’t need a lot of water to enjoy the Kern River playpark, so even if the flows are low, you can go out and practice your eddy catching skills.

Kern Watershed

The Kern River has every variation of whitewater for all skill levels. The river and its tributaries offer some of the most challenging and visually stunning whitewater in the world. The Upper Kern (North Fork) has over 20 miles of easily accessible whitewater for rafting and kayaking.

Lower Kern in a Nutshell

Difficulty: Class III-V

Gradient: 30 ft/mi

Length: 20 miles total , 1-2 days

Season: May – September

Sections: Keyesville South to Miracle; Miracle to Democrat

Who should go: SoCal-ers looking for a close rafting trip (only 2.5 hours from LA), summer boaters who like warmer water and hot weather. Anyone who loves hot springs


Like the American and Tuolumne Rivers are to Northern California boaters, the Lower Kern is the go-to summer river trip for SoCal rafters and kayakers. The whitewater is technical at low flows and very challenging at higher flows. Over the course of 20 miles, the run begins with Class II and III whitewater and ends with a tremendous series of Class IV rapids. There are numerous put-in and take-out options, as well as hot springs along the way. To be “stuck” running the Lower Kern in the summer is definitely a good thing!


There are two sections on the Lower Kern, the Jungle Run, which is a Class II-III (at normal flows), 8 mile section that begins just below Lake Isabella and ends at Miracle Hot Springs. Commercial rafting trips often combine the Jungle Run with the Miracle to Democrat run, to make a 20 mile 2-day trip. The 12 mile Miracle to Democrat section has numerous Class III-IV rapids and a Class V+ portage. The Class IV rapids begin just a mile below Miracle Hot Springs, with White Maiden, followed by Sundown Falls, Silver Staircase, and Deadman’s Curve. The portage, called Royal Flush, is about a mile below Dead Man’s Curve and just below the Class III False Flush. After the highway 178 bridge, the Lower Kern picks up again with Surprise, Hari Kari, Horseshoe Falls, Sidewinder, and Pinball.

High Water Tip

The Lower Kern at high water (above 2500 cfs) is extremely fun, but it is also a step up from normal flows with big Class IV+ and some Class V rapids. In the spring, when the dam spills, the water levels get higher. It can make for an exciting day of rafting or kayaking.

The Lower Kern flows through the Greenhorn Mountains, but the scenery feels more like low foothills and flatlands than rugged mountains. There’s not much of a sense of remoteness, since the river flows past campgrounds and bridges and riverside lodges, but the whitewater is great, and in the spring and early fall, you will often get the Lower Kern all to yourself.

A Forest Service Permit is required to run the Lower Kern River. The Forest Service office is located in Kernville on Whitney Road. There are several other Sequoia National Forest offices. Permits are free for the Lower Kern sections.

Overnight Trips

Camping is easy along the Lower Kern River. Car camping is plentiful between the two sections, and you can even camp at hotsprings. Beware that the crowds that frequent the hotsprings are not always entirely plesant. You may want to make a reservation at one of the many campsites in advance to secure your spot and avoid driving around. Kernville and nearby Lake Isabella have plenty of options for hotels if you’d rather go that route.

Insider Tip

There are beautiful riverside hotsprings right along the Lower Kern River. During the weekends, a more eclectic crowd hangs out there, but if you get to experience them midweek, they are the perfect ending to a day on the river.


There are no specific shuttle services on the Kern River, however it is incredibly easy to shuttle your own vehicle and parking is plentiful.


  • Put-in: Below Lake Isabella
    For about 7 more miles of Class III whitewater, you can put-in just below Lake Isabella, although that section tends to have more brush and debris.
  • Put-in: Miracle Hot Springs
    From Bakersfield, take Highway 178 east. 4 miles before you get to Lake Isabella, take a right on Borel Road to Old Canyon Road. Go right. Go 2 miles downriver to Miracle Hot Springs. These are actually really nice hotsprings (although sometimes they are crowded). There is plenty of parking as well as portable bathrooms. There are numerous other put-in options, including Hobo Campground and Sandy Flat Campground which are both a couple miles upstream.
  • Take-out: Democrat Beach
    Democrat is right off highway 178 as you’re heading east from Bakersfield, before you reach Lake Isabella. Follow signs to Democrat Hot Springs. Parking is plentiful.
  • 500 – 1200 CFS
    = Lower flows. Great for eager first timers and experienced rafters. Class III+ whitewater.
  • 1200 – 1700 CFS
    = Medium flows. Great for aggressive first timers and experienced rafters. Plenty of Class III & IV whitewater.
  • 1700 – 4000 CFS
    = Medium-high flows. Great for experienced rafters and a few aggressive first timers. Plenty of Class III & IV+whitewater.
  • 4000 – 8000 CFS
    = High flows. Challenging Class IV+ whitewater, exciting for experienced rafters. Big waves and swift moving water.
  • Above 8000 CFS
    = Extreme high flows. Fast moving water, with powerful waves and long rapids. Experience is highly recommended. Trips at these levels are best for very aggressive people who are not afraid of falling into a very fast river with long rapids.

CFS: Cubic Feet per Second

Flow Tip

The Lower Kern is the Southern California mainstay in the hot summer months. Because it is dam released out of Lake Isabella, the Kern has consistent flows through the end of August, and sometimes into September. If you are looking for a fun way to escape the summer heat, a rafting or kayaking trip on the Lower Kern is the perfect solution.

AMERICAN, LOWER II Apr-Sept Sacramento Central CA Best for private float trips. Inner-tubes, raft rentals, easy kayaking.
AMERICAN, MIDDLE FORK III-IV May – Sept Auburn Central CA Wilderness trips, multi-day rafting and kayaking. Dam-regulated water release.
AMERICAN, NORTH FORK IV+ April – June Colfax Central CA Experienced rafting and kayaking recommended. Close to Tahoe.
AMERICAN, SOUTH FORK III April – Sept Coloma Central CA Great for families. Beginning / intermediate rafting & kayaking. Close to San Francisco.
CACHE CREEK II Feb – Aug Woodland Central, CA Good river for introductory rafting & kayaking and intermediate canoeing.
CALIFORNIA SALMON V April – July Eureka Northern, CA Highly skilled, expert rafting and kayaking required. Designated Wild and Scenic.
CHERRY CREEK V July-Sept Groveland Central, CA Near Yosemite National Park. Highly skilled, expert rafting and kayaking required.
KAWEAH IV April – June Three Rivers Southern, CA Experienced rafting and kayaking recommended. Spring run, not dam regulated.
KERN, FORKS IV-V April – June Kernville Southern, CA Expert multi-day wilderness run. Some of the best white water in California.
KERN, LOWER III-IV April – September Kernville Southern, CA Closest rafting option to Los Angeles and Southern California.
KERN, UPPER II-V April – July Kernville Southern, CA Beginner to expert rafting and kayaking with several run options.
KINGS IV+ April – July Centerville Southern, CA In Kings Canyon. Experienced rafting and kayaking recommended.
KLAMATH, LOWER II-III April – Oct Yreka Northern, CA Designated Wild and Scenic. Experienced rafting and kayaking recommended.
MERCED III-IV April – June Mariposa Central, CA Intermediate rafting & kayaking just outside Yosemite National Park.
RUSSIAN II Dec – May Ukiah Central, CA Raft rentals, canoes and easy kayaking. Close to Napa and central coast. Year round float trips possible.
SMITH IV+ Nov – May Cresent City Northern, CA Advanced rafting & kayaking in a remote, Wild and Scenic, California rain forest.
STANISLAUS, NORTH FORK IV+ April – June Arnold Central, CA Advanced rafting & kayaking in Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
TRINITY II-V Apr – Sept Weaverville Northern, CA Beginner to advanced rafting and kayaking in the Trinity Alps
TUOLUMNE IV+ Apr – Sept Groveland Central, CA Wilderness trips, multi-day rafting & kayaking outside Yosemite National Park.
YUBA, NORTH FORK IV+ Apr – June Downieville Central, CA Runs through Tahoe National Forest. Experienced rafting and kayaking recommended.

Watershed Information

The Lower Kern has dependable summer flows and the water is warmer so a swim isn’t as shockingly cold as other rivers. Below Democrat, the Kern has another set of awesome class IV, V, and V+ whitewater that is a difficult challenge for even the most experienced boater.




7 comments on “Kayaking California”

  1. Florine Simms says:

    Can you get a two person kayak>

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  3. Delaine says:

    You should add pictures to these spots!

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