Despite slim snowpack, dam good whitewater season on tap

Photos courtesy of Zephyr Whitewater

With less than half the average snowpack in the Sierra, boaters are expecting short seasons on most of the state’s rivers. But there’s no reason to put away your skirt and paddle early. While May and early June will present the widest range of options for roaming boaters, with good planning you can find whitewater playtime all summer long.

To help you make the most of the season, we have compiled a select list of California rivers and arranged in order of what’s expected to be the best “in the ballpark” time to float them, from May on: “Early Season” (until mid-May or June), “Good till Mid Season” (through June, perhaps into July), and “All Summer Long Bets” (dam-controlled runs with releases expected all summer).

Schedule your trips accordingly and you can make the most of each and every cubic foot rolling down the mountains and keep on paddling right into fall. Of course, these are somewhat subjective categorizations; for up-to-date river levels check online websites, such as

Editor’s Note: River running should always be approached with care and responsibility. Unless you’re an experienced boater, we recommend taking advantage of the services of a professional outfitter (see sidebar).For those wanting a float trip without the whitewater thrill, check out Soar Inflatables at for Russian River trips or Sunshine Rafting at for trips on the Lower Stanislaus.

Early Season


  • Expected Season: Usually into early summer; through May this year
  • Runs: Cal Salmon Run (Class III-IV+), Forks of Salmon (Class V), North Fork above Sawyers Bar (Class III-IV, 8 miles)
  • Outfitters: IRIE Rafting Company, Tributary Whitewater Tours, Redwoods & Rivers, Otter Bar Kayak School, W.E.T. River Trips

The “Cal” Salmon is an emerald green classic California pool-and-drop river that should be included in any local paddler’s must-do list. Ultimately a tributary of the Klamath, the Salmon passes through some of the most remote regions of the north state. The North Fork run above Sawyers Bar is considered one of the best moderate-advanced runs in California with only short breaks between rapids.

Upper Sacramento

  • Expected Season: April-July normally, mid-late May this year
  • Runs: Box Canyon Dam to Lake Shasta (III-IV, 36 miles): Box Canyon to Dunsmuir (Class IV, 7 miles); Castle Crags to Sims Flat (III-IV, 9 miles); Sims Flat to Lake Shasta (IV, 14 miles)
  • Outfitters: Turtle River Rafting, River Dancers, Living Waters Recreation

For 36 miles between Box Canyon Dam (Lake Siskiyou) to Shasta Reservoir, the Upper Sac resembles the wild river it once was. Near continuous Class IV action greets boaters after the steep, difficult put-in. Creek after creek and a few waterfalls tumble into the Sacramento, sometimes tripling its volume. Despite running parallel to Interstate 5 and a railroad, the Upper Sac offers good scenery. Particularly memorable is Mossbrae Falls, a fern-covered spring that gushes from the cliffs, around mile five.

East Fork Carson

  • Expected Season: Until mid-late May this year
  • Runs: Upper East Fork (Class III), Cave Rock to Hangman’s Bridge (7 miles); Wilderness Run (Class II+, 20 miles)
  • Special features: Designated Wild and Scenic, hot springs at river’s edge, Eastern Sierra scenery, novice friendly
  • Outfitters: Tributary Whitewater Tours, W.E.T. River Trips, American River Recreation, Tahoe Whitewater Tours

From Markleeville into Nevada, the Carson winds through miles of inspiring high-desert country framed by snow-capped Sierra peaks. Hot springs and no-fee campsites half-way down the 20-mile Wilderness Run make for an ideal overnight trip. Although it’s rated only Class II+, cold water, continuous rapids and sharp rocks mean it’s not a good place to take a swim. Spring storms occasionally coat unprepared boaters with snow. Intermediate-advanced boaters can put in upstream of Hangman’s Bridge on the Class III Upper East Fork run.

North Yuba

  • Expected Season: Until mid-late May this year
  • Runs: Downieville (Class V); Goodyears Bar (Class IV plus one V, “Maytag”)
  • Outfitters: Beyond Limits, Whitewater Voyages, Tributary Whitewater Tours, Wolf Creek Wilderness (kayak instruction on Lower Yuba)

This river requires your constant attention. Only expert private boaters with solid safety skills should attempt the North Fork. This 18-mile stretch is often run in two sections, the Downieville run (expert) and Goodyears Bar (advanced). Highway 49 parallels the river offering alternative put-in and take-outs, and easy shuttles. The Downieville run features continuous Class IV and V water, including mile-long Moss Canyon (solid V). Downstream of Goodyears Bar bridge (mile 9.5), the gradient eases and rapids are milder, with one notable exception: Maytag, a big drop that thrashes many.

< class=”articleTITLE”>Good till Mid-Season


  • Season: Until perhaps mid-June this year
  • Runs: Class IV+, Red Bud to Briceburg and Briceburg to Bagby; Class II between miles 9 and 16
  • Outfitters: Zephyr Whitewater, OARS, All Outdoors, American River Recreation, ARTA

The Merced is a challenging Class IV river that runs best in spring. What you’ll find are some of the best rapids in the state, including paddle-sucking laterals at Ned’s Gulch (IV) and a challenging boulder-dancing section, Quarter-Mile Rapid (IV+), with severe consequences if you don’t eddy out at the bottom; North Fork Falls, a 25-foot drop, is a mandatory portage. Class II from here to take out at Lake McClure.


  • Season: At least into July, possibly later
  • Runs: Class III-V+Banzai (III), South Fork, North Fork (V- to V+), Kings Canyon (V),
  • Special features: Native American sites, steep canyons, roostertails, natural waterslides
  • Outfitters: Zephyr Whitewater Rafting, Kings River Expeditions, Whitewater Voyages

Originally known as “El Rio De Los Santos Reyes,” or River of the Holy Kings, the Kings courses through some of the deepest canyons in California. Its tributaries are all Class V until it reaches Garnet Dike, where the Class III+ section begins. From there, this river is all fun with little to fear. Bring the whole family and train your young river rats right. The Kings will likely be runnable through July, but better earlier.


  • Runs: Forks of the Kern (III-V), Lower Kern runs: Picto (III); Gusto (IV)
  • Special features: Wild & Scenic river status; drains California’s highest peaks, including Mt. Whitney; massive granite boulders, multiple waterfalls
  • Permits: Through United States Forest Service (USFS),
  • Outfitters: Kern River Tours, Kern River Outfitters, Whitewater Voyages

Regarded as one of the finest stretches of expert whitewater to be found, let alone commercially rafted, the 17-mile Forks of the Kern run begins with a two-mile hike to the put in. Your reward is a nearly continuous series of more than 80 rapids against a backdrop of granite slabs, waterfalls and remote mountain scenery. With a nearly 60-foot per mile gradient, this river is action packed and not for the timid. Commercial outfitters must pass a test to certify their river fitness. Private boaters should have notched a few Class V runs before attempting the Forks of the Kern.


  • Runs: River Ranch to Floriston (Class II-III), Boca to Verdi, Nevada (Class II-IV)
  • Special features: Alpine scenery; proximity to Reno Whitewater Park
  • Outfitters: Tahoe Whitewater Tours, Tributary Whitewater Tours, Truckee River Raft Company (rentals)

The Truckee offers easy to moderate runs with easy access. For the first three miles from the outlet of Lake Tahoe to River Ranch, the Truckee is a lazy party float. From River Ranch it picks up to Class II+, albeit shallow and rocky. Highway 89 follows the river for the next 10 miles. At Truckee, the river turns east. From here until its confluence with the Little Truckee River at Boca, it is mostly Class II, except for one Class III boulder garden. The Boca-Floriston Run paralleling Highway 80 is the most advanced run with the quarter-mile Class IV Bronco Rapid providing the most excitemtent just before takeout. Downstream, there is runnable water all the way to Reno, including a few diversion dams. Smack downtown, the Reno Whitewater Park provides a great playboating and teaching venue.


  • Runs: Electra Run (Class II+, III above 1,500 cfs), Salt Springs Reservoir to Tiger Creek Dam (Class IV-V)
  • Special features: One of the best training runs in California; good scenery, abundant wildlife
  • Outfitters: None

Typically, this is a great river to warm up for the season or to introduce novices to whitewater. Due to its convenience to the Bay Area, its reliable summer flows, and rapids that gradually step up in difficulty, this has long been a favorite training run for kayakers. You can run this short run a few times in a day to really hone your technique; the shuttle only takes 10 minutes. You’ll find it off Highway 49 between Jackson and Mokelumne Hill.

< class=”articleTITLE”>All Summer Long Bets


  • Runs: Class IV-V+, Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (IV-V), Cherry Creek (V), Lower Tuolumne (IV-V)
  • Special features: Wild and Scenic status; Clavey Falls, North Fork and Clavey River swimming holes.
  • Permits: Required for private boaters. Groveland Ranger Station, (209) 962-7825
  • Outfitters: Sierra Mac River Rafting Trips, Zephyr Whitewater Rafting, OARS, ECHO, ARTA

The Tuolumne, or “the T” as it’s affectionately known, offers one of the few multi-day trips in the central Sierra, an unspoiled wilderness experience and miles of exhilarating whitewater. The stretch from Meral’s Pool to Don Pedro Reservoir, with rock gardens, stomper holes and lateral hydraulics, is a good proving ground for kayakers and rafters who want to cut their teeth on some technical Class IV. For expert boaters, a day trip on Cherry Creek segueing into a lower T trip with some of the most experienced guides in California will impart fear, exhilaration and a proper river education.


  • Runs: Upper Klamath Hell’s Corner Run (Class IV+), Lower Canyon (Class II-III)
  • Featured run: Upper Klamath (17 miles, 1-2 days)
  • Special features: Longest Wild & Scenic river in the state, snow-capped Trinity Alps, excellent multi-day trip possibilities
  • Outfitters: Tributary Whitewater Tours, Trinity River Rafting, Redwoods and Rivers, All Outdoors, Turtle River Rafting Company, W.E.T. River Trips

The second largest drainage in all of California next to the Sac, the Klamath originates near Crater Lake and then cuts through a high-desert volcanic canyon. The Upper Klamath run begins in Oregon, and features sharp volcanic rocks that are tough on boats and paddlers. Only expert kayakers should consider this run. Rafters enjoy the challenging descent on the Hell’s Corner stretch (IV+). Lower down, the Klamath offers a hundred miles of Class III water that makes for excellent one-day and overnight trips. With moderate rapids, easy access, warm water, good camping, and relatively light use, this stretch makes a great multi-day float in late summer and fall.

South Fork American

  • South Fork runs: Chili Bar and Gorge Runs (Class III)
  • Special Features: This river system offers something for every level of boater
  • Permits: Just on the South Fork (available at Chili Bar, Coloma and Lotus put-ins)
  • Outfitters: EarthTrek Expeditions, The Mother Lode River Center, Whitewater Voyages, Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, Whitewater Excitement, River Runners, Current Adventures Kayaking, ARTA, Gold Rush Whitewater Rafting, Action Whitewater Adventures, W.E.T. River Trips

The South Fork American is the most popular of all California rivers. Highly accessible and owning the longest season in the state, upwards of 100,000 boaters per year splash down its three distinct sections. The Chili Bar to Coloma run (which includes the Meatgrinder and Troublemaker rapids) offers five miles of entertaining Class III-IV water. Below this, the stretch from Coloma to Greenwood Creek offers several miles of Class II water that makes an ideal training ground for budding kayakers. Downstream of Greenwood, the Class III Gorge section begins and Satan’s Cesspool (III+) lurks before you reach Folsom Lake.


  • Runs: Main Trinity, Pigeon Point run (Class III), Burnt Ranch Gorge (V)
  • Featured run: Burnt Ranch Gorge (V, 8.5 miles)
  • Special Features: Designated Wild & Scenic river
  • Outfitters: IRIE Rafting Company, Trinity River Rafting, Tributary Whitewater Tours, Turtle River Rafting Company

Along Hwy 299 about 60 miles east of Arcata and 89 miles west of Redding, the famed Burnt Ranch Gorge section of the Trinity drops through sheer canyon walls for eight miles of Class V thrills. Boasting rapids with names like Pearly Gates, Jaws and Origami (for its tendency to fold rafts like paper), Burnt Ranch is regarded as one of the finest expert runs in the West. If that’s beyond your comfort zone, the 5.5-mile Pigeon Point run just upstream is one of the best intermediate runs in California. And because it’s a long drive, the Trinity is a lot less crowded than runs like the South Fork American. Your reward is good scenery, clean water, and numerous play spots.