California and Nevada 2021 River Opportunities

By Anthea Raymond • Main photo by Jonah Grubb / Steep Water Studios

Whitewater boaters monitor the snowfall at high elevations all winter long. They want a lot of snow, and ideally they want this snow to melt slowly. This pattern creates long, wet seasons like the one in 2017, when California rivers flowed with gusto until late summer. 2021 isn’t going to be like that. California’s drought is back. Experienced kayakers and rafters are surveying their options in a year when the snowpack is about 60 percent of normal. 
For once, dam is going to be a very good word. Sections of river on the South Fork of the Trinity, the South and Middle Forks of the American, the Lower Klamath River, the Tuolumne, and even the Central Valley’s Lower Kern should have seasons well into August. That’s thanks to “recreational releases” from federally-regulated power generating systems that fill these rivers on certain days. Professional raft companies will also be eager to run trips on most of these stretches after having been shut down for much of 2020 due to COVID-19.  

Rafters and kayakers look to the Dreamflows ( as the ultimate resource on California water levels and trip beta. Dreamflows editor Chris Shackleton expects small reductions in flow on most of the rivers mentioned, with weekends and selected weekdays definitely in play. His site tracks all of this as well as real time water flows and trip beta. 


Advanced and expert boaters are also eyeing limited edition, special releases negotiated by American Whitewater, an organization that monitors and protects whitewater throughout the United States. A highlight of the upcoming season looks to be the several days of boatable flows coming for the first time to the San Joaquin River Class III-IV Horseshoe Bend. (Details were being finalized as this article was being written.) 

American Whitewater is also saying that two runs on the Pit River in Northern California (Pit 1 and Pit 5) will be accessible the entire month of October. The latter includes some mellower, Class III. Finally, there should be some limited weekend releases on the  Feather and Mokelumne through summer. You can keep your eye on all of that here:

Low Water Gold on the South Fork of the American River

Going through a rapid on the South fork of the american. Photo courtesy of OARS

Beginners & Intermediate

Those who are just getting into boating will also have plenty of options this season. Taking a rafting trip with a professional outfitter is a great way to enjoy this year’s whitewater. 

Another option is to take a class and get  professional instruction. On the South Fork of the American, the California Watersport Collective and Current Adventures offer kayak and stand up paddleboard instruction. Sierra Rescue is top-notch for swiftwater rescue training. In Central California, Sierra South Mountain Sports also has great instructors.

Low Water Gold Tuolumne River

Heading into a staNding wave on the Tuolumne (Sierra Mac River TriPS)


The water will be warmer and it won’t push as hard as it can during spring snowmelt. But at low water even easier routes can be challenging in new ways. More boulders are exposed, creating new hydraulics and waves that aren’t normally there. Low water can also require more skill and careful navigation, as there may only be one good “line” or route. And sometimes entire new rapids appear, like the elusive Pinball rapid at the end of the Tuolumne’s Class IV section. 

But one thing does not change with the flows:  you’ve got to be safe out there. The kayaking industry —  indeed, the entire outdoor industry — has had what some say is one of the busiest years  ever. With all of the new people enjoying the outdoors, there is a new group of kayakers and rafters, and they don’t always know the rules of the road. If you’re a newbie, learn what’s what by taking a class or checking out the website of the American Canoe Association. And if you must head out, wear a well fitted lifejacket (PFD) and definitely don’t go out alone.

Thanks to the rafting companies that supported this article:

ARTA River Trips // Current Adventures // OARS // Raft California