How to Choose the Best California Rafting Trip for Your Family

Posted August 4, 2021 by Emily Vernizzi, river enthusiast and Armstrong cousin

Planning a whitewater rafting trip with your family is easy as pie, but the important first step is figuring out the best river trip for everyone in your tribe. Let’s lay out the options!

While the following recommendations are age-based, your child’s height, weight, swimming ability, and temperament should also be taken into consideration, especially if you have younger kids.

Family swimming on the South Fork - Family Rafting

Families with young children, 5-7 years old

As a daughter of AO’s first non-Armstrong guide, I was born to be a wild river child. I spent my toddlerhood riverside, knee-deep in the water waving at rafts floating past. It’s a great way to fill a day, but things got even better once I was ready to get ON the water, and there’s no better place to start than the South Fork of the American River.

For most kids, it is game on by the age of 5! All-Outdoors has been running the Tom Sawyer Float Trip for over 25 years, and it is specifically designed for families with young adventurers between the ages of 5-7. We are a river family that loves to start ‘em young! This trip cruises a calmer Class I-II section of the South Fork, with the added entertainment of adult-guided inflatable kayaks, riverside berry picking, and many a swimming opportunity. Even though this is designed as a super fun river introduction for the youngest of your crew, every age will have an awesome day on the river.

Families with 8-18+ year olds

Once your river buddy reaches the 8-year mark, they may be ready to graduate to the Class III sections of the South Fork American River – Upper “Chili Bar” and the Lower “Gorge”. Both sections have exciting waves and “pool-drop” type of rapids (rapids preceded by a pool and followed by a pool), so the whitewater is exciting, but not scary! The South Fork is a prime place for all rafters of all experience levels, and which is probably why it’s the most popular river for rafting in California! It’s so beloved by the rafting community that many call the surrounding towns home.

When deciding between the two sections, we generally recommend opting for the Lower “Gorge” if this is a group member’s first experience on a Class III river. This section starts with Class I-II rapids, allowing plenty of time to warm up and learn about rafting on whitewater, before we reach the bigger Class III action later in the day. The Upper “Chili Bar” is the exact reverse – it starts quicker then mellows out throughout the day, but is still very manageable as a first rafting experience.

Family Rafting Trips for Kids 12 and Up

Families with 12-18+ year olds

Once you’ve got a pre-teen on your hands, it’s time to start considering the Middle Fork of the American River. These jolty rapids with mighty good drops are a great ease into the bigger hydraulics and technical demands of Class IV whitewater! And since paddling 16 river miles can be a lot for anybody, think about splitting up the distance by opting for a multi-day trip with a dreamy overnight under the stars.

On the same challenge scale is an awesome day on the Merced River! Just outside of Yosemite, this free-flowing stunner delivers massive Class III-IV hydraulics in the spring and early summer without much technical maneuvering. Imagine a roller coaster but in water form! I remember my cheeks hurt from smiling so much the first time I splashed through the huge waves of the Mighty Mer as a 12 year old.

It is important that all participants must be able to swim in order to join a Class III-IV river trip, so make sure your young rafter has some swim lessons logged before throwing them in a metaphorical deep end.

Rafting with Kids 15 and Up

Families with 15-18+ year olds

They grow up so fast! Once your pre-teen blossoms into a proper teen/young adult, other more challenging Class IV whitewater trips are on your horizon: the legendary Tuolumne River (13yrs for summer flows, 15yrs for high spring flows), the scenic North Fork Stanislaus River (15yrs), the technical Kaweah River (15yrs), the pristine North Fork American River (15yrs – PS this is my favorite river canyon), and the wild ride of Goodwin Canyon (15yrs). AO’s most advanced Class V rivers, Cal Salmon and Cherry Creek, have age minimums of 15yrs and 17yrs respectively. Participants on all of these trips are recommended to have some previous rafting experience, but that rule is not etched in stone! (When Are You Ready For Class V Rafting?)

Family rafting trips for kids 15 and up

Age ain’t nothing but a number

Again, keep in mind that these ages are guidelines but not hard-set rules! We love to get kids out onto the rivers, but know that each person comes with different physical abilities and relevant experiences, so there may be some wiggle room with the age recommendations. Additionally, when rivers are flowing at higher than normal flows (oftentimes in springtime in years with a healthy snowpack), the minimum recommended age may be increased. It’s important to make sure to pick a trip that is right for your whole group to ensure that everyone is comfortable with the level of excitement and ENJOYS their time on the river! If you want to discuss the options with one of our California Rafting Consultants, we’d be happy to chat!

Can’t wait to see you and the fam on the river!


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