Which Rivers are Most Significantly Affected By High Water?

Posted May 18, 2006 by Robyn Suddeth

The last time California saw as much snow as this year was sometime in the early 1980s. Point being: high water years don’t come around very often. Since some rivers change more dramatically than others do when the water gets high, it’s a good idea to try and see those particular runs in May and June while the water is still up, and take advantage of such a unique situation.

So to help out with deciding where to go, here’s my vote: the Tuolumne, Merced, and Kaweah are the most significantly changed, and fun, in a high water year.

And Here’s Why:

The Tuolumne turns into an incredibly fast-paced, constantly moving body of water, full of huge holes, crashing waves, and swirling eddy lines. At really high flows, some of its Class IV rapids even become Class V! There is no other river in California quite like the Tuolumne when it’s big: It is a constantly surging and changing body of water, making every second out there exciting and meaningful.

The Merced becomes a fun rollercoaster ride interspersed with a few very challenging and exciting Class IV+ rapids. Even between rapids, though, the boat is constantly climbing up and over big rolling waves; with faces high enough to make a 14 foot boat look small. Less intense than the Tuolumne, a high water Merced trip is a great way to experience the feeling of high water without as much of the fast-paced adventure.

The Kaweah is a totally different high water experience than the Tuolumne and Merced. A lot more technical and impulsive, you trade in big, rolling waves for small (but surpisingly powerful) holes, steeper drops, and sharp “screaming” turns. This river is incredibly unique when it gets high, because while its waves and pace take on bigger water characteristics, its rapids maintain a lot of their lower water technicality.

In Conclusion…

Whichever of those above runs you manage to get out to this year, you’re in for an incredibly fun and stimulating day. Those rivers only look and act as I just described in years like this one. If you do get to see one of them when it’s high, I recommend you make it back out there one more time once flows have returned to normal. It’s absolutely amazing how much a river can change as that water creeps higher and higher up its banks.

If anyone has other suggestions or favorite high water runs in California, please share! This is by no means the final word. Just the opinion of someone who loves to be out there and hopes to share the experience.


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