The 4 “Seasons” of the California Rafting Season

Posted August 17, 2021 by Emily Vernizzi, river enthusiast and Armstrong cousin
Updated December 30, 2022 by Gregg Armstrong, Co-Founder

One exceptional advantage of California’s rafting season is that we never have to wait too long for it to come back ‘round. With mild weather, many rivers, and a healthy supply of dam-controlled flows, the rafting season in the Golden State stretches across seven months and includes four separate seasons! Each season looks a bit different and offers a unique experience so let us fill you in on the best thing about all four…

The California white water rafting season collage.

1. Early Spring… Are flowers & green hills your thing?

Highlight: Fresh rivers, lush canyons, spring flowers, exciting flows!

California’s  “Early Spring” rafting season usually starts at the beginning of April when snowmelt-fed rivers wake up from their winter sleep. River canyons are lush and green, sprinkled with wildflowers that appear only for a few short weeks. This is your once-a-year chance to experience the beauty and the thrill of those free-flowing rivers that are raftable only while the snow is melting. When California is blessed with a big winter snowpack, some of these rivers may be flowing nicely into the “Spring Season” and even into the “Summer Season”. Early Spring classics include the North Fork of the American River, the North Fork of the Stanislaus, and the Cal Salmon.

Early Spring is also the time when the trusty dam-controlled South Fork of the American River revs up its whitewater engine with guaranteed water releases on most days of the week. Seeing the South Fork at this time of year is quite a different, more intimate experience from rafting on this very popular river during the busy summer. You don’t want to miss it!

Honorable mentions: Great bird-watching and everyone looking very stylish in the wetsuits.

Spring Rafting ion the North Fork Stanislaus

2. Spring has sprung & the rapids are roaring!

Highlight: Favorite springtime rivers and the potential for higher flows.

After “Early Spring”, California rafting settles into the “Spring Season” which usually begins in late April. This is when warmer weather begins to melt the deep snowpack that has accumulated at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada. The Merced River and Kaweah River both start to rumble at this time and will usually continue to do so until late spring. If we are lucky and winter leaves a heavy snowpack in the Sierra, flows on these popular springtime rivers can last through early summer and sometimes even longer to mid-summer.

Melting snow often allows for increased water releases from the dams on the South Fork of the American River and the Tuolumne River. These higher and faster flows will keep you on your toes (and your weight on your feet – How to Stay in the Raft). There’s nothing like the topic of a springtime Tuolumne trip to turn the quietest whitewater enthusiast into a Chatty Kathy – river folks love spring rafting. Even in a year when the snowpack may be less than ideal, a spring rafting trip offers qualities you will not find during the main summer season. Make sure you plan to raft at this time of year to see what all the hype is about!

Honorable mentions: Visiting Yosemite National Park to see the waterfalls after rafting the Merced River.

Kaweah river spring white water rafting in California

3. Summer lovin’, had me a splash!

Highlight: Guaranteed water flows and awesome summer feels.

Summer is the peak season for a reliably good time. The water flows normalize on the popular South Fork of the American River and the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River. The much-loved Middle Fork of the American River and Cherry Creek/Upper Tuolumne seasons begin (these cannot be run at higher spring flows), and the river communities thrive with summer visitors.

With reliable water releases from high-elevation reservoirs, there is a wider variety of available trips, ranging from a float trip for young families to the most challenging commercially run whitewater in North America. This wide variety of rafting trips gives you many options that pair well with summer trips to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite!

Honorable mentions: Tan lines are hot, so is the California weather, making it the perfect time to cool off in the river!

Summer Rafting on the South Fork American

4. Fall rafting… Don’t sleep in fall, y’all!

Highlight: Dreamy river solitude with extended whitewater from summer.

This is quite possibly the most overlooked “season” within the California rafting season, but we strongly encourage you to embrace the idea of a fall rafting trip! While some rivers wrap up on Labor Day, the South and Middle Fork of the American continue to serve the same high-quality whitewater as summer, but offer a more private experience. Imagine a quiet, misty morning in late September on the Middle Fork – the clouds clinging to the canyon walls like a magical painting and having the place entirely to yourself… Perfection.

While the American River quiets down, the excited buzz of the Goodwin Canyon Double Runs in October is nearly palpable. This extremely special annual event, offered only by All-Outdoors, rides the limited fall water releases through a totally unique volcanic canyon section of the Lower Stanislaus River. These Class IV+ rapids are *~WiLd~* and make for the most memorable river stories you’ll be re-telling over and over for years. Not convinced yet? Book your fall adventure with us and see for yourself!

Honorable mentions: Fall foliage and the small possibility to raft in the rain (don’t knock it till you try it – seriously, it’s awesome).

Fall Rafting on Goodwin Canyon

What to do during winter?

Daydream about 10 California Rivers, plan, and save a pretty penny with the 25% Pre-Season Sale, available annually November – January.


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