The 3 “Seasons” of the California Rafting SeasonPosted August 17, 2021 by Emily Vernizzi, river enthusiast and Armstrong cousin
A really nice thing about California’s rafting season is we never have to wait too long for it to come back ‘round. With mild weather, many rivers, and some dam-controlled flows, the rafting season here in the Golden State stretches across spring, summer, and fall! Each season looks a bit different so let me fill you in on the best thing about each…
Three in One!
1. Sprung for spring!
Highlight: Snowmelt means seasonal rivers and exciting flows!
This is the time when the free-flowing seasonal rivers come to life and dam-controlled classics take on a new look! Starting April 1, springtime is your chance to ride fresh snowmelt through challenging whitewater on the seasonal treats: North Fork of the American, Merced, North Stanislaus, Kaweah, and Cal Salmon. If California is blessed with a big winter snowpack, some of these may be flowing nicely later into summer. Once the river flows drop, rafting on free-flowing rivers is over until the next spring.
Healthy snowpack often translates to bigger water releases from the dams on the South Fork of the American and Tuolumne Rivers. The ramped up hydraulics and the extra fast pace 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 high-water Tuolumne trip to turn the quietest whitewater enthusiast into a Chatty Kathy – river folks live for the high water fun.
Honorable mentions: Great wildflowers and everyone looking very stylish in the wetsuits.
2. Summer lovin’, had me a splash!
Highlight: Guaranteed excitement and awesome summer feels.
Summer is the peak season for a reliably good time. The water flows normalize, the much-loved Middle Fork of the American and Cherry Creek seasons begin (these cannot be run at higher spring flows), and the river communities really 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. So many options that pair well with summer trips to Tahoe and Yosemite!
Honorable mentions: Tan lines are hot, so is the California weather, and the chaimonade (chai + lemonade) at Marco’s Cafe tastes utterly divine after a day on the South Fork.
3. 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 season, but I strongly encourage you to embrace the idea of a fall rafting trip! While some rivers wrap it up on Labor Day, the South and Middle Fork of the American continue to serve the same high-quality whitewater as summer, but in a more private setting. One of my all-time favorite river memories is a quiet, misty morning in late-September on the Middle Fork – the clouds were clinging to the canyon walls like a magical painting and we had the place entirely to ourselves. It was perfect.
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 (I swear it’s not just me!).
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).