The Best California Multi-Day Rafting Trip

Posted June 28, 2023 by Gregg Armstrong, Co-Founder
Updated from the original post published on July 7, 2021 by Emily Vernizzi, river enthusiast and Armstrong cousin

“Have you been down the Big Ditch*? Rowed the Rogue? Made it to the Middle Fork Salmon?” These are questions you hear when river enthusiasts meet. The West is home to some of North America’s most renowned whitewater rafting experiences, and California’s most notable member of this league of legends – the treasured Tuolumne River.

When you say the word Tuolumne among whitewater rafters, you always get an emotional rise. Why all the hype? Why is it revered by many as the best rafting river in the western US? Its reputation precedes it and is well-earned. Here are the top 6 reasons the Tuolumne River is considered one of the best (if not the best) river trips in California.

*River lingo for the magnificent Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

6 reasons why the Tuolumne River is California’s premier multi-day wilderness river rafting trip:

1. Variety of seasons and dependable water flows

The Tuolumne bursts to life in the spring with powerful flows and huge hydraulics, boldly framed by poppy-blanketed canyon walls. The flows are usually higher than normal thanks to the melting snow providing thrill seekers with some of the most exciting whitewater available in California. Orange turns to gold as summer progresses, presenting the classic California foothill scenery to admire between challenging Class IV whitewater rapids. Scheduled water releases from the upstream reservoirs mean we can enjoy the canyon riding these waves all the way through Labor Day Weekend.

2. A protected wilderness canyon and pristine water

In 1984 the Tuolumne River became a National Wild and Scenic River. This alone is enough reason to raft this river. Like lands that have been designated as National Parks for the sake of preservation and enjoyment in the future, particular rivers are designated Wild and Scenic for the same reason. Once you are there, it is clear why the Tuolumne made it into this elite class of rivers! This wilderness area has much native flora and fauna in abundance – including a bear every once in a while. Additionally, the occasional remnants of Gold Rush history make the Tuolumne canyon an authentic and timeless California experience. 

The water is often described by those who venture there with words such as: “pristine”, “clean”, “pure”, “sparkling”, “refreshing”.  One of the main reasons the river is characterized in these ways is because of its source. The Tuolumne River starts as snow on the highest mountains in Yosemite National Park, on places like Mount Lyell (13,120 feet). It then flows through granite cut by glaciers before arriving at our trip starting points. This water path serves as a giant water purifying system that makes the water crystal clear. Rafting on a river of this nature feels like floating on spring water! It not only cleanses your body, it cleanses your mind and soul.

Wild Life on the Tuolumne River

3. Remote and uncrowded…the perfect getaway

The canyon’s wilderness is only accessible by boat and for a strictly limited number of rafters each day. We may see another boat or two at the start of the day, but we have the canyon all to ourselves as we cruise downstream and lay out our sleeping bags under the stars.Fitting 18 river miles into one day makes for a boatload of excitement, but an overnight on the “T” makes for an amazing wilderness rafting vacation and a lifelong memory.

Slowing it down and pacing the miles over two or three days gives us time to dig deeper into what makes the T the creme de la creme of California rafting. It’s not just the impressive whitewater, but also highlights of the canyon along the way. A particularly special treat on the multi-day trips is a rock-hopping hike to a swimming hole and natural rock waterslide up the Clavey River, a tributary of the Tuolumne and one of the very few undammed rivers flowing down the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

wilderness multi day rafting - remote and uncrowded

4. The rapids AND the calms

The rapids on the Tuolumne vary in size, type, and challenge. Some are long, continuous, and seemingly never-ending. Others are violent and abrupt causing your heart to jump into your throat and your hands to grip the paddle or the raft. There are technical rapids that make you wonder how you and your guide are going to get through the maze. You will also find rhythmic, playful and soothing rapids, reminding you of what it felt like when you first learned to ride a bike. 

The calms are tranquil but swift, giving a needed psychological, emotional, and physical rest between the challenging rapids. These sections of the river give time to enjoy those you are with and to appreciate where you are. Your intense focus on running rapids is replaced by a wider view and awareness that adds a lasting quality to the trip. In this way, it is similar to snow skiing with family members or good friends. You fly down the ski hill and then get back on the chair and spend time together conversing as you admire the winter mountain scenery around you and then repeat the process all over again! This pattern and double-phased experience on the ski hill is the same on the river due to the calm sections.

The calm before the rapids

5. Appropriate for athletic first timers and advanced rafters

The Tuolumne is considered the big sibling to the Middle Fork of the American River – all the best parts of the Middle Fork, but kicked up a notch. Rafters on the T earn their stripes on the Class IV+ Intermediate-Advanced technical turns and giant drops of rapids like Rock Garden, Gray’s Grindstone, and Clavey Falls. Even though these rapids are challenging, the Tuolumne River is still appropriate for fit and adventurous first timers for most of the season!

clavey falls - a technical boulder slalom

6. Gets you away without going far away

An early AM alarm is all the more bearable when you have your GPS set for Casa Loma – just 8 miles past Groveland along Highway 120. The Tuolumne River is easy to get to from both the Bay Area and Southern California, and pairs perfectly with a visit to Yosemite National Park. You may even up the rafting ante by adding a day on the incomparable upper section of the Tuolumne – the Class V Cherry Creek, creating a continuous 27-mile Multi-Day Combo trip full of world-class whitewater.

Pro-tip: arrive in Casa Loma a little early to snag a breakfast burrito from Tangled Hearts Bakery, next door to the All-Outdoors meet location. 10/10 rafting fuel for a 10/10 river trip.

Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, sunscreen, and stoke, all locked and loaded for the ultimate overnight wilderness rafting experience in California. It’s T time, baby.

Author Bio

Gregg Armstrong

Gregg is the middle child of George and Dolores Armstrong's five children. He has been working with All-Outdoors since it was founded. He guided and set up early operations on California rivers in the 70's and 80's before making marketing for AO and reservations his main responsibilities. One of his claims to fame is that he and his wife Marion had triplets, who grew up to enjoy rafting and outdoor activities as much as he does. When not doing AO and family life he loves to ski, garden, and spend time with people.


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