[VIDEO] Whitewater Pros: Big Snowpack Leads to Epic California Rafting

Posted May 11, 2023 by Jack Armstrong: grandson of founder George Armstrong
View time: 6 mins

When the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is above average, any river guide gets an extra twinkle in their eye. And it’s not because they won the lottery. It’s because we just got the dream-come-true rafting conditions that happen once in a decade. 

In over 60 years we’ve seen some seriously abundant snowpack years: We were rafting in 2011 when the winter reported in at 162% of normal. We were rafting in 2017 when it was 173% of normal. And, we were rafting in the record-setting year of 1983 when the snowpack report came in at 230% of normal. 

All-Outdoors owner Scott Armstrong, along with veteran guides John V. and Scooter have been around for all those seasons. Listen to them explain what it means to the California rafting world when we get an unusually snowy winter.

Long Season with More Water and More Fun

All of the 10 California rivers we raft on get a boost when there is more water running through them. Whether it’s a beginner river or an advanced river, they’re all more fun. It isn’t just springtime either – the entire season is better. The canyons have a lot more life in them and everything is fresher. 

John V.’s first season as a river guide was in 1982, which saw some big water on the Merced River where he worked that year. He got hooked on rafting right away. And even after all these years he still gets just as excited when the water comes up. One of his favorite things are those big ocean-like waves that appear with higher flows. As you go up and down through them, you get a sense of weightlessness at the top. Then when you are down, the raft in front of you disappears because the waves are so tall. That is some fun rafting!

You Can Do This!

Scooter, who has also been river guiding since the early 80’s, reflects on the sense of accomplishment that can be felt at the end of the day. He remembers many times when guests would be very apprehensive before their rafting trip. In most cases, those same guests would be  high-fiving everybody afterward and would be elated that their trip was a success.

Scott Armstrong points out that it can sometimes be a challenge for rafting outfitters to make people understand that “they can do this”. Those in reasonable physical condition who are comfortable swimming are going to have a blast even at higher springtime flows. Families with younger children will still benefit from the outstanding conditions later in the summer when the rivers return to normal levels. Learn how to determine whether taking a trip at higher springtime flows is right for your group or if you should wait to raft later in the summer.

Experience Is What Counts

All-Outdoors has been rafting on California rivers from the beginnings of the sport in the 1960’s. We’ve learned a lot over the decades, seeing many rivers in various conditions. All this knowledge and skills are passed down to each new generation of river guides. Over the years and along with improved equipment, we’ve turned potentially challenging higher flow situations into manageable ones. Nowadays, both younger and veteran guides enjoy the energy of a rafting season boosted by an extra wet winter. They are excited to work together and to share the experience with our guests.

Don’t Miss These Once-In-A-Decade Conditions

Any year we get an above average snowpack is exciting. It means we get full seasons on all of our California rivers. We get side creeks with waterfalls, rolling rollercoaster-like waves, huge splashes, and an extra long wildflower season. It also means that a river that you may have already rafted at normal flows may have a completely different personality. Those rocks and boulders you maneuvered around are often replaced by big splashy waves. And it can feel like a new river that you’ve never rafted before. These seasons don’t happen often and they make for some of our most memorable trips. We’re excited for you to join us!

Author Bio

Jack Armstrong

Jack grew up 35 minutes from AO headquarters, and is the grandson of our founder, George. His education includes a film degree and art studies from Biola University, as well as lots of experience breaking camera gear outside. After graduating college, he started an outdoors/action sports focused production company and is largely responsible for our video, photo, and social media content. Jack’s favorite trip is the Cal-Salmon, because of the river’s awe-inspiring beauty and the sweet rapids. When he’s not rafting or playing with cameras, Jack can be found skiing, surfing, visiting art galleries, or eating tacos.


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