Planning a California Spring River Rafting Trip

Posted February 16, 2023 by Lenka Bostian

White water rafting in April, May, or June may not be as popular as river trips during the warmer months of California summer, yet spring is a favorite time of year to go rafting for many of our guides and guests.  “Early Spring” and “Spring” are the first two parts of the 4 “Seasons” of the California Rafting Season. California rivers can provide an extra punch during these two seasons, as flows typically increase due to melting snow in the Sierra. There are also many other good reasons to consider a spring river rafting trip. What’s more, these apply universally, regardless of the snowpack levels in the current year. Here are just a few of them to get you inspired.

A wider array of spring river rafting options

Some rivers are available for whitewater rafting only during the spring snowmelt months because there aren’t any reservoirs upstream to catch the runoff. The exact timing and the length of the rafting season vary on each free-flowing river. It can also be different from year to year. Sometimes good flows last for several months and in other years for several weeks. It all depends on the snowpack levels left over by winter.

Early Spring rafting starts at the beginning of April. This month is often the only time to see the exciting Class IV+ whitewater of the high-elevation North Fork of the Stanislaus River located in Big Trees State Park, or the North Fork of the American River just a short drive from Sacramento. The end of April is also the time to join us on our annual trip to the Class V California Salmon River in Northern California.

Later on in spring, rafters are eager to experience the roller coaster-like ride on the Class III-IV Merced River. The popular whitewater section is located only a few miles from Yosemite National Park. Adventurous groups get fired up in the non-stop rafting action on the Class IV+ Kaweah River just a few minutes downstream of Sequoia National Park.

These spring rivers are a special addition to the reliable dam-controlled rivers (such as the South Fork of the American or the Tuolumne) that benefit from scheduled water releases from upstream reservoirs throughout the whole rafting season (April – October). View the current season forecast.

Spring Rafting in California

The calm before the storm

Not counting the roar of the rapids, springtime is one of the most peaceful times one can enjoy the river and the neighboring communities. With the high travel season still a few months away, everything is far less busy than during the summer. The roads, campgrounds, local lodging and eateries, nearby sights, as well as the river itself! Our river guides are delighted to be back on the job, rested and refreshed. They are ready to introduce novice rafters to the joys of California spring river rafting and give a warm welcome back to familiar faces. Do not wait too long to experience this serenity before it turns into the high energy of summertime.

California Rafting in the Springtime

Name that wildflower, spot that duckling

As winter gives way to spring, the river canyons turn green and colorful with wildflowers. You won’t get to see these later in the year when the hills of California are golden with tall dry grass. Your best chance to view the hillsides blanketed in poppies is in Early Spring, though the timing of the spring bloom varies by river and year. As spring progresses, deciduous trees and bushes growing along the river banks introduce new shades of green to the picture. No matter where and when in spring you come rafting, the river canyons will have a revived feel that is meant to last only a short time.

During this quieter time on the river, you may also notice the water and the riparian zones busy with wildlife enjoying the lighter river traffic and cooler daytime temperatures. A spring rafting trip is truly a wholesome outdoor experience in the beautiful California nature.

Mergansers enjoying some spring whitewater
Photo courtesy of Hotshot Imaging

If heat is not your thing

Some people may shy away from spring river rafting because they are worried about the cooler air and/or water temperatures. They may not realize how much they are missing or that their reservations have solutions and a flip side. (No pun intended.) Properly outfitted, you can stay comfortable on cooler overcast days, in the rain, and even in the snow.

All-Outdoors provides wetsuits and splash jackets free of charge. We also offer tips and advice on how to dress for success. (Watch our video What to Wear for Spring Rafting in California.) Milder daytime temperatures also mean that once you are done rafting, you don’t start sweating the minute you get back on shore, and are not in search of a source of shade or AC. There will be plenty of time for that during the heat of the summer…

Wetsuits and splash jackets for spring rafting

Staying flexible during California spring river rafting

It was mentioned already: spring river conditions vary from year to year. Water flows and availability of trips on each free-flowing river are directly affected by the depth of the snowpack, as well as the weather patterns in late winter and throughout spring in the drainage area of each river. Some rivers have small and low-elevation drainage  – those tend to be available in Early Spring only in most years. Other rivers collect snowmelt from large areas containing the highest peaks in the Sierra. These can run well throughout the entire springtime.

We recommend staying as flexible as possible and listening to the advice of our California Rafting Consultants. If we can’t get you rafting on the river you want and when you want, we provide alternatives for the “next best thing”. It is something we are able to do thanks to our large permits on 10 California rivers. Our goal is to provide you with an awesome rafting experience no matter what.

See California Whitewater Rafting Season Update for this year’s forecast and start planning your California spring river rafting adventure now!

Author Bio

Lenka Bostian

Lenka started working for All-Outdoors in the summer of 2005 when she followed her heart from her native Czech Republic out to California. After graduating college in Prague, she packed up her degree in International Business and moved across the pond for good. She’s been part of the AO family ever since, wearing different hats along the way. Besides trail running, tennis, and traveling, Lenka enjoys rafting and camping on the South Fork with her hubby (former AO guide) and their twin boys.


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