When most people think about river rafting trips, Colorado or Idaho immediately spring to mind. But California has some excellent river rafting and most of it’s not far from San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, or Sacramento. So if you’re visiting Northern California, why not add some excitement to your itinerary.

Half-, full-, and two-day trips are available. And you’ll get to experience nature at its spectacular best. Plus, you’ll really get your heart racing.

Rafting season runs from around April until September. And there are several rivers to choose from. Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran whitewater rat, there’s a trip that’s just right for you.

River rafting the South Fork of the American River.

The South Fork of the American River caught the public’s eye in 1848, when gold was discovered in the town of Coloma. Today, the South Fork is the most popular river in California for whitewater rafting trips. With 50 majors rapids in 21 miles, it’s no wonder. There are relaxing stretches of calm water, plenty of Class 3 rapids, and beautiful wilderness scenery too.

The South Fork flows from Chili Bar Reservoir to Folsum Lake through dozens of rapids and extremely varied Sierra terrain. You’ll pass through rocky gorges and the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. In the springtime, you’ll see fields filled with wildflowers, and there’s plenty of color in the fall.

The put-in spot for these trips is an hour from Sacramento and about four hours from San Francisco. And trips on the South Fork are suitable for everyone. Beginners will have the time of their lives negotiating the rapids known as the Meatgrinder, Satan’s Cesspool, and the Troublemaker.

Spring snow-melt run off makes the South Fork especially exciting in April and May, and because fewer people are traveling that time of year, you’ll enjoy lots of personal attention. Mid-week visits are also less crowded.

On full-day trips, a picnic lunch buffet is served on the river bank. And there’s usually time for a swim in the cool, clear water. Prices start at around $125. All Outdoors and American River Rafting offer good programs on the South Fork.

River rafting trips on the Middle Fork of the American River.

Those who are looking for a little more excitement can opt for a trip on the Middle Fork of the American. With Class III and IV rapids, it’s challenging enough for experienced river rafters, but also suitable for adventurous beginners. And there are usually fewer people than on the South Fork.

This section of the river is so beautiful and dramatic that it’s been used in countless films. The river runs through a deep, remote canyon with walls that tower 2,000 feet overhead. It stretches 18 miles past rocky cliffs and forests. Next to the river, there are crystal-clear pools and waterfalls you can explore.

The river roars through Tunnel Chute rapid on its way into a 90-foot rock tunnel created by miners in the 19th century. You’ll also navigate Ruck-A-Chucky Falls – a 25-foot drop with huge granite walls on either side. Unforgettable.

One-, two-, and three-day trips are available. And because the water is controlled by a dam, the water level is consistent all season long. A lunch buffet is served on one-day trips, and all meals are served on overnight trips. Contact American River and American Whitewater for more information.

River rafting trips on the Merced River.

The Yosemite Valley is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the country and the Merced River flows right through it. Designated a National Wild and Scenic River, it offers both novice and experienced white-water rafters a thrilling roller coaster ride with huge waves and churning rapids.

The meeting place for rafting trips is only 40 minutes from the entrance to Yosemite National Park and 3-1/2 hours from the Bay Area. To make the most of your time, plan to spend a day rafting the river, and a day exploring the park.

The season here is a short one. During peak snow-melt, this is a Class IV run. As the flow subsides, it becomes a Class III. And by mid-July the flow is usually too low for rafting. One-day trips run a 16-mile section of the Upper Merced. Depending on conditions, you may need to wear a wetsuit.

Since these are paddle-raft trips, you’ll need to help row and navigate the raft, so be prepared to participate. Contact Zephyr Whitewater for more information.

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