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The Five Best Rafting Spots for a Rapid Getaway

The drought might add a few bumps to your itinerary, but the water's still going strong.


Northern California has some of the world’s most beautiful rivers, and even the drought can’t totally deflate our spirits—or our rafts. Russian River, for one, has a handful of low points where river voyagers will need to step out of the raft and let it float by itself, says Russian River Adventures owner Larry Laba. “There’s enough water for boats to flow through,” he explains. “It’s just a little heavy with people in it.” And you’ll want to avoid the American River’s Middle Fork on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the Sacramento Municipal Utility District holds back water from the reservoir. “Because of the drought, we’re not allowed to raft seven days a week,” says H20 Adventures owner Tyler Soule. But as long as you're prepared for a few workarounds, the drought doesn't have to mean staying dry. Here are the five best places for a day (or two, or three) of rafting for newbies and river rats alike.  

Russian River
If you’re more interested in floating along the river with a six-pack of beer than donning a helmet for some Class V rapids, head north on 101 toward Healdsburg’s Memorial Beach on the Russian River. Companies such as Russian River Adventures and River’s Edge are located near the waterfront, where you can rent rafts and canoes (adult prices start at $45 and $50, respectively), and also arrange for a ride back to your car. 

South Fork American River
Take one look at the South Fork of the American River and you might think you’ve stepped onto the set of The Andy Griffith Show. Only two hours east of San Francisco, South Fork has some of the most popular rafting flows and scenic views in the state. In Auburn, you’ll find shops like Canyon Raft Rentals to pick up rafts and safety gear. There, prices range from $42 for a small raft (two to three people) on a weekday to $250 for a large raft (up to eight people) over an entire weekend. Make your way toward Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma. Here, you’ll be able to put in your raft at North Beach, float on down, then take out at Skunk Hollow or Salmon Falls Bridge. And don’t be too intimidated by rapids called “Troublemaker” or “Deadman’s Drop”; both are Class III difficulty levels—perfect to get the adrenaline running but safe enough for less-experienced rafters.

Middle Fork American River
When a day trip just isn’t enough, it’s time for a sleepover at Middle Fork. Spend the day riding the Class III–IV rapids—some much more challenging than the rapids on the South Fork—then kick back in Middle Fork canyon for the night. Commercial outfitters such as H2O Adventures offer overnight rafting guides with gear, food, and other necessities included (carried along the way in a “gear boat”) at $280 for adults and $250 for children. If you’re ready for a new challenge the next day, take a hike along historic Gold Rush trails, such as the Quarry Road or Western States trail, or go fishing along the river.

Tuolumne River
Self-guided trips down the Tuolumne are for rafters with some experience under their oars. Rapids generally range from Class IV to Class V, so new rafters might want to opt for a guide such as All-Outdoors, whose one-day trip costs $249. If you’re confident in your rafting skills and choose not to go with a guide, you’ll need a permit for your raft or kayak. These can be reserved online ahead of time for $15 from the Forest Service, or if you’re willing to gamble, they can be picked up day-of for free at the Groveland ranger station (24545 Highway 120, Groveland, California) on a first-come-first-served basis. Most rafters who take this route choose to put in their raft at Meral’s pool and take out at Wards Ferry Bridge, beach hopping along the way.

South Fork Yuba River
Home to some of the best swimming holes in California—we’re talking whirlpools, underwater rock tunnels, and natural waterslides—South Yuba also hosts some excellent rafting and kayaking flows. Take 80 east to Highway 49, pass through picturesque Nevada City, and follow signs for Highway 20 toward the town of Washington. Edwards Crossing is a good place to hop on the water, and from there you’ll raft for about four miles before the take-out point at Purdon Crossing. Remember to check conditions beforehand; the South Fork of the Yuba has some of the most pristine flows among Class II–V rapids, but only when water levels are high enough. For better or worse, this unpredictability has kept many commercial guides out of the South Yuba area, making it a destination for experienced, self-guided rafters only.

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