It’s Been 40 Years Since California’s Rafting Season Was Like This

The record-breaking Sierra snowpack means high flows through September

July 11, 2023 6:54 am
Rafting on the Merced river
Rafting on the Merced

A record-breaking snowpack and full reservoirs coupled with cooler-than-normal temperatures across California this spring meant that snow melts brought high flows and swift currents to its rivers — with rapids better suited to more experienced rafters, according to Scott Armstrong, owner of All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting. “It’s a comeback year for California — the river canyons are all super healthy and alive again after several years of drought, and we had some great flows with fun waves in May and June thanks to this above-normal snowpack,” he tells InsideHook. 

Family-owned and operated with more than 60 years of experience professionally guiding on 10 California rivers, Armstrong and his team at AO regularly run one-, two- and three-day white water trips on the American outside Sacramento (California’s most popular river, which sees around 80,000 people go down it each year), plus the Merced and Tuolumne near Yosemite National Park. During a below-normal snowpack winter, Armstrong says high flows on the Merced usually last a week or two; this year, it’s been two months, with May and June the peak. The last time he saw a season like this was in 1983. “A big snowpack year like we’re seeing now gives people months, versus weeks, to go rafting,” he says. “And with so much snow in the Sierra, it’s really a season for the ages in California that will run higher and longer.” 

For reference, flows on spring-fed rivers like the Merced are dictated by snowmelt from Yosemite, but some, including the South Fork of the American, have reservoirs upstream that get released consistently. Armstrong says this results in predictable flow levels and sections better suited for families with younger kids, non-swimmers and first-timers. Even the Tuolumne, an Intermediate-Advanced Class IV+ rapid generally considered the premier whitewater wilderness trip in California, will see a drop in the coming months, making it more attractive to all ages and experience levels.

The Sierra Nevada and its rivers offer world-class whitewater and a lot of variety when it comes to rafting, which Armstrong says is what’s so cool about the area. “The South and Middle Fork of the American will have vibrant, healthy canyons and an extended season, the Merced will run through the middle of August,  and the Tuolumne will have some great white water that should run into early September,” he says. “It’s a rafting enthusiast’s dream year, but there’s something for everyone — just go with professionals.”

The Sierra Grand Traverse Is a Brilliant New Hiking Trail Through California
There’s a narrow window of ideal weather for the 21-day hike, and it’s coming up

The melting snowpack and resulting historic water levels came with increased safety warnings well documented in the media, but while cooling off with a quick dip might be tempting, Armstrong says it’s not the year for floating around on inner tubes and inflatable toys. Staying safe on Sierra-fed rivers this summer is simple: wear a life jacket, even if walking along the shoreline, and don’t attempt to swim. Temperatures may have hit 80 degrees in the Sierra during the Fourth of July holiday weekend and are expected to climb as summer progresses, but with an abundance of snow yet to melt, California rivers will be running much colder than average, and those icy temperatures can quickly shock the body.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Bob Ferguson, owner and president of Zephyr Whitewater Rafting, the closest outfitter to Yosemite, which has run trips in the area since 1972. “The recent safety warnings about fast-moving flows in the media have been good for people who like to recreate beside rivers but aren’t experienced white water boaters — they come unprepared and don’t understand the dangers of moving water or heed posted signs,” he says. “Like all professional outfitters, we take maximum safety measures on all of our trips, including the use of wetsuits, minimum age limits and a swim test in the launch area to weed out anyone who was too enthusiastic about their abilities. Safety kayakers also accompany each of our trips in case the boat flips or to pick up anyone who may have fallen out.”

Ferguson added that while Zephyr had to cancel some of their Merced trips for a few days at the end of May (when a heat wave caused a snap rise in water levels), a mild spring with cooler-than-normal temperatures has kept levels high and exciting for the company. “It has been a historic year with the biggest snowpack, I think, in recorded history,” he says. “We’re still running at high flows and will probably extend our season through Labor Day weekend because of the snowpack, although lower waters in August will still be fun, just mellower.”


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.