Five best spots to float your boat in Northern California
Hot summer weather. Cool river rapids. What could be better?
We’re no hydrologists, but it’s easy to imagine all of that High Sierra snowpack we’ve been hearing about translating into a stellar whitewater season for residents of the Bay Area, Sacramento and beyond. Fresh snow melt has already begun cascading down the flanks of the Sierra Nevada, and releases from near full reservoirs in many watersheds promise prime flows straight through fall.
Memorial Day represents the traditional start to the river running season, which makes it the perfect time for the Gig Car Share Team’s inaugural guide to the best of the best. Northern California is blessed with waterways where you can kayak, raft or tube to your heart’s content.
Here are five that routinely float our boat.
The American River is one of the most popular white water rafting locations in California. It’s close to Sacramento and Lake Tahoe and offers trips for all ages and skills. The South Fork in El Dorado County is considered by some to be the No. 1 rafting site in the western U.S. If whitewater courses through your veins, Lotus Run to Folsom Lake, east of Sacramento, offers rapids rated Class I to III. Chili Bar to Salmon Falls Bridge is a popular (challenging) run. For a considerably calmer, decidedly more urban ride, you can put in at Howe and float down to Sutter’s Landing, site of the Sacramento area’s pickup/dropoff HomeZone. There may be no better way to spend a sunny Saturday.
Planning a trip to Lake Tahoe or even Reno? Truckee River raft trips are a terrific way to spend an afternoon in the High Sierra. One popular summer run is on the Boca section of the Truckee River from Boca Reservoir down to Floriston just shy of the California/Nevada border. Raft California has the details of that popular run here.
Not a whitewater fan? Not a problem. Truckee’s calm waters are a popular choice for “party floats,” low key affairs that involve rafts, inner tubes, giant inflatable donuts, or pretty much anything else that floats. One popular trip extends from the outlet of Lake Tahoe to a pickup point five miles downstream. The “party run” season typically opens on or around June 30. Visit California has more information here.
Are you an advanced paddler? The Gig Team has you covered. The rough and tumble North Yuba is a whitewater expert’s dream. Outfitters like to put in above the mining town Downieville at Union Flat Campground. Accessible from San Francisco, Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, this is Class V Country and is best left to the experts with strong swimming skills...and fish.
What about the Russian River, you ask? Great question. Bay Area residents don’t get many hot summer days, but when they do they love to enjoy a lazy float down the Russian River. The Russian River spans more than 100 miles in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. (After the Sacramento River, it is the second largest river in the nine-county Greater San Francisco Area.) There are vineyards. There are Redwoods. There are rafters. On hot days there are lots of rafters. Steelhead Beach to Mother’s Beach. Steelhead Beach to Sunset Beach. Vacation Beach to Monte Rio Beach. 7x7 breaks down each trip and offers tips for planning a ride that your group is sure to remember.
You can technically raft the entire length of the Klamath River from Oregon all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but with features along the way named Satan’s Gate, Hell’s Corner, and Scarface, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s esteemed outdoors writer Tom Stienstra, the run from Sarah Totten Campground to Happy Camp is the best way for families to experience the river. Plenty of gorgeous scenery. No unexpected swims. Tom feels so strongly about it he ranks the trip seventh on his list of boating destinations primed for family fun.
Fun flows freely in Northern California year round, but summertime can be especially buoyant. The nearby mountains provide the water, and residents from the Bay Area to Sacramento and beyond take it from there. Whether you book a whitewater tour with a certified outfitter or gear up and hit the water on your own, whether you have a plethora of paddling experience or are part of a flotilla of first-timers, we’re confident there’s a river somewhere in Northern California with your name on it.