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5 Epic White Water Rafting Trips in Northern California

Once, in the dawn of pre-history, a ravenous saber toothed tiger stalked a little family of cavemen, mom, dad and a couple of kids. No matter how fast they ran, the cat grew closer, closer, closer. Suddenly they ran smack up against a river, a dead end for them. Just as the cat was about to pounce, dad tossed everyone out on a log that just happened to be bobbing nearby, and shoved off.

Down, down, they flew through one explosive cascade after another, death groping at every turn. When they finally made it through the nightmarish whitewater, the cat was nowhere to be found. Somehow, they had survived. As it dawned on them they had just cheated death, the kids started screaming and giggling, AGAIN! AGAIN! AGAIN!

That’s how whitewater rafting in NorCal, was (probably) born. Almost ever since then, river rafting has been near the top of the favorite summer family activities in NorCal. The Trinity, Upper Sacramento, Salmon, Klamath and American rivers offer more than enough white-knuckle rapids to satisfy almost anyone with a pseudo death wish.


There seems to be no end of reputable rafting companies in NorCal and southern Oregon eager to get you in their boats, which is why we haven’t attempted to include a list here. There’s just too good a chance we might leave somebody out. A good way to get started shopping for the right trip with the right company is to surf the web. Many rafting companies have elaborate websites with tons of information, maps and splashy, whitewater photographs. Personally, when my life is hanging in the balance I like to go with professionals.

Not always, but often enough whitewater guides are 20-something, ex surfer types, and you have to wonder. It’s entirely appropriate to ask about how long they’ve been in business or how their guides are selected and trained. When you take the big plunge, you want to have confidence in your guide, especially if something unexpected should happen.

As the mercury climbs into triple-digits of the summer season, keep in mind there are stimulating, active things you can be doing to keep cool. A day spent whitewater rafting is a day of fun and enjoyment not soon forgotten.

Trinity River

Photo: Trinity River Rafting

It’s almost difficult to drive Hwy. 299 west of Redding during the summer and not see brightly colored rafts stuffed with people screaming and splashing, or engaged in a water-war with some other raft. The Trinity River is by far the most popular NorCal whitewater venue, and the “Pigeon Point Run” (Class III) is at the top of the list. Depending on water levels, the drop at notorious “Hell Hole” can approach ten feet. Terror apparently has a name.

For the more ardent adventurer, there is the Trinity’s Burnt Ranch Gorge Run. There you can test your skills (or demonstrate your insanity) on big, Class V rapids like Table Rock, Origami, Burnt Ranch Falls and Jaws.

Upper Sacramento River

Photo: White Water Tours

The upper Sac is mainly a springtime phenomena. Depending on the year the river level may drop as much as eight feet between spring and the 4th of July. By July there is no longer enough flow in the river to be little more than a tranquil glide downstream, which is not what most whitewater aficionados are seeking. But, when the water is there, the river can be almost as thrilling as the Trinity with rapids in the Class II to IV range. On those rare and unseasonably warm spring days, rafting the upper Sac can be just the thing, and it’s closer to home.

The Cal-Salmon

Photo: aorafting.com

Few NorCal residents have even heard of this major tributary to the Klamath River, but it’s gaining popularity with a crowd that likes their rivers spectacularly wild and remote, and their rapids big. Not for the faint of heart, the Cal-Salmon is for serious rafters (Class IV-V rapids), preferably with previous experience, at least 16 years old and in good physical condition. This Wild & Scenic river crashes through an isolated section of NorCal, carving its way between the Trinity and Salmon mountain ranges. Several rafting companies who frequent this water reserve the right to give potential clients a paddling test to make sure they are up to the challenge. As on the Trinity, Several companies offer multi-day trips on the Cal-Salmon.

The Klamath River

In all fairness, the most popular rafting section of this river is mainly in Oregon just south of Klamath Falls, but the takeout is at the California state line. Known as the J.C. Boyle section of the Klamath, trips begin below the dam and extend 17 miles downstream including the “Hell’s Corner” section of Class IV+ rapids. (Rafters seem fond of naming rapids “hell this,” and “hell that.” Don’t they know that water puts out fire?) Like the Cal-Salmon, this section of river also carries the Wild & Scenic designation. Unlike the Cal-Salmon or any other river mentioned so far, the water is warmer and not at all clear. In fact, it resembles cappuccino. Nevertheless, it carries its own rugged beauty and a day spent on this water will be memorable and thrilling.

American River

Photo: Tributary Whitewater Tours

The American River is the most popular whitewater rafting destination in California, and for good reason! The South Fork’s action-packed Class III rapids are rollicking good fun for the entire family. The Middle Fork of the American combines challenging Class IV rapids with miles of beautiful wilderness scenery. And the North Fork sparkles with Class IV spring run-off thrills and pristine beauty. All three rivers also feature Class II sections perfect for family float trips or anyone looking for relaxation without the adrenaline factor.

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Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

One Comment

  1. Hey active Nor.Cal! Love this article. And love all of these rivers! Especially the ones really up North 🙂 I am doing a media day rafting trip this coming Friday, May 10th with a couple newspaper reporters, possibly a tv action news reporter and hopefully you!!! Please join us on the Trinity River, for the Pigeon Point run, 10am, at the USFS Big Flat River Access. All gear and guide provided by Six Rivers Rafting, no cost. We are doing this to help get the word out that while high flows years like this have big, cold, and fast water not to be taken lightly, that these are actually the best years to go experience a guided rafting trip with a commercial outfitter and professional guide. Give us a call at 707 599 4221 or email at sixriversrafting@gmail.com to save a seat for one of your writers!

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