The Best Rafting Near San Francisco for Every Adventure Level

Did you know that if you’re in the Bay Area, you have prime access to some of California’s best rafting? Just a few hours away in the central Sierra Nevada, newbie rafters and families can find fun, splashy day trips, while thrill seekers can take on some of the most challenging whitewater runs in the state. Looking for something in between? You’ll find that too. Here’s a rundown of the best rafting near San Francisco — trips all within a 2- to 4-hour drive — broken down by adventure level…

BEST FOR: FIRST-TIMERS, FAMILIES & EVERYDAY FUN SEEKERS

SOUTH FORK of the AMERICAN RIVER

Nearest town: Coloma, CA
Drive time from San Francisco: 2.5 hours
River rating: Class II-III
Trip length: 1 or 2 days

Everyone loves the South Fork American River. Whether it’s a family outing, a team building event for work, or just a hot summer day with your crew, the splashy Class III whitewater on California’s most popular rafting trip is pure fun. Try the ½-day Chili Bar stretch which has nine named rapids and plenty of time in between for swimming. Or, tackle the full-day Gorge trip which gives you the chance to warm up on some Class II whitewater before the river narrows a bit and challenges paddlers to some of the South Fork’s more rowdy rapids like Satan’s Cesspool and Hospital Bar. Even better? Combine both runs for the full South Fork American River experience.

BEST FOR: INTERMEDIATE RAFTERS

The Best Rafting Near San Francisco for Every Adventure Level

MERCED RIVER

Nearest town: El Portal, CA
Drive time from San Francisco: 3 hours, 20 minutes
River rating: Class III-IV
Trip length: 1 day

Originating high in the Sierra Nevada, the Merced River tumbles and meanders its way through Yosemite National Park. And while you won’t find any whitewater rafting within park boundaries, just past Yosemite’s Hwy 140 entrance, paddlers can hop on a raft and enjoy the Merced’s rollicking whitewater and some of the best rollercoaster wave trains anywhere. On early-season trips during peak snowmelt (typically April to mid-June), the free-flowing river offers 18 miles of huge, splashy wave trains and thrilling Class IV whitewater, including memorable rapids like Ned’s Gulch, Split Rock and Corner Pocket. As the snowmelt subsides, the river mellows to a fun, Class III-IV level that’s typically more suitable for first-timers and families well into July. The scenery doesn’t disappoint either, especially in the spring when the rugged canyon is blanketed with wildflowers.

BEST FOR: EXPERIENCED RAFTERS & ADVENTUROUS FIRST-TIMERS

The Best Rafting Near San Francisco for Every Adventure Level

NORTH FORK of the AMERICAN RIVER

Nearest town: Auburn, CA
Drive time from San Francisco: 2 hours, 15 minutes
River rating: Class IV
Trip length: 1 day

One of the best spring rafting trips in California, the free-flowing North Fork American River also offers idyllic Sierra Nevada beauty. Flowing untamed through a beautiful forested gorge with 2,000-foot cliffs, the emerald green waters of this Wild & Scenic River deliver rapid after Class IV rapid of nearly non-stop white-knuckle whitewater, followed by a stretch of more gentle Class II-III rapids. With intricate boulder gardens, rushing falls and staircase drops, this 10-mile stretch of California whitewater rafting promises intense paddling and plenty of adrenaline-inducing thrills for adventurous paddlers looking for a good challenge.

The Best Rafting Near San Francisco for Every Adventure Level

MIDDLE FORK of the AMERICAN RIVER

Drive time from San Francisco: 2.5 hours
Nearest town: Auburn, CA
River rating: Class II-IV (with optional Class V)
Trip length: 1 day

In the mid-1800’s miners came to the Middle Fork American River in search of gold, but today it’s all about the ultra-exciting whitewater. Plenty of remnants of mining history still remain throughout the river canyon though, including one of the most unique rapids anywhere—Tunnel Chute. Formed when miners blasted a tunnel through the side of a cliff to divert water, this already infamous rapid got even more challenging in the spring of 2017 when high water changed the entrance to the rapid, elevating it from a wild Class IV+ to Class V rapid. After Tunnel Chute, which you can choose to portage, rafters enjoy more exhilarating whitewater followed by a stretch of calm water that gives you a chance to take in the beautiful pine-covered wilderness before ending the day with another stretch of fun, splashy rapids. This 16-mile river trip has it all: big whitewater, incredible scenery and moments of serenity.

The Best Rafting Near San Francisco for Every Adventure Level

TUOLUMNE RIVER

Nearest town: Groveland, CA
Drive time from San Francisco: 3 hours
River rating: Class III-IV+
Trip length: 1, 2 or 3 days

Spilling from the highlands of Yosemite National Park, the Wild & Scenic Tuolumne River is often considered California’s premier whitewater rafting trip. Though not the biggest or most difficult whitewater in the state, “the T’s” 18-miles of nearly non-stop Class III-IV whitewater from Meral’s Pool to Ward’s Ferry is not to be taken lightly, especially during high-water spring trips. Paddlers can expect technical and challenging rapids, including intricate boulder gardens, narrow chutes and big drops like infamous Clavey Falls, where rafts plummet eight vertical feet over a dramatic series of staircase drops before having to dodge a boat-munching hole at the bottom.  And while this action-packed trip can be done in a single day, it’s worth spending another day or two exploring the hidden wonders of the Tuolumne River canyon, like its spectacular side streams that lead to waterfalls, secret swimming holes, and natural waterslides.

BEST FOR: VETERAN RAFTERS & ADRENALINE JUNKIES

The Best Rafting Near San Francisco for Every Adventure Level

CHERRY CREEK / UPPER TUOLUMNE RIVER

Drive Time from San Francisco: 3 hours
Nearest town: Groveland, CA
River rating: Class V
Trip length: 1 day

If you want to experience some of the most demanding commercially-rafted whitewater in the country, let alone California, Cherry Creek is it.  On average, the river drops 110 feet per mile, and in some stretches up to 200 feet per mile. That’s some seriously steep whitewater. And speaking of steep, Class V Mushroom Rapid, which most guides consider the hardest rapid of the entire run, descends some 30 vertical feet in just 50 yards as it tumbles over ledges and into holes. Not for the faint of heart, chutes, holes, ledges and boulders are the name of the game on this 9-mile stretch of ultra-challenging whitewater.

The Best Rafting Near San Francisco for Every Adventure Level

NORTH FORK of the STANISLAUS RIVER

Nearest town: Arnold, CA
Drive time from San Francisco: 3 hours
River rating: Class IV+
Trip length: 1 day

If you can catch the elusive North Fork Stanislaus at runnable flows—there’s usually a brief window in April/May—its crystal clear turquoise waters offer a little slice of whitewater heaven. But there’s no warming up on this feisty stretch of Class IV+ whitewater. The first rapid of the day, just 100-yards from the put-in, is Beginner’s Luck. And if you’re lucky, you’ll stay in the raft. Right out of the gate, this Class IV rapid challenges paddlers with multiple staircase drops, holes and shallow ledges. And with Body Slam waiting for swimmers just downstream, you’ll quickly get a sense for just how demanding the Stan’s non-stop whitewater can get.

*All drive times from San Francisco are approximate  


Photos: South Fork American River, Middle Fork American River, Merced River and the Tuolumne River – James Kaiser; Cherry Creek – Rapid Shooter; North Fork American River, North Fork Stanislaus – Tracy Barbutes