The Ultimate California Road Trip for Adventure-Lovers
If you love rafting and can appreciate a good road trip, the road to whitewater awaits you in California this summer. An easy excursion from San Francisco or Sacramento, this adventure through the Sierra Nevada, including rafting on four different stretches of river and a layover in Yosemite National Park, is big on thrills, scenery and fun. It’s the ultimate California road trip for adventure-lovers. Check out the itinerary…
Drive, Raft, Rest & Repeat on This California Road Trip Adventure
As tourism restrictions fluctuate in many states and counties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, be sure to review local health department updates and guidelines before traveling and keep in mind the potential impacts you may have on the communities you travel through.
Day 1: South Fork of the American River: Raft the Gorge – Coloma, CA
Grab your to-go mug and hit the road. Just 2.5 hours from the Bay Area or a quick 1-hour drive from Sacramento, make your way to Coloma, CA, the epicenter for California rafting. From here, you’ll be able to raft multiple stretches of the American River.
Get started on California’s most popular stretch of whitewater—the South Fork of the American River. With rapids like Satan’s Cesspool and Hospital Bar, this fun and splashy Class III run will give you a good glimpse of what’s to come in the next few days.
After a full day on the river, OARS offers free camping for rafters at the American River Outpost, or if you’re looking for something a little more plush, reserve a comfy platform tent with twin beds, pillows, freshly-laundered linens and down comforters. For dinner, take a short 5-minute walk to one of the local eateries in Coloma, or join OARS for happy hour and a BBQ dinner in camp for an additional fee.
Day 2: Middle Fork of the American River: Take on Tunnel Chute – Auburn, CA
Up the adventure level on your second day of rafting on the Class IV+ Middle Fork of the American River and experience Tunnel Chute—one of California’s most notorious rapids. While trying to uncover a lucrative gold site in the late 1860s, miners blasted through a granite mountainside along the river, leaving behind a 90-foot tunnel, and an epic rapid you’ll never forget. Of course, there’s more to the Middle Fork than this well-known “underground” rapid, including pristine canyon scenery deep in the El Dorado National Forest.
After a full day on the river and a shuttle ride back to camp, you’ll no doubt be ready for a shower and some relaxing. Walk into town to grab a beer and a bite. Or, kick back at your campsite and let your guides take care of dinner.
Day 3: Explore the Gold Rush Trail: Historic Highway 49 to Mariposa, CA
Today, hop back in the car and make your way to the Yosemite Bug, a rustic mountain lodge just outside of Mariposa, CA where you’ll be well-positioned for a Merced River rafting trip the following day. As you drive along Historic Highway 49, explore old Gold Rush towns like Sutter Creek, Angels Camp and Sonora, which still maintain their rich history but also offer hidden gem restaurants, boutique wineries, cute cafes and a diverse assortment of shops that can be fun to explore.
Grab dinner along the way, or after you check in to the Yosemite Bug, enjoy a meal at the lodge’s on-site restaurant, The June Bug Café, before getting a good night’s rest.
Day 4: Merced River Rafting near Yosemite
This California road trip is all about the whitewater so get ready for round three. Flowing straight from Yosemite Valley, the Merced River offers rollicking, non-stop whitewater, especially in the spring and early summer when Sierra snowmelt is at its peak. You’ll want to book ahead so you don’t miss out on this Wild & Scenic River’s rollercoaster wave trains and rapids like Nightmare Island, Ned’s Gulch, and Split Rock.
Afterward, head back to the Yosemite Bug to take in the lodge’s relaxed and social atmosphere, or perhaps splurge on a day pass for the spa where a welcoming hot tub and sauna await active travelers.
Day 5: Yosemite National Park
Hit the road early and catch Yosemite Valley at sunrise before the crowds wake-up. Then, head to Tioga Road for access to less-crowded Tuolumne Meadows and the High Sierra.
Pick a hike, any hike. You’ll have to work for it, but the Mount Hoffmann hike at the geographic center of Yosemite doesn’t disappoint. From the May Lake Trailhead, this 6-mile round-trip hike takes you past one of the park’s most scenic lakes, before ascending 2,000 feet to the top of Mt. Hoffmann for mind-blowing panoramic views. John DeGrazio of YExplore, which offers custom guided Yosemite hiking adventures, says that it’s not on anyone’s radar, but every time he takes people on this hike they can’t believe how spectacular it is.
Plan ahead and pack lunch to enjoy at May Lake. From here, you can take in the sights along Tioga Road before heading to charming Evergreen Lodge just outside of the park off of Highway 120. Here, cozy cabins and custom camping are available, along with a lively tavern that serves lunch and dinner daily. Plus, just 20 minutes down the road is the meeting spot for Tuolumne River rafting trips.
Day 6 – 7: Wild & Scenic Tuolumne River – Groveland, CA
Most people don’t realize there’s world-class whitewater rafting right at the doorstep of Yosemite National Park. To cap off your trip, head out on a two-day Tuolumne River Rafting trip. This Wild & Scenic River, which roars down from the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada into a spectacular river canyon, not only provides 18 miles of thrilling Class III-IV+ whitewater, but also offers complete wilderness immersion, hidden swimming holes and brilliant star-filled skies. It’s the perfect finale to a week-long California road trip and rafting adventure.
For more road trip inspiration, check out our library of itineraries from some of the West’s biggest travel hubs.
Please remember to travel responsibly & always
Leave No Trace in any area you’re visiting.
Photos: Rafting on the Middle Fork of the American River – OARS; American River Outpost – OARS; Merced River whitewater rafting – OARS; Yosemite by Josh Carter / Unsplash; Camping on the Tuolumne River near Yosemite National Park – Justin Bailie