California’s Best-Kept Secret: The Tuolumne River

6 Min. Read
An OARS raft floating through a rocky section of the Wild & Scenic Tuolumne River

A First-timer Discovers the Thrill of Whitewater Rafting on the Tuolumne River

I recently set out on a road trip to tackle some of California’s best whitewater—four rafting trips, on four different stretches of river, in seven days. Never mind I had never seen the inside of a raft before. But, you know what? Jumping in, head-first experiences like this have been some of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and this one led me to my latest discovery: the Tuolumne River.

A yellow raft going through a rapid on the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River in California
Non-stop thrills await paddlers on California’s premier whitewater rafting trip | Photo by James Kaiser

Just three hours from San Francisco, the Tuolumne flows 149 miles down from the High Sierra, through Yosemite National Park and into California’s Central Valley. But the cool thing is that 83 miles of the river, including 18 miles of some of the most thrilling whitewater in California, are dubbed Wild and Scenic (that means it’s protected by ‘Merica, folks!). And that right there, true wilderness coupled with pure adventure, is what makes this river one of California’s best-kept secrets.

My Tuolumne River rafting adventure started with a hair-raising journey down a windy, dirt road that definitely didn’t look wide enough for a van. Luckily it was. With what seemed like two million turns, a boat load of California fun facts, and one barf bag [exaggeration] later, we made it to the put-in at Meral’s Pool.

And things got real…fast. We loaded the boats into the water, took a few minutes to warm-up in an eddy and before I could even blink an eye, we were right in the middle of our first rapid: Rock Garden, which is exactly what it sounds like.

I quickly learned what makes this river so exciting is its consistent Class IV rapids. I thought I was going blind on the big “T” because all I could see was white. And let’s just say that sitting in the splash zone is a much more effective way to wake up than any cup of coffee.

Tuolumne River Rafting | Ram's Head Rapid
Paddlers navigate Ram’s Head Rapid on the Tuolumne River

Our yellow banana boats successfully battled whitewater all morning. Until Ram’s Head Rapid, that is. Here, the river bends left and basically just drops out of sight as it crashes downstream. It’s one of the river’s most infamous rapids and we were all taking huge digs to balance ourselves and stay in the boat.  With the bellowing noise of the river, our guide was yelling commands at the top of his lungs.

Through all the commotion, I looked back and realized that one of the other guests—let’s call him Jerry—had fallen out of the boat and was taking quite the swim downstream. At one point, he was thrusted so far under a rapid that we completely lost sight of him. When his paddle popped up long before him, the anxiety levels were high. Finally, he surfaced and the current bobbed him to safety. He swam the entire Class IV rapid, dodged the boulder waiting for him at the end, and now ol’ Jerry is an official member of the Tuolumne Swim Team.

But the excitement for the day didn’t stop there. Next up was the big kahuna of the Tuolumne River: Class IV+ Clavey Falls. We parked in the willows and trekked downstream to scout the rapid. The 8-foot drop looked scary. And by scary, I mean it looked freakin’ awesome. The first major drop, which is considered “the falls” is followed by a very large hole that’s almost impossible to miss (a bonafide boat chomper, according to guides). Simply making it through this bad boy earns any rafter a lifetime of bragging rights.  

A yellow raft navigates Class IV Clavey Falls on a Tuolumne River rafting trip
Paddler’s tackle Class IV+ Clavey Falls on the Tuolumne River near Yosemite

After watching our gear boats tackle the daunting whitewater, we clambered back into the boats, tightened our life jackets, and knocked twice on our helmets for good luck. As we charged towards the falls, the horizon line started to disappear, the front of our big yellow boat began to tip forward, and then I blacked out. Just kidding. But all I can remember is hearing my guide yelling a bunch of hoopla like, “Left side back!” “No, your other left!” “Dig! Dig! Dig!” I did as he said until the boat-hungry hole at the bottom of the rapid swallowed us whole and spit us back out. We were right side up. Phew! I peeked over my shoulder to check on Jerry. He was still with us too.

Fourteen rapids, five hours and eight miles later we approached Indian Creek, a little sandy beach that was our campsite for the night. The OARS team set up my dream campsite complete with camping chairs, a groover [epic camp toilet], and a tasty spread of appetizers and beer. I hung my hammock between two shady trees, which was the perfect relaxation station for drinking my craft brew. This might have been the moment I realized just how special this river is. There we were, just a few hours away from one of the biggest cities in America, completely alone in this beautiful river canyon.

That night after chowing down on the most gourmet camping feast in the history of all time, I crawled into my sleeping bag at the edge of the river and stared up at the stars. I looked up at the sky for ages, picking out constellations while I listened to the free-flowing Tuolumne River just a few feet away. It’s safe to say, I had the best night sleep I’ve had in who knows how long. Why do people pay for sound machines to sleep when they can just come out here? Beats me.

Tents lit up in a camp along the Tuolumne River near Yosemite
Indian Creek Camp on the Tuolumne River | Photo by Dylan Silver

The next morning I woke with the sun, waddled over to the kitchen to sip on REAL coffee, parked my butt in a chair to watch the roaring river in peace and quiet, and waited for all the others to wake up and smell the bacon.

After a leisurely morning and a little exploring, it was time to raft again. The beginning of the day was much like the previous day, with a whole lot of whitewater and not a whole lot of chill time. We charged each and every rapid like the champs that we are, even mile-long Grey’s Grindstone.

As we maneuvered through the last rapid of the trip, Pinball, one last huge wave crashed over me. I like to think it was the river saying, “Great job out there Jess! See ya next time.”

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