2023 Western Rafting Outlook: One for the Record Books
The 2022-2023 winter in the western U.S. has been historic on many accounts. Utah and California have both had one of the snowiest winters on record, and SNOTEL data collected by the National Resources Conservation Service as of April 1 shows snowpack totals (snow water equivalent) in nearly every major river basin across the West are above average to well above average. All of this snow means that the 2023 rafting season will offer rafters some of the best whitewater rafting conditions in the West since 2019, the last season when there was a robust snowpack in all of the regions where OARS operates.
Where to Find the Best Whitewater Rafting in the West
The weather pattern in the upcoming weeks will ultimately dictate how the 2023 rafting season stacks up against other notable high-water years in recent memory like 2017 and 2011. As of the first week of April, it is still snowing in key basins with cooler temperatures delaying the start of the melt, which means that there is a high potential for 2023 to be one for the record books. No matter what pans out this spring, rafters can count on exceptional whitewater conditions across the West all season.
What to Expect During the 2023 Rafting Season
- Depending on when it starts to warm up, outfitters are anticipating high-water conditions as early as the beginning of May through June, and likely into early July, on many of the West’s most popular whitewater rivers due to record levels of precipitation in many regions.
- Rafters should be prepared for colder water temperatures on many western rivers throughout the summer due to a greater level of snow melt all season long.
- Adventurous and experienced rafters will likely be able to experience some of California’s most popular rafting trips like the South Fork American and Merced River at historic flows through late June with more moderate family-friendly water levels expected later in the season. Minimum age requirements will be increased to 12 for the South Fork and 14 for the Merced during the high-water window.
- With the strongest statewide snowpack since 2008, paddlers in Oregon can anticipate once-in-a-decade rafting conditions. Though dam-regulated, Oregon’s Rogue River is anticipated to have higher flows than normal throughout the summer.
- The snowpack in the Yampa River Basin in Colorado is well above normal for the beginning of April and is tracking closely with the record-high 2011 Yampa rafting season. In addition to being able to run a full Yampa season into July, rafters will experience epic fun rafting levels in Split Mountain Canyon below the confluence with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument.
- If the current cool weather pattern continues in the Colorado River Basin, the free-flowing stretch of the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon could be poised for legendary water year status last seen in 2011, with flows as high as 80,000 cfs. The massive snowpack across this region is also expected to provide “business as usual” conditions below Lake Powell for Grand Canyon river trips this season, despite the ongoing threats facing the Colorado River.
- With a snowpack of more than 200% of the 30-year norm, outfitters are anticipating one of the best seasons on the Owyhee River in recent memory. By all accounts, this is the year to catch this elusive spring rafting trip on the border of Idaho and Oregon. OARS is preparing to launch its three scheduled departures in mid-April and early May.
- It’s expected to be a “Goldilocks season” in Idaho when the snowpack isn’t too high or too low, and provides best case scenario whitewater rafting conditions on popular stretches of river like the Snake River through Hells Canyon and the Middle, Main and Lower Salmon.
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Historic Flows Likely for California Whitewater Rafting Season
“We are slack-jawed at the amount of snow in California this year,” says Tyler Wendt, OARS President.
The statewide snowpack in California is 237% of normal as of the historic April 1 snow survey measurements, surpassing any measurement since modern snow sensors were deployed in the mid-80’s, according to the California Department of Water Resources. That is greater than any previous April reading since the sensor network was deployed in the mid-1980s and is expected to surpass the all-time manual measurement of 1952.
The Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab near Tahoe reports that it has received more than 720 inches of snow as of April 4, with that number increasing daily. No matter how the data stacks up once the snow melt begins, this winter is undoubtedly one of the snowiest of all-time and many California rivers are likely to reach historic flows this season. The latest snow water content reports show river levels could surpass the once-in-a-lifetime conditions outfitters saw in 1983, depending on how quickly the snowpack melts.
On the popular South Fork of the American, which is typically a fun, family-friendly Class III trip, higher, colder flows are expected through late June into early July.
“In 2017 we had a ton of water, but we didn’t have this kind of snowpack,” says Jess Wallstrom, OARS California Operations Manager. ”That year, we were still seeing 4,000 cfs 4th of July weekend, so we’re anticipating seeing these levels again, if not higher, into July. It’s really fast, cold water when it gets up there with lots of fun wave trains.”
OARS will be raising its minimum age for South Fork American trips from 8 to 12 during the high-water window, but expects more moderate family-friendly flows later in the season.
On the Middle Fork of the American River, outfitters are navigating some unknowns as the California rafting season gets underway. The Forest Service road that leads to the put-in near Oxbow Reservoir was heavily damaged from wildfires last fall and heavy rains this spring, but according to Wallstrom there are some alternative access plans in the works that should be clarified in the near future.
Outfitters are also working to overcome access issues for the Tuolumne River this season due to road damage, but many are hopeful that they will be able to launch trips this summer and take advantage of what’s expected to be an incredible high-water year for the Tuolumne.
In the meantime, rafters looking for a Class IV whitewater experience can turn to the North Fork of the American River this spring, the South Fork American River which is expected to reach Class IV levels in May and June, and the Merced River near Yosemite. At elevated flows, the Merced has “King Kong whitewater,” according to at least one legendary river guide.
“The Merced will have high water, with the peak run-off happening when it gets warm, probably sometime mid-May to mid-June,” according to Wendt. “That is when we’ll see some really high flows, likely 14,000+ cfs when the Merced is just a super fun, wild, roller coaster ride.”
An easy add-on to a Yosemite National Park trip, Wendt believes the Merced will be the highlight of the California whitewater rafting season for paddlers.
Epic Whitewater Rafting Conditions in Utah
Utah received more snow than 2021 and 2022 combined and toppled its 40-year statewide snowpack record that was set in 1983–a year most longtime river runners still talk about. That’s the season that the Colorado River peaked at 104,000 cfs in Cataract Canyon and further downstream is best-known for river guide Kenton Grua’s record-breaking run through Grand Canyon in The Emerald Mile.
The snowpack for the entire Upper Colorado River Basin is also well above normal so it’s hard for river runners not to be stoked about an outlier year like 2023. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s initial peak flow projections for Cataract Canyon are estimated at 48,000 cfs, but as OARS Moab Regional Manager, Amy Summerlin, points out, “This is based on early March conditions and can change quite a bit over the next 1-2 months.”
“2023 is sharing similarities with the 2019, 2011 and 2008 seasons,” says Seth Davis, OARS Operations Director who is based in Moab. “If it keeps snowing and stays cool, it has the makings of a season like 2011 when Cataract Canyon peaked at 86,290 cfs. If things warm up sooner and there’s not a lot of snowfall in late spring then a peak around 65,000 cfs like we saw in 2019 seems more likely.”
The San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River within Lake Powell, also has a snowpack that’s well above average. Not only does the snowmelt bode well for rafters on this extremely scenic river trip, all of that water will help further boost the drought-stricken Lake Powell.
In the Upper Green River Basin, the snowpack is at 128% of the April 1 average. Outfitters are expecting to hear more about planned releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir that might lessen peak flow impacts on the Green River, but rafters can look forward to fun and sustained water levels for Gates of Lodore and Desolation Canyon river trips late into the summer.
From mid-May to early July, Gates of Lodore rafters will see very high flows below the confluence with the Yampa, which flows from northwestern Colorado into Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument and through Split Mountain Canyon, according to Nicole Lavoie, OARS Dinosaur Operations Manager.
“Throw in all of that Yampa water and it’s going to be a wild ride in Split Mountain this spring and early summer,” she says. “We are expecting peak flows above 25,000 cfs. Those are some huge waves.”
Colorado Whitewater Rafting at its Best
The snowpack in the Yampa River Basin is 148% of normal for the beginning of April and is tracking closely with the record-high 2011 Yampa rafting season, adds Lavoie. There is little doubt that the free-flowing stretch will offer paddlers a full season of rafting, which can last into early July during particularly healthy snowpack years.
“If we are comparing these two seasons, we had high water above 8,000 cfs our entire 2011 season,” says Lavoie. “Right now, we are planning for the possibility that the Yampa could peak close to 30,000 cfs.” Optimal flows for the Yampa generally range from 3,000 to 8,000 cfs on the high end of the spectrum.
Overall, the statewide snowpack in Colorado is above normal, so beyond the Yampa, rafters will have no concerns finding fun, raftable flows on popular whitewater rivers like the Arkansas, Animas and Cache La Poudre River.
Idaho Rafting Season “Just Right”
“Idaho’s snowpack is Goldilocks, not too high, not too low.” says Lauren McCullough, OARS Idaho Operations Manager. “From our point of view, Idaho conditions couldn’t be better.”
According to April 1 SNOTEL data, the Salmon River Basin snowpack is 117% of normal. Depending on the weather pattern and how fast the snow melts, rafters can anticipate a typical high-water window on the Salmon River for trips from late May through mid-June.
“Higher water levels mean that we bring some of our beautiful wooden dories off the shelf and shorter days on the river give more opportunities for hiking,” says McCullough.
Idaho outfitters are also hoping that high water early in the season will help clear the debris blockage on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. “If the river is clear for the first few Middle Fork trips then we will start the trip at Boundary Creek, but if needed, we will fly passengers into Indian Creek and start the trip there,” says McCullough.
Snowpack for the Snake River drainage is higher than last year at 120% of normal. McCullough points out there will still be high water on the Snake this season, but on the dam-controlled stretch through Hells Canyon water release “caps” will prevent the natural fluctuations seen on free-flowing rivers like the Salmon.
On the Idaho and Oregon border, the Owyhee River Basin snowpack is 208% of normal as of April 1, which is 85% higher than the last time OARS was able to operate its Owyhee season in 2019. With one of the best snowpacks in the Owyhee Basin in recent memory, this is the year to experience this hidden gem.
“Frequently, we are unable to run our Owyhee trips because the melt happens too early and too rapidly, but this year the snow is holding,” says Hillary Mosman, OARS Idaho Operations Manager, who is prepping her Idaho crew for the company’s three scheduled departures in mid-April and early May.
Nothing Ordinary About Oregon’s Winter
Oregon’s snowpack is the best it’s been since 2008 with the April 1 statewide snowpack measuring 173% of normal for this time of year.
The snowpack for the Rogue River is 157% and the Klamath is 171% as of April 1 snowpack data, which is well above the 30 year average, according to Dustin Abbott, OARS Oregon Operations Manager.
“There is nothing normal about the weather patterns that have been occurring in southern Oregon this past winter with consistent low elevation snow for the months of February and March,” says Abbott. “With the Rogue and Klamath rivers being damned it is incredibly difficult to predict what the flows will look like and how they might spike.”
He adds that if weather patterns remain the same, we will likely see flows on the Rogue begin to rise in May, peaking around 4,000 to 6,000 cfs toward the end of June and slowly tapering through July and August. If it warms up quickly and the region receives some rain, Abbott anticipates the spike will occur in early May around 10,000+ cfs, tapering into June and slowly and consistently dropping through the rest of the summer season. The Klamath River will likely be similar in flows and timeline.
For comparison sake, the Rogue typically has flows that range from 2,000 to 3,000 cfs in May and June then gradually taper to about 1,000 cfs through July, August, and September. The last couple of years the flow has dropped to about 900 cfs in August and September.
“With the generous snowpack this year, we are keeping our fingers crossed that the river will stay a bit higher for the summer,” says Abbott. “That being said, both rivers are capable of really fun and very boatable high flows. Rafters should also be prepared for colder water temperatures due to a greater level of snow melt all season.”
Business as Usual in Grand Canyon, Arizona
The massive snowpack across the Colorado River Basin won’t fix the water crisis facing the Colorado River, but all of that snowmelt will provide another year of “business as usual” conditions for Grand Canyon river trips.
“With both reservoirs (Powell and Mead) at historic low levels, we’re not anticipating any higher-water ‘bump’ from the above-average snowpack,” says Lars Haarr, OARS Grand Canyon Operations Manager. “I’m anticipating a flow scenario much the same as 2022. April will fluctuate between 6,200 and 11,600 cfs, then historically bump up to 9,000 – 13,000 cfs once the power demands of summer roll around.”
“Not too low, not too high…these flows mean fun rides and big splashes, just maybe not in the rapids you’d expect,” he adds. “Since northern Arizona has received an above-normal amount of precipitation this winter, it should also be a very colorful spring in the Grand Canyon with an impressive wildflower and cactus bloom.”
Photos: Merced River rafting – Dylan Silver; Whitewater rafting on the South Fork American River – Dylan Silver; Cataract Canyon rafting – James Kaiser; Yampa River – Taylor Miller; Middle Fork of the Salmon – Rob Aseltine; Owyhee River Canyon – Jillian Lukiwski; Grand Canyon rafting – Dylan Silver