If the words "water" and "wild" excite you and your family, then there’s an excellent vacation option for you not far from home: whitewater rafting.
Northern California features whitewater rivers through lush wilderness within a few hours of the Bay Area. And while kayaking treacherous Class V rapids may not be a good plan for young families, there are many guided rafting trips in calmer, but still thrilling waters for kids as young as 4.
A perfect trip for the youngest paddlers is a ride down the Lower Klamath River near Yreka, such as one offered by the outfitter OARS and attended by Cari Morgan of Avery and her family two years ago. Morgan had worked as OARS’ communications manager for six years and was eager to take her 4-year-old son, Mason, on a rafting trip.
Lower Klamath River, near Yreka, ages 4 and up
The Lower Klamath bubbles with easy, Class II rapids and plenty of warm swimming spots. Still, Mason cried when the group reached the first sizable rapid, but Morgan says "any fear he had was quickly replaced with excitement." By the first afternoon, Mason hopped off the raft and into an inflatable kayak with his dad, Nathan, so the splashes would be even bigger.
For three days and two nights, Mason enjoyed water gun fights, gold panning and splashing around with new friends. Meanwhile, his parents relaxed, as OARS guides took care of all the cooking and chores. All the Morgans had to do was pitch their tent, help paddle and play with Mason.
"Finally being able to experience a rafting trip with my own son solidified what I already believed ‒ every parent should take their kids on a rafting trip at least once in their lives," Morgan says.
Here are four other fun family whitewater rafting trips:
South Fork American River, near Coloma, ages 8 and up
This is one of the best whitewater stretches in California for families, and it’s less than three hours away from much of the Bay Area, in scenic Gold Country. South Fork offers 21 miles of Class II and III whitewater, meaning the water is fun and splashy with small drops, but little danger. OARS guides tours here, as do other outfitters.
With OARS, families can choose from a half-day trip called "Chili Bar" or a one-day trip through the "Gorge" ‒ or tackle both runs on a two-day adventure. OARS also provides a free night of riverside camping to all rafters at its American River Outpost, complete with showers, flush toilets, wifi, a camp store and dining options nearby.
Tom Sawyer Float, near Coloma, ages 5 to 7
Between Chili Bar and Gorge is a peaceful stretch of the South Fork American River with just a bit of riffling Class II rapids. Here, the Walnut Creek-based outfitter All Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting offers the one-day Tom Sawyer Float Trip for ages 5 and up.
Like Tom would have done, children on this trip have time to explore the river and experience their surroundings, says All Outdoors’ owner Scott Armstrong. Besides helping paddle if they wish, the kids can swim in small rapids, pick blackberries hanging off the banks, watch a mother duck with her ducklings or float along with mask and snorkel, looking for fish below.
Middle Fork American River, east of Sacramento, ages 12 and up
A bit farther north, the Middle Fork American River provides just the sort of roller coaster action that tweens and teens love.
Participants on one- to three-day trips guided by All Outdoors encounter numerous Class III and some technical Class IV rapids in a rugged, 2,000-foot-deep canyon. Consisting of chutes and large drops, the Class IV rapids are literally famous, having appeared in many motion pictures. But while they look intimidating, these rapids are quite forgiving.
The trip is for active individuals, whether they’re practiced rafters or adventurous first-timers. Everyone must paddle, so families should contact the outfitter before booking to ensure they’re ready for the demands of the trip.
Merced River, near Yosemite, ages 12 and up
A National Wild and Scenic River, the Merced River originates deep in Yosemite and runs through a steep canyon thick with oaks and pine.
The scenery is pristine, but the action is intense. All Outdoors offers a one-day tour here, leading intermediate rafters as they take on tall waves and speedy currents. They’ll find few rocks to avoid here, just large hydraulics.
Whether searching for a wild ride like Merced or a calm meander like Tom Sawyer’s Float, check for outfitters on californiawhitewater.com. Produced by California commercial boaters, the site lists more than 30 outfitters, some that rent out equipment and others that offer guided trips. Prices of guided trips range from the low $100s per person for half-day trips up to several hundred for multi-day excursions. The rafting season usually runs from April through summer, but some rivers are navigable year-round.
Choose guides that provide Coast Guard-approved flotation devices and helmets for use in rapids and check online reviews before booking. All Outdoors and OARS are two highly rated outfitters and have both operated for more than 50 years.
Freelance writer Angela Geiser has taken her kids whitewater rafting in Wyoming, Canada and Fiji.