Steve Markle has been guiding river-rafting trips for 15 years, but he’s never seen a spring like this. After a winter that walloped some spots in the Sierras with more than twice their average annual allotment of snow, the rivers of California are running high and strong—and they’ll likely continue to do so through the end of summer and beyond.
California isn’t alone. Snowpack in Oregon was 120 to 150 percent of normal. In Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, it was even higher. Now that summer is here, all that snow is melting, and the rivers are running fast and full.
To folks like Markle, that means one thing: “We expect to have a fantastic rafting season across the West.” Or, as Oregon outdoors writer Zach Urness puts it, “I’d call it epic, in a good way.” If you’ve never been whitewater rafting, this is the year to take the plunge.
Don’t let the high water put you off. Rafting isn’t just for Red Bull–swigging adrenaline junkies. As long as you do your homework to find the right river, the right time to go, and (most importantly) the right guide, there’s a rafting trip suited to almost anyone who can swim.
And on a hot summer day, there’s nothing more fun. You might float gently through a deep river canyon, eagles and ospreys gliding overhead, your fingers trolling through that cool water. Or you might ride nature's roller coaster, your guide steering and shouting instructions over the roar of the rapids and the whoops of your crew. Depending on the river, you might do both within the span of 10 minutes.
High Water Mark
How high’s the water? In early June, the South Fork of the American River—the most popular water for recreational rafting in California—is currently flowing just under 5000 cubic feet per second (cfs); typically, it’s half that. Oregon’s Clackamas usually hits about 900 cfs this time of year; now, it’s 2500 cfs.
That obviously presents some challenges to rafters and guides. Some rivers that are normally being run in May and early June—such as the Middle Fork of the American and the Tuolumne—are currently on hold until flows come down. And stretches that are normally pretty placid are raucous.
Rafters classify river runs on a scale from 1 to 6. Class 1 is the kind of water that can be safely drifted in an inner tube. Class 2 is faster, with some actual rapids, but no major obstacles to maneuver around. Class 3 means more rapids, more waves, and more obstacles, while class 4 means a lot of each. Class 5 and 6? If you’ve never gone rafting before, you don’t need to know.
Right now, rivers that might normally be classified as 3s are running more like 4s. Gentle stretches that might have served as swimming holes in other summers might need a raft and a guide now.
If you’re a beginner and want to start slow, or if you want to take the whole family (including kids), the first bit of advice from guides is that you should wait until later in the summer, when waters will have settled down. Some good waters for beginners: the South Fork American (but wait until August or even September), Oregon’s McKenzie, and the San Juan in Utah.
If you’re up for a bit more adventure (a class 3 trip), try the South Fork American earlier in the season or the Tuolumne later. Up north, consider the Rogue, the North Umpqua, or the Clackamas in Oregon, or Idaho’s Salmon River. And if you want to jump in with both feet and try a class 4, you could consider almost any of the Sierra-fed rivers south of the American, such as the Merced or the White Salmon near Portland.
No matter where or when you decide to go, you’ll need a guide. If you're not a pro, these are not rivers to run on your own. Guides are trained in river safety, know the ins and outs of each river they run, and know how to put out a good lunch spread during the mid-day break. If you opt for a longer, multi-day trip, they’ll fix you breakfast and dinner, too.
As a quick Web search shows, there’s no shortage of guides offering to take you down the rivers of the West. How to sort through those choices?
Start with your normal due diligence: Read online reviews, ask the folks at local outdoors stores, and look for good word-of-mouth.
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few potential guides, check out their websites: Does it look professional? How many rivers does the company guide on? (More is better.) How much does it charge? If its prices are incredibly low compared to competitors, there may be a reason for that.
Don’t rely solely on the Web: Call up the service, and see if you can talk to an actual guide to get a feel for the kind of people who work there. Ask whether the service has the appropriate license to run trips on the specific river you’re interested in (from whatever governmental agency manages that water).
And ask about what your potential guide won’t do. A responsible rafting service will have clear rules. As rivers go from class 2 to class 3 and beyond, good guides will start imposing age, fitness, and swimming-ability requirements on guests. Some might also have height and weight limits; this is because guides must be able to pull you into the boat if you go for an unscheduled swim.
Finally, ask the service how it’s adjusting its trips specifically for this year’s conditions. Is it using wet suits on early-season trips? After all, that water was snow not too long ago. Has it imposed more stringent guest requirements? If a given guide isn’t taking extra precautions to ensure its guests stay safe while having a blast on this summer’s epic water, there are plenty of other guides who will.