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The Best Rivers in California for Every Activity
Health & Fitness

The Best Rivers in California for Every Activity

Whatever activities you choose, the best rivers in California have your back with the coolest settings and most beautiful backdrops.


5 min read

January 12, 2024

When was the last time you packed your gear, played a road trip playlist, and headed out to a river for a day full of adventures? If you took a moment to think and remember, it’s been too long. Use this sunny summer weekend to raft over wild whitewater, hike along cascading waterfalls, kayak over rippling waves, and fish on scenic creeks. Whatever activities you choose, the best rivers in California have your back with the coolest settings and most beautiful backdrops.

Closer than you think and more beautiful than you remember, the rivers of California are your ticket to the quick and affordable weekend getaway of your dreams.

Big Sur River

Big Sur River is one of the best rivers in California for camping and hiking. Most of the river's 60 square mile watershed lies in the Los Padres National Forest on the Central Coast, allowing for plenty of recreational activities. 

Hike the popular Pine Ridge Trail which follows the river for several miles, and stay overnight at one of the several backcountry campsites nearby. Ventana and Barlow Flat Camp are among the best river camping destinations in California. Interested in adding a hot springs stop to your Central Coast getaway? Make Sykes Camp your overnight accommodation of choice, and you’ll be about 10 miles away from a popular spring above the riverbank. A beautiful river and relaxing hot springs? Where can we sign up?

The 15.7-mile-long Big Sur River has major tributaries, including Redwood, Lion, Logwood, Terrace, Ventana, and Post Creeks.

Sacramento Delta

The largest river in California was once nicknamed “The Nile of the West”—take a moment to imagine its grandiose appeal. The Sacramento Delta swiftly flows over approximately 400 miles, draining through the inland slopes of the Klamath Mountains, Cascade and Coast Ranges, as well as the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Enjoy taking advantage of navigable waterways suitable for boating, bird watching, camping, and more along with many other vacationers—the Sacramento Delta hosts an average of eight million annual visitors. For a short and scenic boating tour, steer through the 21-mile stretch from Redding to Balls Ferry. Keep an eye out for wildlife as you tread the waters to get a glimpse of the diverse riverside habitat. You’ll come across beavers, deer, turtles, frogs, and many interesting bird and fish species.

The Delta was formed by the rising sea level following glaciation, leading to the formation of Sacramento and San Joaquin River sediments.

American River

The American River in California runs from the Sierra Nevada mountains to its confluence with the Sacramento River. This river is divided into three main forks: North, Middle, and South. Despite originating from the same watershed, each of these three forks has a distinct personality that uniquely reflects the environment it floats through. However, they are all go-to spots for river rafting in Sacramento.

The North Fork American River is the longest branch of the three and a favorite spot among expert whitewater rafters in NorCal during the spring and autumn months. During the summer, the flows become too low for boating—this is when the North Fork becomes an incredible hiking and swimming destination. The Middle Fork also accommodates experienced rafters but is slightly less intense, while the South Fork is the most beginner-friendly.

When it comes to river rafting excursions in NorCal, the South Fork is the river of choice, and for good reason. The trips here range from half to two-day expeditions and are all within a short drive of Sacramento.

The American River is associated with the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma in 1848 that started the California Gold Rush.

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Klamath River

The picture-perfect Klamath River in California actually flows in from Oregon. Winding and twisting through mountain ranges before spilling into the Pacific Ocean, this California river is rich in beautiful scenery.

Are you a boater or rafter? Whichever your choice is, Klamath is one of the best rivers in California to make your paddling dreams come true. If you’re looking for views and calm waters, paddle around the Lower Klamath River and enjoy the incredible wildlife. Are you more experienced and looking for a challenge? Try tackling the wild waters along the Upper Klamath River. After you’re done paddling and rafting, enjoy picnicking, swimming, hiking, and fishing in and around Klamath.

Flowing 257 miles through Oregon and Northern California, the Klamath River begins in the high desert and flows toward the mountains and ocean.

Yuba River

The Yuba River in California was one of the most densely populated Native American areas in the state until the beginning of the 1850s Gold Rush Era. Today, this California river is one of our favorite spots to go tubing. Start floating at Hallwood on the north bank of the river and soak in the incredible views as you stop at different beaches on your way to Shad Pad Park. 

Whitewater rafters also frequent this California river, so stick to calmer waters for a more tranquil tubing experience. After you’re done with your tubing escapades, explore the quaint swimming holes and forests nearby. Make sure you have a map on you since cell service isn’t always available at the Yuba River.

The Yuba River is a tributary of the Feather River and its headwaters are split into three major forks.

Eel River

Another wild river with three main forks is the Eel River in California. Also similar to the American River, the three forks of this California river have distinct characteristics, each emulating its surrounding environment. The Eel River is a sight to see—it originates in the mountain pine forests, flows through steep canyons, and empties into the Pacific Ocean in a gorge of redwoods.

While it's still great for fishing, you won’t find any actual eels in this California river.  Take a dip in the cool waters without worrying about getting stung by a sneaky eel. 

Draining a rugged area of 3,684 square miles in five counties, the Eel River and its tributaries form the third largest watershed in California.

Trinity River

Flowing 165 miles through lush mountain meadows and tight canyons, this California river is a treasure trove of water-based activities. While Trinity has a lot to offer, the most popular recreational opportunities enjoyed here are fishing and whitewater rafting. 

Cast your line in the picturesque Trinity River in California and you’ll likely score a few of its most prolific catches. Steelheads, Chinook, and coho salmon are almost always on the menu. If good old-fashioned fishing is a little too tranquil for you, Trinity also provides fantastic white water rafting adventures in California.

Nowadays, the Trinity River is an important water source for irrigation and hydroelectricity generation and a center of recreational activities.

The calmer Lower Trinity—set in a scenic wilderness environment—provides great floating, rafting, and wildlife-watching opportunities. Burnt Ranch Gorge on the other hand, offers the most extreme whitewater conditions on the Trinity River for those looking for a challenge.

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