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A Guide to California Rivers

A Guide to California Rivers

Though California's famous coastline gets most of the attention, the state's spectacular rivers are must-visit destinations in their right. Team


5 min read

January 27, 2021

A day by the water in California usually means a day by the beach—although the Golden State is famous for being home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, they shouldn’t get all of the attention. The spectacular California rivers and lakes scattered across the state are must-visit destinations that’ll surely satisfy even the pickiest of adventurers.

Whether you’re wanting to fish, swim, raft, or simply spend a day relaxing in the sun (sans sand), the best rivers in California offer what you’re looking for and much more.

The largest rivers in California

Once known as "the Nile of the West," the Sacramento River is roughly 400 miles long and is the largest river in California.

Sacramento River 

The Sacramento River, Northern California's foremost river and the state's most expansive, has been historically dubbed "the Nile of the West." This significant waterway traverses the interior slopes of the Klamath Mountains, the Cascade Range, the Coast Ranges, and the Sierra Nevada's western slopes, covering a distance of approximately 400 miles. The Sacramento Delta, also referred to as the California Delta, features extensive miles of waterways perfect for a variety of activities, including boating, bird watching, camping, among others.

San Joaquin River

The longest river in Central California, the San Joaquin River flows from the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada to the valley floor, serving as one of the most important sources of irrigation water in the Golden State. Human activities have replaced or altered over 95 percent of the historic wetlands and California oak woodland habitat that originally occurred along the San Joaquin River. Nevertheless, this large river in California is still ecologically rich, boasting nearly 40 species of freshwater fish.

The best rivers in California for swimming

Featuring several waterfalls, swimming holes, and rushing waters, the McCloud River is a beautiful sight to behold.

McCloud River

The McCloud River is one of California’s best aquatic jewels. Boasting three majestic waterfalls, beautiful fall foliage, cool swimming holes, and nearby hiking trails, this California river is fun and accessible year-round and is among the best rivers in California for swimming. The Upper McCloud is considered to be above McCloud Reservoir, while the Lower McCloud stretches from the reservoir to Lake Shasta. The upper stretch is popular among kayaking enthusiasts, while the lower section is more commonly visited by fishing aficionados of all skill levels. Don’t forget to bring your waterproof camera when going to this California river to swim; you won’t be disappointed. 

Yuba River

Lake Tahoe isn’t the only place in the Tahoe National Forest to dive in for an invigorating freshwater swim. The calm, emerald-blue waters of the Yuba River provide many hidden swimming holes that are perfect for a quick dip—plus, there are plenty of rocks to lay out or jump off. Our favorite spots to swim along this California river are at the Emerald Pools, Edwards Crossing, and Hoyt Trail. Be aware that the water here is fed by snowmelt, so it can get quite cold, and the swimming holes can get busy on weekends, especially during the summer months. 

The best rivers for white-water rafting in California

Traverse the wild and scenic Klamath River for an exciting river-rafting excursion in Northern California.

Klamath River

The scenic Klamath River originates in Oregon, meandering through the Coast Ranges before making its way to the Pacific Ocean. For those looking to experience river-rafting in Northern California, the Klamath River offers everything you could hope for and more. Beginners will find the Lower Klamath River's gentler currents ideal for paddling, along with its stunning wildlife views. Those with more rafting experience can challenge themselves with the swift currents of the Upper Klamath River. Beyond rafting, the river provides excellent opportunities for swimming, exploring rocky terrains, and fishing.

Trinity River

One of the best rivers in California for white-water rafting, the Trinity River can accommodate all levels of paddlers. So, whether you’re a beginner or an expert, you can find convenient rafting, floating, and wildlife-watching opportunities along the Lower Trinity, in a pristine wilderness environment. Looking for more of a challenge? With a number of Class V rapids, Burnt Ranch Gorge offers the most extreme white-water conditions on the Trinity River. Whichever way you choose to traverse this remote river nestled in a beautiful canyon, be careful, paddle safely, and watch out for Bigfoot.

Northern California rivers you can't miss

The picturesque American River is where gold was discovered in 1848, leading to the California Gold Rush.

American River

The American River is a 30-mile-long California river that runs from the Sierra Nevada Mountains all the way down to Sacramento. This famous river is known for being the location where gold was discovered back in the 19th century, leading to the California Gold Rush and the resettlement of a large number of European immigrants who came to the state. Today, the river serves as the primary source of drinking water for the residents of Sacramento. Whether you’re looking for some white-water action or calm-water paddling, this Northern California river is a prime spot you should consider while planning your next NorCal vacation.

Eel River 

This Northern California river, with its three branches, showcases a diverse array of river landscapes, starting from the high-altitude pine forests, cutting through rugged canyons and verdant woods, and finally merging with the Pacific Ocean amidst a breathtaking gorge lined with redwoods. Interestingly, the Eel River, despite its name, does not have any actual eels, yet it is rich in various fish species and supports multiple aquatic habitats along the North Coast. Beyond angling, the area invites you to explore its hiking paths, embark on kayaking adventures, or enjoy a refreshing swim in its cool waters during the warm summer months.

Beautiful Southern California rivers

Flowing through the Central Valley, the Kern River serves as a serene escape from busy city life.

Kern River

Famous for its pristine wilderness trails, thrilling white-water rafting, and enjoyable boating experiences, the stunning Kern River presents a wide array of year-round outdoor activities. Although it originates from a secluded area, this Southern California river is largely open to the public. Whether you choose the Upper Kern or the Lower Kern, divided by Lake Isabella, both sections provide fantastic white-water rafting adventures. If fishing is more your style, the Kern River boasts a habitat for the California golden trout, Kern River rainbow trout, and various other fish species, offering anglers the chance for an impressive catch.

Santa Margarita River

Spanning 31 miles, this short California river is one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California and is among the lesser-known rivers in the state, making it ideal for those looking to escape the crowds. When visiting the Santa Margarita River, hike the five-mile Santa Margarita River Trail, enjoy a picnic by the water, or visit with your dog (on a leash). This undamned, undiverted, and unchanneled river is a true hidden gem in Southern California that any visitor is bound to love.

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