Skip to main content

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 is the principal river of NorCal and is the largest river in all of California. Once called “the Nile of the West,” this Northern California river drains the inland slopes of the Klamath Mountains, the Cascade Range, the Coast Ranges, and the western slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains—stretching some 400 miles. The Sacramento Delta (also known as the California Delta) boasts miles of navigable waterways where you can enjoy boating, bird watching, camping, and more.

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 picturesque Klamath River flows from Oregon, winding down through the Coast Ranges and eventually spilling into the Pacific Ocean. If you’re embarking on a Northern California river-rafting excursion, the Klamath River will meet all your expectations and then some. If you’re a beginner, paddle around the Lower Klamath River and enjoy the calmer waters and incredible wildlife. More experienced rafters can tackle the rushing waters along the Upper Klamath River. When you need a break from rafting, the river’s waters are also perfect for swimming, rock hopping, 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 

The three forks of this Northern California river illustrate several river types, originating in the high mountain pine forests, running through steep canyons and lush forests, and emptying into the Pacific Ocean in a gently sloping gorge of redwoods—it is quite scenic indeed. Despite its name, the Eel River in California has never contained actual eels, but this doesn't mean that it is devoid of fish. In fact, you’ll find many species of fish and various habitats in this North Coast river. Aside from fishing, you can trek the surrounding hiking trails, go kayaking, or take a dip into the cool waters to beat the summer heat.

Beautiful Southern California rivers

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

Kern River

Popular for wilderness hiking, white-water rafting, and boating, the gorgeous Kern River offers a broad range of recreational activities that can be enjoyed throughout the year. Despite its remote source, nearly all of the Southern California river is publicly accessible. You can visit Upper Kern or Lower Kern; the two are separated by Lake Isabella and offer great opportunities for white-water rafting. Care for a bit of fishing? The Kern River is home to the California golden trout, Kern River rainbow trout, and several other fish species—you just might nab your best catch yet here.

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.

Need help with a home improvement project? Get a free quote today!

Enter Your Zip Code

Enter Your Zip Code

RELATED Articles

Discover More

fueled by the power of California love
We're committed to helping you discover the places, people and businesses that make our state Golden. Our online publication, updated daily, brings you all the content you need to live your California dreams. And that's just the beginning…
Purpose section
Purpose section