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Northern California's Best River-Rafting Excursions
Health & Fitness

Northern California's Best River-Rafting Excursions

Celebrate summer by white-water rafting or floating along the scenic waters of these four rivers in Northern California.


4 min read

August 31, 2019

River rafting on the clear waters of Northern California is a statewide celebration of summer. The warm rays beat down on the glistening surface as the cool waters provide the perfect refreshment from the intense heat. Though there is something very peaceful about lying on the beach beside the state’s hundreds of miles of coastline, nothing compares to the serenity and excitement of floating down the river. After enduring grueling days at work and getting back to the school grind, rafting allows you to release the stress, cool down, and unwind.

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Float Trip Packing List

You'll need more than a flamingo float or raft for your trip down the river. Make sure to pack drinking water, food, a hat, sunscreen, and rope.

Float: There is pretty much no wrong way to float down the river, so grab your raft, flamingo float, or donut inner tube and hit the water. If you don’t have your own float, don’t sweat it; thanks to the popularity of floating, plenty of shops bordering California’s rivers now provide rentals.

Floating Cooler: At least one person in your group should invest in a floating cooler so you can pack everything you need without having to worry about keeping it out of the water. 

Water: With the warm summer temperatures and the excitement of adventures, it can be easy to forget to drink enough water to stay hydrated. So, fill a cooler with water bottles before you set out on your journey—you’ll be glad you did.

Snacks: If you’re going to float for a couple of hours, snacks are clearly a must. Pack something salty to replace the electrolytes you sweat out in the hot sun, but also plan to bring something packed with protein to keep you full.

Sunscreen: Protect your skin (and the wildlife around you) with mineral sunscreen while you’re out on the river. Make sure to bring the bottle with you and to reapply the sunscreen after towel drying, every 80 minutes for areas that are continuously touching the water, and every two hours for areas that are exposed to the sun but not touching the water.

Sunglasses and Hat: Shielding your eyes from the direct sun will make floating much more enjoyable. Shade doesn’t really exist on the river, so come prepared with your sunglasses and hat.

Rope: Yes, rope. When traveling down the river in groups, tying together the floats and coolers is the best way to keep everyone from drifting apart, especially if the waters get a little choppy. 

Water Shoes: Though they won’t score you any style points, waterproof sneakers or slip-on water shoes can be useful when walking over to the rocky beaches along the river banks.

Waterproof Speaker: Come prepared with a river-rafting playlist, and enjoy the scenery as you rock out.

Waterproof Camera: The rivers of California provide gorgeous backdrops and unique views, so take advantage of the beauty and document the good times with a waterproof camera that you don’t have to worry about destroying.

While there are tons of opportunities to float around the state, a few of our favorite spots include the following four rivers in Northern California.

Truckee River

Take in the gorgeous Lake Tahoe scenery while rafting down the Truckee River, which flows past verdant forests, meadows, and snow-dusted peaks

The Truckee River flows from Lake Tahoe and rushes alongside Highway 89 as it heads northwest from Tahoe City. Park one car near Alpine Meadows, where your float will end two to three hours after it begins, and drive back to the mouth of the river. If you decide to rent a raft from one of the local shops, you can hitch a free shuttle ride back to the start and end up at your car after the day’s adventures.

Along the way, you will float past a forested canyon, open meadows of wildflowers, towering mountains, and breathtaking panoramas that can only be found in the Tahoe area. While the river is pretty shallow, the ride can get a bit bumpy when light rapids emerge from calm waters. 

Russian River

Flowing through Sonoma Valley to the Pacific Coast, the Russian River offers a fairly tranquil and relaxing float.

Unlike the Truckee River, the Russian River does not offer shuttle services, so it helps to drive two cars; park one at the take-out spot and bring the group back to the put-in location in the other vehicle (unless you want to take a taxi between the two). The parking lots fill up quickly when the weather is perfect for floating, so plan on getting to Steelhead Beach by 10 a.m. or earlier to avoid driving around in circles or having to change your plans. 

Once the parking situation has been settled, enjoy three to four hours of floating along the Russian River. This float features a super laid-back environment with shallow river beds; beaches along the banks; and a comfortable, slow-going current. 

Yuba River

The Yuba River slices through the Sierra Nevada region and provides a thrilling river-rafting experience with its rushing white rapids.

The Yuba River is a picturesque place to go floating and river rafting in the Sierra Nevada region. The waterway splits into three different forks, which means you’ll need to plan your routes ahead of time and concentrate while navigating to avoid getting lost. Much like the Russian River, you are in charge of your transportation, so go in with a plan. Also make sure to take a map with you, just in case cell phone service becomes unreliable among the densely packed trees.

Make the most of your trip by stopping at the beaches along the way, packing picnics to enjoy on your journey, taking plenty of pictures to capture the region’s unbelievable beauty, and soaking up the majestic surroundings as the river’s rocks and forests transport you to another world.

American River

First-time floaters should look no further than the American River, a 120-mile-long waterway running through the Sacramento region.

The American River is the perfect introduction to floating trips. The river is too shallow for boats, so the entire waterway is open to floaters and kayakers. With an easily accessible location in Sacramento, the river attracts tons of people, but you can put your mind at ease because navigation here is not an issue. Pack up the sodas, chips, and sandwiches for your excursion, or stop by one the many farm-to-table eateries on your way over to get an extra special taste of Sacramento.

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