Originating high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Merced River is the pumping heart of Yosemite Valley. Each year, it is appreciated by the many visitors who come to witness the splendor of Yosemite’s waterfalls. Outside the boundaries of the park, the picturesque and dramatic Merced River canyon boasts an opportunity for excitement. Whitewater rafting on the Merced River offers visitors to Mariposa County a chance to combine the serenity of nature with the thrill of adrenaline! For those looking to enhance their Yosemite vacation beyond sightseeing and hiking, a rafting trip at Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions is the perfect activity for active adventurers.
Zephyr started in 1973 with one raft, one truck, a 1957 Chevy school bus, and a love for introducing people to whitewater rivers. Back then, the commercial rafting industry was in its infancy and regulations were few. It was an exciting time, with innovations and improvements in equipment and technique happening almost daily. Although Zephyr started on the Stanislaus River near Columbia State Park, by the late 1970’s it had expanded to the Merced River just outside Yosemite, and by the early 80’s there was a base camp on the Kings River near Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks as well. Today the Merced River is Zephyr’s largest operation.
The Ferguson family circa 2005
Zephyr is a family business with Bob and Jane Ferguson and their 2 sons and 2 sons, Nathan and Adam, all contributing in various ways over the years. Bob oversaw operations and guided, Jane did food purchasing, food packing, and organizing of our river store, and as the sons grew older, they both became guides. Adam currently manages Zephyr’s operations on the Merced River and Bob still oversees operations.
Comparing itself to a family farming operation, Zephyr is always watching weather reports and hoping for a good snowpack in the winter months to provide abundant water in the spring and summer. And things are looking good for a great rafting season in 2019.
Over the years, whitewater rafting has become one of the top “must-do” activities for Yosemite visitors during the spring and summer months. In an exceptional year for Sierra snowpack, Zephyr has guided around 9,000 people down the Merced River in a single season. The rafting company’s staff members proudly recall the numerous guests each season who enthusiastically declare that their Merced River trip was the highlight of their Yosemite vacation!
A variety of options exist for those eager to try their hand at rafting. Zephyr is the only Merced River outfitter offering half-day options as well as a full-day trip. With both morning and afternoon start times available, it’s easy to fit a rafting adventure into your schedule.
Half-day trips depart twice daily, at 8:00 AM and 1:30 PM, and cover 11 miles of thrilling rapids such as “Can Opener”, “Percolator”, and the famous “Ned’s Gulch”. For those with more time to spare, the 9:30 AM full-day trip includes 16 miles on the river with even more exciting Class III-IV rapids, and a riverside stop for lunch, consisting of locally-bought food prepared by your guides.
The Merced River is not a dam-controlled river, relying on pristine natural snowmelt for its flows. Whitewater rafting season on the Merced River begins in April, and the season’s end varies each year, dependent on the winter’s snowpack. In an average-snowpack year, rafting season lasts until early to mid-July. For the last two weeks of the rafting season each year, Zephyr’s late season half-day trips provide a fantastic opportunity for family-friendly fun. As snowmelt slows and the water levels become lower, the scenic 5.5 mile section of the Merced River known as “The Gorge” becomes the locale of half-day trips. With Class II-III rapids, water play, and warm temperatures perfect for swimming, these trips offer a great family bonding experience suitable for ages 7 and up.
The 2019 rafting season is set to begin on Thursday, April 4 – and with a Sierra snowpack that is currently 150% of normal. If these percentages hold up, this spring will be the ideal for rafting the Merced River and the raft season could even last until August! Breathe in the fragrant spring air, see the grandeur of hillsides blooming with brilliant wildflowers, come alive on the river, and experience the extraordinary.
For more information, please visit their listing here: Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions.
Fun Fact: The Merced River is classified as a Wild and Scenic River, which means it has our nation’s strongest form of protection for free-flowing rivers and streams. This title is given to rivers that have remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic or other similar values that led Congress to add these waterways to this National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
We all gotta nosh. So let’s get hiking boots on the ground and forks on the plate for a Sierra foodie tour that pairs perfectly with the natural splendor of Yosemite.
Whether it’s rafting big water on the Merced River or climbing big walls like El Capitan, mountain biking down a gonzo fire road in the Sierra National Forest or skydiving from 14,000 feet as Half Dome stands guard in the distance, Yosemite Mariposa is a prime destination for all thrill levels and budgets.
Creatively blending the new normal of work/study with quality outdoor adventure, natural beauty and authentic learning experiences, Mariposa County offers working parents the chance to swap their heels and wing-tips for waffle soles and “reboot” in an iconic national park paradise.