Whitewater or flatwater, heart-pumping or slow-flowing, the Yosemite rafting experience covers all your floating needs with epic aplomb. Solo or accompanied by experienced guides from expert local outfitters, and surrounded by dramatic, waterfall-decorated cliffs, the fun takes place on one dynamic stage: the Merced River.
Beginning in April and running through early summer, the Merced River offers a range of rafting experiences. Winding through the flatter, smoother waters of Yosemite Valley, rafters can admire what Ansel Adams deemed “a vast edifice of stone and space” as they bounce downriver. For a more challenging whitewater rafting trip, the Merced gets attitudinal during peak snowmelt as it leaves Yosemite Park and drops dramatically through the narrow canyons near the town of El Portal. If dangling your feet in cool water is more your thing, then summer provides ample opportunity to beat the heat as you float lazily from pool to pool staring up at the deep blue Sierra sky. Whatever your thrill level, Mariposa County has you covered.
Merced River Canyon (Highway 140) Whitewater Rafting
Thrill-seekers thirst for the haystacks, funnels and hairy drops of Yosemite whitewater rafting. Located just outside the Park in the steep Merced River Canyon, a Merced River rafting trip is the ultimate choice for edge-of-the-raft excitement. In spring these Class II to Class IV rapids are all the rage with names such as Nightmare Alley, Stark Reality and Corner Pocket. As the summer heats up and the flow decreases, much of the river becomes easy Class I ripples perfect for sun-bathing on calm backwaters and chilling with friends.
The fun starts in El Portal along all-season Highway 140, and features nearly 30 miles of navigable river all the way down to Lake McClure. Another popular put-in is the Briceburg Suspension Bridge, where the nearby campgrounds and beaches of the Wild & Scenic Merced River Recreation Area provide their own picnic-worthy destinations. Check out this mile-by-mile guide to help get a feel for the flow.
Merced River Rafting Guides
The Merced River ranges from calm, self-guided Class I waters for a chilled-out raft trip, to the turbulent rapids of Class IV. For these more expert runs, Mariposa County is home to some of the best whitewater rafting guides working (and playing!) today.
Since 1978, Whitewater Excitement has been all about stress relief. Founder Norm Schoenhofff believes “it is about more than the rivers, white water rafting, and wild rapids (however, these are the paths we use), it is about sharing ourselves and sharing experiences with people we do not yet know, but who we will know after a very short time.” This philosophy is evident in their single-day trips down the Merced River. The 16-mile run begins at Red Bud Picnic site with 3.5 miles of non-stop rapids such as Nightmare Island and Grand Slam (Class IV).
Since its inception in 1973, Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions has gone from Levi cutoffs and military surplus boats to hi-tech sandals and self-bailing rafts. As the largest whitewater outfitter in the Yosemite area, Zephyr has remained committed over the years to helping guests experience the magic of paddling the twists, turns and drops of the Merced River. With full day (16 miles/7 hours) and half-day (11 miles/4 hours) options beginning in April, trips include wetsuits/paddle jackets, helmets, life jackets and a “river gourmet” lunch (full day only). Zephyr also has in-house photographers to capture your wild ride.
The closest rafting company to Yosemite National Park, Sierra Mac is also the oldest. Founded in 1965, Sierra Mac fought to have the Merced River bestowed with “Wild and Scenic” status by the US Congress for its outstanding whitewater and superb scenery. Their respect for Yosemite’s natural splendor infuses their whitewater catalogue. One-day trips meet at the Midpines staging area where guests are outfitted then shuttled to the river put-in for a 16-mile delight hitting such rapids as Gauge Hole (Class III) and Corner Pocket (Class IV). Lunch is included on all one-day trips. Half-day trips cover 11 miles and meet in Midpines at 8 a.m. (morning) and 1:30 pm. (afternoon) leaving plenty of time to explore Mariposa County’s surrounding attractions.
Founded by river pioneer and conservationist George Wendt in 1969, OARS continues to be a family-run business offering day trips down the Merced River. The 18-mile run slices through challenging rapids such as Ned’s Gulch (Class IV) and Split Rock (Class IV), stopping for a deli-style lunch (provided) on a sandy beach. The perfect complement to your Yosemite mountain getaway.
Yosemite Valley Rafting
While spring snowmelt can bring some serious flow, Yosemite river rafting during the summer months is typically a calmer — and warmer — experience. Surrounded by the granite grandeur of such massive rocks as El Capitan and Half Dome, not to mention the arcing mist of Bridalveil, Sentinel, and Yosemite Falls, the Merced River follows a meandering path through the flat, wooded majesty of Yosemite Valley.
For self-guided floats, Curry Village Raft Rentals provides life jackets and raft rentals (2-4 people). The 3-mile trip winds through the heart of Yosemite Valley requiring only the ability to paddle and a love for the surrounding nature. The rafting season in the Valley depends on snowmelt and river depth so call ahead. Reservations required. A shuttle bus is available to bring you back to your starting point.
Rafting in Wawona
Located along Highway 41 halfway between Yosemite Valley and Yosemite’s South Gate, Wawona is situated at 4,000 feet elevation and offers a beautiful respite from the summer crowds. Here, you can find some nice ripples in the South Fork of the Merced River. Fed from the High Country and Chilnualna Falls, the South Fork allows rafting below the Swinging Bridge (some nice seasonal swimming holes, too!) and for visitors seeking backstory, the Pioneer Yosemite History Center awaits. Post-float, try some refreshments at the landmark Wawona Hotel!
Whitewater Rafting Tips
Essential gear: PFD (personal flotation device); sunglasses with a strap; eco-friendly sunblock; helmet (whitewater) or hat (flatwater); shorts/swimsuit; comfortable tennis shoes or river sandals (no flimsy flip-flops, please!); waterproof camera/phone; reusable water bottle (help the planet by avoiding single-use plastic); and of course a reliable raft/kayak with sturdy paddles!
Water welfare: Safety is a function of experience, time of year, and flow. Per the National Park Service, every rafter must have a personal flotation device (actively worn, or immediately available) depending on current conditions. Children under 13 must PFD-up at all times. If you’re rafting with a guide, pay attention to their safety requirements, and be sure you’re listening to your guide for instructions on what to do if you or another guest were to fall out of the raft. The pros know what they’re doing!
Flow Factor: Rafters have to know how much water they’re riding for both safety and fun. Check out the current water levels in the Merced River for a pro-outlook before your next rafting adventure.
Where to stay: From world-class family resorts to primitive campsites, and retro motels to vacation rental homes, Yosemite Mariposa has you covered!
Where to eat: Craft beer to BBQ, and local wineries to gluten-free, Yosemite Mariposa has you covered (again)!