Ever since that little ol’ thing in 1849 when everyone rushed to sweet home, California, this state has literally become the place to be. From the early days in Hollywood to the historic Gold Rush, California has definitely made a name for itself and people love to come here for a California road trip.
While there are many parts of California, we’re pretty sure that one of the best parts about this Golden State is that it’s so incredibly diverse. From the lowest, driest and hottest point in North America [Death Valley: 282 ft. below sea level], to the tallest peak in the contiguous United States [Mt. Whitney: 14,505 ft. above sea level] California offers everything in between. With iconic National Parks like Yosemite, Point Reyes Seashore and Joshua Tree, it’s no wonder it can be overwhelming to decide exactly how to spend your time in this adventure-loving state. It’s home to mountains, valleys, beaches, deserts, and clearly has so much room for activities. We’re talking world class hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, backpacking, and wait for it…whitewater rafting.
So, if you can’t make up your mind about what to do and you’re looking for an adventurous, active way to spend a week in this little paradise we call home, then look no further because we’ve got the trip for you that includes 5 days of whitewater rafting, hiking in Yosemite and exploring the historic Highway 49 with OARS. An adventurous twist on the ol’ California road trip.
Best part? This is a super quick trip from SF, so whether you’re local and looking to get away from city life, or you’re flying in to SFO, this adventure is accessible.
Getting There: Goooood morning, sunshine! Time to make your way bright and early from San Francisco to the OARS American River Outpost to start your first day of this adventure road trip. Plan to leave around 7-7:30 AM, depending on your number of coffee stops [we surprisingly just had 1].
The Adventure: The South Fork of the American River is one of the most popular rafting destinations in the United States, and makes for a perfect introduction to your week ahead. For those who have never been rafting before, have no fear. This itinerary is designed to be a build, with the easy[ish] rapids first as a warm up. This river is one of the more family friendly rivers and is the perfect opportunity to get comfortable in those big yellow boats. You’ll become a master paddler, learning the in’s and out’s [hopefully no out of the boats] of rafting in the 21 miles you’ll have with this river. Oh yeah, and you’ll get some incredible scenery along the way. The South Fork literally puts the gorge in gorge-ous as it snakes through a beautiful canyon for the last half of the day.
Physical Fitness: You can expect Class III rapids, and you’ll get the chance to get out of the boat and swim through some of the white caps. The water’s pretty chilly, but you’ll be begging for those splashes as you float through in between the rolling hills in the warm California sunshine.
Sleeping: The OARS American River Outpost offers free camping for rafters, and has platform tents for $85 [weekdays] / $100 [weekends] a night. If you don’t have any camping equipment, you can rent it here as well. From campfires to the people hanging around, you’ll feel one with the rafting community. And the rafting community is pretty damn awesome.
Getting There: Major perk of the OARS American River Outpost? You woke up like that! Nothing better than being on-site.
The Adventure: The Middle Fork of the American River is one baby step up from the South Fork in terms of difficulty, and one giant leap forward in terms of excitement level. This “must do” section of the American River through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada takes you back in time to that California Gold Rush we were talking about earlier. In search of gold buried beneath the American River, miners blasted a tunnel through the side of a cliff to divert the water, creating one of the most insane, unique whitewater features anywhere. Known as “Tunnel Chute,” this rapid drops you down a massive chute [surprise], and through a 90 foot tunnel [double surprise] that feels more like a Disneyland ride than something out in the wild. But yes, it’s wild. As fair warning, there are photographers to capture you at all your worst moments. Be prepared for some incriminating photos, and if it’s that good, maybe you’ll end up on the wall of shame at Hot Shot.
Physical Fitness: This is a Class IV river, with a moderate to high chance for flipping the raft [which completely ups the excitement, are we right?]. The middle section of the river is calm and flat, with bookends of non-stop paddling through rapids. You will come across the almighty rapid that goes by the name of Ruck-A-Chuckey, that you will not be able to participate in. It’s less technical and leaves a whole lot up to chance, which a novice rafter shouldn’t be partaking in anyways.
Sleeping: The OARS American River Outpost… in case you missed it, see Day 1.
The Adventure: Say your goodbyes to your new outpost fam, and make your way from the OARS outpost in Coloma, CA to your next destination just outside Yosemite. This is a free day, so you should plan to spend it however you want. We like to fly by the seat of our pants, so we didn’t make any plans ahead of time and it was awesome. In case you are the planning type and need some ideas, here’s what we did:
Physical Fitness: You can make this day as physical or chill as you want. There are some longer hiking trails from the American River confluence, and some cliff jumping at the pools that can be pretty exhilarating.
Sleeping: Excuse our cheesy California joke, but The Yosemite Bug in Midpines, CA is truly a piece of gold in the mine. Nestled in the foothills just off Highway 140, this mountain lodge caters to travelers of all ages, and backgrounds. The crowd ranges from international backpackers, to couples and families, and somehow manages to be a perfect fit for everyone. With a cozy dining hall, on site spa [$12 a day, baby], communal kitchen, and games galore, this place is the perfect home away from home.
Getting There: The raft trip meets around 9:30 AM at this place called “The Sandpit,” which couldn’t be more obscure when it comes to a relatively undeveloped highway. Warning? Don’t rely on anyone to know what the hell you’re talking about. That being said, when you come out of the Yosemite Bug, turn left and drive for about 30 minutes along the most beautiful road that hugs the Merced River. Just past the Cedar Lodge on Highway 140 is a massive pullout on the side of the road. It’s 2 miles before El Portal, you’ll see an OARS van waiting for your arrival, and that’s how you will know that this is your stop!
The Adventure: The Merced River is 18 miles of non-stop white water from top to bottom. From the second you put in [say that 10 times fast – sounds like you’re hungry for some pudding], to the very last second of take out, you will be on standby and ready to paddle through exciting Class III and IV rapids. You’ll want to wear a wetsuit for this wild ride, because even though it’s hot as hell outside, the water is raging snowmelt. Our favorite rollercoaster wave trains were Nightmare Island, Ned’s Gulch, and Split Rock. You’ll see why.
Physical Fitness: Class III-Class IV rapids the entire river with lots of paddling. Since you’ve spent the past few days practicing your superb paddling skills, you are more than ready for this raging river.
Sleeping: The Evergreen Lodge is located off Highway 120, so after rafting, you’ll have to enter Yosemite and drive through to the other entrance. It’s a bit of a trek, but it’s worth for the incredible atmosphere at the lodge. There are movie nights, a pool, hot tub, live music, s’mores, and plenty of wine to go with dinner. Also, this is your treat night, so take advantage of it!
Getting There: Take highway 120 [or 140 depending on where you stayed] back to the Yosemite Park Entrance and head down into the Valley loop for plenty of hiking / activity options.
The Adventure: Let’s just preface this by saying one day in Yosemite will never be enough. If you are looking to do a longer trip, this is where you should stretch it out! There is just too much to do in the park, and the insane scenery never tires. If you really only have one day, the one thing you absolutely must do is the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls. It is a 8-mile, strenuous round trip hike but worth every stair you will climb to the top.
Other ideas if you aren’t up for the waterfalls, or have extra time:
Physical Fitness: Yosemite makes you work for it. You can opt for sandals route, but the stuff that’s worth it is strenuous and down some more difficult paths. Don’t let that scare you. Also, the crowds on the easy stuff is enough to make you go for the gold.
Sleeping: The Evergreen Lodge, camping, or glamping. Whichever suits your budget and your liking! You’ll definitely want to stay somewhere in the park, or off highway 120 though because the next morning is an early meet just outside Groveland.
Getting There: Take highway 120 until you reach the Tangled Hearts Bakery, 8 miles east of Groveland. You’ll arrive to see your trip leader, the van and possibly a few other peeps on your rafting trip getting ready for the big launch.
The Adventure: Holy guacamole, the Tuolumne is one wild ride. This trip is one for the books, and our favorite part of the whole itinerary. All the rivers you’ve rafted thus far have been building up to the big she-bang, and here it is. You’ve paddled, swam and prepped for these rapids all week and now it’s time to tackle one of North America’s most famed whitewater. You’ll make your way through infamous rapids like Clavey Falls and Ram’s Head, finishing up just around mile 9 at Indian Beach [subject to change depending on conditions]. Tip? When you’re guide yells, “dig!”, you dig. Otherwise you might end up swimming all of Ram’s Head like one of our fellow rafters. Don’t worry, he survived and he’s now an official member of the Tuolumne River Swim Team.
You’ll have the afternoon to relax [make like us and hang your ENO hammock, with a cold brew in hand], share stories with your group, play bocce ball, and use the best toilet of your life [tag photos #GrooverView]. It’s overnight trips like this that really make the whole experience. Don’t get us wrong, we absolutely love rafting, but combined with being stuck on a tiny little river bank beach with your new tribe, truly makes for a memorable experience.
Physical Fitness: This river is no joke and kids under 16 aren’t allowed for this exact reason. There is a high likelihood of flipping the raft, and you gotta be prepared for that. All hands on deck, all the time on these rapids. Be prepared for active paddling and be ready to really dig those oars.
Sleeping: Under the stars, baby! OARS offers sleeping kits for rent, so you don’t have to bring your own gear. Our suggestion? Do it. You’ll have a pretty thick, padded mat, sleeping bag and pillow. Pret-ty classy, we know. There is also a tent included, but you’re not going to want to use it, nope. Use this opportunity to fall asleep with the best night lights of all, the stars. Warning: you may find it difficult to sleep due to overly excited stargazing.
Getting There: Life’s tough when you’re sleeping next to a river! Wake up by the warm morning sun and enjoy the lazy morning at camp [coffee included].
The Adventure: You’ll spend your morning chowing down on the first cold breakfast spread and [yes, there’s more]followed by round two of delicious hot breakfast grubs. AFter breakfast, you’ll take a mile RT hike across the river to an old mine shaft that was used during the gold rush. Don’t get your hopes up for any leftover jackpot though, this mine shaft was a complete bust. After the morning excursion, you’ll hop back into your yellow banana boat and continue along on your Tuolumne adventure. Highlights of the day include the mile long Class IV rapid known as Grey’s Grindstone and plenty more splish splashes before taking out at the Ward’s Ferry Bridge. Unfortunately when you get to this landmark, it’s the signal that you officially made it through 5 days of whitewater, you badass!! Now, the sad part: it’s time to say goodbye and head on home.
Total Estimated Mileage from SF: 600 Miles
Total Estimated Cost: $1500/pp
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