Epic 7 Day Guide To An Adventurous California Road Trip

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Wanderlove / June 2016

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.

 

Day 1 – Rafting the South Fork of the American River

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.

Noms:

  • Breakfast is on your own
  • Lunch is on the river and is included – one of the most impressive deli spreads we’ve ever seen, and that is coming from sando experts. This delicious spread comes complete with avocado, all the fixings, lots of meat, and at least 4 types of mustard. They really pride themselves on their mustard selection.
  • Dinner is on your own but the outpost offers a barbeque dinner for an extra fee [and just like all their meals, it’s damn good]. Alternative options within walking distance include a taqueria across the street, a pizza joint just outside the parking lot, or the River Shack just up the street. Just do yourself a favor and opt for the on-site BBQ.

Budget:

  • $109 – 1 day
  • $321 – 2D/1N combo with the Middle Fork – what we did

Day 2 – Rafting the Middle Fork of the American River

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.

Noms:

  • Breakfast at the outpost as part of the overnight trip. They serve a cold brekky that will definitely keep you going for the day, as long as you make sure to load up on your carbs, fruit and coffee.
  • Lunch on the river is included as always. You will find that delectable deli spread once again, but maybe with a few substitutions, ie: wraps instead of bread.  
  • Dinner is on your own again, so maybe this time hit up the taqueria. Tip? The super taco is actually larger than the burrito, don’t make the same mistake that we did.

Budget:

  • $135 – 1 day
  • $321 – 2D/1N combo with the Middle Fork [make like us and pick this]

Day 3 – Exploration day on your California road trip

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:

  • American River confluence. Offers up a scenic bridge and hiking trails
  • Wine tasting along Hwy 49 – there are a gazillion, but we stopped at Drytown Cellars
  • Lunch and walking around in the wild west town of Sonora – don’t miss the epic candy store. Confession – we randomly bought a pug mask here, and we have to admit that it made for some epic road trip photos.
  • Cliff jumping at the Rainbow Pools outside the 120 entrance to Yosemite.
  • Cruising the 140 highway at sunset with time to stop at the many beautiful vistas

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.

Noms:

  • Breakfast at the bakery next to OARS outpost. Tip? Treat yo’self with one of their homemade pastries
  • Lunch in one of the mom and pop diners in Sonora, or there is also an In-N-Out in Placerville [just sayin’]
  • Dinner at the Yosemite Bug. Their menu changes errrrynight, and it’s all bomb.com. Also, for you veggies out there, they have some great vegan options.

Budget:

  • It’s all up to you and depends on the type of activities you choose to do. Our day of exploration was free, besides our food and lodging. Oh and if you’re counting the pug mask, I guess you can add a few extra $$$ on to that.
  • Yosemite Bug rates here – dorm beds as low as $23 / night

Day 4 – Rafting the Merced River

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!

Noms:

  • Breakfast at the Yosemite Bug. We recommend… everything. Breakfast burrito, french toast or California brekky plate – they’re all crazy good.
  • Lunch on the river. Expect the same bomb ass deli spread as your other OARs adventures.
  • Dinner at Evergreen Lodge. We were feeling indecisive this night [and a tad bit exhausted], and ended up doing a tapa style feast. It was a fantastic decision.
  • Dessert – yeah there’s dessert. Head over the the mellow master and make some s’mores before you get your tired ass to bed.

Budget:

  • Rafting: $135-$175 depending on day of week
  • Evergreen Lodge Rates here – camping in furnished tents as low as $90 / night – this is a bit pricier, so an alternative suggestion is to head back to Yosemite Bug for one more night, set up camp at one of the many campsites outside of the park, or glamp it up in Yosemite [Housekeeping Camp, or Half Dome Village are excellent options].

Day 5 – Yosemite National Park

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:

  • Panorama Trail to Glacier Point and bus back down
  • Renting a bicycle from Half Dome Village and riding around Valley, with stops at Mirror Lake, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls and El Capitan to watch the climbers climb
  • Rent a raft from the same place you can rent bikes from and enjoy the calm waters of the Merced
  • Hiking Half Dome [need permits well in advance]

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.

Noms:

  • Breakfast at Evergreen Lodge [biscuits and gravy alllllllright]
  • Lunch on hike – pick up a grab n’ go lunch from the General Store before you leave
  • Dinner at Evergreen Lodge if you end up crashing there again for the night. If not, you can always head to Curry Village [recently renamed Half Dome Village] for some tasty pizza.

Budget:

  • Park fee: $30 for a 7 day pass
  • Evergreen Lodge Rates here – camping in furnished tents as low as $90 / night – this is a bit pricier, so an alternative suggestion is to head back to Yosemite Bug for one more night, or set up camp in Yosemite [Housekeeping Camp, or Half Dome Village are excellent options].

Day 6 – Rafting the Tuolumne River as part of a 2D/1N overnight trip

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.

Noms:

  • Breakfast at the Evergreen Lodge if that’s where you stayed, if not pick up a quick breakfast at Tangled Hearts Bakery, right next to the meeting spot.
  • Lunch on the river AKA famous OARS deli spread
  • Dinner at camp cooked by your trusty OARS guides. One thing we must say about OARS is there meals are on point. When we are camping by ourselves we’re lucky if we cook ourselves more than a can of beans. With OARS you may find yourself having a gourmet salmon and steak dinner, with some grilled veggies and a California fresh salad. Oh and did we mention there’s an appetizer portion?
  • Dessert – no camp trip is complete without a s’more campfire sesh. Side note? We challenge you to a s’mores off anytime, anywhere.

Budget:

  • $525 overnight trip
  • $25 sleep kit – sleeping bag, pad and tent

Day 7 – Rafting the Tuolumne River

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.

Noms:

  • Breakfast at camp. Like we said before, they start off with a cold brekky, or what we like to call breakfast #1, of fruit and coffee. Then followed by an energy boostin’, wakey-wakey, eggs and bakey, kind of breakfast.
  • Lunch on the river. Maybe you’ll luck out and get the chicken caesar wraps this day. Fingers crossed.
  • Dinner on your own. Choose whatever is calling on your journey to wherever it is you’re headed next.

Additional Trip Details

Tips:

  • Speaking of… tips are not included in prices for rafting guides – make sure to have cash!
  • The bugs can be gnarly in early summer, bring mosquito repellent
  • Be sure to drink tons of water throughout the day, just make sure it’s from your Kleen Kanteen, NOT the river. There’s such thing as Giardia folks, and we aren’t down with that

Packing Essentials:

  • Sunscreen
  • Quick dry clothing and a swim suit for rafting
  • Chacos to wear on the water
  • Camp clothes and shoes, meaning warm clothes for chilly nights and close toed shoes
  • Croakies for your sunglasses
  • Headlamp
  • And of course, a camera to capture all your memories with

Total Estimated Mileage from SF: 600 Miles

Total Estimated Cost: $1500/pp

Tags: California, Cover, featured, North America, OARS, Outdoors, Roadtrip, whitwater rafting, yosemite

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Comments

Read 15 Previous Comments

  • Emily // June 15, 2016

    Wow! You really did so much! Looks like an epic trip. I love discovering new gems in CA! We just spent a weekend in Cambria and loved every second!

    Xo

    Emily

    http://www.EMILYALDER.COM

  • Angela // June 15, 2016

    Your photos from this trip look amazing! I have to show this to my husband. This would be a dream trip for him!

  • Anisa // June 15, 2016

    Wow, you really did your homework on this one! You put together quite the epic road trip. I have been to California many times, but have never done any rafting or adventurous stuff. I tend to just stick to the city. I need to change that!

  • Lost & Abroad // June 15, 2016

    What a great trip! Your photos look amazing 🙂

  • Ref J // June 15, 2016

    Fantastic photos! You have inspired me, I will be checking this out hopefully before the end of the summer. Thank so much for the tips!

  • Lisanne // June 27, 2016

    I loved the gif at the beginning! And all the images. The trip looked amazing, great post!

  • Melanie // June 28, 2016

    Great pics. Now I wanna go on this amazing road trip…it would be awesome 🙂

  • Angela Philemon // June 28, 2016

    Have a dream to visit this
    Love this place 🙂

  • Ashley @ The Wandering Weekenders // June 28, 2016

    I’ve never done rafting before, but this looks like so much fun! California is one of my favorite places to visit, and I would love to do a trip like this!

  • Jessica // June 28, 2016

    I wish I’d read this awesome post 3 weeks ago, when I was traveling around California!
    Anyway, who knows… I might come back one day 🙂

    p.s. Yosemite National Park has been one of my favorite destinations of the whole trip!

    Jessica
    http://www.traveltobealive.com

  • Maggie Unzueta // June 28, 2016

    I’m a Californian, and I’ve never been to some of these places. Looks like so much too. Must change that. ps. Love the gif!

  • Christine @ The (mostly) Simple Life // June 28, 2016

    Gorgeous pics! What an awesome trip!

  • Sharmin // June 28, 2016

    I love traveling and this looks like a great trip!

  • MDB // August 18, 2016

    What would be the best time of year to do a trip like this? It looks fantastic!

    • Julie Kern // August 18, 2016

      Definitely in late May / early June when the snow melt is at its peak! Go with OARS! They are an incredible outfitter 🙂

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