Great Spots for Whitewater Kayaking in California

by WalkOnWater

Want to head out on a whitewater kayaking trip in California? Here are some of the best spots throughout the state along with some advice about kayak gear you'll need.

California has some of the best whitewater rivers in the country and kayakers and whitewater rafters from all over flock to the state. From the Klamath River in Northern Cali to the Kern River down south, there are plenty of great spots to hit no matter what your experience level. Here's an overview of some of the best whitewater rivers in California along with some information about the kayak accessories you'll need for your trip.

Image: Kneale Quayle at Flickr

Klamath River Kayaking
Klamath River Kayaking

Whitewater Kayaking in Northern California

Klamath River

There are two primary places to kayak on the Klamath River: the lower portion which flows from the Iron Gate Dam and the upper portion, which begins in Oregon. The Hell's Corner run of the Upper Klamath River can usually be enjoyed throughout the year, although it depends on the dam output from the powerhouse.

While most people do the run in inflatable kayaks when only one turbine is running, some people with a great deal of experience can pull it off with both turbines flowing. The upper Klamath run is particularly difficult because it's full of sharp volcanic rocks combined with muddy brown water. It begins with Class II and III rapids but there are some Class IV+ rapids like the Caldera.

The Lower Klamath is less difficult but it stretches for nearly 38 miles. It's comprised mostly of Class III rapids with a single IV rapid -- the Dragon's Tooth. This rapid has huge boulders with many options you can take, although it's definitely a challenge. This river can be handled with a hardshell whitewater kayak or an inflatable kayak, although you may want to steer clear of the Lower Klamath with an inflatable.

Whitewater Kayaking in Central California

American River

One of the most challenging and exciting places for whitewater kayaking in Northern Cali is the American River. There are three primary places for whitewater, including the North, Middle and South Fork.

American River Kayaker
American River Kayaker

The North Fork of the American River is a Class IV with a flow that's dependent on the snowpack and the weather. Within the first mile you'll hit the Chamberlain Falls, followed by the Achilles' Heel, Staircase and the Zig-Zag, all great Class IV rapids. The South Fork, on the other hand, is a Class III that can be enjoyed from March through September. It's nearly 21 miles long and comprised of two runs: the Chili Bar and the Gorge.

Check out this page at to see someone taking on these rapids in an inflatable kayak, definitely some great pictures!

Carson River

The East Fork of the Carson River is a good choice for beginners and flows down the east side of the Sierra. It's just over 20 miles in length with a good mix of Class I and II rapids with a fast current. The path takes you into Nevada and through the Horseshoe Canyon. You can take this kayaking trip during the early part of the season if you enjoy breathtaking views of snow-capped mountains and chilly weather, or you can wait until summer for better flow and warm weather. Because the rapids aren't very severe, this is also a good river for an inflatable kayak designed for whitewater.

Whitewater Kayaking in Southern California

Kern River

The Kern River is one of the most popular destinations for whitewater kayaking in Southern California. The North fork, or the upper portion, of the river is an irrigated bed with a series of dams. There are 6 different sections to kayak here, although the most popular is the two-mile long Powerhouse Run.

Kayaker on Kern River
Kayaker on Kern River

This run has a very long season with a good mix of Class II and III rapids like the Big Daddy. Be sure to head out there during April when the Kern River Festival is held. This festival usually has kayak races, kayak rodeo and tons of fun events.

Whitewater Kayak Accessories

The most basic kayak gear, of course, includes your kayak (whether you choose an inflatable kayak, a dedicated whitewater kayak or a sea kayak), your primary and spare paddle, a personal floatation device and food. So, what else will you need? Here are some of the most important and useful kayak accessories before you hit whitewater rivers.

One-Day Kayak Trips:
  • Swimsuit
  • Quick-dry shorts
  • Water sports shoes
  • Long-sleeve shirt (excellent for sun protection)
  • A baseball cap or a hat with a visor
  • Wetsuit (if you're tackling a difficult river or heading out in cold water)
  • Paddle jacket or splash jacket
  • Gloves
  • Long underwear, synthetic or wool socks and sweater (if the weather is cold)
  • Water bottle
  • Sunglasses
  • Insect repellant
  • Sunscreen
  • Waterproof camera
  • Paddle leash
  • Spray skirt
  • Bilge pump and bailer with a sponge
  • Paddle float
Additional Items for Multi-Day Kayak Trips:
  • Pants
  • Rain jacket
  • Extra pair of shoes
  • Sleeping bag, pad, pillow and tent
  • Ground cloth
  • Tent
  • Bags for wet clothing and gear
  • Toiletries
Updated: 10/16/2012, WalkOnWater
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