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River Rafting, Hiking, and Camping: An Epic California Road Trip

Road trips, rafting, friends, and memories...what more can you ask for this summer?

By: The Outbound Collective + Save to a List

If you’re scheming up some summer fun, our friends at OARS have the ultimate California road trip route dialed. On this week-long adventure you’ll hit four different stretches of whitewater, hike in Yosemite, and explore early Gold Rush towns filled with quirky shops, wineries and hip dining spots. What's not to love and dream about?

Day 1: South Fork of the American River

Whether you’re a California local or coming from elsewhere (San Francisco , Sacramento and Tahoe all make great  starting points), pop the town of Coloma into your GPS and head to the penultimate location for California rafting and American River whitewater trips. 

Snag a spot on a South Fork of the American River rafting trip, where Class III rapids like Satan's Cesspool and Hospital Bar are a splashy, fun way to get the adrenaline pumping and ease you into the next few days of thrilling whitewater. It only gets bigger from here!

Once you’re off the river, relax back at OARS’ American River Outpost. which offers up one night of free riverside camping for guests and has some great amenities: hot showers, flush toilets, WiFi, and games. And if you’re not too stoked about the idea of sleeping on the ground, they also have pre-set platform tents available to book for the night (think yurts/elevated camping experience with comfy beds and bedding). Hang out in camp for happy hour and a BBQ, or walk into Coloma for some local eats.

Day 2: Middle Fork of the American River

Ready for some Class IV+ whitewater action? Yeah, that's what's happening today! The Middle Fork is no joke and neither is Tunnel Chute rapid, known worldwide as a beast that will stay in your dreams for years to come. It's basically a man-made tunnel that was created by miners who were looking for gold and had dynamite to burn. Besides the crazy Chute, you’ll also be served up an awesome riverside lunch, pristine canyon scenery, and, of course, more splashes and wild whitewater.

Once you step foot on land and the shuttle takes you back to camp, trust us, you’ll be ready to chill. Walk into town to grab a beer and a bite. Or, kick back at your campsite and let your guides take care of dinner.

Day 3: Break Day/ Gold Rush Towns

It's time to crank up the tunes, get some snacks and hit the road to Mariposa! Along Highway 49 you'll pass by the towns of Sutter Creek, Angels Camp and Sonora, old Gold Rush spots that are definitely worth exploring.

The day is up to you. Stop at a few shops, sample wine from local wineries, stop for a hike, or bomb straight to the Yosemite Bug - a quirky and rustic lodge near Yosemite that you should definitely try to stay the night to set you up nicely for rafting on the Merced River the next day. Don’t miss dinner at June Bug Café, Yosemite Bug’s onsite restaurant which never disappoints.

Day 4: Merced River Rafting

Ready for round three? Like a scene from a movie, the Merced River flows directly out of Yosemite Valley and can be one of the most fun things you've ever done, especially in spring and early summer when the Sierra snowpack is melting and the river is going off. Make sure to book in advance, then get ready for the Merced’s big wave action and rollercoaster rapids like Nightmare Island, Ned's Gulch, and Split Rock.

Back at Yosemite Bug, you’ll be ready to grab a pass for the spa/hot tub before kicking back and enjoying the lodge’s relaxed vibe and evening social scene. Just don’t go too crazy, since you might want to get up early tomorrow.

Day 5: Sunrise in Yosemite National Park

It will be worth it to hit the road before sunrise to catch Yosemite Valley in all of its glory before the mobs wake up. From there, Tioga Road is the way to go, with endless views and half the crowd.

Stretch your legs on the 6-mile Mount Hoffmann hike, which is well worth the effort. Views from the top offer up mind-blowing panoramic views from the heart of Yosemite. If you're a planner, pack a lunch or snacks and lounge at May Lake.

From there, take in the sights along Tioga Road, before heading out of the park’s Big Oak Flat entrance to nearby Evergreen Lodge, where you can grab delicious food and drinks and stay the night. After undergoing a renovation a few years back, this place is truly stunning. It's also just about 20 minutes away from the meeting place for a Tuolumne River rafting trip - the grand finale to this epic California whitewater extravaganza.  

Day 6 – 7: Tuolumne River

What most people don't realize about Yosemite is that there are world-class rafting opportunities literally just outside of the park. People go for the view, hikes and climbs, but Yosemite’s wilderness boasts world-class rapids nearby. For the pièce de résistance, head out on a two-day Tuolumne Rafting trip. With over 18 miles of action-packed, Class III-IV+ whitewater, complete wilderness immersion, hidden swimming holes and brilliant star-filled skies, it’s a fitting end to an adventurous California road trip.

Cheers to Summer fun and amazing memories with OARS!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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