There are wonderful, scenic, river rafting trips in California suitable for children as young as 4 years old and located close to Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, and further north in the Shasta-Trinity and Klamath National Forests. You can opt for a short half-day run, where you can bring your own picnic lunch, or a great family rafting vacation of 2 to 4 days or more. Some outfitters offer discounts up to 50% on multi-day trips on some of these runs. These trips are also suitable for seniors, so bring the grandparents. Child friendly meals are provided and prepared by professional river guides, who manage to produce sumptuous riverside meals even on wilderness trips, so parents can find time for more relaxation.
There are age limit recommendations, but children’s capabilities vary considerably and the outfitter should be willing to discuss this to ensure the best possible experience for the family. Usual recommendations are a minimum age of 4 years old on Class 2 Rivers, 8 years on Class 3 and 13 years on Class 4.
There are no special equipment needs and a summer day trip requires very little. A detailed list of what to bring should be provided. If you opt for an overnight trip, most outfitters will also rent tents, sleeping bags and pads if needed.
For the younger or more timid child, try a brief introduction on a half-day, Class 2 run on the Lower Middle Fork American River. This scenic wilderness raft trip in the Gold Country is a little gem. It is more relaxed, mellower, and much less traveled than the nearby South Fork American. Though close to civilization, it feels that you are really getting away from it all. There are safe beach areas for picnicking and play, and side hikes to waterfalls and swimming holes. Wild-life is often seen, and in late summer, stops are made to pick the most incredible juicy black berries. This trip can be combined for an overnight adventure with a short section of the South Fork American River (Lotus Run) above the more advanced Gorge Run. Youths less than 7 years and the less able bodied can raft with the group at the beginning of the day, and everyone lunches together. The younger group can remain at the lunch spot to play, or can visit the nearby Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park or local nature areas. The rest of the group continues on the river for a 9 mile Class 3 run.
The East Fork Carson River, close to South Lake Tahoe, is another Class 2 run for 1-2 days, which offers wonderful hot springs, wilderness camping and unique High Sierra scenery. In a good snow-pack year it can be rafted into July. Also see below for trips on the Trinity and Lower Klamath which provide both Class 2 and 3 sections of river, so these trips can be customized to accommodate the younger child.
Inflatable kayaks are often supplied on these easier trips for some added adventure for the older youths and adults to share, so these trips can accommodate a diverse group quite happily
For youths from 7-8 years and younger teens, the South Fork American River, located in the historic Gold Country, is one of the most popular rivers in the state. It provides an excellent first time trip, with options from half-day to 2+ days. It is dam controlled and so unlike some rivers, water levels are consistent and trips are available from April through September.
Near Lake Tahoe and Reno, a fun, ½ day run on the Truckee River is available from mid-May through September. This should not be confused with the raft rental float trips out of Tahoe City.
The Trinity River and Lower Klamath in N. California both flow throughout the summer and inflatable kayaks are available on these rivers. Include a trip to Mount Shasta or the Redwoods, and you have the complete vacation. Wild-life sightings are frequent, the fishing is good and great riverside camping on gently sloping beaches.
For adventurous teenagers, the Middle Fork American River is a good step up for those who have already rafted or for the more athletic youth. Its 17 miles provide Class 4 action throughout the summer on 1-3 day trips. For a wilderness camping experience raft the Middle Fork American for 2-3 days and enjoy side hikes up shaded creeks, plunge pools, waterfalls, and great fishing. A combination of the South Fork American and Middle Fork American also makes a great 2-3 day trip.
In the spring and in some years into July, the North Fork Yuba River is a very scenic, un-crowded Class 4 trip, just an hour from Nevada City. The area also offers great scenery, hiking, biking and rustic, historic towns.
An outfitters experience in running safe and fun trips on any level of whitewater is one of the first things to look at when picking a family or youth group trip, so it is a good idea to pick an outfitter that has been in the business for a long time. .
California river guides on these family rafting trips are very versatile and responsible..They are selected for their personalities, as well as their guiding skills. They will be certified in first aid and CPR and many have more advanced training in swift-water rescue, or are Wilderness First Responders or Emergency Medical Technicians. These skills are rarely utilized, but bee stings, scrapes and bruises etc. can happen on shore, and people should be more confident about their trip knowing any incidents can be handled in a professional manner.
A trip will always commence with a safety talk and some paddling instruction. Life jackets will be checked for the correct fit. Most often, the rafts are paddled by the clients with a guide controlling the raft from the rear and calling out commands to turn the boat, paddle or stop. Oar boats or oar/paddle combination are also usually available.
By Lorraine Hall