When the summer days get hot and muggy, few Sierra adventures can match the refreshing reward of rolling down a river through ripping whitewater. Whether in a kayak, a raft, or an inner tube, the rush of riding a surging wave through its boulder-choked confines is always as unique as it is thrilling.
Most Nor-Cal folk are no strangers to whitewater fun as our region is blessed with nearly a dozen different rivers that harbor world class recreation opportunities. If you’ve seen a few summers in Tahoe, chances are you’ve run a rowdy river or two. Maybe you’ve rafted on the American River? Or kayaked the Royal Gorge?
Even if you’ve only floated the Tahoe City booze cruise, I trust you understand the basic realities of a rushing river and that they are inherently very dangerous places to play. The power of hydraulic currents and your finite ability to hold your breath demand the utmost respect. This shouldn’t be news to anyone but it’s worth a reminder before you read any further.
That said, I wanted to share a bit of summer stoke from a couple classic Sierra whitewater adventures that should definitely make your tick list. These aren’t beginner outings, but they are readily documented as safely navigable if you have the proper skills, guidance, equipment, and river conditions.
Back in July, I joined All-Outdoors Rafting for a white water ride I’ll never forget on the infamous Cherry Creek/Upper Tuolumne River run. The nine-mile stretch we rafted drops more than 100 vertical feet per mile and is home to 15 Class V rapids. Located just outside Yosemite’s western entrance near Groveland, Calif., Cherry Creek is widely known as the most challenging commercially guided whitewater run in America.
I was giddy and a bit nervous boarding the raft that morning. The river looked chaotic and powerful— no place to play.
Thankfully, my worries didn’t last long. Our guide Noah knew the route through this rock-infested slalom course like it was a picture of his mother and the 12-foot long, oar-paddle raft he piloted was surprisingly nimble. With the rest of us paddling on his command, Noah could line up tight chutes between rocks like he was billygoating around at a ski resort. But unlike an opening rush on the Silverado chair, every line he took was carefully plotted and executed. Which was a good thing because it meant nobody got ejected from the boat. We talked before each rapid about what direction to swim for if you did fall out and I’d like to think I would have fared just fine wearing a wetsuit, life vest, and helmet. Despite the safety precautions, the reality of a Class V swift-water swimming lesson didn’t look too appealing. Dozens of people have swum the rapids on Cherry Creek however, with zero resulting fatalities in 30 years of commercial trips.
If you are interested in rafting Cherry Creek, there are two commercial guide services that run the river, All-Outdoors Rafting and Sierra Mac River Trips. Both have decades of experience and are priced at around $300 for the one-day trip. Trips are on the books through September. Get the full scoop at aorafting.com and sierramac.com.
The second whitewater mission I’d like to spotlight is a lot closer to home; it might even run through your backyard if you’re lucky. That’s right, I’m talkin’ ‘bout the Truckee!
While tame in stretches, the Truckee River has plenty of character as it rumbles along from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake. Tubing, rafting, and kayaking on the Truckee is nothing new— thousands float down sections of it each year. However, most folks rarely stray from the beaten path, namely the flatwater Tahoe City to River Ranch run and the Class III Boca to Floriston run which is rafted by several commercial operations.
Without causing too much community consternation, I gotta recommend a couple other local Truckee River stretches that are perfect for the advanced guerrilla inner- tuber. The warm-up section runs along West River Street in downtown Truckee between Highway 89 and the Highway 267 overpass bridge. This stretch contains several fun and easily manageable rapids. If you continue on to Glenshire even more fun awaits, just watch out for the ‘Truckee Falls’ — a legit class II rapid downstream of the Highway 267 overpass.
Advanced tubers don’t want to miss floating the Truckee from the River Ranch to the Silver Creek campground, aka Alpine to Squaw. This stretch features a few substantial Class II rapids. You’ll need a decent water level and a heavyweight inner tube to safely float this stretch as the sharp river bottom rocks will shred a standard vinyl ‘River Rat’ tube. You’re best bet is a dual-bladder whitewater specific tube or a canvas wrapped tow-behind boat tube. I might also suggest scouting a few of the major rapids before dropping in, specifically those by the River Ranch and the Highway 89 bridge adjacent to the Western States trailhead.
The danger of both these Truckee River sections is that they are notoriously shallow. Hitting your head and drowning is one thing, but there is even a greater risk of smacking your tailbone as you sit in your tube zipping along. Banging into a unexpected boulder at river speed can severely injure you, as many locals can attest. It’s crucial to lift your body off the floor of your tube each and every rapid.
Ok, that’s probably enough summer fun advice from your bad uncle… though I do know of a couple sweet rope swings you might wanna check out?