April 4, 2020 – Aaron Cavagnolo
Rafting in Yosemite
While Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous parks in the world, many people miss out one of its best activities, whitewater rafting and kayaking tours. Both the world famous Tuolumne River and Merced River headwaters are within Yosemite. After the water cascades and falls from the surrounding mountain tops there are sections of river to meet every paddler’s needs.
The Merced River in Yosemite usually opens for rafting in May or June except during high water years when the season is later.
Just outside the park are popular commercial whitewater rafting and kayaking runs including Cherry Creek (V), the Tuolumne River (IV) and Merced River (IV). Cherry Creek is arguably the hardest commercially rafted river in the United States while the the Tuolumne River downstream is the best two-day trip in California. The Merced is a fun 1/2 day to full day trip and the closest to Yosemite Valley of the three runs.
This article focuses on the Class I+ to Class V runs in the Yosemite Valley vicinity. To have the most up-to-date information on closures and park regulations check the Yosemite Park Water Activities page.
Rafting Yosemite Valley
Rafting, packrafting or tubing the Merced River is an incredible way to experience the grandeur of Yosemite Valley. There is Class I+ commercial option for those without equipment. Aramark, the concessionaire for Yosemite National Park runs the rent a raft program on this stretch (it is closed for the 2020 season).
There are additional options from beginner, through intermediate all the way up to Class V for those with their own gear. Every run has incredible views and some have beautiful pulverized granite sand beaches.
When to Float
The Merced River in Yosemite usually opens for river rafting trips in May or June except during high water years when the season is later.
Where to Float
Stoneman Bridge to Sentinel Beach (2.8 miles) – Rental Run
This is the only stretch that can be done within Yosemite with the rental rafts. You are not allowed to put-in or take-out between Stoneman Bridge and Sentinel Beach. Here is a video and cacreeks write-up on the float. Those that brought their own boats can float further down and start higher depending upon flows. The water level must be less than 7 feet at Pohono Bridge at 8 am to run this Class I+ section. Aramark also will provide a shuttle for $5 per person for private boaters using their own boats. The shuttle ends at 6 pm.
Sentinel Beach to El Capitan Bridge (3.2 miles)
This Class I+ trip starts just below the rental run is also discussed in the Cacreeks Yosemite write-up. The water level also must be less than 7 feet at Pohono Bridge at 8 am to raft this section. You are not allowed to put-in or take-out between Sentinel Beach and El Capitan Bridge.
Clark’s Bridge to Stoneman Bridge (1 mile)
This Class I-II stretch is just above the rental raft run. The water level also must be less than 4.5 feet at Pohono Bridge at 8 am to run this section. You are not allowed to put-in or take-out between Clark’s Bridge and Stoneman Bridge.
Required Safety Equipment
Every boater must have a PFD (personal flotation device). When the gauge at Pohono Bridge is between 4 and 7 feet at 8 am everyone has to wear their PFD. If the water is less than 4 feet at 8 am everyone must have their PFD easily accessible except for children under 13 years old who must still be wearing their PFDs.
Harder Yosemite Park Rafting Runs
El Capitan Bridge to El Portal Road (6 miles)
This is a fun class III-IV run. It is open when the gauge at Pohono Bridge is at least 3.4 feet and 8 am. Rafters and kayakers can take-out anywhere downstream of Pohono bridge. Below El Portal Road the river becomes class V. The Merced River follows El Portal Road as it leaves the park at Arch Rock and becomes highway 140. This section of the Merced below Arch Rock is Class V+.
Headwaters to Little Yosemite Valley (10+ miles)
This is a challenging class V run. Hiking to the put-in is over 14 miles and there is a 4 mile required hike out of the canyon past Vernal and Nevada Falls at the end. A tough bottomed packraft is probably the ideal craft. Paddlers also need a back country permit since they will probably be spending the night. American Whitewater has a nice write-up.
Yosemite is at its best in the spring and early summer when the waterfalls are running. This also means hoards of people. Rafting on the river while in Yosemite is a nice way to avoid the crowds and enjoy the views. Check the flows before heading up because many years the river is too high to float in May and some years even into June. There are additional runs within the park on the Tuolumne and South Fork Merced Rivers.