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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 Yosemite Valley. Find the most up-to-date information on closures and park regulations on the Yosemite Park Water Activities page.

Yosemite rafting past Yosemite Falls
Rafting below Yosemite Falls on the Merced River

Rafting Yosemite National Park

Kayaking, rafting, packrafting, or tubing the Merced River is an incredible way to experience the grandeur of Yosemite Valley. There is Class I+ commercial float trip option for those without equipment. Aramark, the concessionaire for Yosemite National Park, runs the Curry Village raft rental program for this stretch.

Video: Yosemite Raft Rental Trip

There are additional river options from beginner through intermediate all the way up to Class V whitewater for those with their own gear. Every run has incredible views and some have beautiful pulverized granite sand beaches.

There are additional whitewater runs within the park on the Tuolumne and South Fork Merced Rivers.

When to Float

Yosemite rafting and tubing trips on the Merced River starts in May or June except during high water years when the season is later.

Where to Float

Clark’s Bridge to Stoneman Bridge (1 mile)

This Class I-II stretch is just upstream of 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.

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 another 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.

Rafting Yosemite Valley on the Merced River
Merced River below El Capitan

Sentinel Beach to El Capitan Bridge (3.2 miles)

This Class I+ trip starts just below the rental raft 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.

Yosemite rafting below Half Dome
Rafting View of Half Dome

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 all floaters must wear a PFD. If the water is less than 4 feet at 8 am everyone must have a PFD easily accessible. Children under 13 years old who wear a PFDs no matter what level the river is flowing.

Rafting Yosemite’s Harder Runs

El Capitan Bridge to El Portal Road (6 miles)

This fun class III-IV run is open when the gauge at Pohono Bridge is at least 3.4 feet at 8 am. Rafters and kayakers can take-out anywhere downstream of Pohono bridge. Below El Portal Road the river becomes class V. El Portal Road follows the Merced River as it leaves the park at Arch Rock and becomes highway 140. The whitewater on the Merced below Arch Rock is Class V+.

Video: Yosemite Valley Class III-V Rafting

Headwaters to Little Yosemite Valley (10+ miles)

This is a challenging class V run. The hike to put-in covers 14+ miles and a 4 mile hike out of the canyon past Vernal and Nevada Falls ends the trip. 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. Packrafters also run the Upper Tuolumne River above Hetch Hetchy Reservior (see the video below).

Video: Yosemite River Rafting – Upper Tuolumne and Merced Rivers

Concluding Thoughts

Rafting Yosemite is at its best in the spring and early summer when the waterfalls are running. This also means hoards of people. River rafting 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.

If you plan to be in the area don’t forget to check out rafting on the Tuolumne River. We have an article that describes all the outfitters on the Tuolumne and another that describes the downstream runs on the Merced River.

Yosemite Valley Carved by the Merced River