Hit the Rapids: White Water Rafting with Kids 101

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Cascading down dips and rushing river bends while your little ones (and you) scream in delight…point us in the direction! It’s time to leave this fog covered city and take a family adventure with white water rafting. Even if you’ve never been rafting before, our guide to family white water rafting in Northern California will let you in on some of the best places to go. So go on, get to it! Let your family’s summer adventure begin.

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Why: Rafting will foster an outlook on life that encourages exploration and trying new things, away from electronics. Also, summer is the time to get wet in rivers away from the coastal fog.

When: On rivers that are not dam-controlled, the whitewater rafting season depends a lot, a lot on the rainfall that year but you can generally count on rafting from June through September. Check with outfitters for current conditions. Your best bets for consistent water levels are the Klamath River, the Lower Middle Fork and South Fork American River as the flows are controlled by the upstream reservoirs in the summertime and have guaranteed flows through September.

What To Know Before: Your child’s comfort level with rafting will depend on whether he/she has any experience with water sports, the outdoors and any physical challenges. Kids who love getting wet, water slides and splashing around are pre-conditioned to love rafting. If yours are water-shy, pick a tranquil trip with limited risks of getting splashed. On quiet sections of the river, many outfitters will offer the opportunity to jump off the boat and float along. It’s fun, we promise!

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How To Pick A River: The river needs to be the right fit for your family. You can’t expect a 4-5 year old to enjoy a 21-mile trip in one day. This is no theme park water ride either – the water will be on the cold side and shake you up a bit in the rapids. For a successful first time, it’s better that you err on the “tamer” side of the river (say, class 2 rather than class 3) and on the shorter side of day trips. Some trips include a half-day of rafting and a half-day of river fun on shore – perfect combo.

How To Select A Guide: Since you’ll be teaming up in boats with other customers, it’ll be more fun if these people have kids in-tow – prefer outfitters that cater specifically to families. Not only will they have the right-sized life-jackets when it comes to small formats but their guides know what makes kids smile. Flip a raft and turn it into a slide? Check.

Here are a few of the outfitters with special family programs.

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Tributary Whitewater Tours
Based out of Lotus, Tributary Whitewater Tours is a long-established family business that runs special family-rafting trips along the South Fork American River, Lower Middle/South Fork American River, Lower Klamath River and East Fork Carson River.

Whether you pick the Gold County, the Eastern Sierras or Mount Shasta area, you will be accompanied by guides who know the river like the back of their hand – or literally grew up on the river.

For hot springs lovers who are not afraid of a wilderness experience, the East Fork Carson River is a 2-day trip where rafts stop overnight at a big river side camp among the pines and pools are built out of river rock – the water temperature of the pool is adjusted by the amount of river water allowed to flow into the hot springs pool. Does this sound like paradise or what? Note that this trip is long and should be reserved for older kids.

  • Phone: 800-672-3846
  • Website: www.whitewatertours.com
  • Prices: $65 and up for adults and children. Check  out their website for hot deals, special kid discounts and discounts on multi-day trips for families.

River Dancers Rafting & Kayaking
Based at Mount Shasta, River Dancers specializes in family rafting, whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Klamath River, the Upper Sacramento and the Trinity River in northern California and southern Oregon.

River Dancers’ guides use storytelling to bring the river’s Native American heritage to life. Indeed the Klamath River is home to a number of Native American tribes, including the Shasta Indians, the Karouks and the Yuroks. Guides tell stories based on Native American legends, myths and lore as well as animal stories about coyotes, salmon, eagles and more.

This outfitter takes children as of age 4 years but do call if you have younger children as they have taken younger kids on the Tree of Heaven section of the Klamath. Active in local water restoration projects, River Dancers also offer school trips and definitely blend the educational component with nature’s discovery.

  • Phone: 800-926-5002
  • Website: riverdancers.com
  • Prices: $70 and up for kids, $75 and up for adults

Raft California
Another Lotus outfitter, Raft California caters to bigger groups without compromise on the safety or fun factor. All of the trips are intermediate Class 3 or higher and as such, the minimum age starts at 7 years old.

For a quick and refreshing getaway, their 1-day or 2-day Gorge Run or Gorge Run and Chili Bar trips will get your kids excited about the Frankenstein Rock, the Lollipop Tree and the Swimmer’s Rapids where the whole family can swim down the rapids in their life jackets.

  • Phone: 800-556-6060
  • Website: raftcalifornia.com
  • Prices: $94 and up. Check the website for mid-week specials and seasonal offers.

Have you and your family gone white water rafting? Have any tips for rafting with the little ones? We’d love to know in comments section below!

— Laure Latham

photo credits:  John Mason via Flickr, Jeff G. via Yelp; Vlad Butsky via Flickr