Rivers Beyond Yosemite Park

Drive into the depths of the Kings River canyon or take a swim in the gently flowing Kaweah River. Rivers of the southern Sierra Nevada have a lot to offer.
By Staff ,

The entire Sierra Nevada mountain range is carved by a mighty network of rivers and streams. Flooded by snow melt from high country peaks during late spring and early summer, this vast watershed is a precious resource for Californians, besides being a natural wonder for visitors. Whether you drive into the dramatic depths of the Kings River canyon or take a swim in the gently flowing Kaweah River during late summer, the rivers of the southern Sierra Nevada have a lot to offer outdoorsy travelers, besides just some incredible scenery.

Kings River

Confluence of middle and south forks of the Kings River in Kings Canyon National Park. Photo by Daniel Mayer [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The Kings River flows through Kings Canyon National Park, carving out one of the deepest canyons in North America. Incidentally, the river was first named R쭠de Los Santos Reyes by Spanish explorers who visited here in 1806 on the Feast of Epiphany, in honor of the Eastern kings who visited the Christ child, according to Christian scripture.

To get a real sense of the river's power, drive the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway in early spring, soon after the road opens for the season (usually in mid-April). In late spring, expect whitewater spray to arc across the road and over your car as you drive beside the roaring river. Later in summer, the river is calm enough to reveal a few hidden swimming holes, including around Road's End beyond Cedar Grove.

Note that all watercraft and floatation devices are prohibited inside the Cedar Grove area of the national park. Whitewater rafting trips on the Kings River's Class III rapids depart between April and July in the Sierra Nevada foothills, just west of the park boundaries near Pine Flat Dam.

Kaweah River

View looking down valley from the bowl under Kaweah Gap, at the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. Shows Hamilton Lake, the Valhalla cliffs, and the High Sierra Trail switchbacking up. Photo by Jane S. Richardson [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Farther south in Sequoia National Park, the voluminous Kaweah River carves its way from high in the Sierra Nevada range and flows west into the foothills area through the small town of Three Rivers. The river takes its name from a local Native American tribe who called themselves Gawia, meaning a crow or raven's cry.

The river flows freely for more than 30 miles into Lake Kaweah, an artificial reservoir west of the park. Fishing and swimming are popular activities along this scenic river, especially in the foothills area of the national park. Between April and July, whitewater rafting trips on Class III-IV+ rapids launch just west of the park, usually taking out at Lake Kaweah, where families like to go fishing, boating, swimming, and camping.

Kern River

The only river in the Sierra Nevada range that flows in a southerly direction, this river gets its water from snow melt rushing down from Mount Whitney in the eastern Sierra Nevada. South of the Sequoia National Park boundaries, the river runs through the Golden Trout Wilderness, a backcountry destination for fishing and organized pack trips on horses and mules.

Sections of the river including the Kern Canyon above Isabella Lake, an artificial reservoir, are popular for whitewater rafting trips on Class II-V rapids, usually offered between April and July.