1. Swimming in Yosemite National Park
The Merced River through Yosemite Valley has numerous beaches and swimming holes, depending on water levels, including along North Pines Campground (shuttle stops 18 or 19), the west end of Housekeeping Camp (shuttle stop 12), Devil’s Elbow (along Northside Drive) and Cathedral Beach (along Southside Drive). Tenaya Lake has a large sandy beach on the northeast shore and smaller beaches along the southwest shore. Park at the east-end lot or along the north shore of the lake.
Swimming is generally allowed in all park waters, with these exceptions: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River, the pools above Vernal Fall, Wawona Domestic Water Intake, and Lake Eleanor Reservoir. Wherever you’re swimming, use caution: Cold, swift water and underwater hazards (such as boulders) pose a risk in some spots.
2. Float on the Merced River in Yosemite
Just plop in the gentle current and cool waters of the Merced River and float through Yosemite Valley when conditions permit (the water level must be less than 6.5 feet at Sentinel Bridge, and the combined air and water temperature must exceed 100°F). Bring your own inner tube or rent a raft at Curry Village to drift the stretch between Stoneman Bridge and Sentinel Beach Picnic Area (www.travelyosemite.com/things-to-do/rafting/; 888.413.8869). Rafting is also allowed on the South Fork of the Merced River near Wawona; bring your own raft or tubes, as there is no rental.
3. Whitewater Rafting Near the Park
Wild and Scenic stretches of the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers just outside the park offer thrilling whitewater rides. Adrenaline junkies should target the Merced in April and May, when class III-IV rapids make for a rollicking adventure (the river calms down as the summer progresses). The Tuolumne also roars through a lonely river canyon with class IV to IV+ rapids in spring, mellowing in summer (oars.com/california).
4. Paddling on Yosemite’s Lakes and Rivers
Kayakers and canoeists ply the flat water of Tenaya Lake and paddle the Merced River through Yosemite Valley (allowed between Stoneman Bridge and Sentinel Beach Picnic Area) when water levels permit. Bring your boat; there are no rentals in the park. Tenaya Lake typically offers a quieter, less crowded float.
Paddling nearby Yosemite
Paddlers will also find prime water outside of the park. The Kern River, located south of Yosemite near Sequoia National Park, offers whitewater stretches ranging from class I to V. The forks of the American River (between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento) also feature rapids of varying difficulty for beginners through expert paddlers. And those looking for a placid paddle have 192 square miles of calm water to explore in Lake Tahoe.
5. Fishing in Yosemite
With some 58 streams and 700 miles of water, anglers enjoy sport and fly-fishing for rainbow and brown trout throughout the park, including along the Merced River, South Fork of the Merced River, Merced Lake, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Tuolumne River and its Lyell and Dana Forks, Tenaya Lake, and Lake Eleanor. Stream and river fishing opens the last Saturday in April and goes through mid-November. Anyone 16 or older must have a valid California fishing license.
6. Stand-up Paddleboarding
In this increasingly popular activity, participants stand on a large, surfboard-like board and propel themselves forward with a single paddle—getting a killer balance and abdominal workout in the process. It may look tricky, but fans say the sport is easy to pick up, and even kids can get in on the fun (children younger than 8 can sit on a parent’s board, and older kids can paddle themselves). Flat, slow-moving rivers and calm lakes are ideal for trying the sport.
Paddleboarding Nearby Yosemite
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is hot in Sierra Nevada lakes such as Lake Tahoe, where numerous rental shops offer gear and lessons for all ability levels. Farther afield, Santa Barbara Harbor, San Diego Bay, and Half Moon Bay all host popular SUP scenes. Want an even bigger thrill? Dare to SUP on whitewater rivers like the Salmon and the Kern.
7. Surfing – Take a Day Trip to the Coast
Fans swear there’s nothing like the rush you get from catching your first wave. Beginners can try California’s classic water sport up and down the coast in protected lagoons and bays without the pressure of huge waves. Grab a rental board and a suit (bathing or wetsuit, depending on the water temperature) and explore some of the state’s best rookie breaks. Santa Cruz’s Cowell’s Beach; San Diego’s La Jolla Shores; Santa Monica Bay; Malibu’s Surfrider Beach; and the San Francisco area’s Linda Mar Beach have a reputation for moderate waves and welcoming crowds.