Yosemite National Park: Merced River Rafting

Paddle amid spectacular scenery in Yosemite Valley on an inflatable raft.

A gentle float trip down the Merced River in Yosemite National Park offers unparalleled views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, and it’s an ideal way for families to beat the summertime heat. Although it’s possible to paddle the three-mile route in little more than an hour or two, make a day of it and allow the current to carry you through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Renting a Raft

Rent rafts for four to six people at the Curry Village Recreation Center (Tel. 209-372-4386; adult rentals are $20.50 per person; children 12 and younger are $13.50) from late May through the end of July—the season varies, based on rain fall, snow melt and water temperature. Cost of the rental includes a ticket for the bus at the end of the line (readily marked with buoys—you can’t miss it), where you’ll pull out your raft, carry it to a waiting trailer and leave it behind as you are driven back to your point of origin.

Rafting this portion of the river requires very little exertion and poses little risk, because the current is slow in most spots and there is no white water during the summer months. This activity is suitable for children 6 and older—although parents should exercise caution when boating with kids of any age, especially those who cannot swim. Set firm ground rules about what is and is not allowed on your raft, and insist that life jackets be worn at all times.

Note that children of any age must weigh at least 50 pounds to raft the Merced within the park; the Yosemite concessionaire is unbending about this rule. Several summers back, my petite daughter was just one pound shy of the target weight and the rental center refused to allow her to raft. (They also refused to weigh her again later in the day, to dissuade us from filling her pockets full of rocks.) It was a family trauma that I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.

Regardless of age, each rafter must wear a life vest and attend a short safety demonstration. Afterward, renters pick up a pre-inflated raft and two oars and carry them about one-eighth mile to the water. The pathway from the rental center to the river is heavily wooded and narrow and you must cross a busy road to get your raft to the water. Therefore, be sure there are at least two strong adults in your party or it’ll be next to impossible to get your raft to the water.

Bring Your Own Raft

We bring our own four-person inflatable raft (and oars) every summer to Yosemite. These portable rafts can be stored easily in the trunk of a car when deflated. This allows us the flexibility of visiting the river whenever we want and ensures that we won’t be turned away if all the rafts have been rented before we arrive (not an unlikely event, as the river is generally jammed with rented rafts). The rental office at Curry Village has an air hose available to the public where you can inflate your own boats.

If you use your own vessel, you can still hitch a ride back on the Curry Village bus. Purchase tickets at the rental kiosk for about $2 per person. On the way back, you can transport and store your raft in the bottom of the bus, but you must deflate it first.

Swimming in Thawed Snow

Summertime is hot in Yosemite Valley, so it’s a refreshing treat to hop off the raft for a quick dip along the way. The water is recently melted snow, and it is frigid. A quick plunge is enough to satisfy my husband and me, but our daughter prefers to splash around a bit longer. To keep her lips from turning blue, I bring along her wetsuit. It’s also a good idea for the whole family to wear water shoes while rafting. The beaches and river bottom are full of pebbles and rocks.

There are also several deep pools along the Merced where rafters can pull out for a swim. Our favorite is adjacent to Swinging Bridge, which has one of the deepest and widest sections along the route, as well as ample beach area on which to spread out. (This area is accessible even if you aren’t rafting: It’s an easy walk from Yosemite Lodge, which is just northeast of the bridge.)

Picnicking on Rocky Beaches

Tiny beaches that line the Merced River are ideal for a leisurely picnic as well. A favorite of ours is about a third of the way along the rafting route, just before the bridge at Housekeeping Camp. There are scenic views of the Royal Arches and Washington Column and a wide beach on the east side of the river, with room for several rafts to pull out. In addition, a short walk over the bridge will take you to public restrooms and a vending machine where you can purchase cold beverages.

The swank Ahwahnee Hotel in the Valley will pack sumptuous box lunches for its guests. Or head to the expansive grocery store adjacent to the Visitor Center in Yosemite Village and buy just about any snack or sandwich fixing you fancy and make your own.

Carry your picnic in a water-tight plastic container. Although it’s unlikely your meal will fall in the water—there are certainly no rapids to overturn you—it is likely you’ll encounter a water fight among fellow rafters. A few summers ago, while floating down the Merced one particularly hot day, my husband, daughter and I came across a “pirate raft” full of college students, complete with a costumed Jack Sparrow and his eye-patched ship mates—all armed with Super Soaker water guns. Rafts daring to pass them on the river were fair game (especially if carrying children who were eager to join in the battle).

Also, remember that you’re in bear country, even on the water, so don’t leave your food in an unattended raft. And because this is one of the loveliest bits of wilderness in the world (and because it’s the law), be sure to pack out all trash, even biodegradable items like orange peels and peanut shells.

Destinations: Yosemite National Park

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Rafting, Swimming