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Merced River (Yosemite) in California

Trip Overview

This may be the most scenic Class I float trip in North America, but seasonal water levels and crowds are critical factors in timing and planning a trip here. During drought the best paddling may be in April/May but with heavy snowpack, June/July. Bringing paddle craft into this area requires a personal vehicle but during peak visitation (summer and weekends) parking close to a Launch becomes nearly impossible. Luckily, the tight parking is offset by paved bike trails along much of the River, so a portage cart can be used for both river access and repeated trips without getting a vehicle close to the water. This was underscored by the arrival of a canoe and a kayak on carts while we were rigging up.

The highest practical Launch for open canoes & novice kayakers is at the southwest end of Stoneman Bridge, located immediately upstream of "Housekeeping Camp" - a vast expanse of plywood-sided huts with canvas roofs reminiscent of a refugee encampment. There is limited parking on the right shoulder of Southside Drive east of the Camp just before the left turn off of the Drive to the Bridge. During low water levels the river upstream of this Launch is too rocky & shallow to float.

After putting-in we paddled upstream & under Stoneman Bridge for a photo-op before turning around and heading downstream. The crystal-clear green water only 8-12 hours away from the melting snowpack was warmer than expected, probably due to the higher contribution from groundwater seepage during the current drought.

Half Dome was the dominant geologic feature looking upstream, and the blunt face of El Capitan downstream.

A sign on the river at Sentinel Beach halfway through the float requested that boats take-out at that point, but prior to this trip the Park Service had indicated online that private boating would be allowed on the lower (& actually safer) reach of the River below Sentinel Beach starting in 2015, so we continued on. (We found out later that the first legal day to do so was five days prior to our arrival!)

There were a few 18" trout visible along the rest of the way to Cathedral Beach, where a fly fisherman mentioned landing & releasing a rainbow trout of the same size just prior to our showing up. Fishing is catch-and-release only with artificial lures and flies.

The soaring granite cliffs, high waterfalls, and green meadows interspersed with old-growth pine, fir, and cedar forest were so scenic that it was tempting to quit watching the river even though years of low water due to drought had allowed a few strainers to remain. There was also the occasional boulder just below the surface capable of tagging the boat. Luckily, flow increased as tributary streams such as Royal Arch, Indian Canyon, Yosemite, and Sentinel Creeks joined in, making the river larger & easier to navigate the farther one floated downstream. Even upstream, however, the difficulty never exceeded Class I.

The small crowd at the Cathedral Beach Launch was probably due to the limited parking & bumpy, unpaved access road, but the gravel bar on the south bank (the "beach") was still ideal for a take out, and Park Service policy is that boaters should use such "beaches" for access rather than steeper, vegetated banks in order to avoid erosion. Boots, wading shoes, or even sandals are useful for pulling the boat ashore in these shallow, sharp-graveled areas. The trip ended here, as the steeper gradient and rock gardens below the "back up" takeout at El Capitan Bridge immediately downstream would have made navigating our open canoe far more difficult.

The longer length and zero rocker of the borrowed 17' 9" Kevlar Jensen racer we used made it tricky to get through a few low flowing (200-500 CFS) hairpin turns. This, together with the River's shallow water and stony bottom would have made a shorter, 12-15 foot-long polyethylene/royalex canoe or kayak a more practical choice for this extraordinary day trip.

Stoneman Bridge(Put-In)0 MI0 MIPaved
Sentinel Bridge1.2 MI1.2 MIPaved
Sentinel Walk Bridge0.2 MI1.4 MIPaved
Swinging Bridge0.8 MI2.2 MIPaved
Sentinel Beach0.7 MI2.9 MIDirt,Far Bank
Cathedral Beach (Take-Out)1.8 MI4.7 MIDirt
EL Capitan Bridge(Back-Up)0.6 MI5.3 MIDirt


Campgrounds in Yosemite Valley: Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, Housekeeping Camp, & Camp 4 (Walk-in Tenting only)

Lodging in Yosemite Valley: Curry Village, The Ahwanee, Yosemite Lodge

Campgrounds in the Stanislaus and Sierra National Forests

Lodging outside Yosemite Valley: Wawona (In the Park), El Portal, Fish Camp, Mariposa, & Oakhurst


7 day Entry Fee for the Park ($30 per Vehicle)


Fresno, California (On US Hwy 99): Take California Highway 41 north to the Park

Merced, California (On US Hwy 99): Take California Highway 140 northeast to the Park

Manteca, California (On US Hwy 99): Take California Highway 120 east to the Park


Yosemite National Park

P.O. Box 577
CA 95389-0577

phone: 209-232-0200 or TTY 209 372-4726



Yosemite National Park Brochures & Maps

  • Duration: Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip