With 15 class V rapids in under 9 miles, Cherry Creek and the Upper Tuolumne River are considered the most technically challenging rafting river in the country. Last weekend, we ran it. Here's how you can too.
Video: Chris Brinlee Jr.
I haven't been rafting in years. So, when a random email showed up inviting us to run the "Most advanced commercially run river in California, if not the United States," I obviously said yes. Four days later, Chris and I were in a car, driving to Yosemite armed with little but an old pair of shoes Wiley had helpfully readied for river duty with his teeth.
Full Disclosure: All Outdoors let two of us run the river for free and fed us a couple sandwiches. We were part of a typical commercial trip with ten other guests.
Cherry Creek forks into the Upper Tuolumne, which runs down from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Even after you join the Tuolumne, it's water released by Cherry Lake that you're rafting on, so everyone just refers to the run as "Cherry Creek."
It was actually Scott Armstrong, the outfitter's President, who told me the story of Hetch Hetchy and its dam as we floated through calm spots between rapids. His dad, George, pioneered rafting in California in the 1960s and the company he founded, All Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting, remains one of only two to run rafts on Cherry Creek.
You may have noticed by now that the guide in each raft on Cherry Creek is equipped with long oars, rather than the typical paddle. The rafters provide the power, while the guide negotiates the raft through the challenging rapids with split-second precision. It's the oars that allow them to put rafts on such a challenging river. The "commercially run" qualifier in the "most advanced" description refers to the paying guests. Obviously people have gone over Niagara Falls in barrels, but that's hardly an experience you'd pay to replicate and not one you could have reasonable expectations of living through.
But you will live through Cherry Creek. "Most advanced" does not equal "most dangerous," the latter being more a factor of local geology and the ability of the guides and outfitter to manage the inherent risk. Compared to, say, West Virginia's Upper Gauley (another contender for the mostest rafting river in the country), most of Cherry Creek's rocks don't point upstream, creating dangerous conditions that can trap swimmers under water. Additionally, All Outdoors runs a tight ship, complete with super experienced guides — the most junior of which has been guiding the river for nine consecutive years — and a guide boat, that runs ahead and waits at the bottom of each rapid, there to rescue anyone that falls out.
Where, on the Upper Gauley, inexperienced guides were dealing with large numbers of rafters and boats commonly flip, the Cherry Creek guides are able to expertly negotiate each rapid, guiding just two to four rafters each through with the miniscule precision necessary to safely float its more challenging course.
Why Go? Falling more than 100 vertical feet per mile, Cherry Creek packs more challenging rapids in greater concentration than any other commercially navigable river in the country. If you want to say you tackled the most challenging rafting experience possible, this is it.
The one-day Cherry Creek run comes in at an expensive $305 per person. That's around twice what the same time on other rivers will cost. Operating on such a challenging river is not cheap for the outfitter, requiring not only the most experienced guides and nicest equipment available, but also a very low guide-to-rafter ratio, wet suits and that extra guide boat to ensure your safety.
What You'll Need To Bring: The appeal of rafting is that you don't need to own any expensive, specialty equipment or spend years perfecting the skill. You just turn up with some basics and walk away with an epic experience. All Outdoors provides the wet suits, splash jackets, life vests and helmets, you just need to bring swim trunks or shorts, shoes you don't mind getting wet and some warm, water-friendly base-layers for your top and bottom halves. Warm wool or neoprene socks too.
There's motels in the area, but you're also welcome to camp for free behind the outfitter HQ, which is what we did. If you plan on doing that, bring basic camping equipment. There's a good road house just three miles away in Buck Meadows where you can handle your food and beer needs.
How Do You Get There? Cherry Creek is about a 3.5 hour drive from San Francisco and our drive up from LA took about five hours. It's located in the Stanislaus National Forest, about a 40-minute drive from Yosemite Valley, so you could easily fit a visit there into the same trip.
All Outdoors requires guests to arrive the evening prior to rafting in order to give them a detailed safety briefing and to ensure everyone's on-hand for the 6am departure. Rafts catch a water release from the dam at the top of Cherry Creek, so that timing is crucial to the success of the trip. You'll be back at your car by 2 or 3pm.
Who Can Do It? This is not an experience for the meek or out of shape. In addition to being at least 17 years old, rafters need to be in good physical shape, be strong swimmers and be able to bring a confident, aggressive approach to both rafting and, should they fall in, their own survival. You'll be given a swimming test once you're on the river in which you'll need to cross fast-moving white water and demonstrate competence in underwater swimming and lifting yourself back into the raft. Some experience rafting elsewhere is also probably a good idea, but not required.
If you meet those basic requirements, don't be intimidated. Cherry Creek is a challenging, but fun way to experience the power of a river.
What We'd Do Differently: I wish we'd had the time to stick around for a two-day trip, complete with riverside camping. The Tuolumne river valley is a stunning backdrop. Next time, though, I think we'll go on kayaks and create a bit more of a personal challenge.
Photos: Sam Swanson/Rapid Shooter
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