Updated: May 21, 2015
Lake Tahoe River Raft Rides - Truckee River RaftingIf you are planning a summer vacation to Lake Tahoe, something you'll want to consider is a river rafting trip on the Truckee River, which flows right out of the north side of Lake Tahoe near Tahoe City. A raft ride on this upper section of the Truckee River is NOT white water rafting. This is pretty much a family float trip -- you'll see rafts full of kids, people floating on inner tubes, people swimming. The float covers a five mile stretch that takes about 2-3 hours to complete at a normal pace. Some people bring along plenty of food and drink in coolers and take their time, stopping along the way, swimming, having water fights, etc. Whether you do it fast or slow, it's a great mountain experience and lots of fun for the whole family. In this guide, we will review a trip we took in 2009, and let you know who the main rafting companies in Truckee are, how much Truckee River raft trips cost, and what you should expect and plan for on your Tahoe rafting trip. Enjoy!
Truckee River Rafting Tour CompaniesIn the past 30 years, we've run this section of the river more than a dozen times -- first as kids, and now as adults with our own kids. While you are free to use your own tube or raft along this public stretch of the Truckee River, most people who raft the river do it through one of the main 2 organized raft rental companies that operate here: Truckee River Raft Co. and Mountain Air Sports. Both companies launch right at the area in Tahoe City where Hwy 89 (also known as River Road) and Hwy 28 meet (there is an Albertsons shopping center here) -- they offer free parking right along the river there. Most people park here, raft the five miles down to the River Ranch takeout area, then ride the free shuttle bus back up to their cars, but if parking is congested, they may have you park down at the exit point and ride the bus back up to the start point. The ending point is at the River Ranch Lodge, which is a great place to have lunch or snacks and drinks at the end of your rafting trip. They feature an outdoor patio with grill and bar, with umbrella tables overlooking the river.
These 2 rafting companies compete for rafters, they'll both try to wave you into their parking lots. Truth is, they both offer essentially the exact same service -- rent a raft, float the river for 5 miles, get a bus ride back to your car. Same rafts, same river, same experience. Both start and stop within 10 yards of each other. The Truckee River Raft Co (TruckeeRiverRaft.com) claims on their website to be the "only company to exit at the River Ranch patio", however, Mountain Air Sports (TruckeeRiverRafting.com) pulls out of the river just 20 feet away, basically the same spot. Normally, you don't really need reservations, you just show up and grab a raft and go. However, both rafting companies offer $5 off per person if you call and reserve a trip in advance, so it is worth doing for most people.
Lake Tahoe and Truckee River Rafting Trips - How Much Do They Cost?Alright, so you are ready for your Truckee rafting trip. How much does it cost to raft here? Both companies charge by the person. Tickets are $35 for adults (13 and older) and $30 for kids 6-12 ($5 for kids under 6). You can get an early bird $5 discount by getting started before 9AM (Mountain Air) or 10AM (Truckee River Raft Co). The normal daily operating times in the summer are from 8:30AM to 3:30PM. Keep in mind mountair air at this elevation can be pretty chilly in the early morning hours. We suggest a starting time at 10AM or later so you can enjoy more of the warm sun and cool water. Rafts come in a variety of sizes and can hold up to 10 people. If you have a larger group, it's actually more fun to split up between 2 rafts -- that way you can enjoy splash fights, go through rapids together, race, swim back and forth, etc.
In terms of equipment and training, you basically get your raft, a life jacket for each person, 2 paddles, and that's about it. You are free to bring a cooler (plastic, no styrofoam) along with you as well (definitely bring sunscreen and water at a minimum, while squirt guns, small buckets, towels are also good). These are all self-guided trips -- you are on your own, though there are many other rafters around you. This is not a technical river, and the average family has no problems navigating the river successfully. You may get bumped or hung up on a few rocks, but you can usually scoot your way off and keep on moving.
What to expect on your Truckee River Rafting TripWe went rafting on a weekday at the end of June. The season usually runs from June 15th to the end of summer - you can always call one of the rafting companies for current conditions and schedules. We got there around 10:15 and had no trouble parking. We chose Truckee River Raft Co. but I'm sure we would have been equally happy with Mountain Air Sports. We parked the car (they will direct you where to park), filled out the required waiver forms, got official stick-on bracelets for everyone (they don't want you picking up non-paying rafters along the way (called "poaching"), and they don't want you riding their shuttle bus back up if you are not a customer), and headed down to the river landing. They hold onto your drivers license or credit card to make sure you return the equipment -- be sure to remember to pick it up at the end of your trip. Once at the river, they give you life jackets (kids should wear their's at all times, adults are optional and most adults take them off and throw them in the bottom of the raft, as they are not supper comfortable to wear for 3 hours while paddling..) and plastic oars/paddles and shove you off into the river. They also have you pose for a photo that they will try to sell you at the end of the ride ($15, not a bad deal for a nice souvenir).
Again, we definitely suggest you bring suncreen, sunglasses, and hats. On a hot sunny day, you can get very hot and quickly sunburned on the reflective water surface. On with the trip... This is a five mile float. Most of the time, the river just meanders slowly along. You will duck under a few bridges (if you have chewing gum, you'll see that one that 10,000 people have stuck their gum to..), go around a few islands, but for the most part you just drift and paddle. If it's warm enough, pull over in shallow spots and get out and play and swim in the water. Water socks or sandals make it easier to walk on the stony river bottom. We brought a cooler with some snacks and drinks -- bring a few water bottles if nothing else. There are a few port-a-potties along the side of the river if you need a bathroom break -- keep an eye out for them. Normally, there are plenty of other rafters joining you on your excursion. It's a pretty family-friendly activity, and you'll see people ranging from 3 years old to 83 years old. So how about the rapids? Is the rafting trip safe for kids? There are very few "rapids" to worry about on this stretch of the Truckee River. There are a few sections with faster water and a couple of rocks to either dodge or scrape your way over. We saw a number of rafts get temorarily stuck on rocks -- you either have to push your way off with the paddles, rock back and forth, or wait for someone to give you a bump. Nothing too serious. The most hectic section is the final 300 yards at the end of the trip where there is a decent stretch of bumpy rapids (see video below). We actually got hung up on a rock here and I climbed out of the raft on the upstream side, gave us a push, and jumped back in. For kids, it's safest to have them lean or squat into the center of the raft during these times -- I've seen one kid who was sitting up on the edge of the raft tumble over the side during a bumpy stretch (safely recovered a few seconds later). Just keep in mind rocks mights scrape and bump underneath you so a squat is better for guarding your bottom from a bump. Use your oars to help push you away from bushes, branches, and rocks that threaten. There will be people from your rafting company at the end of the ride (you'll know you're there when you see the River Ranch restaurant and patio ahead..) ready to help you and your raft exit the river. Before heading over to get some lunch, ask them where the bus will pick you up (for Truckee River Raft Co it is right in front of the River Ranch parking lot). Buses run every 10 minutes or so, and it is just a 5 minute ride back up to your car.
Overall, most people end up wishing for more rapids since 95% of the trip is very mellow. The trip really is fine for just about everyone -- personally, I probably would not take kids younger than 4. Everyone in our group had a great time on the rafting trip -- a recommended excursion during your Lake Tahoe summer vacation!