Kayaking, Canoeing, and Rafting in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Rafting Yosemite Falls
George E. Sayour

With so many activities available in Yosemite National Park, paddling by canoe, kayak, or raft is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But a variety of options are available for paddling the scenic Merced River in the bottom of Yosemite Valley, offering unique views of some of the park's most famous sights. 

Even at its most active, the portion of the Merced River running through the main valley is a gentle stream, but even the most experienced paddlers will not soon forget it. For visitors bringing their own kayaks or canoes, there is are convenient put-in and take-out points, and those without equipment can rent rafts, paddles, and PFDs for a reasonable fee.

There are several options or paddling in Yosemite, depending on if you are bringing your own equipment or wish to rent inner tubes or rafts and accessories. 

If You Bring Your Own Canoe, Kayak, Raft, or Innertube

On the Merced River: When bringing their own gear, you normally put in along the Merced River at Stoneman Bridge, near Half-Dome Village. The normal take-out point is about 3 miles downstream at Sentina Beach Picnic Area; no river access is available between these two points. Canoeing, kayaking, raftering and tubing on this portion of the river under certain conditions:

  • The river must be declared open by park officials. 
  • Boating and rafting are allowed when the gage height as measured at Pohono Bridge is below 7 feet at 8 am. 
  • Personal floatation devices (PFDs) must be worn.
  • Put-in and take-out slots are limited; check for availability.

If you are using your own equipment, you can purchase a ticket for the shuttle bus ride back to Half Dome Village at the end of the trip for $5.00. 

On the South Fork: For rafting only, another section of the south fork of the Merced River is open below Swinging Bridge in Wawona. Here, PFDs must be available for every occupant of the raft, and all children under age 13 must wear one at all times. 

On Tenaya Lake: Kayaking is popular on the calm Tenaya Lake. Here, too, each person on the craft must have a PFD available, and children under age 13 must wear them at all times. 

If You Want to Rent a Raft

Rafting on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley requires no experience, and rafts can be rented at any of the following locations: 

  • Yosemite Valley Lodge Tour and Activity Desk
  • Half Dome Village Tour and Activities Kiosk
  • The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Concierge Desk
  • Yosemite Village

The fee for renting a raft (holding as many as four people) is $27.50 per person. PFDs and paddles are also available for $5.50. Rules require that two capable paddlers be in each raft, and children under 50 lbs. are not allowed. Reservations should be made immediately upon entering the park, at the Half Dome Village Tour/Guest Recreation Kiosk. Raft reservations are in heavy demand, so try to reserve a raft at least one day in advance.  

The Scenery

Whether you are floating by canoe, kayak, raft, or inner tube, the scenery you'll enjoy along the valley floor is unprecedented. As the Merced twists and turns along the Yosemite Valley floor, paddlers are treated to views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. These iconic scenes seem to appear and disappear with every bend. The smooth and steady current will automatically guide your boat down the river, leaving you plenty of time to take in the sights. Under the stone bridges that span the river every so often, you'll encounter many trout-filled eddies in the clear water. There are sandy beaches along the way to stop and take a swim or to stop for a picnic. 

The take-out is downstream from a beach with a wooden bridge on river left. A short carry up the beach will take you to a picnic area where buses are waiting to shuttle rafters back to the Curry Village Recreation Area.

  • Trip length: 3 Miles
  • Difficulty: Class I
  • Times: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Months: June to July (paddling in late May and early August depends on water level conditions)
  • Gage: Must read less than 7 feet at Sentinel Bridge
  • Hazards: Strainers, cold water, cold Air
  • Views: Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Valley
  • Put-In parking: Curry Village Recreation Center
  • Kayak put-In: Below Stoneman Bridge
  • Take-out point: Sandy Beach on River Left after the wooden bridge
  • Take-out parking: Sentinel Beach Picnic Area
  • Shuttle: $5.00 per person every 30 to 40 minutes until 6 p.m.
  • Gear rentals: Paddles and PFDs $5.50/each
  • Raft rentals fees: $27.50 per person
  • Information: (209) 372-4FUN (4386) or TravelYosemite.com

Driving Directions and Shuttle Information

To get to the put-in: 

  1. Drive into Yosemite Park via Route 140, the El Portal Road, and continue into the valley.
  2. Follow the signs for the Curry Village Recreation Center.
  3. Take a right after the Chapel in the park.
  4. At your first crossroad, the Stoneman Bridge will be on your left. This will be your put-in but you can’t park here.
  5. Take a right and head in the opposite direction from the bridge just a short distance.
  6. The Curry Village Recreation Center, where you can also rent rafts and bikes, will be on the right. You can park here. There is also a snack bar and gift shop located here in case you forgot to bring something to snack on or drink.
  7. Unload your gear and carry it down to the Merced River on the left-hand side of the Stoneman Bridge.

To reach a shuttle, you’ll have to drive around the loop:

  1. Take the road over the Stoneman Bridge and follow the road around and continue past El Capitan.
  2. Take the El Capitan Bridge back onto the loop to start heading back.
  3. Take a left at the Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, which is the takeout. You can leave your car here.

You may notice buses parked and rafting signs around the parking area. If you plan to leave a car at the put-in and take the shuttle back, be sure to have cash on you before taking off. The shuttle won’t take your canoe or kayak, but it can get you back up the river.


  • If you want to take your time on the river and not worry about catching the shuttle bus, it is best to leave your car at the take-out before getting on the river. The shuttles stop at 6 p.m. and you will not have a ride back to the put-in if you miss the last bus.