Kayaking in Yosemite National Park: A Guide to the Best Spots & How to Get to Them

Reviewed by Suneel Jain
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Our guide to the best kayaking in Yosemite.

While I love hiking in June and July, the summer temperatures are sometimes just too brutal, and I need beach time. 

Most people think of Half Dome or El Capitan when they think of Yosemite, but they don’t always think about swimming or kayaking in the famed California park.

One of the best features of Yosemite National Park is its water. The rivers in Yosemite are so pristine that the city of San Franciso has laid claim to much of it in the form of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

From Yosemite Valley and the Merced River to Lake Tenaya in Tuolumne, the kayaking, canoeing, boating, paddling, and rafting access is a cool respite from the hot summer temps. 

I have taken a kayaking trip in Yosemite more than a few times. 

While Yosemite does offer several traditional outdoor pools, sometimes you just have to go with mother nature. 

Check out my guide for the best kayaking in Yosemite!

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yosemite national park kayaking

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Best Places for Kayaking in Yosemite National Park

Merced River

merced river

Why it’s worth kayaking: Get a unique perspective on Yosemite Valley
Location/GPS coordinates: Put in at Stoneman Bridge
How to get there: Take Southside Drive in Yosemite Valley to Curry Village. Turn right to park in the Curry Village area, and the river access will be on the left side of the road.
Difficulty: Easy
Closest kayak rental location: Rent rafts at Curry Village (in the park) or The PadYak Shack in Merced, CA (81 mi).

The Merced River is a classified Wild and Scenic River, which means that the river is almost like a little national park unto itself, which is what Merced River kayaking and rafting so unique. 

While many people experience Yosemite Valley from their car, seeing it from the river is a horse of a different color.

You’ll need to put in at Stoneman Bridge to float the Merced River. You can park in Curry Village, and you’ll have to carry your gear to the designated put-in spot at Stoneman Bridge. 

The south side of the river is off-limits to allow vegetation to grow back, so be sure and put in on the north side.  You may also see rafts from Curry Village raft rental stacked up on this side of the river. 

The Merced River between Stoneman Bridge and Sentinel Beach Picnic Area has a rating of easy, and most novice paddlers can handle it. 

You’ll start the trip with great views of Half Dome, and then the river will take you past Yosemite Falls. 

If you’ve brought your own kayaks or a raft and you feel adventurous, you can continue towards El Capitan and take out at El Capitan Bridge.

South Fork of the Merced River

south fork of the merced river

Why it’s worth kayaking: The South Fork of the Merced River is a more challenging river in a quieter part of the park.
Location/GPS coordinates: Swinging Bridge Parking Area (Wawona)
How to get there: Turn onto Forest Drive from Highway 41 at the Wawona General Store and drive until the end of the road. The walk to Swinging Bridge is about ¾ of a mile.
Difficulty: Class II-IV (Novice-Difficult)
Closest kayak rental location:  The PadYak Shack in Merced, CA (85 mi)

Yosemite Valley isn’t the only place to kayak!

Experienced paddlers looking for more of a challenge may want to check out the South Fork of the Merced in Wawona.

The South Fork of the Merced starts near Wawona in Yosemite Valley and will take you to the park to El Portal, CA, near the Arch Rock Entrance. 

This area is no leisurely float, and a person should be ready for whitewater conditions if they choose this adventure. That said, if you’ve got the right gear and skills, this section of the river can be incredibly rewarding due to its relatively remote nature. 

To start this float, you’ll want to start at the Swinging Bridge in Wawona. There are two Swinging Bridges in Yosemite Park. This one is in Yosemite Valley and provides a great view of Yosemite Falls; this bridge doesn’t swing anymore.

Want the skinny on all the whitewater kayaking, rafting, and canoeing opportunities in Yosemite Park? Check out the boating in Yosemite page.

Tenaya Lake

tenaya lake

Why it’s worth kayaking: Take in views of the high Sierra on a refreshingly cold lake.
Location/GPS coordinates: Tenaya Lake
How to get there: Tenaya Lake is about 20 minutes east of Tuolumne Meadows and the Tuolumne River along Tioga Rd (Hwy 120).
Difficulty: Easy
Closest kayak rental location: The Padyak Shack, Merced, CA (115 mi)

This lake takes its name from Chief Tenaya, a prominent Ahwahnechee Indian leader who died in 1853. The lake basin was carved from glaciers and is very deep–114 feet!

This gorgeous subalpine lake is the biggest front-country lake in Yosemite and offers calm waters amidst the white granite of the Tuolumne River area. 

The Tuolumne River runs through Yosemite from Dana Fork to the east of the park and down through the valley out to the west. 

Getting to Tenaya is very easy and, for this reason, is the most popular place to canoe. It’s directly off Highway 120 between Olmsted Point and the Tuolumne River. Trust me; you won’t miss it. 

Parking all along the highway offers multiple places to put in. Tenaya Creek comes out of the lake but isn’t as easy to paddle. 

If you don’t bring your own kayaks, finding kayaks to rent in Tenaya Creek can be a challenge. There are some rental companies in Mammoth Lakes (1.5 hrs away), but they primarily rent boats to local lakes only. 

For this reason, I suggest bringing your own kayaks or boats. 

Finally, the parking around Lake Tenaya is limited and fills up on weekends by 10 am (at the latest).

Having trouble finding a kayak rental in Tenaya Creek? Check out our recommendations for the best budget kayaks and buy your own!

Best Time to Kayak in Yosemite National Park

best time to kayak in yosemite national park

The best time for kayaking in Yosemite National Park is May-September, and in particular June and July when it’s the hottest.

The Merced River paddling season is quite a bit shorter than the Lake Tenaya kayaking season, as this river often gets too low by mid-August. 

Tenaya Lake has plenty of water for boats the whole summer, but it’s in the high country (8,150 ft), and air temperatures will start to cool off in September.

Tips for Kayaking in Yosemite National Park

tips for kayaking in yosemite national park

Bring a Life Vest

If you are kayaking in Yosemite National Park, every person must wear a life vest if they are thriteen years or younger, regardless of water conditions or skill level. 

Adults and children kayaking, rafting, and boating  on the Tuolumne River or the South Fork of the Merced River must also wear life vests.

If you are an adult and the gage height at Pohono Bridge is over four feet at 8 am, you must also wear a life vest regardless of the water body.

If the water level at Pohono Bridge is less than four feet, you must have personal floatation devices on board that are easily accessible.

Pohono Bridge is the last bridge before the river in Yosemite Valley starts its steep descent towards El Portal.

Check out the water activities page on the Yosemite National Park website for more info.

There are no Drive-In Launches

There are no back-in boat launches in Yosemite, so you’ll have to use those muscles to get in and out of the river.

Looking for a more portable kayaking option? Check out our picks for the best inflatable kayaks.

Know Where to Put In and Take Out

If you’re heading out on a Merced River kayaking trip, you can only put in at Stoneman Bridge and take out at either Sentinel Beach Picnic Area not far from Half Dome, or El Capitan Bridge further down. 

You’ll recognize Sentinel Beach Picnic Area because the friendly staff at Curry Village will sign it with buoys. El Capitan Bridge is the first bridge after Sentinel Beach. 

Paddling above or below these put-in points isn’t safe, and kayakers have died in these disallowed stretches. 

Finally, if you need to pull over on the river, only stop at large sandy beaches to prevent further erosion on vegetated sections. The Merced River is a Wild and Scenic River, so let’s keep it that way.

Plan for a Personal Shuttle (Merced River Only)

plan for a personal shuttle merced river only

Curry Village is the only place to rent rafts or other watercrafts in Yosemite National Park, and they’ll only rent you a four-person raft. 

If you rent a raft, you can use the shuttle system to get back to Stoneman Bridge. Those who bring their boats, however, will need to plan for a way to get back to your put-in location. 

There is a shuttle stop at El Capitan Bridge, but it won’t fit a full kayak, raft, or canoe (unless they’re inflatable!), so you’ll need a buddy to park at the end to take you back.

Leave the Fur Baby At Home

Yosemite limits pets to paved trails, and they aren’t allowed on beaches, in the river, in the lake, or at the designated put-in and take-out spots. 

Rivers are essential wildlife corridors, so keeping your furry friend and Yosemite’s furry friends separate is critical.

Keep Your Food Within Arms Reach

If you bring snacks or drinks on the water, stay with your kayaks the whole time. 

If you need to hop out for a bathroom break or want to explore the trails near the water, take your food with you. Bears love river corridors!

Conversely, if you are kayaking in Lake Tenaya, don’t leave your food on shore! Even if it’s in a cooler, the animals around these popular bodies of water are teeming with naughty squirrels and ravens.

Can You Swim at Any of These Kayaking Spots?

can you swim at any of these kayaking spots?

Swimming in the cold water of Yosemite is much more popular than canoeing/kayaking/boating. 

You can swim or use a non-motorized boat, raft, canoe, or kayak in almost any body of water except the following:

  • Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
  • Within one mile upstream from any tributary that dumps into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (i.e., Rancheria Falls)
  • The Tuolumne River Emerald Pool and Silver Apron, which are above Vernal Falls
  • Lake Elenor Reservoir (if posted)


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Mimi McFadden
Founder & Editor-In-Chief

Mimi McFadden initially started The Atlas Heart in 2013 to write about her adventures abroad. But since 2019, The Atlas Heart has become a love letter to the Golden State. Mimi enjoys sharing her first-hand knowledge and expertise with the places she knows so well and making the most comprehensive travel guides possible. When she’s not hiking and exploring new places in California, she loves to travel abroad, read in her cozy chaise lounge, play basketball, and connect with friends and family over board games. Over her 28 years in California, she has lived in Santa Cruz (18 years), San Diego (5 years), and the San Francisco Bay Area (5 years), where she currently resides.

Planning a Yosemite visit? Check out these related articles below!

Best Campgrounds in Yosemite National Park

Best Views in Yosemite National Park 

Closest Airports to Yosemite National Park 

Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Itinerary: Spend a Magical Two Days at the Park

San Francisco to Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Firefall: How to Experience this Magical Yosemite Phenomenon

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Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.


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