California's longest river. Photo: KnowInsiders
California's longest river. Photo: KnowInsiders

California has nearly 40 million people—more than the rest of the West combined—and so the pressures on our rivers are intense. Many waterways have been diminished by dams and diversions, by highways, sprawl, and industrial agriculture.

Now a warming climate threatens much of what has been protected by a passionate river conservation movement dating to John Muir’s time.

List of 10 Longest and Most Beautiful Rivers in California

Rank River Length (miles) Length (km)
1 Colorado River 1,450 2,330
2 Sacramento River 447 719
3 San Joaquin River 365 587
4 Klamath River 263 423
5 Pit River 207 333
6 Eel River 200 320
7 Amargosa River 185 298
8 Owens River 183 295
9 Salinas River 170 270
10 Kern River 164 264

Which Are the Longest and Most Beautiful Rivers in California?

1. Colorado River - 1,450 Miles

Photo: Pacific Institute
Photo: Pacific Institute

The Colorado River flows through seven states: California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Overall it covers a distance of 1,450 miles of which 17 miles forms the US boundary with Mexico. The river originates from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and ends in the Gulf of California. In California, it crosses the southern end, making a perfect spot for rafting activities.

The Colorado River is popular for its dramatic canyons and the whitewater rapids. There are also 11 US National Parks along its path. The river provides water to over 40 million people.

2. Sacramento River - 447 Miles

Photo: CNN
Photo: CNN

The Sacramento River is the longest river that entirely flows within California. It originates from Klamath Mountains in Northern California and flows for about 400 miles south to Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. It drains about 26,000 square miles of 19 Californian counties. Several sites along the path of Sacramento River allows for recreational activities such as fishing, kayaking, hiking, and swimming. The river and its drainage basin was once home to diverse flora and fauna. However, land reclamation for agriculture and the seasonal flooding led to a decline in water-based habitat.

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3. San Joaquin River

Photo: NRDC
Photo: NRDC

The San Joaquin is the third longest river that runs through the state of California. The 365-mile long river originates from the high Sierra Nevada and flows through central California along the rich agricultural region and into the Pacific Ocean. It is a major source of irrigation water and also provide passage for wildlife. The San Joaquin River is heavily dammed and one of the most diverted rivers in California.

The river has been known by different names and some of its sections are sometimes referred to differently. The present name originated from the name given to one of its tributaries in 1805-1808 by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga in honor of Saint Joachim.

4. Klamath River

Photo: Water Education Foundation
Photo: Water Education Foundation

The picturesque Klamath River flows from Oregon, winding down through the Coast Ranges and eventually spilling into the Pacific Ocean. If you’re embarking on a Northern California river-rafting excursion, the Klamath River will meet all your expectations and then some. If you’re a beginner, paddle around the Lower Klamath River and enjoy the calmer waters and incredible wildlife.

More experienced rafters can tackle the rushing waters along the Upper Klamath River. When you need a break from rafting, the river’s waters are also perfect for swimming, rock hopping, and fishing.

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5. Pit River

Photo: California Trout
Photo: California Trout

The Pit River is a major river draining from northeastern California into the state's Central Valley. The Pit, the Klamath and the Columbia are the only three rivers in the U.S. that cross the Cascade Range.

The longest tributary of the Sacramento River, it contributes as much as eighty percent of their combined water volume into the Shasta Lake reservoir; the junction of their Shasta Lake arms is 4 miles (6.4 km) northeast of Shasta Dam. The main stem of the Pit River is 207 miles (333 km) long, and some water in the system flows 265 miles (426 km) to the Sacramento River measuring from the Pit River's longest source.

The Pit River drains a sparsely populated volcanic highlands area in Modoc County's Warner Mountains, passing through the south end of the Cascade Range in a deep canyon northeast of Redding. The river is so named because of the pits, along with other bands of what is now the Pit River Tribe, the Achumawi dug to trap game that came to water at the river.

The river is a popular destination for fishing, fly fishing, rafting in its lower reaches, and is used to generate hydroelectricity in the powerhouses below Fall River Mills where the Pit and Fall rivers join, and at Shasta Dam. It is also used extensively for irrigation and conservation purposes.

6. Eel River

Photo: Fly Fisherman
Photo: Fly Fisherman

The three forks of this Northern California river illustrate several river types, originating in the high mountain pine forests, running through steep canyons and lush forests, and emptying into the Pacific Ocean in a gently sloping gorge of redwoods—it is quite scenic indeed.

Despite its name, the Eel River in California has never contained actual eels, but this doesn't mean that it is devoid of fish. In fact, you’ll find many species of fish and various habitats in this North Coast river. Aside from fishing, you can trek the surrounding hiking trails, go kayaking, or take a dip into the cool waters to beat the summer heat.

7. Amargosa River

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

The Amargosa River is an intermittent waterway, 185 miles (298 km) long, in southern Nevada and eastern California in the United States. It drains a high desert region, the Amargosa Valley in the Amargosa Desert northwest of Las Vegas, into the Mojave Desert, and finally into Death Valley where it disappears into the ground aquifer.

Except for a small portion of its route in the Amargosa Canyon in California and a small portion at Beatty, Nevada, the river flows above ground only after a rare rainstorm washes the region. A 26-mile (42 km) stretch of the river between Shoshone and Dumont Dunes is protected as a National Wild and Scenic River. At the south end of Tecopa Valley the Amargosa River Natural Area protects the habitat.

8. Owens River

Photo: Mapio.net
Photo: Mapio.net

The Owens River is a river in eastern California in the United States, approximately 183 miles (295 km) long. It drains into and through the Owens Valley, an arid basin between the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada and the western faces of the Inyo and White Mountains. The river terminates at the endorheic Owens Lake south of Lone Pine, at the bottom of a 2,600 sq mi (6,700 km2) watershed.

In the early 1900s the Owens River was the focus of the California Water Wars, fought between the city of Los Angeles and the inhabitants of Owens Valley over the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Since 1913, the Owens River has been diverted to Los Angeles, causing the ruin of the valley's economy and the drying of Owens Lake. In winter 2006, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power restored 5% of the pre-aqueduct flow to the river, by court order, allowing the Owens River Gorge, the river bed in the valley, and Owens Lake to contain a small amount of water.

9. Salinas River

Photo: CNN
Photo: Pixels

The Salinas River is the longest river of the Central Coast region of California, running 175 miles (282 km) and draining 4,160 square miles. It flows north-northwest and drains the Salinas Valley that slices through the central California Coast Ranges south of Monterey Bay.

The river begins in southern San Luis Obispo County, originating in the Los Machos Hills of the Los Padres National Forest. From there, the river flows north into Monterey County, eventually making its way to connect with the Monterey Bay, part of the Pacific Ocean, approximately 5 miles south of Moss Landing. The river is a wildlife corridor and provides the principal source of water from its reservoirs and tributaries for the farms and vineyards of the valley.

10. Kern River

Photo: www.kernriverconservancy.org
Photo: www.kernriverconservancy.org

Popular for wilderness hiking, white-water rafting, and boating, the gorgeous Kern River offers a broad range of recreational activities that can be enjoyed throughout the year. Despite its remote source, nearly all of the Southern California river is publicly accessible.

You can visit Upper Kern or Lower Kern; the two are separated by Lake Isabella and offer great opportunities for white-water rafting. Care for a bit of fishing? The Kern River is home to the California golden trout, Kern River rainbow trout, and several other fish species—you just might nab your best catch yet here.

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