Kayaking the Smith River

Kayaking the Smith River

Redwood National Park

Kayaking is a lot of fun…especially when it’s free. Redwood National & State Parks runs a free ranger guided kayak tour on the Smith River, with a limited number of spots available. Sign up early so you don’t miss out!


The Smith River is a National Wild & Scenic River, and is the largest free-flowing river system in California. It runs along the park’s northern border, past the town of Hiouchi and Jedediah Smith Campground. The route, which goes through the Smith River National Recreation Area, is about 3 miles long through class I-II whitewater. It’s not too challenging, but still fun in a tandem kayak.

Kayak trips are available on a first come, first served basis. To give yourself the best chance, sign up a few days early, or having a range of dates in mind. At Hiouchi Visitor Center, we flipped through the available dates, and found the one we wanted, four days out. The trip was already half full (6 out of 12 spots), and we added our names to the list.

At 11:30 a.m. the day of our trip, we arrived at Hiouchi Visitor Center. We watched a safety video, and got suited up with helmets and life jackets. We brought our own dry bags for our lunch and personal items, but our guide also provided one for guests to use. At 12:20 p.m., a shuttle arrived to take us to the put-in. The shuttle costs $2 per person, so technically the trip isn’t completely free, though you could also drive yourself.

Redwood: Kayaking Trip Presentation
Kayaking safety presentation
Redwood: Kayaking Shuttle
Our chariot that took us to the kayaking put-in. It was $2/person to ride.

Kayaking the Smith River

We rode the shuttle a few miles east to the put-in at Forks River Access, where we met Laura, a park ranger and our kayaking guide. Brad, an intern with the National Park Service, also helped guide our trip. The clear Smith River looked blue-green, and the sun shone, making it an ideal day for kayaking. There were no redwood trees where we began our trip, but they lined the river later on.

With the help of the rangers, we got into our inflatable tandem kayaks and started down the river. Our guides gave verbal instructions as we went single file through the (mostly class I) rapids. It was breezy, and we learned how to steer as we paddled, but we made it through the rapids easily. Even for a class I they were still really fun! We got splashed a bit, especially me, since I was in front.

A few times, our guides had to free our kayak from rocks. They said the river was the lowest it’s been in awhile, so we were bottoming out. One boat capsized, and the guides helped the guests back onto the boat. But it looked like they were having a great time, and the water was only waist high.

Lunch Time

After a couple miles, we stopped at a beach near Stout Grove for lunch. Everyone sat on the sunny beach eating their lunch (bring your own, not provided). After lunch, we only had a half mile to go. We climbed back in our kayaks, and directly in front of us was the seasonal bridge that connects Stout Grove with Jedediah Smith Campground. It’s a low bridge, so we anticipated a challenge paddling under it.

We aimed for the middle of the bridge, where we’d have the highest clearance. One guide joked that the lower you go, the more respect you get. If you go under a section of the bridge with lower clearance, you might have to duck. Aiming well, we went under and tucked in our paddles to avoid disaster. We popped out the other side and were on our way!

Lunch spot with the low bridge in the background

The largest rapid, a class II, was near the end of the trip. It looked slightly larger, but the real test was paddling through it. Travis got splashed, but I got soaked! Soon after, we arrived at Jedediah Smith Campground.

We got out of our kayak, and onto a rocky beach. Then we climbed up a hill that was covered with loose rocks. The guides strongly recommended we keep our helmets on, as visitors had slipped in this area. After trudging through more loose rocks, we loaded our helmets and vests onto a truck, and walked 10 minutes back to Hiouchi Visitor Center. At the visitor center, we gave a donation (as mentioned on the NPS webs), though the park staff seemed confused when we tried to give them money.

We had a blast on this trip, and for free, you can’t beat it!



Interactive Map

One thought on “Kayaking the Smith River

  1. Thank you. Great article. We have our own kayak, but it’s October 2022, and the River might be too low.

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