Merced River below El Portal
This is one of the best transitional class III-IV runs in California. At lower flows, the first mile below put-in at the highway 140 bridge (a mile below El Portal) is continuous class III with some low IV. Although the whitewater requires constant maneuvering, visibility is good, so you can pick the best route without getting out of your boat to scout. Despite the 100 fpm gradient, rapids are not as tough as the class IVs downstream, which are more dramatic affairs separated by pools and class II-III rapids.
Many rafters put in at Cranberry because they think they are avoiding difficult rapids, but Ned's Gulch is actually harder than Nightmare Island and Chipped Tooth, so class IV boaters might as well put in at Red Bud. A ways below Ned's Gulch is the former suspension bridge, where class II boaters often begin their float. Be careful though: although there are class II routes thru all the rapids, some (avoidable) holes are definitely class III in nature. A ways below Briceburg the action picks up to class IV again, with a dangerous waterfalls shortly above the North Fork Merced.
A good class IV+ Merced plan is to put in at the highway 140 bridge in the morning, and take out at Cranberry, on river right across from Cedar Lodge. Then you could run a bicycle shuttle partially along the paved but seldom-traveled road on river right. In the afternoon, put in at the former Chevron station in El Portal, and take out at Red Bud to avoid the class II lull just below.
Although the gradient of the mile from the former Chevron gas station in El Portal to the 140 bridge is only a bit more than downstream, 110 fpm, the individual rapids are quite steep, often requiring scouting and approaching class IV+ in difficulty. The first one is very steep on the left, where there is more water, with a short break in the middle. The second one, along the road, has a long segment of pure white whitewater. The third one has a congested final drop, but is easier than the others.
Upstream in Yosemite Valley, the Merced tapers off quickly from its many source streams and waterfalls to gentle class I-II, as described by the Merced in Yosemite Valley writeup. The river picks up speed below El Capitan, becoming class III-IV for a short distance, a section sometimes run by rangers. Between the end of Yosemite Valley and El Portal, the Merced is class V+ with many portages.
High-water trips starting at El Portal often end in semi-disaster with loss of boat, or worse. A guide died in 1995 on an after-hours rafting trip with other guides when the river was running 8000 cfs. A kayaker died in 1985 after becoming trapped underwater by a downed tree at 2000 cfs.
To reach take-out, drive east from Mariposa on highway 140 towards Yosemite. After the road crosses a pass and first descends to the river, you see a single stone structure that constituted the town of Briceburg. From this point, continue upriver for about 6 miles to a small turnout where the suspension bridge used to be, or has been built again.
To reach put-in from there, continue upstream towards Yosemite park for about 9 more miles. Find parking where highway 140 crosses the Merced for the first time (not counting the south fork Merced). If you reach the restaurants and lodgings of El Portal, you have gone too far.
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Map of Rivers