08/24/2012 03:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cool off Streamside: Ten Uniquely California Rivers


(Photo: Amargosa River, (c) Bill Christian / The Nature Conservancy)

What makes the best summer vacations or a Labor Day escape? Rivers. Swimming, fishing, napping on a shady riverbank--there's no better getaway. Fortunately, dozens of jaw-droppingly beautiful rivers run through the Golden State.

But which are the most uniquely Californian? Those that have the highest number of freshwater plants and animals, found nowhere else on Earth but here. From our Santa Ana three-spine stickleback to the California fairy shrimp, California's rivers are home to a wildly diverse collection of native plants, insects and fish unique to our state.

Just in time for a last summer holiday, The Nature Conservancy's scientists compiled a list of the top ten uniquely California rivers. So get packing and experience the natural beauty that sets California apart:

  1. TUOLUMNE RIVER--Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties
  2. Designated a National Wild and Scenic River, the majestic Tuolumne begins at 13,000 feet in Yosemite National Park, winding through picture-perfect Tuolumne Meadows and providing world-class recreational opportunities from fishing to hiking for people of all ages and abilities.

    What to look for: Yosemite toad and Dwarf downingia

    Unique species: 34

  3. LOWER SACRAMENTO RIVER--Yolo, Sacramento and Solano Counties

  4. Some say it's the best fishing in the state; some say it's the incomparable birding; while others vocally defend it as having the very best picnic spots. Winding its way south from Redding, the Lower Sacramento River winds through gentle river terraces, sheer canyon walls and rolling oak woodlands, providing something for everyone.

    What to look for: Central Valley spring Chinook salmon and Valley arrowhead

    Unique species: 33

  5. SANTA ANA RIVER--San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles and Orange Counties

  6. Southern California's largest river, the Santa Ana flows through incredibly diverse terrain from alpine mountain peaks to arid plains and deserts. Bordering the river for more than 70 miles is the Santa Ana River Bicycle Trail that when finished will run through three counties, 17 cities and two national forests.

    What to look for: California treefrog and Arroyo chub

    Unique species: 24


  8. Cache Creek flows into Clear Lake with more than 100 miles of shoreline and geothermal hot springs, making it a haven for outdoor recreation. Grab a paddle or a rod--boating, paddle sports and fishing are some of the most popular activities on the lake.

    What to look for: Clear Lake hitch and Many-flowered navarretia

    Unique species: 30

  9. LOWER PIT RIVER--Shasta County

  10. Described as the finest naturally occurring wild trout fishery in California, this renowned fly-fishing destination has a wealth of pools, pockets, runs and riffles. Located in the northeast corner of the state, the Lower Pit flows into Shasta Lake.

    What to look for: Pit sculpin and Shasta crayfish

    Unique species: 24

  11. LOST RIVER--Modoc and Siskiyou Counties

  12. Lost River begins and ends in a closed basin in northern California and southwestern Oregon. This idyllic, 60-mile-long river winds through forests, meadows and fields, providing the perfect summer escape.

    What to look for: Shortnose sucker and Klamath pebblesnail

    Unique species: 22

  13. OWENS RIVER--Mono and Inyo Counties

  14. The history-rich Owens River flows in one of the deepest valleys in America and stretches for 183 miles. This now free-flowing river is teeming with wildlife, making it a true haven for birders and nature lovers.

    What to look for: Owens tui chub and Parish's popcorn flower

    Unique species: 18

  15. SAN FRANCISCO BAY SOUTHERN STREAMS--Alameda, San Mateo, San Francisco and a portion of Santa Clara Counties

  16. The many southern streams and creeks that feed San Francisco Bay are popular recreation spots. From the San Mateo Creek, which flows into Crystal Springs, to Coyote Creek, these waterways are rich with unusual aquatic wildlife.

    What to look for: California red-legged frog and Contra Costa goldfields

    Unique species: 34


  18. A whitewater rafter's dream, this river begins in Oregon's High Cascades and runs across the border, emptying into the Pacific Ocean 16 miles south of California's Crescent City. A stunning spot for a summer vacation, the river is prized by fishermen.

    What to look for: Blue chub and Scale lanx

    Unique species: 22

    -- WINTER BONUS --

  20. In a climate that is far too hot in the summer, the Amargosa is a winter oasis...literally. Springing from the high desert above Las Vegas, it disappears underground until it reaches the Amargosa Canyon near Death Valley National Park, where it rises to the surface, creating a vibrant green swath amidst the stark desert beauty.

What to look for: Amargosa pupfish and Amargosa niterwort

Unique species: 39