The South Fork of the American River is one of the most popular whitewater rafting rivers in the West. It is exciting and lots of fun, with many memorable rapids. The river flows through the green and gold foothills of California’s Gold Rush country. The South Fork serves as an introduction to rafting for countless beginners and continues to lure veterans back year after year.
One of the greatest things about the South Fork is its reliable flows. It is still rollicking and offering great Class 3 action when many other rivers to the south have dried up.
The action begins immediately with Meatgrinder and continues for the next five plus miles with Racehorse Bend, Triple Threat, the Class III Troublemaker and others. The river slows after this and we float past Sutter’s Mill and the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. The lower section of the river starts off fairly mild with several Class II rapids as a warm-up. Soon we enter a steep granite canyon known as the ‘Gorge’ and the rapids occur frequently, with Fowler’s Rock, the Class III Satan’s Cesspool, Bouncing Rock, Hospital Bar and numerous milder, but fun rapids.
The river provides 21 miles of Class 2 and 3 whitewater and over 20 rapids. Both half day or one day trips can be run on the lower or upper sections. The full length trip is usually run in two days. Spring high water can make for an exciting Class IV adventure.
Typical Class of Water
Best Seasons for Experiencing
Due to FERC re-licensing, there are releases throughout the year. The schedule is dependent on the designated type of water year. The best source for this information is at http://www.dreamflows.com/Pages/ChiliBarSchedule.php. We also use DreamFlows to check for levels during Spring run-off when snow melt can push the levels up to flows unsuitable for many boaters. Still the best time to experience the river is probably during the slower season of April, May and September if you would like to avoid the crowds. Also, weekdays usually provide a more relaxed experience. However, please be aware that in anything other than a normal or above normal year, water is not released 7 days a week, with Wednesday being the most likely day that water may not be released above fish flow (too low for rafting or kayaking).
There are numerous public and private access points the length of the river. The public put-in for the Upper section of river is at Chili Bar off Hwy 193 near Placerville. Put-in and take-out is possible at Henningsen-Lotus park on Lotus Road in Coloma-Lotus, and also at Camp Lotus. Take-out for the Lower Gorge section of river is at Salmon Falls and the Folsom Lake State Recreation area. For an easier section with only Class 2 rapids, you can put-in at Marshal Gold Discovery State Historic park and raft to Greenwood Creek only, though be sure to not miss this take-out as it is not very well sign posted.
ADA Accessibility Notes
Access at some points is easier than others. Chili Bar, Marshall Gold, Henningsen-Lotus park and Camp Lotus are all ADA accessible. There are several outfitters like Environmental Traveling Companions and Disabled Sports USA that have access at their camps on the river and offer special trips.
Pet Friendly Notes
As long as you have a water friendly pet, should not be a problem, but be sure to equip them with a life jacket. Also make sure if you are camping in the area that they are permitted at the camp. There is also a local alternative at Dog-Woods Resort.