Whitewater Adventure

WITH RAPIDS NICKNAMED Meatgrinder, Troublemaker and Satan’s Cesspool, you might envision the American River’s South Fork eating rafters for dinner. But in fact, it’s the opposite: whitewater aficionados devour this river in droves, feasting on the abundance of dam-released thrills and scenic Sierra foothills beauty.

Because it is so accessible to Northern Californians, the American River is one of the state’s most popular whitewater rafting rivers. But just because it’s packed with rafters spring through fall doesn’t mean this churning, gurgling waterway in the heart of the Gold Country is predictable. Every day, more than 20 named rapids rise and fall, rocks and “holes” in the river flow appear and disappear, and the mountain-fed stream remains moody, wild and supremely fun. It’s a wonderfully natural roller-coaster ride through the foothills of the Sierra, popular with family rafters and whitewater kayaking enthusiasts who find the South Fork perfect for practicing their tricky rolls and turns.

It’s All About Class

All raftable rivers are rated on a class scale to help riders determine the size and technical difficulty of the whitewater. Most weekenders choose more moderate whitewater, simply to relax and soak up the beauty of the scenery. Others are looking for a more intense experience. Class I- and II-rated rivers have calm stretches and moderate whitewater with waves up to three feet. Class III rivers have waves up to four feet and travel through narrow passages that provide plenty of thrills. Class IV rivers feature long, technically difficult rapids and turbulent water. Class V is the highest rating for raftable rivers and feature large, complex, gushing rapids that provide enough twists and spins to satisfy the most insatiable adrenaline junkie.

The South Fork, rated Class III, is the most family-friendly of the three forks of the American, with the easiest rapids to negotiate. It’s ideal for those who want just the right amount of thrills and plenty of relaxing nature-and-family bonding time. Since its flows are regulated by dam releases, rafters are assured plenty of water flow throughout the season. The American’s Middle Fork (Class IV) abounds in thrilling whitewater, wildlife, history and wilderness camping. In contrast, the free-flowing North Fork (Class III and IV in spring) is a truly wild ride. It rushes through the upper reaches of deep, narrow Sierra Nevada canyons, with thrills — and possible spills — along the entire route. Boating is best on the North Fork from April through June, depending on the winter snowpack and spring runoff. Unlike the dam-dependent South Fork, the North Fork is free-flowing, and the water reduces to a trickle in the summer and fall months.

Father and Daughter Time

Last summer, my daughter and I joined another Marin family and their two girls for a two-day raft and camping trip on the American’s South Fork with OARS, one of the oldest and most established rafting outfits of the dozens that ply the American and other rivers in California.

We started our weekend adventure with an optional (and free) pre-trip camp night at OARS’ two-year-old riverside location, the River Park Adventure Campground in the little burg of Lotus. After a smooth two-hour drive on Highways 80 and 50 and a stint on some winding Gold Country roads outside Placerville, we pulled into Lotus and OARS’ large dirt parking lot.

It was hot and dusty as we used big rubberwheeled wheelbarrows to transport our camping gear to the parents’ tent site called Baja Plaza, located in the heart of the camp amid piles of old mining tailings. The girls settled into the campground’s own preset platform tents, away from the main campground near a little stream.

We were the only campers that evening and the place offered easy access to swimming in the river, just a few hundred yards away. Despite the summer heat, the water was surprisingly cold and refreshing. The girls discovered the campground’s activity resources: pool tables, horseshoes, volleyball, a life-size chessboard and a nature trail. The peaceful solitude provided a quiet base camp for our whitewater adventures to come.

The Adventure Begins

The next morning around 10, our group of two dozen rafters convened for a river orientation and safety talk and to get fitted with helmets and the standard bulky life vests known as PFDs. We looked and felt a little goofy, all padded up and helmeted, as we walked with our paddles through the campground to the river’s shore, but it all made sense once we got on the river for our first whitewater thrills.

After we practiced paddle strokes with our OARS guide, an amiable and highly experienced Tennessean named Jim Hollar, the ride started with Barking Dog Rapid and plenty of opportunities to go swimming in the calmer sections of the river. Beautiful Gold Country scenery — oak trees and pine forests, steep shrubby hillsides — whisked by as the swift, translucent water swept us over flow-shaped river rocks beneath. It was serene and thrilling at the same time.

Several miles of Class II rapids allowed us to warm up before Jim expertly guided our raft through a section called the Gorge, where the canyon walls narrowed and the river flowed very swiftly. The South Fork’s Gorge begins at the base of the Lollipop Tree, where the canyon walls constrict the flow of the river and help create a splashy, action-packed series of Class III rapids such as Fowler’s Rock, Satan’s Cesspool and Hospital Bar.

Just below the splashy Highway Rapid, a few miles down the river, we pulled into a wide eddy and paused for a filling deli-style picnic lunch among the shady oak trees. The girls, happy with their sandwiches piled high with fresh cold cuts, cheese and veggies, lemonade, water, fresh fruit and cookies, giggled and laughed as they ate lunch under a shade tree and then jumped in the river for some drifting sessions. We resumed our journey and paddled all the way to Salmon Falls Bridge at Folsom Lake, where a jet-ski service provided a tow on the flat waters to the bustling takeout spot, crowded with rafters finishing their day on the river.

The second day, after fresh coffee and a hearty guide-prepared hot breakfast, we took a 25-minute shuttle ride on a schoolbus- type vehicle to Chili Bar and the start of day two’s stretch of river. We explored the upper part of the South Fork, with a put-in at Chili Bar and take-out at OARS’ River Park campground.

In less than a mile we met our first big splashy rapid, Meatgrinder, then more rapids at Racehorse Bend, Triple Threat and the infamous Troublemaker, a photographers’ favorite, where a wicked S-turn is followed by an immediate four- or five-foot drop. As we hooted and hollered — and ducked for cover — Jim swept us through the torrent for a perfect finale to our whitewater adventure in the heart of the Sierra’s Gold Country.


OARS American River campground is an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive from Marin. For more information, call 855.541.4792 or visit oars.com. Other outfitters offering two-day camping trips on the South Fork:

Adventure Connection raftcalifornia.com

All Outdoors Rafting aorafting.com

American River Recreation arrafting.com

American Whitewater Expeditions americanwhitewater.com

ARTA River Trips arta.org

Beyond Limits Adventures rivertrip.com

EarthTrek Expeditions earthtrekexpeditions.com

Environmental Traveling Companions etctrips.org

Mariah Wilderness Expeditions mariahrafting.com

Mother Lode River Center malode.com

Tributary Whitewater Tours whitewatertours.com

W.E.T. River Trips raftwet.com

Whitewater Connection whitewaterconnection.com

Whitewater Excitement whitewaterexcitement.com