The American River by Section

The America River is an American favorite: more than 100,000 people float just the South Fork of the river every year, making it the most popular stretch of whitewater in the state of California. The river offers great scenic beauty, thrilling whitewater excitement and a motherlode of mining and American history. The North and Middle Forks present greater challenges to the rafter, while the rapids of the South Fork, although abundant, are less turbulent.

North and Middle Forks
Scenic beauty with hidden dangers.

The North and Middle Forks of the American River provide boaters with a quality wilderness experience to remember. Yet swift currents and unseen dangers can provide boaters with unwanted emergencies. The North and Middle Forks are not for beginners, and quite often, experienced paddlers have trouble on them. Respect the river... and come well prepared when you visit.

North Fork

The 9.5 mile river run from the Iowa Hill Bridge to Ponderosa Bridge provides several Class IV-V rapids, most notably: Chamberlin Falls, Staircase Rapids, and Bogus Thunder. Trips down this river are typically made in one day. Boating the North Fork of the river requires a sound background in technical whitewater skills. Channel characteristics change drastically depending on the flow levels. The most desirable flow range is between 1,500 - 3,000 cfs. Higher flows reduce preparatory time between numerous rapids, while low flows present dangerous hazards, sieves of boulders, and strainers that have proven fatal.

Camping on the North Fork is restricted to specific areas. Obtain a Special River Camping Permit.

The Chamberlin Falls Gorge, beginning just one fourth of a mile below the Iowa Hill Bridge, holds within its walls breathtaking scenery and several exciting rapids. The Chamberlin Falls Rapid is an 8 to 10 foot sheer vertical drop into a deep pool of violently churning water. At flows below 1500 cfs the rapid runs between large mid-channel boulders which can "wrap" or flip an unfortunate boat. At higher flows, the violent eddy at the base of the falls can trap a boat. There is a pool above the falls that can be used to scout this dangerous rapid. If you are unsure of your ability, do not attempt to run this one.

Bogus Thunder and Staircase Rapid are two additional Class IV rapids that demand great respect. Deceptively "easy" in appearance, both have claimed lives in recent years. These ledge-type drops have trapped numerous rafts and kayaks, and are particularly hazardous at flows below 1,000 cfs. There are several other Class III-IV rapids between Iowa Hill Bridge and Shirttail Canyon, each with its own set of surprises for even the skilled boater. When in doubt, take-out and portage. It takes time but it may save your life.

Access Points
Iowa Hill Bridge Access
Mile 0
Put-In/Take-Out, Camping, Information Board, Restroom, Parking
Shirttail Canyon Access
Mile 5
Put-In/Take-Out, Parking, Restroom
Ponderosa Way Access
Mile 9
Recommended Take-Out Location, Put-In/Take-Out, Parking
Upper Clementine Access
Mile 13
Take-Out, Parking, Restroom, Camping
Confluence Access
No Boating Beyond This Point, Parking
Middle Fork

One, two, or three day trips are possible on this challenging scenic river The 15 mile run from Oxbow put-in to Greenwood take-out features several Class IV and V rapids, as well as numerous Class II and III rapids. Most notable are the Tunnel Chute, Kanaka Gulch, and Ruck-A-Chucky. If you are uncertain about your ability to navigate any rapid, PORTAGE! Even expert boaters can become easily injured in swift waters. Allow a minimum of one full day (10-12 hours) for this run. If you choose to continue downstream from Ruck-A-Chucky/Greenwood be sure to take-out at Mammoth Bar, above the unrunnable Murderer's Bar Rapid. The sharp-walled, turbulent setting of Murderer's Gorge has claimed the lives of even experienced boaters.

Camping on the Middle Fork is available at many locations. Obtain a Special River Camping Permit and make certain that you are on public property. While there are no developed campsites, the canyon offers many scenic sandbars, some with shade trees, to spend a night. Favorite locations are at Ford's Bar and Cherokee Bar, but more secluded, less-frequented sites are between Cache Bar and Ford's Bar.

The Tunnel Chute, is a steep, sharp-sided channel that was blasted by miners in the last century. As you approach the bedrock drop before the Tunnel Chute, be aware of other boats in the eddy above the chute; they may be moving into the main channel to set up for the run. While many commercial companies will run this hazardous rapid, it is not recommended. Numerous injuries, ranging from twisted ankles to broken bones and head injuries, occur every season. Portaging the chute on the left is easy, and in flows below 2,000 cfs, it is not difficult to return your boat to the water above the tunnel. Climbing atop the tunnel is dangerous, as there are few or no handholds and many places to fall from. Exercise extreme care in negotiating this rapid.

The Ruck-A-Chucky Rapid is an unrunnable sieve of boulders with several dangerously steep drops in gradient. This rapid should not be run under any circumstances. A wide, new portage trail safely skirts this segment of the river. Access it from river right above the falls and put-in again about 1/4 mile below.

Several Class III+ rapids follow the unrunnable Ruck-A-Chucky Rapid. Each of these has its own "personality," which changes under different flow conditions. Take your time scouting ahead and navigating safely. About one mile downstream from this rapid is Ruck-A-Chucky take-out at Greenwood Bridge ruins. A new trail constructed by the California Conservation Corps makes this a safe and easy task.

Access Points
Oxbow Access
Mile 0
Put-In, Parking, Information Board, Restroom, Camping
Ruck-a-Chucky Access
Mile 15
Put-In/Take-Out, Parking, Restroom, Information Board, Camping
Cherokee Bar
Mile 15.5
Put-In/Take-Out, Parking, Information Board, Camping
Mammoth Bar Access
Mile 22
Take-Out, Parking
Confluence Access
Mile 24
No Boating Beyond This Point, Parking
More about the North and Middle Forks

River Access

Except in an emergency, it is recommended that vehicular traffic be restricted to public roads for safety reasons. If you, or someone in your group, is injured it is best to hail a passing boat and send for assistance downriver, rather than attempt to hike out of the canyon. Much of the Middle Fork is a wilderness, and it is often a several-mile uphill climb to a major roadway.


There are many hiking trails in both the North and Middle Fork canyons, with the Western States Trail following much of the Middle Fork corridor. Some areas are steep, so stay on established trails for your own safety. Respect posted private lands by not trespassing. For maps showing trails within the Auburn State Recreation Area (SRA) contact the Ranger Station.


A Special River Camping Permit must be obtained through the Auburn State Recreation Area (located on HWY 49, one mile south of Auburn) for most areas on the North Fork and some areas on the Middle Fork. Private lands do occupy a minor portion of the river corridor, so it is best to check in advance on your planned camping location.

There are on-river camping fees. Vehicles parked overnight in designated campgrounds must also pay a small fee. Additional fees for road use through the U.S.F.S. may be necessary at some locations. Contact the Auburn SRA for details.

Sanitation - Drinking Water
There are few places in the Sierras where it is safe to drink untreated water. There are numerous waterborne parasites in the river than can destroy your vacation if you don't destroy them first! It is best to bring your own drinking water with you. If you must drink from the river, use recommended treatment for purification (i.e., boiling, and chemical treatment).

Managing Agencies
The California Department of Parks and Recreation, under contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is the primary managing agency for the North and Middle forks of the American River. The U.S. Forest Service offices in Foresthill (Tahoe National Forest) and Georgetown (El Dorado National Forest) manage much of the land above the Ruck-A-Chucky area.
South Fork

To boaters, the South Fork of the American River brings to mind long and lazy pools, perfect for escaping the summer's heat, the parade of rapids down through "The Gorge", and surfing the waves and holes at Triple Threat Rapids. But look beyond the white water, and you will find much more than a wonderful river trip. Much of California history is reflected in the river's journey west, from the snow-covered peaks of the Crystal Range through the Motherlode, to Folsom Lake.

It is a journey past thousand-year-old Nisenan Indian villages, like Chapa (Coloma). Here, in the Coloma Valley, James Marshall discovered gold in 1848. Along the riverbanks, short-lived goldrush towns sprang up: Marshall (Lotus today), Weberville, and Salmon Falls. The Pony Express route of 1860 ran along the river, following a trading route which had been used by indigenous peoples for centuries. The first Japanese settlement in California, the Wakamatsu tea and silk colony, was established near Gold Hill in the 1870's. During the 1890's, timber cut on the Georgetown Divide was flumed 3,000 feet down to the river at Slab Creek, then floated to a mill in Folsom. The river drovers in this endeavor may have been the first boaters of the South Fork. Along the Coloma-Lotus section of the river, piles of tailings are visible, left behind by the "doodle-bug" gold dredge of the General Land and Mining Company of the 1930's.

Since Marshall first built his sawmill in 1848, the South Fork has been a "working" river. Gold mines, sawmills, ranches and vineyards have depended on the river for water and power. Since the 1950's, the watershed has been dammed in several places by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. This Upper American River Project generates electricity, stores water for the state's Central Valley Water Project, contributes to flood control, and makes year-round boating possible.

In recent years, the evolving concept of river use has resulted in water releases from Folsom Lake, to maintain the water quality in the Sacramento River Delta, and to support fall runs of salmon.

Today, the river is a great recreational resource as well. More than 2 million people visit Folsom Lake State Recreation Area each year. Many thousands enjoy the scenery along Highway 50, as they travel through the Sierras to Lake Tahoe. And the whitewater stretch from Chili Bar to Folsom Lake has become the most popular in California.

Mile By Mile Guide
0 Chili Bar River Access. Fees charged.
0.5 BLM public land to mile 3.4.
0.6 Meatgrinder Rapid. Class III+.
1.3 Racehorse Bend Rapid. Class III+.
1.5 Maya Rapid. Class II-III.
1.8 Rock Garden Rapid Class II.
2.0 African Queen Rapid. Class II.
3.1 Triple Threat Rapid Class III. Miner's Creek. on river right. is a recommended lunch stop with restroom facilities.
4.4 Indian Creek enters on river left. Beginning of Quiet zone.
5.2 Troublemaker Rapid. Class III+.
5.2 American River Resort River Access and Campground. Fees charged.
5.5 Coloma Resort River Access and Campground. Fees charged.
5.6 Coloma Bridge. built in 1917.
5.7 Sutter's Mill site.
6.0 Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park - North Beach River Access Area. Fees charged. Picnic and restroom facilities. Take-outs are prohibited.
7.1 Old Scary Rapid. Class II.
7.4 Highway 49 Bridge River Access. Parking under bridge is prohibited.
8.0 Henningsen-Lotus County Park River Access (funded by the Dept. of Boating and Waterways). Fees charged. Upstream and downstream from this park are small parcels of BLM public lands.
8.5 Lotus ledge surfing hole.
9.0 Camp Lotus River Access and Campground. Fees charged. Barking Dog rapid. Class II.
9.7 BLM public land on river right (Dave Moore Nature Area to mile 9.9.)
10.6 Current Divider Rapid. Class II+.
11.2 Highway Rapid. Class II.
11.5 Greenwood Creek on river right. End of the Quiet Zone. -"Turtle Pond" extends to mile 11.8.
12.0 Cable Crossing Rapid. Class II.
12.2 BLM public land on river right is a recommended lunch/camping area with restroom facilities.
12.8 There are several lunch/camping sites (no facilities on BLM public lands between Hastings Creek and mile 13.4.)
13.9 Gorilla Rock. or Convict Rock on river left.
15.0 Indian grinding holes atop large boulder on river right. Lollipop Tree, which marks the beginning of the Gorge, is visible here.
13.8 Fowler's Ruck Rapid. Beginning of the Gorge. Class III-.
16.6 BLM public land to mile 16.7.
16.9 Satan's Cesspool Ripid. Class III+.
17.0 Son of Satan's Rapid. Class II+.
17.6 Lower Haystack Canyon Rapid. Class II+.
17.7 BLM land to mile 18.1. Weber Creek enters on river left at mile 18.1.
18.2 Bouncing Rock Rapid. Class II+.
18.6 Hospital Bar Rapid Class III.
18.7 Recovery Room Rapid. Class II+.
18.8 Folsom Lake maximum elevation.
19.4 Surprise Rapid. Class II+. Class II rapids continue to mile 21.0.
20.5 Salmon Falls Bridge take-out on the right bank upstream of the bridge. Parking fees charged.
Plant Communities
Every turn in the river seems to reveal a different landscape, and underlines the diversity of life in these canyons; more than a thousand plant species are found between Chili Bar and Folsom. Each plant grows where the climate, soil and topography are favorable. Some, like the yellow pine, can tolerate a wide range of conditions, and are found throughout the West. Others, like the rare El Dorado bedstraw, are believed to exist only on several sites in western El Dorado County. This-herb grows solely in rocky soils in the understory of oak woodlands, primarily on north-facing slopes.

To understand plants it is helpful to view them as belonging to communities. However, the boundaries between these communities are not always distinct, because relationships among environmental factors are complex.

Riparian (riverside) plants require a year-round supply of water, and are found in the moist soils along the riverbanks. They must also be able to withstand the force of the river current during floods and the high water levels from spring runoff. By providing shade and erosion control, these plants are crucial to the life of the underwater ecosystem.

Button and sandbar willow are among the first plants to take hold on newly formed sand or gravel bars. On slightly higher ground that is not regularly flooded, decaying plant material accumulates, making the soil suitable for other types of plants. Here can be found trees such as white alder, cottonwood, big leaf maple, and Oregon ash. Blackberries, willow and wild grapes form a dense understory, sheltering wildlife.

White alder - plays an important role as a provider of nitrogen in riparian ecosystems. Spherical nodules on their roots take free nitrogen from the air and fix it into water-soluble compounds. The decay of alder leaves, roots, and wood releases nitrogen into the soil and water, enhancing their productivity.

Oak woodland is found both as a hot, dry grassland dotted with trees (known as savanna), and in dense groves of oak and pine (on cooler and wetter slopes). The grassy slopes between oaks and shrubs, carpeted with wildflowers in spring, become heat-scorched grassland in summer. Trees of this community include deciduous oaks (blue oak, black oak and valley oak) and evergreen oaks (interior and canyon live oaks) along with digger pine. Buck-eye, which turns golden and lies dormant in summer, is common along the slopes of the upper canyon.

Chaparral plants (chamise, manzanita, ceanothus) can survive the hot and dry conditions created by exposure to the sun on south-facing slopes (usually river-right). These deep-rooted plants are "sclerophyllous": having thick evergreen foliage with heavily waxed, densely haired or powdered surfaces which help to conserve water during summer. Chaparral plants germinate best after fire. They are notable for having adapted to serpentine rock soils. Most other plants cannot tolerate the high magnesium and low calcium levels of these soils.

Yellow pine forests thrive on the shaded north-facing slopes, which are cooler and wetter than southern exposures. But these forests are highly adapted to the fires that regularly sweep the mountain sides. Yellow pine seedlings quickly grow long taproots so they can reach moisture in burned or dry soils. Young pines require the unblocked sunlight provided when the understory has burned away. These pines also develop thick, fire-resistant bark at a relatively young age.

Laws And Regulations
The South Fork is like other desirable recreation areas in the West: the increasing number of boaters on the South Fork puts pressure on the area's resources and on everyone's boating enjoyment. Remember that you are one of many who share the use of this river. Please treat your surroundings, the people, and the other creatures you encounter with common sense and courtesy.

The following regulations and information are intended to help boaters conduct trips safely, observe private property rights, and protect river resources.

Anyone 16 years or older must have a fishing license to take fish. (See current California Sport Fishing Regulations for more information). Catchable-size rainbow trout are released into the South Fork from May to September at various locations upstream of the State Highway 49 Bridge.

Private Boater Registration
El Dorado County requires private boaters to obtain an annual registration tag. The tags are provided free of charge and should be displayed on your boat. They may be obtained from the information boards at river access points, area campgrounds and stores. Your signature certifies that your river trips are non-commercial and that you will abide by the information and regulations on the tag.

Quiet Zone
More than 100,000 people float down the South Fork annually, past the back yards of private homes and property. Out of respect for the rights of property owners, a "Quiet Zone" has been designated on the river, starting at Indian Creek above Troublemaker Rapid, and extending to Greenwood Creek. All boaters are requested to comply with the intent of the Quiet Zone by reducing their noise, particularly when homes are within sight along the river.

Recreational Mining
The California Department of Fish and Game requires a permit for the use of any vacuum or suction dredge equipment.

Human waste. Please use designated public restroom facilities, the locations of which are noted on the map. If you plan to use public lands that do not have facilities, you must carry a portable toilet.

Bathing and dishwashing. Wash away from your campsite and at least 200 feet from any stream. Use biodegradable, non-phosphate soaps. Dig a small hole to strain dishwater and food drainings into, then cover it back up.

Land Ownership
Bureau Of Land Management
This federal agency manages several parcels of public lands along the South Fork. Signs, visible along the river, indicate entering and leaving BLM public lands. Boaters are encouraged to use the established lunch/primitive camping areas on river right at Miles 3 and 12.3 (Miner's Creek and Clark Mountain). Toilet facilities are located at these sites. On other BLM parcels along the South Fork, fire pans and portable toilets are required. Use "no-trace" camping techniques. Please notify the BLM in advance when traveling as a large group (25 or more).

California State Parks
Marshall Gold Discovery State Park protects the site where John Marshall discovered gold in 1848. Historic buildings and interpretive programs on the Gold Rush are featured.

The park's river access policy prohibits all take-outs. Put-ins are allowed at the North Beach River Access Area. Stopping at the park while on a river trip for lunch, to use the restroom facilities, or for tours is allowed (day use fees are charged).

Folsom Lake State Recreation Area offers two river access sites off Salmon Falls Road, which are used for take-outs. Fees are required for parking. Overflow parking is available along Salmon Falls Road (some sections of the road are posted "No Parking"). Toilet facilities are located at both sites. Drinking water is not available.

Henningsen-Lotus Park
Current facilities include a parking lot, restroom facilities and a boat launching area. Planned additional facilities include soccer fields, picnic sites, and drinking fountains.

Boaters are encouraged to use the park for river access in the Coloma area. All fees collected are used for park maintenance or improvements.

State Highway 49
Parking underneath the bridge is not allowed.

Boating Safety
Both the upper run (Chili Bar to Coloma) and the lower run (Coloma to Salmon Falls) are rated Class III in difficulty at flows below 6,000 cubic feet per second (cfs.) Caution: At flows above 6,000 cfs., some rapids are rated Class IV, and should be run by boaters with advanced skills only. Inexperienced boaters should raft with a professional outfitter or obtain professional instruction in whitewater boating and safety.

The stretch from Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park to Camp Lotus is rated Class II. This section is considered to be one of the best in the state for beginning kayakers and canoeists.

River Flows
Flow levels on the South Fork can fluctuate rapidly because they result from hydroelectric facility releases. Current velocity, wave size, and the difficulty of rapids change with the flow levels.

Summer flows, released from the Chili Bar Dam, are usually 1,000 - 1,775 cfs. About 4 hours of boatable flows (above 900 cfs) can be expected each day, although the amount and duration of the daily release depends upon yearly water supply conditions.

Boatable flows are usually released through the first weekend of October each year. During the following 2 weeks, system maintenance takes place and there are no scheduled releases. Boatable flows may resume during the fall, depending on water supply and hydroelectric demand.

Winter and spring flow levels are linked to storms and the amount of snowpack in the Sierra. Extremely high flows are possible after storms and during spring runoff.

Call the Chili Bar Dam information 900 number for the latest flow information for the South Fork. There is a charge for each call. Exact flow at the time of call is given, plus flows for the previous 3 hours.

Emergency Procedures
Ask other boating parties for assistance. For medical or rescue emergencies, call 911 (in summer, commercial photographers at Troublemaker and Satan's Cesspool have cellular phones). Give your exact location and type of injury.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 25 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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