Information, Descriptions and Resources for the American River System

The whitewater rafting sections of the American River include the Class 3 South Fork American, Class 3 - 4+ Middle Fork American and the Class 4 - 4+ North Fork American. These California whitewater trips are in close proximity to Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, and San Francisco Bay Area and they are contained in El Dorado County and Placer County. The classifications designated by the numbers 1 through 6 are traditionally written in Roman numerals such as Class III, Class IV or Class V. These river classifications are standardized throughout the world and is a nomenclature understood by river rafters and paddlers throughout the whitewater population. From these standards, commercial rafting outfitters can assign paddlers to the most appropriate level for the rafters' abilities. California rafting is a rite of passage!

South Fork American River Class III - IV 21 miles <popular commercial rating trip; up to Class 4 during high flows in early Spring; can be crowded on weekends during Summer months; long season from March through September>
A well-known and most popular California whitewater rafting trip, the South Fork American provides whitewater thrills for the majority of the paddling world. Over 300,000 rafters populate this stretch during the rafting season. The lush foothills cascade with golden poppies and lupine during the spring and provide an eye-appealing view from the river. The great draw to this whitewater river is that it is mostly manageable for beginners, novices and experienced paddlers. Most rafting companies split the river into two sections: an upper run called the Chili Bar section and the lower run called the Gorge. Chili Bar was named after the Chilean road builders during the early Gold Rush days. There is a primitive road that parallels the river near the put-in or ingress point at Chili Bar Reservoir. The lower section starts in Coloma and has been nicknamed the Gorge because of a small gorge section which houses many rapids in sequence giving rise to naming the rapids there; Haystack Canyon Rapids. The two sections can be done as separate one day rafting trips or as a two day rafting trip which may include gourmet meals, beer gardens, hot air ballooning, slide shows, campfires and special programs for families and teen rafters. Corporate team building is a draw on this river due to the close proximity to major population centers. Commercial outfitters with professional guides provide a safe and luxurious experience for the first time rafter. Gourmet meals, high-end camping and special programs attract people from mad-dog paddlers to corporate team-building groups to families with children. If you are in the Western United States, this river is a must-do!

Recently, the South Fork American Rafting Companies, the American River Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management have formed a political partnership in acquiring riparian lands on this river. New hiking trails and access points have been created through this working project. These acquisitions will provide the general public with the knowledge that this river will not be developed to its detriment.

Middle Fork American River Class II - V 19 miles <two sections on this river provide two different experiences; recommend that you go with a commercial outfitter>
In the early 80's, a group of paddlers attempted this "unrunnable river" in small paddle rafts. In one of the deepest canyons in California, hardly anyone ever attempted this run due to Tunnel Chute rapid. A man-made rapid was blasted out by the early argonauts when they were gold mining. The Chute is a narrow, violent rapid that ends calmly in a dark tunnel. During the storms in the mid-80's & early 90's, Tunnel Chute was forever changed when boulders and rocks at the top of the rapid rolled out of place. The Chute became an easier entrance and now, most rafting guides claim Tunnel Chute to be a Class IV+ rapid. The majority of the 19 mile river is a gentle Class II with a spattering of Class III & IV+ rapids. A Most outfitters allow athletic beginners on this run. Wilderness camping and rafting trips are provided in the river corridor and are embellished by gourmet meals and full moon rafting trips. The rugged terrain and primitive wilderness is a huge draw for those who like to raft in untouched areas. The Middle Fork American wilderness canyon rivals the Tuolumne for it's pristine areas and water quality. The Middle Fork flows through Placer County and is part of the California State Park Auburn Recreation Area.

The Lower Middle Fork American is a Class 2 section well-suited for the beginner kayaker or rafter with young children in the age group of 2 - 5 years old. Most commercial outfitters provide families with an opportunity to acclimate young children to the equipment and experience of rafting in a whitewater boat. This easy Class 2 section is best suited for summer months during long, hot days where the only danger is from sunburn.

North Fork American River Class IV - V 24 miles <two sections of extreme whitewater>
Both sections of the North Fork American River are for expert use only. In the section called the Chamberlain Falls run, the North Fork American rapids are a collection of technical Class 4+ that comes in rapid succession from the start of the trip. Rapids such as Chamberlain Falls and Staircase have captured the hearts of kayakers and rafters both. Demanding technical expertise and manuevers, outfitters will usually ask about your past paddling experiences before they will guide you down this stretch.

The other section is the legendary Giant's Gap which is just above the Chamberlain Falls section. Giant's Gap is only for Class 5 experts. No beginners should attempt this run. Absolutely no access, a serious rock wall climb is needed if there are any problems on the rafting trip. This Class V run should only be attempted by experienced users only. For a great description of the Giant Gap run click here.

The other popular section of the American River system runs through the urban city of Sacramento, California. This is NOT a whitewater river, but a gentle float trip in the summer during normal flows.

Lower American River in Sacramento Class I - II <popular do it yourself section; wear your lifejacket; lots of hazards such as trees, obstacles; spring time may be dangerous due to high flows>
A huge meandering section, "the crown jewel" that flows through Sacramento, California, home of the state capitol and the famous Hollywood govenor, Arnold Schwartzenegger. This large Class 2 river flows through the backyard of the California State University of Sacramento, the neighborhood of River Park near East Sacramento and also parallels the world class bicycle trail in the American River Parkway. Beautiful and serene, the river captures the hearts of river lovers everywhere. Mostly a do-it-yourself float trip, this river unfortunately attracts a lot of users who are not aware of the dangers that lurk below. Trees, obstructions and sometimes very cold and swift flows, the river looks deceptively calm. Many people have had unfortunate accidents here due to rafting and floating without proper gear such as lifejackets, wetsuits or even basic fundamental water skills. The Effie Yeaw Nature Center is also on the banks of the river. This is an award winning environmental program highlighting the riparian flora and fauna of the American River. This river also hosts the first triathalon ever in the world, Eppie's Great Race where thousands of triathletes from around the world descend into Sacramento with teams fighting for placement in three races; bicycling, running and kayaking.

The conservation efforts in Sacramento have protected this river and its parkway for more future use. Due to the close proximity to Sacramento, a major population center, the American River Parkway is in danger of encroaching civilization. A glut of huge mansion type homes (McMansions) have been built spoiling the views and literally changing the ambiance of the corridor. Well-known American River environmentalist, Frank Cirill along with SARA (Save American River Association), an all volunteer, grass-roots organization, have worked hard since 1961 to protect this river corridor. It is a river that has inspired many California artists and environmentalists. From this float trip, many users are then enticed to the more adventurous whitewater sections northeast of the Sacramento area.

DISCLAIMER: As with all information about rivers, the conditions such as flows, obstructions, dam releases or other manmade or natural situations may cause the river to become dangerous or unavailable. Please check with local resources or government agencies regarding conditions of any river. If you are doing a trip on your own without a professional guide, it is most important to either go with someone who has had prior experience on the river in question or to contact local boating clubs or organizations in the surrounding area to update yourself about the river conditions. For California rivers, see this site for more descriptions:

Links for environmental and conservation efforts for the American River Parkway and System:
American River Conservancy
American River Natural History Association
American River Parkway Foundation
American River Watershed Group

Citizens to Save The Bluffs
Effie Yeaw Nature Center
Friends of the River
International Rivers Network
Preserve Rancho Murieta
Protect American River Canyons
Sierra Nevada Alliance
Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign

Programs on the American River whitewater rafting with W.E.T. River Trips include: Family Rafting Discounts, Teen Rafting Programs, Student Discounts, Early Season Rafting Discounts and California Rafting news.

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Copyright 1995-2006
update: October 25, 2006

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For more information on California river trips or American whitewater please see our home page. More information on the American River rafting can be found at and The American River website. Many questions may be answered at our frequently asked questions page. For more California rivers and their descriptions, see