Three Ways to Raft the South Fork American River

Posted June 20, 2020 by Sammy Russo

The South Fork American River has something for everyone. All-Outdoors runs trips on three separate sections on the South Fork. Each section offers its own unique experience: the Upper “Chili Bar”, the Lower “Gorge”, and the Tom Sawyer Float trip on the Easy Section through the Coloma-Lotus Valley. Which is best for your group depends on who’s coming, how much adventure you’re looking for, and your rafting experience.

Beginner/Intermediate Class III+

You can book either of the South Fork’s Class III+ sections as a 1-Day trip that includes lunch or an Express trip, which does not. The main difference between the sections is how quickly you plunge into the more challenging rapids. For a more leisurely experience, you can raft both of these sections in a 2-Day trip that includes camping, two lunches, dinner, and breakfast.

Upper “Chili Bar”

The nine-mile Chili Bar run offers excitement from the start. Steep, rocky hillsides surround us as we drop into the canyon. Less than half a mile in, we hit Class III+ Meatgrinder. A short recovery pool follows just above the next Class III challenge: Racehorse Bend, a fast sweeping left bend that ends in a swirling pool.

Over the next few miles we progress through a mix of Class II and III rapids. Maya, African Queen, and Triple Threat start us off. A few more Class II rapids follow, offering a respite before Class III+ Troublemaker, the day’s last big thrill. After Troublemaker, we float serenely over Class I and II through Marshall Gold Discovery State Park and the town of Coloma.

Upper trips typically meet mid-morning. Once checked in, we board the bus to the put in. Take out is typically mid-afternoon.

Troublemaker on the South Fork American

The Lower “Gorge”

The twelve-mile Gorge trip, which covers the lower section of the South Fork, usually meets late in the morning. The Lower section starts off mellow. This lets us warm up and hone skills with Class II and II+ rapids like Barking Dog, Highway, and Swimmer’s Rapid.

On 1-Day and 2-Day trips, we stop above the Gorge for lunch before hitting the more challenging Class IIIs further down. The first major rapid is Class III, Fowler’s Rock, quickly followed by Haystack Canyon and Class III+ Satan’s Cesspool. This is just the beginning of an exciting series of Class III and III+ rapids that finish out the day!

Bouncing Rock on the South Fork American River

Appropriate for Young Kids Class I–II

Tom Sawyer Float Trip

Our Tom Sawyer Trip is a five-mile float along the middle section of the South Fork through the Coloma-Lotus Valley. It meets mid-morning and wraps up mid-afternoon. This trip is dotted with fun, splashy Class I and II rapids, making it a perfect river adventure for families with children as young as 5. We break out the inflatable kayaks and sometimes a few inner tubes for some added adventure.

As the river meanders through the valley between the upper and lower sections, you’ll enjoy grassy hillsides spotted with oak groves, alder, and cottonwood. Often, we’ll see a mother merganser with her brood of chicks frolicking in the currents. Sometimes, we even spot a turtle or two sunbathing on a log or a heron fishing in the shallows. The historic Highway 49 periodically comes into view below high rolling hills.

Tom Sawyer Float Trips

Still not sure which trip is best for you? Read through our customer reviews to see what others have to say!


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