The South Fork of the American River changed world history in 1848 when California’s first gold was discovered in its stream bed at Sutter’s Mill. This discovery triggered the California Gold Rush of 1849, sometimes referred to as the largest human migration for a single purpose since the Crusades. Unfortunately, once the easily found gold was removed, the miners made a mess of things with their hydraulic pumps, causing folks downstream to complain. Eventually, the mining operations were shut down, and today you can still find huge trenches created by the miners 150 years ago.
The Coloma-Lotus Valley is the major destination of the South Fork, shaped by the river today as in 1848. Three riverfront parks provide opportunities for family picnics and wading, and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park brings California’s history to life. This stretch of the South Fork, the most popular whitewater in California, provides many great opportunities for river recreation. The 20-mile run from Chili Bar to Salmon Falls, features over 20 named rapids and countless waves in between. Most paddlers run the river with a commercial rafting company. Outfitters provide the equipment, experienced guides, plus life jackets and other gear, so that you can enjoy the outdoor adventure without the hassle or expense of investing in your own equipment.
Those who decide to invest the time in learning to navigate the river themselves will also find the South Fork a great destination. The 3-mile, Class II “Coloma to Lotus” stretch is an ideal introduction to whitewater. Intermediate boaters enjoy the increased challenge of the Class III “Chili Bar” and “Gorge” runs, and the expert kayakers spend hours perfecting their rodeo moves in the world-famous Chili Bar Hole and other play spots. Private rafters and kayakers alike will find lots of information on river conditions, logistics and local resources in the Resources and Kayaking pages.site.
Take a Virtual Tour of the South Fork.
For more information on what to expect and how to choose an outfitter, see the Rafting pages.
If you’d like to visit the area, or learn more about the history of the river and the Coloma-Lotus valley, don’t miss the Coloma Valley website.