The North Fork of the American River is often described as romantic, probably because visitors immediately fall in love with the awe-inspiring river canyon. Rock walls tower 2000′ to 4000′ above the river, creating a majestic backdrop for cascading waterfalls, brightly colored wildflowers, and the aquamarine waters of the North Fork itself. It is best known for its thrilling class IV and V whitewater, but challenging hiking trails, outstanding fishing, abundant wildlife, and dramatic scenery make the free-flowing, Wild and Scenic North Fork a California favorite.
Whitewater Rafting on the North Fork
The North Fork of the American River offers some of the best and most popular class IV and V whitewater rafting and kayaking in California. Boating is optimal on the North Fork from April through June, depending on the winter snow pack and spring runoff. The spring is a spectacular time to raft or kayak the North Fork because wildflowers abound and spring rains keep the vegetation lush and green. The North Fork American is free-flowing, so the water reduces to merely a trickle in the summer and fall months.
There are several options for intermediate and advanced boating on the North Fork of the American. Generation Gap, the highest run in elevation and in difficulty, offers 12 miles of solid class V whitewater. Just below Generation Gap is Giant Gap, 14.5 miles of class II-IV rapids. Giant Gap flows directly into the Chamberlain Falls run, and many boaters choose to continue downstream the 9 miles to an easy take-out.
Generation Gap (above Euchre Bar) is only run by expert kaykers and some expert rafters. The only way to put-in is a 3-mile hike that takes boaters to a wonderland of whitewater, scenery, and solitude. The water is crystal-clear, the rapids are steep, and there is no way out of this spectacular, remote canyon except downstream. The whitewater is so exciting on this section of the North Fork, that you will hardly have a moment to enjoy some of the most breathtaking scenery in California.
Just below Generation Gap is the more popular class V Giant Gap section (Euchre Bar to Iowa Hills Rd). It is mostly run by private boaters, however a few commercial rafting companies still offer trips on “The Gap.” The two mile hike to put-in at Euchre Bar is a workout, but not as difficult as the three tumultuous class V rapids: Nutcracker, Locomotive, and Dominator. There are numerous fun class II-IV rapids as well. The Giant Gap section requires lots of maneuvering and there are few places to hike out of the canyon or to portage the rapids, so boaters must commit to running the entire stretch.
When most people talk about The North Fork, they are referring to the classic class IV Chamberlain Falls run. This 9 mile section of the North Fork of the American is the most popular because of its easy access, stunning beauty, and continuous whitewater. Slaughter’s Sluice and the famous 6′ Chamberlain Falls (the rapid the run is named after) begin the run with an exciting bang. Bogus Thunder and Staircase end the 5-mile class IV section with a thrill and the rest of the rapids are class II and III to take-out. Flows are considered best above 900 cfs and below 3000 cfs, but expert boaters run it up to 5500 cfs. The Chamberlain Falls run is a one-day trip unless combined with Giant Gap. Several commercial rafting companies offer a double whammy where you can opt to do the Chamberlain Falls section twice in one day.
The North Fork American is one of the most raved about rivers in California for private boating. Rafting and kayaking are possible on all three sections of the North Fork, although access to Chamberlain Falls makes it the most popular run. Carrying gear in to put-in on both Generation Gap and Giant Gap, plus the lack of emergency access on these two runs, make them less appealing. Class V boating skills are necessary, and while the mile-by-mile guides are excellent as reminders, someone in each group should have experience running the North Fork. Also, due to high flows and flooding in the winter, be cautious of logs and debris that may block the river as flows fluctuate in the spring.
Novice paddlers enjoy the quiet and lovely Class II+ Shirttail Canyon run, downstream from Chamberlain Falls, as a change of scenery and break from the more crowded Coloma to Lotus run on the South Fork.
Other North Fork Recreation
Although whitewater is the biggest recreational attraction on the North Fork, numerous trails throughout the canyon allow for hiking, hunting, fishing, swimming, rock climbing, and camping as well, especially on the lower parts of the North Fork. Two popular trails that lead directly to the North Fork itself are the Canyon Creek Trail and the Pickering Bar Trail. Sections of the trails are steep and technical, but the views, scenery, and solitude make it well worth the trek. In the Autumn months, hikers can enjoy the changing colors and the cooler temperatures. On the lower section, just above the confluence with the Middle Fork American and near Highway 49, there is road access to the North Fork making swimming and picnics popular during the summer. Superb Rainbow Trout fishing is most easily accessed near Colfax and Weimar. There is wilderness camping available in the North Fork canyon by permit only, so check with the Forest Service to acquire a camping permit.
History and Natural History
The headwaters of the North Fork are high in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the backsides of Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley ski resorts. Since the North Fork is free flowing, the snow pack in the Sierras determines the flows in the spring. From April to June, when the river is at its optimal flows for boating, the wildflowers are in full bloom. Contrasted to the turquoise water and the gray cliffs, the brightly colored flowers seem to pop out of the canyon in a very dramatic fashion. Oaks, Alders, and Pines also line the North Fork canyon and make shelter for the various wildlife that lives in the area. Black Bears (at higher elevations), mountain lions, spotted owls, peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and deer are just some of the species that claim the North Fork as their home.
In 1978 the North Fork American was granted Wild and Scenic status, helping to preserve the nearly untouched canyon from logging, damming, and development. Unlike the Middle Fork, there are few obvious remnants from the Gold Rush era since the North Fork was not nearly as populated in the 1850’s as the South Fork or the Middle Fork. In 1851 there were approximately 2000 inhabitants living at the Green Valley Miner Camp, but the deep canyon made transporting mining equipment challenging and most of the miners quickly grew tired and headed to other rivers.
Escape to the North Fork
Visitors easily fall in love with the North Fork of the American because of the spectacular scenery, awe-inspiring canyon, and thrilling whitewater. Hopefully, the North Fork’s Wild and Scenic status will help to keep it relatively untouched for future generations.
Thanks to All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting for providing this article.