South Fork of the American River

The South Fork of the American River boasts the most popular whitewater rafting and kayaking west of the Rockies, and the area provides many other great opportunities for recreation on and off the river.

Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking

The 20-mile run from Chili Bar to Salmon Falls features over 20 named rapids and countless waves in between. It’s rated Class III at moderate summer flows, but at high water or early in the season should be considered Class III+ or IV. 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 “Chili Bar” and “Gorge” runs, and the expert kayakers spend hours perfecting their rodeo moves in the world-famous Chili Bar Hole, First Threat, Maya, and other play spots. Upstream from the Chili Bar stretch, expert boaters can test their skills on the Kyburz stretch, Slab Creek, Ice House, and other runs.

Private rafters and kayakers will find lots of information on river conditions, logistics, and local resources on the Resources and Kayaking pages. For more information on what to expect and how to choose an outfitter, see the Rafting pages. After your day on the water make sure to visit one of our photography companies to see your action shots.

If you have questions about river flows on the South Fork please review the information on this page.


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.


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.

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.

Whitewater Rafting