Your browser is out of date.
This site may not function properly in your current browser. Update Now

Whitewater Rafting on the South Fork of the American River

Whitewater Recreation Area
Whitewater Rafting on the South Fork American River –

The 21-mile stretch of the South Fork of the American River is less than an hour from Sacramento, and just an hour and a half from Lake Tahoe. It's often referred to as "everyone's favorite river" because it's accessible and ideal for first-time rafters.

Here is a mile by mile guide: Upper South Fork American ~ Chili Bar Run Mile 0

Put-in (start) for Upper South Fork American River Chili Bar rafting trips. Mile 0.3

CHILI BAR HOLE (II). For many years Chili Bar Hole was the site of the Chili Bar Rodeo. On low-water years, the competition moved downstream to First Threat Rapid. Chili Bar was named after the Chilean road builders during the early Gold Rush days. A 'hole' is created when the river current drops over a rock or ledge and circulates instead of continuing its downstream flow. Mile 0.6

MEATGRINDER (III). A long rock garden with big waves and a hidden boulder at the bottom. Meatgrinder is also known as Quarter Mile Rapid because of its length. At high flows, this rapid has some huge waves and holes. Mile 1.3

RACEHORSE BEND (II+). At Racehorse Bend rapid, the river drops and bends left, pushing current into the right wall. Swimming here is not recommended, especially at low summer flows. Mile 1.5

MAYA (II-III). Maya is a favorite surf and lunch spot for kayakers and private rafters. It's normally a pretty easy run down the middle, but there is a big hole at higher flows. There is a sneak route on the far right. Mile 1.8

ROCK GARDEN (II). As its name implies, this is a rock garden to be maneuvered through with skill. Mile 3.0

TRIPLE THREAT (III). Three separate drops, and all three can be run down the middle - with lots of bouncy, splashy fun. The third drop is after a sharp left-hand bend. First Threat Rapid is a favorite kayak surfing hole and site of the American River Festival Rodeo. Mile 5.1

TROUBLEMAKER (III+). This is the biggest rapid on the upper section of this whitewater rafting trip. The river bends sharply right and then left, passing Gunsight Rock. It's also sometimes referred to as "S-Turn" rapid. Professional photographers frequently are stationed riverside, as are a host of whitewater enthusiasts - often cheering and applauding as you pass through the rapid. You may review and/or purchase photos after completing your American River rafting experience. Mile 5.2 - 10.6

Easy Class I and II rapids. Pass the historic Gold Rush town of Coloma. Mile 5.2

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park. The park sprawls across both sides of the highway, encompassing a museum, a full-scale replica of Sutter's Mill where the Gold Rush started, as well as a ghost town of restored period buildings and Gold Rush artifacts. At the museum you can learn how to pan for gold, and you can buy a gold pan there as well. Bekeart's Gun Shop, located in the Park, offers similar activities and old-fashioned trade goods. Mile 6.6

BEGINNER'S HOLE RAPID (II). Also known as "Taco Bender" this is a fun play spot for kayakers. Mile 7.1

OLD SCARY (II). The river bends sharply left, with an island midstream. Old Scary used to be one of the most difficult rapids on the Chili Bar-to-Coloma section of the South Fork until high water in 1982 rearranged it. Mile 7.3

LAUGHING EDDY (II). Also known as Blue House Eddy or Whiplash. There is a sharp-edged eddy on river left, at the blue house shortly above the bridge. An eddy is an area of usually calm water behind or downstream of an obstruction in the main current, such as a rock, where water flows counter to that of the main current. Mile 7.4

Henningsen Lotus Park This 51-acre park provides a wide variety of recreation opportunities. The park is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. until dusk. Take out or put in here to continue to the lower section of the South Fork. Mile 8.5

LOTUS LEDGE SURFING HOLE (II). This used to be a fun little ledge hole, but it was wiped out in the flood of January 1997, and is now simply a riffle. A riffle is a shallow stretch in the river where water forms small rippled waves. Mile 9.0

BARKING DOG RAPID (II). This is a fun little surfing wave where kayakers like to practice their rolling skills. Mile 10.6

CURRENT DIVIDER RAPID (II+). A rocky chute. Mile 10.8

HIGHWAY RAPID (II+). A long, curving rock garden.. Mile 11.5

SWIMMER’S RAPID. Swimmer's Rapid is a great spot for rafting passengers to jump in and experience what it feels like to swim a rapid. It is a fun wave train rapid. Mile 12.2

Public restrooms. These are the only public facilities on the South Fork American River whitewater rafting trip. Mile 13.9

FOWLER’S ROCK (III). Entrance to ‘The Gorge’ - occurs after the third sighting of the Lollipop tree. This tree can be spotted atop a distant hill and does indeed resemble a lollipop. This is the first big rapid on the South Fork’s lower section. The river bends left into a short pool then back to the right where a boulder cluster marks the entry to the rapid. Mile 16.9

SATAN’S CESSPOOL (III+). Satan’s is the biggest rapid in the Gorge Run of the South Fork American River. After a long pool, the river pours over a sharp drop (Lost Hat), then bends left and right into a bigger drop against the left wall. There is a small eddy on the left just down stream. A rock above the final drop provides a good vantage point for photographers and spectators. Professional photographers are frequently stationed here with their cameras. Mile 17.0


SCISSORS (III). The river turns left down a narrow, rocky chute with big, irregular waves. Mile 17.6

LOWER HAYSTACK CANYON (II+). A fun, bouncy rapid with big standing waves and short drops in a narrow section. Mile 18.1

BOUNCING ROCK (II+). This rapid, with a big hole on river right, provides a bouncy whitewater ride. Mile 18.6

HOSPITAL BAR (III). Named for a medical tent set up here during the Gold Rush, this is the last big, splashy rapid on The Gorge Run. The rapid is a rock chute that bends left and then right. It provides surprising whitewater fun. Professional photographers are sometimes stationed here with their cameras. Mile 18.8

RECOVERY ROOM (II+). Big, fun waves and clean drops. Mile 19.4

SURPRISE RAPID (II). If the Folsom Reservoir is full, there will be a flat-water paddle or a tow-out, and this rapid will be under water. Class II rapids continue to mile 20 if the reservoir is low. It is a treat to find Surprise Rapid uncovered! Mile 20.5

TAKE OUT for the South Fork American River Gorge Run is at Salmon Falls Bridge at Folsom Reservoir.

Access Points

Chili Bar: The only publicly-accessible put-in for the Chili Bar run. Fees charged for parking and put-ins. The Chili Bar Store sells snacks and last-minute supplies. The American River Conservancy handles the lower parking area. Chili Bar Store (530) 642-1669. American River Conservancy (530) 621-1224.

Henningsen Lotus County Park: Easy river access, lots of parking, bathrooms and open-air shower, modest fee, open year-round. The park closes and an entrance gate is locked at sunset. This park was developed by El Dorado County Parks and Recreation and is funded by Dept. of Boating and Waterways for non-commercial boating access. (530) 621-5353. A good take-out for Chili Bar or put-in for the Gorge. When Camp Lotus' parking lot is full (some summer weekends) it can also be used as the take-out for a shortened Class II Coloma-Lotus run.

Salmon Falls Bridge: This is the take-out for the Gorge, and is the last river access before Folsom Reservoir. Take out on the right bank just upstream of the bridge. Parking fees charged. There is additional parking across the bridge on road right. Open year round. As always, don't leave valuables in your car; Salmon Falls has a bad reputation for break-ins. Salmon Falls Bridge at Folsom Reservoir

Best Seasons for Experiencing

April - September

Typical Class of Water

Class III

Nearby Places