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The American River

The American River

Head to this river in Gold Country for some of the best whitewater rafting anywhere

The most popular whitewater-rafting river in the West, the American River surges through Gold Country, an inviting jumble of churning rapids, deep pools, and tumbling cascades. Each of the American’s three forks serve up their own style of watery fun (rapids range from Class II to IV+), which means outfitters are able to offer everything from family-friendly half-day floats to white-knuckle multi-day adventures, as well as rentals of everything you need.

While its rich riparian ecosystem long supported Native American tribes, the next wave of humans—the legendary ‘49ers—saw the waterway as means to their fortune, panning for gold in the river silt and blasting banks with hydraulic spouts, hoping to reveal veins of the precious metal. While remnants of old mining equipment still poke up in or near the river and towns like Coloma still welcome visitors in search of river experiences, the rush for gold has mostly been replaced by the rush for adrenaline.

Which fork works for you? The most popular is the South Fork—starting at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, its Class II-III rapids are perfect for families with young children and first-time rafters. The lower segments of the North and Middle Forks offer easy Class II rapids—a great place to try out whitewater canoeing or kayaking. But it’s a whole other story upriver, with upper segments of both forks boasting Class IV-V rapids with names like Bogus Thunder and Texas Chainsaw Mama.

While day trips are always a blast—especially on hot summer days when good-natured water fights between rafters break out with inviting frequency—there is nothing quite like spending the night alongside the river, trout rising on the surface of the silvery water as evening falls and a frieze of stars paints the night sky. Some outfitters go all out to create unique getaways; OARS offers craft beer-tastings on some of its overnight trips, and American Whitewater Expeditions has a Wine & Whitewater trip. In addition, All-Outdoors offers multi-day rafting/camping trips on the Middle Fork of the American River. 

Useful info: Before getting out on the water, check river conditions to see what you can expect. While in the area, drop by the American River Conservancy headquarters in Coloma, where you can book a docent-led hike or a private tour of Wakamatsu Farm, a historic landmark in Placerville, 10 miles away.