The South Fork of the American is the people’s river. Rafting this waterway (map) is perfect for anyone age 7 to 77 (or more) and is ideal for first-timers, yet still fun for repeaters. The Class II–III rating accurately indicates that participants are surely in for a thrill or two in certain sections—like the infamous Troublemaker rapid—but there’s little chance of bouncing out of your raft. (And if you do, it’s usually nothing more than a refreshing dunk and no-big-deal hoist back into the raft.) The quintessentially Californian adventure even includes a Golden State history lesson: The river runs right past the spot where the 1849 Gold Rush began, at Sutter's Mill in Coloma.
A slew of companies offer guided half- and full-day trips on the South Fork, with trips offered April into September. OARS, a family-run operation that has been in the business since 1962, offers half- and full-day trips in addition to their deluxe two-day camping excursions that include meals. Or consider a two-day trip with EarthTrek Expeditions, which will set you up in a riverfront tent with comfy cots (bring your own sleeping bag). Conquer the South Fork’s Lower Gorge on Day 1, and you’ll be ready for the wilder eight-mile Upper Gorge on Day 2, where rapids like Triple Threat and Meatgrinder leave you dripping wet and grinning from ear to ear. Your guides cook and serve you meals, including a Wild West barbecue on weekend trips. It’s your job to relax and take in the sunset from your cabin’s deck, which juts out over the river.
Another luxurious way to paddle the South Fork is on American Whitewater Expeditions' two-day excursion. Taste wines at El Dorado County’s hidden-gem vineyards on one day and go rafting on the next. Meals and camping are included.