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Rafting the South Fork of the American River

Updated on April 8, 2014

California's Most Popular Whitewater Run is a Blast

Whitewater rafting has long been on my bucket list, and this summer I finally got a chance to see what it was like when I won tickets for a trip down the South Fork of the American River near Sacramento. My son and I spent half a day running rapids with names like Satan's Cesspool, Deadman's Drop and Hospital Bar. But don't let the names fool you. If you enjoy roller coasters and water sports, you'll find rafting the South Fork more fun than fear-inspiring. There's no way I'm checking river rafting off my bucket list. It was so much fun, I'm ready to do it again!

(Photo by Lisa Howard)

Hello, You're the Winner - Learning that I've won a whitewater rafting trip

rafting south fork of american river
rafting south fork of american river

When I received a call saying I had won rafting tickets, I initially thought it was some type of marketing scam. But as the woman talked about my prize, I vaguely remembered entering a contest months before on the American River Recreation website. I had virtually forgotten about it. But now it was slowly coming back to me. I had entered a contest and I had won! WOW!

My prize was a half-day trip for two people on the South Fork of the American River, an 87-mile stretch of water in northern California that starts near Lake Tahoe and empties into Folsom Lake.

The American River has played an important role in California history. James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill along the river in January 1848, starting the California Gold Rush, and today the South Fork is the most popular whitewater run in all of California. With Class I - III rapids, it's easy enough for beginners, but still fun for more experienced rafters, too.

I made reservations to go in mid-July and then waited with excitement!

(Photo information: This photo was shot from the shore as our group navigated one of the rapids. I'm the person on the left with the camera strapped to my helmet, and my son Chase is right behind me. Credit: Hot Shot Imagining. )

Rafting the South Fork of the American River - Our half-day adventure

rafting south fork of american river
rafting south fork of american river

The meeting area for American River Recreation is a small campground located about 8 miles from Cool, California, along Highway 49. If you blink, you'll miss it. And we almost did. But I was watching the odometer carefully, so we arrived at the staging area in plenty of time to check in, board the bus that would take us to the launching area, and head off to our adventure.

After a quick bus ride, we reached the launching area, where we were all outfitted with life vests, helmets and paddles. Yeah, I was ready to go! But not quite yet. First we heard a safety lecture ("If you fall off the boat, don't try to stand. Just float with your feet in front of you. Trust your life vest. Listen to your guide"), and then we were divided into groups. Our group could have been celebrating Take Your Son Rafting Day, as there were three of us parents accompanied by one son each .

Our guide Yuri was from Peru. This was his first year in the US and his first season rafting the American River, but he was an experienced guide. Like many of the guides, he "follows the summer," moving from the northern to southern hemisphere as the seasons change. His English was excellent, and I got a kick out of the fact that he referred to us collectively as "chicos" or "kids." I guess that's what we were in terms of our rafting experience!

Since only one of us "chicos" had any rafting experience, Yuri instructed all of us how to sit properly (one foot under the middle section of the raft and the other stabilized behind us) and how to paddle. The goal was to paddle in synch. Our initial efforts were, well, pathetic. Each time Yuri would yell, "Forward!" the sound of clanging paddles quickly followed. But as we started downstream, we got better.

The river started out mild and gave us time to practice our paddling skills in fairly easy waters. We played a game in which someone had to stand on the front of the raft while the rest of us paddled the craft in a circle, attempting to knock them off balance. I was pleased when I managed to stay standing longer than the two teenage boys who went before me. Yes! But my victory was short-lived, as my successor remained standing longer AND performed an impressive backflip as he fell off. Well, at least I got a great shot of our group from my helmet cam as I fell off!

We stopped for lunch about mid-day and enjoyed a nice selection of sandwich meats, breads, chips and fresh fruit. Then it was back to the raft.

So far, the river had been a mixture of calm sections where we could mostly float with very little paddling, and short rapids that drenched us with cool water, but didn't offer too much danger of capsizing our raft. We simply listened for Yuri and dug in as he yelled "Forward!" and then let the river take control as he yelled for us to stop. So far, so good. But The Gorge was coming up. This section of the river is known for several Class III rapids, and if your boat is going to flip or you're going to fall out, this is most likely the place where it will happen. I was praying that wouldn't happen to us.

With names like Satan's Cesspool, the rapids here were more challenging than those we'd already encountered. But with a few hours of experience under our belts, we were ready. Weren't we? We watched as other rafts ahead of us splashed and bounced through the whitewater, the yellow rafts going up and down like a cork, the yellow helmets all but disappearing under the spray. But they all made it through. And then it was our turn.

"Forward!" Yuri yelled, and we all paddled hard. Splash! Bounce! I couldn't see anything but water. It crashed over us and spilled out the sides, and then we were through the first of the major rapids in The Gorge. We raised our paddles in a high five! More rapids were ahead. We conquered those, too. And within minutes, we were on the other side of The Gorge and back to calmer waters. What a run!

It had been fast but fun. Our half-day adventure on the South Fork was coming to an end. Soon we came to a calm area where all the other rafts and a JetSki waiting for us, as we were the last raft from American River Recreation running the river. They hooked up all the rafts to the JetSki and it pulled us the last few minutes. Yes, we ended our river run behind a JetSki!

In this part of the river, there was no current, and we were facing a headwind. We learned that all the rafting companies prefer to tow their rafts the last 10 minutes or so, letting customers relax and bask in the sun for the final minutes, leaving them with a good memory. The alternative would be to wipe out those last few, fun minutes of adrenaline rush through The Gorge with a bad memory of ending the trip tired, hot and paddling hard against a headwind. It made sense to me!

When we hit Folsom Lake, vans and buses were ready to take all the gear and rafters back to the starting point. We enjoyed cold sodas while the ARR team quickly deflated the rafts, put them on trailers and loaded the gear. After a short ride on the bus, we were back at the camp where we started.

We'd spent half a day on the river, but it ended much too soon. I can't wait for next summer to go again!

(Photo copyright Lisa Howard)

More Photos from Our Rafting Adventure - Doesn't it look like fun?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Yes, we got WET! (Photo by Lisa Howard)This is me and my son Chase in a quiet moment on the river (Photo copyright Lisa Howard)Here's a view of all the folks on our raft as I fell off the front during a game designed to knock one person at a time into the water. (Photo by Lisa Howard)It's a beautiful ride down the South Fork of the American River. (Photo by Lisa Howard)
Yes, we got WET! (Photo by Lisa Howard)
Yes, we got WET! (Photo by Lisa Howard)
This is me and my son Chase in a quiet moment on the river (Photo copyright Lisa Howard)
This is me and my son Chase in a quiet moment on the river (Photo copyright Lisa Howard)
Here's a view of all the folks on our raft as I fell off the front during a game designed to knock one person at a time into the water. (Photo by Lisa Howard)
Here's a view of all the folks on our raft as I fell off the front during a game designed to knock one person at a time into the water. (Photo by Lisa Howard)
It's a beautiful ride down the South Fork of the American River. (Photo by Lisa Howard)
It's a beautiful ride down the South Fork of the American River. (Photo by Lisa Howard)

How Crazy Is It? - The South Fork is perfect for beginners and more advanced rafters

rafting south fork of american river
rafting south fork of american river

I included this photo to show you what it can look like from inside the raft as you stare into a wall of water splashing over the edge as you traverse a Class III rapid. But most of the time the South Fork isn't nearly this wild.

The reason the South Fork is so popular is because it's good for both beginners and experienced rafters. There are more than 25 major rapids along this stretch of the river, but much of the trip requires only moderate paddling to keep the raft on course. There are many stretches when you can just sit back and enjoy the scenery as the river moves you along.

River rapids are rated by the International Scale of River Difficulty into 6 classes. Class I (Easy) indicates a stretch of water that has small waves, clear passages and no serious obstacles. Class II (Moderate) identifies rapids of moderate difficulty that still have clear passages. Class III (Difficult) denotes a section of river with numerous high, irregular waves and eddies with rocks presents. The passages of Class III rapids are still clear, but narrow, requiring expertise in maneuvering.

While there are risks involved in Class III rapids, rafting this section of the American River is considered safe enough for fairly young kids. One of the rafts in our group had two little girls inside. The minimum age for the trip was 7, so they both had to meet this requirement, but I doubt that could have exceeded it by much. One of the girls was laughing and having a great time throughout the day. The other one screamed a lot. :-) But they both made it safely to the end of the river with no mishaps.

Video From Our Rafting Trip - A view from inside the raft

Here's a short video clip from our rafting trip down the South Fork. The view is a little crazy, as the camera was hanging around my neck and we were rowing through Class III rapids. But it gives you a little sense of how much you're bouncing up and down on the river!

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    • FrancesWrites profile image

      FrancesWrites 4 years ago

      Great lens! Love the helmet cam photos - that intro photo makes me feel like I'm about to be drenched :) What a good thing it turned out to be, winning that competition!

    • profile image

      golfspice 4 years ago

      Looks like a great experience and adrenalin rush. Often thought about it, but never done it - yet!

    • dbitterman profile image

      dbitterman 4 years ago

      I've been putting it off for a while, but this lens may have pushed me over the edge (and into the water, I guess). Thanks.

    • dbitterman profile image

      dbitterman 4 years ago

      I've been putting it off for a while, but this lens may have pushed me over the edge (and into the water, I guess). Thanks.

    • profile image

      SamanthaHaupt 4 years ago

      Excellent lens, I'd love to try this!

    • profile image

      Torrs13 4 years ago

      This looks like a ton of fun! An adrenaline rush I'm sure!

    • hkhollands profile image

      hkhollands 4 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your adventure. I would love to try that.

    • Susan Zutautas profile image

      Susan Zutautas 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I've always wanted to go whitewater rafting. Enjoyed reading about your adventure. Great shots!

    • girlfriendfactory profile image

      girlfriendfactory 4 years ago

      Great shots and wonderful description! We live not far from here and hang out at one of the campgrounds just down the road from where you launched. My son isn't experienced with the river yet though so I haven't taken him rafting. We do love the lakes in the area so I'm sure he'll want to go soon! I'll show him your video! Well done!

    • HughSmulders LM profile image

      HughSmulders LM 4 years ago

      I guess so much adrenaline gets into your blood at such moments! =)

    • profile image

      natureadventure 4 years ago

      I invite you to do rafting in Nepal and bungy jump at Bhotekoshi

      river. Very rough rafting. Anyway your lens is great!!!

    • shewins profile image

      shewins 4 years ago

      I've been rafting down that same stretch of the American River. It was great, just like you described.

    • profile image

      JaspinderKaur 4 years ago

      cool pics & great fun.

    • profile image

      fifinn 4 years ago

      it seems fun. Nice share

    • clevergirlname profile image

      clevergirlname 4 years ago

      Great job! I want to go rafting someday!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      A well deserved purple star indeed. You are such a bright spot at Squidoo. I want to be more like you Lisa. I love this lens, it's from the heart. Great pictures, love the video! You are a wonderful mom and great lensmaster.

    • Raymond Eagar profile image

      Raymond Eagar 4 years ago

      Looks like a lot of fun .

    • NatureFan LM profile image

      NatureFan LM 4 years ago

      I love rafting too!! That's so amazing that you won that trip. And what a great idea it was to wear a camera on your helmet.

    • MrAusAdventure profile image

      Bill 4 years ago from Gold Coast, Australia

      That looks like awesome fun! I have been white water rafting and kayaking once here in Australia a few hours south of me, it was great fun, but on a much smaller river than that. I love that part of California, I worked a ski season in Lake Tahoe and would love to visit the region in the summer time to do something like this.

    • LoriBeninger profile image

      LoriBeninger 4 years ago

      Great photos, great fun. It has been over thirty years since I was on the American in a raft -- but the memories are vivid and your lens brought them all back. Thank you!

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      This is something I've wanted to do for years. Lucky gal, you won the opportunity and crafted an exciting article about it.

    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 4 years ago from Louisville, KY

      I think you are lucky to have won such a fun trip. I have been white water rafting on the Snake River and several times on the Upper Gauley. So much fun!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 4 years ago from Colorado

      Too much fun. Makes me want to get in a raft right this moment. I haven't been in years. Talk about the perfect memories to make with your son. So happy you won those tickets. People come from all over the country and world to experience Colorado's whitewater. No excuse for me not to do some river running with the opportunity practically in my backyard. Congrats on making the Imminent reel!

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 4 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Oh Me! I loved reading about your rafting experience. I used to go rafting in my younger days and have such fond memories. My first rafting experience was down the Chattooga River, the one in the movie "Deliverance". Thank you for sharing your wonderful story and I loved the pictures and your video.

    • Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 4 years ago from Europe

      That looks like a blast, I'm not sure about rafting through Satan's cesspool though!