South Fork of the American

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Coloma, California

South Fork of the American Rafting Guidebook

The South Fork of the American is the most popular river in the West. It’s family-friendly, the rapids are exciting but not terrifying, and it has reliable flows all season long. This guide outlines the three most common runs in consecutive order beginning with Chili Bar, C to G, and finally The Gorge. These runs can be broken up or put together, giving you a variety of whitewater and length.

Most private boaters will do the entire South Fork over two days. Conveniently, Camp Lotus is right in the middle of the run, so if you’re well organized, book a campsite there and start with Chili Bar, spend the night at Lotus, then push off the next day and finish out C to G and through The Gorge.

Tributary Whitewater is the leading outfitter on the South Fork of the American. They offer half-day, full-day, and two-day trips on the South Fork.

Paddling the South Fork of the American? Our SFA guide has you covered: 58 waypoints | Live, Offline Location | 16 photos

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Chili Bar – Class II and III

The Chili Bar run offers it all from start to finish with Class II and III whitewater throughout the entire run. You have the option for an earlier takeout at Discovery Park but most opt to go a bit further to add some mileage.

Mile 0 – Chili Bar River Access:

River Right. Chili Bar is the most popular put in on the South Fork. This is a fee area.

Mile 0.05 – Chili Bar Surf Wave:

Putting in high at Chili Bar gives access to this excellent raft surf wave, with a large eddy on river left. Around ~1,700 CFS, this wave begins to crash a bit.

Mile 1.18 – Racehorse Bend:

Class III. Racehorse Bend begins with a fun wave train, with the largest of the hits being a large lateral off the right wall, arriving at the apex of the bend. Another fun wave train finishes off this rapid.

Mile 1.48 – Maya:

Class II. Right down the middle at most flows except high water (~3,000 CFS). Large holes and waves when the water is up. Stick to the right if you’re sneaking it. Maya is a very popular play wave for kayakers.

Mile 1.78 – Rock Garden:

Class II. Every river has a Rock Garden rapid and the South Fork of the American is no exception. Weave your way through this minefield.

Mile 2.02 – African Queen:

Class II. Stay right for most of the way and then cut back left towards the end. There is a fun wave at the bottom of this rapid. African Queen was a movie that came out in 1951.

Mile 3.08 – First Threat:

Class III. This and the following two rapids make up what’s called Triple Threat. The lead into First Threat is Class II. Don’t let your guard down, however, because there is a rock in the center of the flow called Frog Rock that has been known to wrap rafts. It is easy to go left or right of this rock. Just downstream is First Threat, a fun punchy standing wave just after a tight right-hand bend. This is another popular kayak surf wave with eddy access along the river’s right bank.

Mile 3.16 – Second Threat:

Class II. With Second Threat, right of center and you’re good to go.

Mile 3.24 – Miners Creek:

River Right. Between Second and Third Threat there’s a small/medium-sized eddy on river right. Up the hill, the BLM has placed a composting toilet.

Mile 3.3 – Third Threat:

Class III. The third and final of the Triple Threat series, run it right down the middle avoiding the large holes on the right and left.

Mile 4.4 – Indian Creek:

River Left. Indian Creek enters the South Fork of the American River from the left-hand side. This marks the beginning of the quiet zone. The quiet zone ends at mile 11.50 at Greenwood Creek.

Mile 5.59 – Coloma Bridge:

Coloma Bridge passes overhead.

Mile 5.77 – Sutter’s Mill:

River Left. On river left you will see a rock monument. This is the site where James Marshall discovered gold in the tailings pile of John Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848. It took almost a year for word of the gold discovery to get to the East Coast. This is why the gold rush didn’t begin until 1849. This rock monument is part of the James Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. It is worth a walk-through before or after setting the shuttle.

Mile 6.02 – Marshall Gold Discovery State Park:

River Left. This takeout is located at the downstream end of the park. There are parking fees here. Other online resources say you are not allowed to take out here, only put-in, but we called to clarify and was told that was not accurate and both are allowed.

C to G – Class II

Coloma to Greenwood, known as C to G is a short 5.5-mile trip featuring mellow Class II and calm pools. This is a great stretch for those new to rafting or kayaking.

Mile 6.02 – Marshall Gold Discovery State Park:

River Left. This is the most popular put-in for the C to G run as it’s an easy five-mile trip from here. You can also put in further down at Henningsen but you cut out two miles.

Mile 6.53 – Gremlin:

Class II. Also called Beginner’s Hole, this is a popular spot for kayakers.

Mile 7.05 – Old Scary:

Class II. No longer scary, the river bends left in this Class II rapid.

Mile 7.28 – Blue house hole:

After Old Scary, go left of the island. At medium flows just downstream of the island, this surf wave is on river left.

Mile 7.43 –Highway 49 bridge:

Highway 49 crosses here. It was built in 1951, and reconstructed in 2016.

Mile 8.08 – Henningsen-Lotus County Park River Access:

River Left. This is probably your best bet for taking out if you’re only looking to do the Chili Bar run. The takeout is located at the furthest downstream end of the park. El Dorado County runs this park. It is a fee area.

Mile 8.16 – Fuzzy Bunny With Fangs:

Class II. After the Henningsen pool comes Fuzzy Bunny. A small rock island splits the channel with the left channel getting the majority of the water.

At flows above 3000 CFS, a fun wave forms at the bottom of the river right channel. At normal summer release flows the majority of the water flows down the left channel. Be aware of the Fang rocks that have water surging over them at the bottom of this rapid. Move left to right to avoid these rocks or hug the outside of the turn as you avoid overhanging trees.

Mile 9.08 – Camp Lotus:

River Left. Access point as well. This is the most popular riverside camp. Early reservations are recommended. If you’re not camping here, you can use the put in and take out for a fee.

Mile 9.23 – Barking Dogs Honking Geese:

This is a popular surf wave. Catch the eddy on the right and enjoy.

Mile 10.2 – Current Divider:

Class II. A rock island divides the current. Take the right side and then work back left.

Mile 11 – Highway Rapid:

Class II. Highway Rapid begins with a fun wave train in the main channel. Once through the top waves move right to exit the rapid on the right side of the large rock island in the middle of the river. Beware if you find yourself on the left side of the rock island, there are some nasty rocks to avoid in the exit of that channel.

Mile 11.4 – Swimmers Rapid:

Class II. Hop out of the raft and see what swimming a rapid is like in this mild Class II.

Mile 11.5 – Greenwood Creek:

River Right. Greenwood Creek marks the end of the quiet zone that started upriver at Indian Creek located at mile 4.40

Mile 11.5 – Greenwood Creek River Access:

River Right. No fee at this access point. Greenwood has limited parking, with overflow parking located at Magnolia Ranch Trailhead. Day use only.

The Gorge – Class II and III

After a mellow C to G run, the Gorge ramps up the intensity as it pulls away from town. Fun, splashy whitewater leads you into Folsom Lake.

Mile 11.5 – Greenwood Creek River Access:

River Right. No fee at this access point. Greenwood has limited parking, with overflow parking located at Magnolia Ranch Trailhead. Day use only.

Mile 11.53 – Turtle Pond:

As the name implies this is a very flat section of the river. Fortunately short though as Cable Car is less than half a mile away.

Mile 11.9 – Cable Car:

Class II. This is a read-and-run class II rapid.

Mile 12 – BLM Beach:

River Right. The next third of a mile features a series of good lunch/break beaches. There are also composting toilets here (accessible by all three beaches) which makes this a popular spot.

Mile 12.2 – Lower BLM Beach:

River Right. Second beach.

Mile 12.28 – Below Lower BLM Beach:

River Right. And the third beach.

Mile 12.78 – Airplane Turn:

Class II. More of a feature rather a rapid, but Airplane Turn offers three channels and the far left channel will get you close to shore and then shoot you back right allowing your raft to make a dramatic turn.

Mile 13.53 – Gorilla Pond Jump Rock:

River Right. Park just upstream of this jump rock to access it.

Mile 13.53 – Gorilla Pond:

Calm pool named after Gorilla Rock.

Mile 13.66 – Gorilla Rock:

River Left. Do you see it?

Mile 15.26 – Pit Stop Beach:

River Right. Pit Stop Beach is appropriately named for the toilets located here.

Mile 15.31 – Speed bump :

Speed Bump is a fun, kayaker-friendly surf wave

Mile 15.63 – Splat Rock:

Look river left for this fun raft splat rock.

Mile 15.86 – son of fowler:

Class II. Just below Fowlers is a fun class II wave train at normal summer release flows. At flows above 3000 CFS, two large holes begin to form. The top hole is on the top right-hand side of the river. There is a narrow channel to the right of this hole, but the main flow is on the left. The second hole forms in the middle of the river at the bottom of the rapid. Move left to right to avoid both holes.

Mile 16.25 – Upper Haystack Canyon:

Class II. Low consequence canyon with high thrills. Hit the tall waves straight. Haystack Canyon ends at the calm pool above Lost Hat.

Mile 16.73 – Jump Rock:

River Right. As Upper Haystack Canyon finishes up, look river right and you’ll spot a decent jump rock. Park your raft upstream and take care walking to it and choosing your jump site.

Mile 16.88 – Lost Hat:

Class III. Fun wave train. Pay attention here as this leads directly into Satan’s Cesspool.

Mile 17.03 – Son of Satan’s:

Class II. Go just right of a covered rock that’s located at the top center and then work left to avoid the bottom right wall.

Mile 17.49 – Scissors:

Class III. Read and run at the top of the rapid and towards the bottom you will want to go left of the massive boulder. Keep your raft straight in the squirrelly water and you’ll be fine.

Mile 17.78 – Lower Haystack Canyon:

Class II+. The beginning of this rapid is a fun and long set of wave trains. At the bottom of Lower Haystacks is a shallow rock in the center of the river. This creates a small hole on the left and a wave train on the right. Pick your poison.

As flows rise this feature becomes a hole in the center of the river. When flows reach 4500 cfs this feature starts to form a huge crashing wave, easily avoidable on the right. Hit this wave straight for a big fun hit. There is a pool down stream.

Mile 18.2 – Weber Creek:

River Left. Weber Creek is one of the largest tributaries to the South Fork of the American. It comes in on river left here, right at the top of Bouncing Rock Rapid.

Mile 18.2 – Bouncing Rock rapid:

Class III. Follow the main flow of the river along the outside of the bend. At the apex of this bend the river drops into a fun hole with a slight lateral shape. Hit this feature straight on for a bouncy ride. Finish up this rapid with a fun wave train.

Mile 18.33 – Pre-Op rapid:

Class II. Right of center, read and run. At high flows, there is an enormous hole here.

Mile 18.5 – Hospital Bar Jump Rock:

River Left. Below Pre-Op on river left is the last jump rock before takeout.

Mile 18.65 – Hospital Bar:

Class III. The river sweeps left with the right side of the river funneling into a lateral wave. After the lateral hit work your way to the right of the wave train. The water moves toward the left bank with some shallow rocks in the current that are easy to get hung up on. These rocks are known as the Catchers Mitt. A photographer sits on a rock just above the Catcher’s Mitt, so if you get hung up, smile! Stay left for a drier line, or square up to the lateral for a big, fun hit.

Mile 18.89 – Recovery Room:

Class II. This rapid will change based on reservoir levels. When the reservoir is low, a hole appears at the bottom of the rapid. When the reservoir is up, the hole washes out and the rapid loses its teeth. A fun wave train forms center left of the river. At the top in the center is a large sneaker hole known to some as “Little Big Hole”. The read and run small waves continue for a way.

Mile 19.33 – Surprise Rapid:

Class II. This rapid will change based on reservoir levels. It’s either buried under the lake or surprise, there’s a wave train with a pour-over rock in the center. Run left if you want to sneak the rock.

Mile 19.56 – Folsom Lake:

Depending on lake levels you will either have current to takeout or you’ll be paddling through flat water. There are oftentimes jet skiers who will tow you to the bridge for a fee.

Mile 20.55 – Salmon Falls Bridge:

River Right. This takeout is also known as Skunk Hollow. The takeout is on the upstream side of the bridge on river right.