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South Fork of the American2021-04-12T09:27:46-07:00

South Fork of the American

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.

About this guide

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.

Put-ins and take-outs include links to their Google Map locations. Use this to accurately build shuttle directions.

River Info

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.

Chili Bar is a fun Class II and III run that ends in the town of Coloma

C to G is a short and mellow Class II trip which is perfect for those brand new to whitewater, especially if they’re in kayaks.

Finally, The Gorge picks up Class III rapids again and takes you all the way down to Folsom Lake.

Permits

El Dorado County requires each craft to have a plastic boater tag. These are available at Chili Bar, Henningsen Lotus Park, and Camp Lotus.

Quiet Zone

The quiet zone is from Indian Creek at mile 4.40 to Greenwood Creek at mile 11.50. Please respect this and abstain from yelling and water fights. (In general, don’t give rafting a bad name.)

The flow range is wide on the South Fork, but to keep it within Class II and III+ it’s generally stated that’s from 1,000 – 5,000 CFS. You can run much higher than this, but at that point it’s a far harder river.

Lower Kern River Flow
Gauge data provided by Dream Flows

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South Fork of the American Guidebook

WARNING: Conditions change frequently and may make this guide useless. This guide is NOT a replacement for sound judgment. Go with someone with recent South Fork experience.

Class II Rapid

Class II rapid or river feature.

Class III Rapid

Class III rapid or river feature.

Put-In / Take-Out

The most commonly used access points.

Point of Interest

These include creeks and historical markers.

Fun Zone

Well known surf waves, jump rock locations, and safe swim areas

Campgrounds

Riverside camping locations.

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.

Length

Chili Bar to Heningson Park is 8.08 miles.

Difficulty

Moderate.

Feet per Mile

Chili Bar to Henningsen Park is 29 FPM

Shuttle Time

Chili Bar to Henningsen Park is 42 minutes round trip. Google Map directions.

Mile 0 – Chili Bar River Access: 38.76618, -120.82206 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: 38.76576, -120.82286 If you put in high at Chili Bar you will get access to this excellent raft surf wave.

Mile 0.67 – Meat Grinder: 38.77056, -120.83344 Class III. Right off the bat you’re hit with a long rapid, Meat Grinder. Plenty of holes to avoid (if you want) here.

Mile 1.18 – Racehorse Bend: 38.77163, -120.84233 Class III. The river makes a long sweeping left hand turn at this rapid. Stay to the inside of the turn.

Mile 1.48 – Maya: 38.76973, -120.84676 Class II. Right down the middle at most flows except high water. 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: 38.77181, -120.8489 Class II. Every river has a rock garden rapid and the SFA is no exception. Weave your way through this minefield.

Mile 2.02 – African Queen: 38.77445, -120.8461 Class II. Stay right for most of the way and then cut back left towards the end. African Queen was a movie that came out in 1951.

Mile 3.08 – First Threat: 38.78352, -120.85732 Class III. This and the following two rapids make up what’s called Triple Threat. First Threat is a right hand turn with a wave train leading to a tall standing wave that is a blast to punch through. Hit it straight and with momentum.

Mile 3.16 – Second Threat: 38.78461, -120.85773 Class II. With Second Threat, right of center and you’re good to go.

Mile 3.24 – Miners Creek: 38.78579, -120.8573 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: 38.78658, -120.85797 Class III. The third and final of the threat series, right down the middle avoiding the large holes on either side of you.

Mile 3.6 – The Narrows: 38.78871, -120.86237 Class II. The river pinches here and acceleerates giving you fun Class II water to maneuver through. The Narrows ends at a large rock island about half a mile downstream.

Mile 4.15 – Swimmers Rapid: 38.79036, -120.87211 Class II. Mild and fun swimming rapid.

Mile 4.4 – Indian Creek: 38.79106, -120.87679 River Left. This marks the beginning of the quiet zone. The quiet zone ends at mile 11.50 at Greenwood Creek.

Mile 5.13 – Trouble Maker: 38.79952, -120.88287 Class III. You can scout this rapid on river left. With its easy access, this rapid often has photographers shooting and spectators cheering you on. Trouble Maker is considered the most challenging rapid of the Chili Bar run and is appropriately named. The river splits around a rock island, take the left channel which will lead you into a sharp S turn. Square up for the big drop and once through, work your way back left.

Mile 5.59 – Coloma Bridge: 38.8016, -120.89052 Coloma Bridge

Mile 5.77 – Sutter’s Mill: 38.8034, -120.8923 River Left. This is the site that kicked off the California Gold Rush on January 24, 1848 when John Sutter discovered gold.

Mile 6.02 – Marshall Gold Discovery State Park: 38.80634, -120.89507 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.

Length

Discovery Park to Greenwood Creek is 5.48 miles.

Difficulty

Beginner.

Feet per Mile

Discovery Park to Greenwood Creek is 17 FPM

Shuttle Time

Discovery Park to Greenwood Creek is 10 minutes round trip. Google Map directions.

Mile 6.02 – Marshall Gold Discovery State Park: 38.80634, -120.89507 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 – Taco Bender: 38.81319, -120.89847 Class II. Also called Beginner’s Hole, this is a popular spot for kayakers.

Mile 7.05 – Old Scary: 38.81233, -120.9065 Class II. No longer scary, the river bends left in this Class II rapid.

Mile 7.28 – Raft Surf Wave: 38.81063, -120.90293 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 – Lotus Bridge: 38.80868, -120.90148 Highway 49 crosses here. Built in 1951

Mile 8.08 – Henningsen-Lotus County Park River Access: 38.80378, -120.90935 River Left. This is probably your best bet for taking out if you’re only looking to do the Chlli Bar run. The takout 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: 38.80346, -120.91066 After the Henninsen pool comes Fuzzy Bunny. A small rock island splits the channel with the left channel getting the majority of the water.

Mile 9.08 – Camp Lotus: 38.80677, -120.91947 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: 38.80897, -120.92114 This is a popular surf wave. Catch the eddy on the right and enjoy.

Mile 10.2 – Current Divider: 38.81768, -120.93306 Class II. A rock island divides the current. Take the right side and then work back left.

Mile 11 – Highway Rapid: 38.82429, -120.93849 Class II. Long boulder garden which at low flows requires careful maneuvering to avoid getting stuck on rocks.

Mile 11.4 – Swimmers Rapid: 38.82469, -120.94409 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: 38.82429, -120.94598 River Right. Greenwood Creek marks the end of the quiet zone that started up river at Indian Creek located at mile 4.40

Mile 11.5 – Greenwood Creek River Access: 38.82413, -120.94617 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.

Length

Greenwood Creek to the Salmon Falls Bridge Rock is 9.05 miles.

Difficulty

Moderate.

Feet per Mile

Greenwood Creek to the Salmon Falls Bridge is 20 FPM

Shuttle Time

Greenwood Creek to the Salmon Falls Bridge is 28 minutes round trip. Google Map directions.

Mile 11.5 – Greenwood Creek River Access: 38.82413, -120.94617 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: 38.82354, -120.94598 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: 38.8185, -120.94798 Class II. This is a read and run class II section.

Mile 12 – BLM Beach: 38.8186, -120.94979 River Right. The next third of a mile have good lunch / break beaches. There’s also composting toilets here (accessible by all three beaches) which makes this a popular spot.

Mile 12.2 – Lower BLM Beach: 38.81912, -120.95266 River Right. Second beach.

Mile 12.28 – Below Lower BLM Beach: 38.81942, -120.95415 River Right. And the third beach.

Mile 12.78 – Airplane Turn: 38.81859, -120.96199 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: 38.81066, -120.96658 River Right. Park just upstream of this jump rock to access it.

Mile 13.53 – Gorilla Pond: 38.8101, -120.96631 Calm pool named after Gorilla Rock.

Mile 13.66 – Gorilla Rock: 38.80892, -120.96693 River Left. Do you see it?

Mile 15.26 – Pit Stop Beach: 38.7943, -120.98134 River Right. Pit Stop Beach is appropriately named for the toilets located here.

Mile 15.63 – Splat Rock: 38.79013, -120.98233 Look river left for this fun raft splat rock.

Mile 15.8 – Fowler’s Rock: 38.78795, -120.98161 Class III. This is the entrance to the Gorge. There are two large rocks in this rapid. The first rock, called House Rock, go left of. Careful though, at lower flows there is a small but sticky hole just to the left of house rock and if you come in with no momentum you could easily get surfed here. The second rock is Fowler’s rock. Go right of it.

Mile 16.25 – Upper Haystack Canyon: 38.78224, -120.98294 Class II. Low consequence canyon with high thrills. Hit the tall waves straight. Canyon ends at the calm pool above Lost Hat.

Mile 16.73 – Jump Rock: 38.7778, -120.98939 River Right. As Upper Haystack Canyon finishes up, look river right and you’ll spot a decent jump rock. Park your raft upstair and take care walking to it and choosing your jump site.

Mile 16.88 – Lost Hat: 38.777, -120.99199 Class III. Fun wave train. Pay attention here as this leads directly into Satan’s Cesspool.

Mile 16.96 – Satan’s Cesspool: 38.77629, -120.99291 Class III. This the photo rapid for the Gorge run as you’ll often see photographers here. A rock shelf coming from river right pinches the river and accelerates it over a drop creating a big hit. The meat of the heat is on the left, so if you can try to work back right. Line it up straight and with some momentum and you’ll be good to go.

Mile 17.03 – Son of Satan’s: 38.77546, -120.99357 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: 38.77142, -120.99946 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: 38.76776, -121.00168 Class II. The river canyon pinches here giving you fun standing waves.

Mile 18.2 – Weber Creek: 38.76367, -121.00745 River Left. Weber Creek is one of the largest tributatries 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: 38.76388, -121.00752 Class III. Avoid the large hole on river right by continuously working left.

Mile 18.33 – Pre-Op: 38.7625, -121.00894 Class II. Right of center, read and run. At high flows there is an enormous hole here.

Mile 18.5 – Hospital Bar Jump Rock: 38.76309, -121.01194 River Left. Below Pre-Op on river left is the last jump rock before takeout.

Mile 18.65 – Hospital Bar: 38.76496, -121.01259 Class III. The river sweeps left with the right side of the river funnelling into a lateral wave. Stay left for a drier line, or square up to the lateral for a big, fun hit.

Mile 18.89 – Recovery Room: 38.7683, -121.01405 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.

Mile 19.33 – Surpise Rapid: 38.77437, -121.01538 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: 38.77564, -121.0192 Depending on lake levels you will either have current to takeout or you’ll be paddling through flat water. There are oftentimes jet skiiers who will tow you to the bridge for a fee.

Mile 20.55 – Salmon Falls Bridge: 38.77304, -121.0351 River Right. This takeout is also known as Skunk Hollow. The takeout is on the upstream side of the bridge on river right.

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