South Fork Whitewater Rafting Tips

Going rafting this summer? You can’t go wrong with a weekend whitewater trip on the South Fork of the American River. Just 40 miles east of Sacramento, a rafting excursion down the South Fork includes views of river gorges, sheer granite cliffs, and sandy beaches where prospectors first discovered the precious metal that sparked California’s Gold Rush.

A group outing on the river. Photo © All-Outdoors.
A group outing on the river. Photo © All-Outdoors.

Most of the whitewater on the South Fork is for beginner and intermediate rafters, which makes it a perfect adventure for families and groups. And thanks to a wet winter and a healthy snowpack, you should be able to ride the river’s heart-pounding Class II and III rapids for most of the summer. I recommend choosing All-Outdoors, a rafting company located just a stone’s throw from the river in the tiny community of Lotus and which boasts some of the most experienced guides in Northern California.

Here are a few things to know about rafting the South Fork with All-Outdoors.

Don’t freak out

With names like Meatgrinder and Satan’s Cesspool, the South Fork’s list of Class III rapids sounds scarier than a Wes Craven horror flick. But don’t worry–newcomers and intermediate rafters won’t be overwhelmed. Guides provide an hour of instruction before rafters even get in the water, so you’ll be prepared. Rafters should know how to swim, and expect to help paddle–guides and guests work together on the raft as a team, although you can request an excursion where the guide does all the steering.

Don't freak out. Photo © All-Outdoors.
Don’t freak out. Photo © All-Outdoors.

Note that kids must be at least eight years old to raft the Upper and Lower sections of the South Fork, but All-Outdoors offers “Tom Sawyer Float Trips” to children as young as five on the middle Coloma Valley section.

Gold in those hills

Settlers discovered gold in 1848 on the banks of the South Fork near Coloma, a small village that’s now a ghost town and a state park. Your guides will stop for lunch just a short walk from the discovery site at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. You won’t have much time to explore during the rafting excursion, but make sure to come back and try panning for gold at one of the park’s live demonstrations.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Photo © Ray Bouknight, licensed CC-BY.

Speaking of lunch

Bring an appetite on these trips. Meals are included with All-Outdoors weekend trips, and they include healthy ingredients prepared by rafting guides right on the water. After dinner, you’ll crash at the full-service Camp Lotus along the riverfront. No pets are allowed, but the campgrounds have volleyball, horseshoe pits, fire rings, and a camp store with a deli.

Meals are included with All-Outdoors weekend trips. Photo © All-Outdoors.
Meals are included with All-Outdoors weekend trips. Photo © All-Outdoors.

All-out outfitter

All-Outdoors (1026 Lotus Rd, Lotus, 800/247-2387) offers overnight rafting trips on the South Fork starting at a midweek rate of $289. All rafting equipment is provided; you will just need to bring your camping gear (rentals also available). Take U.S. 50 from Sacramento to the Ponderosa Road off-ramp (Exit 37). Head north over the freeway and turn right on N. Shingle Road. After four miles, the road becomes Green Valley Road; after roughly another half-mile, the road becomes Lotus Road. Drive for another 5.8 miles; All-Outdoors is on the left.

Rafting along the calm stretches of the river. Photo © All-Outdoors.
Rafting along the calm stretches of the South Fork. Photo © All-Outdoors.

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