The American River originates in the high Sierra Nevada just west of Lake Tahoe, in the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests. Its three main forks—the South, Middle and North—flow through the Sierra foothills and converge east of Sacramento. Along the way their water, rapids, lakes and reservoirs provide recreation, power and irrigation for northern California. Whether you are looking for whitewater action, calm-water paddling, fishing a clear lake or hiking along a cool stream, you’ll find a place to love on the American.


The South Fork of the American is the people’s river. Rafting this waterway is perfect for anyone age 7 to 77 (or more), ideal for first-timers, yet still fun for repeaters. This Class II-III paddle provides a thrill or two—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.) This quintessentially Californian trip 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 guides half- and full-day trips on the South Fork, with trips offered April into September. For a spoil-yourself twist, consider joining 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.

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