Activity: Raft the American River
When to go: May-August
Level: Beginner to Advanced
Who to go with: Whitewater Excitement, OARS, Whitewater Connection
Closest resort: Heavenly, Sierra-at-Tahoe
Less than two hours from South Lake Tahoe, the town of Coloma, Calif. is a hotspot for river outfitters who raft the American River’s three nearby forks. The American River, which feeds into Folsom Lake and eventually the Pacific Ocean, is a braid of forks and tributaries that offer some of Northern California’s most-pristine whitewater. With three commercially run forks, there is something for everyone and rafters can even start off with an easy section and graduate to something bigger.
North Fork: Chamberlain Falls Run
This nine-mile stretch is the American’s most-challenging section of guided water and requires boaters to navigate several class IV+ rapids. Between the rapids, side hikes to waterfalls provide a unique wilderness experience. Two of the hardest tests are Chamberlain Falls and Bogus Thunder, each requiring strong paddling and aggressive moves to make it down in one piece. Since the river is not dam-fed, plan on going early in the spring and if you’re lucky you might get to do two runs in a day.
Popular with experienced boaters and aggressive beginners, the Middle Fork is a 17-mile class III and IV run that cuts through a remote wilderness canyon. The first rapid is less than 1,000 yards from the put-in and the most famous rapid, the tunnel shoot, is twenty minutes into the trip. Cutting through a tunnel that was blasted by miners, the river was diverted down a narrow chute so miners could mine the wide oxbow above. The river runs all summer, so don’t worry about it being dried up come July.
The most-popular section of the river, the South Fork runs through Coloma, Calif., and is perfect for families of all ages. With over 25 class II and III rapids, the South Fork can be split into two, half-day trips or one, full-day trip that rafts the rivers full 21 miles. Plenty of calm sections provide ample time for water fights and swimming, while the last several miles runs through the Gorge, a tight section of river that features many class III rapids including Satan’s Cesspool and Haystack canyon.