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Whitewater Rafting on the American River

This past weekend took us back up north of Sacramento for another adventure on the American River. We had planned on returning since our last trek in 2018, however the Covid pandemic put a pin in those plans. So we were excited to finally be able to make it back up in May 2023.

Coloma, California is located about an hour northeast of Sacramento, in the heart of Gold Country. The town is small; the major attractions include the Marshall Gold Discovery Historical Park and the replica of Sutter’s Mill and the American River itself. There is much adventure to be had on the rapids of this mighty river.

The American River is fed by its three major tributaries: the North Fork, the Middle Fork, and the South Fork.  All three watersheds begin in the El Dorado and Tahoe National Forests. The North and Middle Forks converge around Auburn, and all three forks feed into Folsom Lake, just east of Sacramento. From there, the river continues as the Lower American River through Sacramento. With the powerful rains and snowfall this past winter, the river was significantly higher than in past years. This did create a different experience than when we went rafting five years ago, when the kids were smaller and all six of us were able to enjoy family time on the river.

Once again, we ventured on the South Fork, the most popular of the three, especially for less experienced rafters. The South Fork attracts thousands of visitors a year, including many Scout troops ready for adventure. We were no exception. We left Friday afternoon and began the eight-hour drive from the San Gabriel Valley to El Dorado County in Friday rush hour traffic carrying four of us and two other Scouts; Jacob and Emily are now grown and adulting and so were unable to join us on the trip. Other than a small brush fire along I-5 in Castaic, the drive went smoothly and we arrived at the campsite around midnight. We were camping the weekend, and we stayed at the American River Expeditions campground. The resort had our tents and insulate pads set up and ready prior to our arrival; all we had to do was change into pajamas, get cozy in our sleeping bags, and rest up for the following day.

Trouble Maker before breakfast

The sun rose early Saturday, and we got ready for a day of fun and adventure. While waiting for breakfast, we walked to the river to check out where we would be later. The rapids looked promising, and the weather felt perfect for a day on the water. It was not cold and not too hot. Soon enough, food was ready, and we enjoyed a hearty breakfast which was included in our package. After breakfast, we returned to our tents to collect our sunscreen, water, and GoPros before heading over to meet the guides. The guides explained the schedule and safety procedures, then got us into wetsuits and safety gear. The South Fork actually runs along where we camped, however, we entered the river a bit upstream, which translated to about a 25-minute bus ride. Once out, our guides helped us fit our helmets and life jackets (safety first!) before getting into the rafts.

Our 2023 adventure was a bit different from our 2018 excursion. When we traveled in a party of six, we were our own group with a guide-in-training along with our regular guide. This worked out well as the guide-in-training was able to help keep an extra eye on Sami, who was only ten at the time and quite a bit smaller. I also recall trying to get in sync with rowing together as a family, and that the phrase ‘family bonding time’ became a bit of a joke as one (or more) of us got out of sync or did something which showed our ‘inexperience.’ This time, we shared the raft with another family of four and we had one guide, and while there were points when we had a hard time following directions, I felt we did a better job.

While the river was different due to the water level, the rafting was just as fun as it was years ago. The first half of the trip had a few good rapids which helped us get used to being out on the water. Meatgrinder and Trouble Maker, as evidenced by their names were a bit rough, and totally fun. It turned out that I had taken photos of Trouble Maker when we took our morning walk. There were also calmer points, some where we were able to jump out of our rafts and do some peaceful floating. This time, I slinked out of the raft and enjoyed a swim in the cool river water. It was so relaxing to float next to the raft, at least up until I needed help getting back in. On our prior trip, only my most adventurous scout, Emily, exited the raft to float down Swimmer’s Rapid. After about two hours or so on the water, we stopped for a lunch of build-your-own sandwich wraps, also provided with our river tour package.

After enjoying seconds and a dessert of chocolate chip cookies, we donned our personal protective gear and re-loaded the rafts. The after-lunch portion of the day had what I thought were the most adventuresome rapids in what is known as the Gorge, as evidenced by their names: Scissors, Bouncing Rock, and Satan’s Cesspool in the ‘Highway to Hell.’ In 2018, Satan’s Cesspool was really rough and involved our only get down of the trip. This time, the water splashed up a lot more, however, we did not have to get down. I think my favorite rapid was still the terrifyingly exciting Hospital Bar, so named because after exiting the rapid you’ll either head to the hospital or the bar. Again, we definitely ended up more drenched, but all managed to stay in the raft fairly easily even as large waves came up and hit us. It was fantastic. No hospital and no bar either since this was a Scout trip, so I guess I owe me a drink later.

After exiting at Folsom Lake, the rest of the day was spent at the camp, hanging out and getting to better know some of our scout families. Dinner was great, as was our campfire. The boys I’m sure will have great memories of playing cheesy scout skits and fun conversations. The following morning, Nate and the other scouts headed back out on the water to finish their whitewater merit badges. While waiting for their return, we walked to the Marshall Gold Discovery Park and hung out at the state park. More on that in the next post.

Some things to consider:

For those who are on the fence about whitewater rafting, it’s definitely a worthwhile experience. Go with a trusted company and a good guide. There are several in Coloma; this is the third time our troop has booked with American Whitewater Expeditions and we have been happy with all of our excursions. The company offers rafting tours of the North, South, and Middle Forks as well as the Merced River. There are also different adventure packages to fit the amount of time you want to spend on the river.

There are inherent risks being out on the water. There are age minimums for the different rafting experiences. Also, this year the minimum age to be even on the calmer South Fork was 12 due to how high the river was running this season. Be sure to follow all safety procedures and know your limitations, and you’ll have a fun time. Back in 2018, we only had one fall out of the raft on a smaller rapid, and there was no damage done other than perhaps to pride. This year, we had no unintentional falls from our rafts.

Being out on the water, sunscreen and sun protection are a must. I also took a quart-sized baggie with a few first aid essentials such as allergy medications. And while not an official ‘essential,’ a charged GoPro or other waterproof camera is great to have to capture those memories.

There is certainly a lot of fun to be had on California’s rivers. Life is an adventure meant to be shared. Happy trails!

For more information or to plan your trip, check out American Whitewater Expeditions.

“American River.” Water Education Foundation, Accessed 24 May 2023.

“South Fork American River.” Bureau of Land Management, Accessed 24 May 2023.

Rafting photo credits: American Whitewater Expeditions

River photos: The Haas Family


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