Located in the foothills of the Sierras, the South Fork of the American is one of the most beloved day trips in the United States.The river is generally runnable year round because of dam-controlled flows and makes for great boating no matter what the season.

Featured Outfitter

ARTA River TripsARTA River Trips (209) 962-7873 has over 60 years of experience on the most iconic rivers of the west.

In Summer, when temperatures can reach into the 100s, the cool water and fun rapids are perfect for everyone from families to college students. Weekends during the summer are extremely busy - if you can schedule a trip on a weekday, it will be a much less crowded (and probably more pleasant) experience. The winter and spring are much less crowded and a great time for intermediate kayakers to practice their skills.

There are two distinct runs on the South Fork - the Chili Bar run and the Gorge run and most boaters choose one or the other in a day. Some people choose to start at Chili Bar, camp at Camp Lotus and continue on to do the Gorge run on day 2. Camp Lotus is one of the old-time favorite put-in/take-out spots, but you can also use Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park or Henningsen Lotus Park.

Boat tags are required for private boaters. Tags and forms are available at Camp Lotus, Henningsen Lotus Park and Chili Bar. Private groups of more than 20 must complete a large group registration form, also available at those locations.

Trip Highlights

Mile 0: Put-in at Chili Bar.

Mile 0.6: Meatgrinder (Class III+) is a long, tricky rapid with some big hydraulics.

Kayaking Meat Grinder Rapid on the South Fork of the American River

Kayaking Meat Grinder Rapid on the South Fork of the American River

Mile 1.5: Maya (II+) has a great kayak surf wave at most river flows.

Kayakers surfing at Maya Rapid on the South Fork

Kayakers surfing at Maya Rapid on the South Fork

Mile 3.1: Triple Threat (III) is a series of three rapids (First Threat, Second Threat, and Third Threat) back to back. First Threat is a nearly river wide hole great for kayak surfing.

First Threat on the South Fork of the American River

First Threat on the South Fork of the American River | Photo by Sami Hawkins

Mile 5.1: Troublemaker (Class III+) is considered by most as the most difficult rapid on the South Fork. Most people scout the rapid, always on river left.

Troublemaker - Photo by Nicko Hawkins

Troublemaker - Photo by Nicko Hawkins

Mile 5.7: River access at Marshall Gold Discovery State Park.

Mile 7.4: Paddle under the Highway 49 Bridge.

Mile 9: River access at Camp Lotus (for a fee). This is also a great place to camp.

Mile 11.4: BLM river access at Greenwood Creek. This is a great place to put in to run the lower section of the river.

Mile 15.8: Fowler's Rock (Class III) is the first Class III Rapid downstream of Troublemaker.

Mile 16.9: Satan's Cesspool Rapid (Class III+) is the biggest rapid of the Gorge run.

Mile 18.2: Weber Creek enters from river left in the middle of Bouncing Rock Rapid (Class III).

Mile 18.6: Hospital Bar Rapid (Class III) is the last big ride.

Mile 20.5: Take-out at Salmon Falls Bridge on the right side, upstream of the bridge.