Rafting on the American River in the Gold Country, California
Rafting on the American River in the Gold Country, California
Rafting on the American River
Rafting on the American River

By Lee Foster

For some time I have asked, “What is the most popular river rafting experience in California?” The answer that kept coming up was the South Fork of the American River from Coloma to Folsom Lake. Recently, I went to assess why this river is so appealing.

I planned to immerse myself in the experience, so to speak, but in truth I wanted to remain in the raft as we went through the eleven named rapids along this day-trip stretch. I preferred to observe the river from above rather than swim in its 60 degree chill, although some of my adventuresome colleagues preferred to cool off on that warm day with a dip.

The American River South Fork has several attractions. It has so-called Class III rapids and, trust me, that is enough excitement, assuming you want to stay in the raft. Class IV outings are possible on other California rivers, using the same company I rafted with, but the jump from III to IV is a leap into an extreme sport. The American River is also popular because it has a long season of dependable water release from an upstream dam.

OARS was the company with which I chose to raft. They were pioneers in the rafting business, going back to founder George Wendt’s efforts in 1969. They raft on all the viable California rivers and in most of the other western states, including rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. They have now branched out to worldwide rafting and nature trips.

My OARS trip launched from the town of Lotus (adjacent to Coloma) at the River Park Adventure Campground. You can camp there on the night before and after your trip if you wish. Some of the campsites have views of the river. Their rafting season is April-October.

George Wendt, who is respected as an icon of both the conservation movement and the adventure sport world, joined me on that rafting day. I asked him how he got started.

“As a young man I rafted through Glen Canyon,” he said. “Then I watched the dam go up and the wild experience of the canyon destroyed. There was talk of damming the Colorado River also in the Grand Canyon, with two dams. After I rafted the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, I knew my life mission would be to save that river and to devote myself to introducing people to the joy of river rafting. I believe that nature-based adventures are valuable life experiences.”

Our guide, Marcelo Granados, wearing his sparkly blue helmet, was at the helm barking commands. OARS favors paddle rafting boats, so all participants are engaged in the actual directional decisions. This also fosters bonding and team work between the participants. Marcello navigated us through some tricky situations. George pointed out that guides and patrons sometimes become close friends, and that patrons keep track of where the guide goes as the guides move, from one OARS river to the next. Patrons often book a new trip because their favorite guide will lead it.


Rafting comrades tend to experience strong bonding and family moments. My son, Paul, joined me on the raft, affording us a special getaway trip in a scenic setting. His son, Paul Jr., was bitterly disappointed that at age 5 he could not participate. Age 7 is the minimum for OARS on the American River. Some of my travel journalism colleagues were in the raft, and we gave the traditional rafting high-five of raised paddles tapping each other from time to time. Our victorious moments included celebrating some deft maneuvers in the biggest rapids, including 360 degree turns, directed by the talented Marcelo. There was also the matter of our gallantry in warding off a splash attack from a raft of pirates. Yes, some people choose to raft dressed up as pirates. Fun on the water is part of the rationale of the sport.

The American River Gorge scenery exceeded my expectations. It was a joy to see several miles of pristine and undisturbed land as the river chasm narrowed and the cliff rocks showed only natural features, such as digger pines and chaparral, rather than some posh subdivision. The constricting sides of the river forced the water into the biggest named rapids of the day, namely Fowler’s Rock, Satan’s Cesspool, and Hospital Bar.

Rafting on the American River in the Gold Country, California
Rafting on the American River in the Gold Country, California

Michael Dotson of the American River Conservancy briefed us over our lunch break on examples of land acquisitions over the years. Everyone who rafts with OARS is encouraged to make a small, voluntary donation to the Conservancy Fund.

“The Cronan Ranch acquisition is a good example of people working together to save land for public use,” he said. “The American River Gorge is not just for rafters. It now serves hikers, bikers, paragliders, and equestrians. More than 30 million dollars has been collected over the years to protect more than 12,400 acres of land.”

For lodging (besides camping) before or after a river trip, the area has options. The upscale and romantic Eden Vale Inn offers just about everything a B&B fan could want, including attractive modern rooms, garden-like country setting with a pond, and a sumptuous breakfast. More basic rooms are possible at the Sierra Nevada House, an historic road-house ambiance. A beer and a roast pork dinner on the deck at the Sierra Nevada House can be a pleasant aspect of a rafting trip. Their lively bar is the regional watering hole.

This memorable day of rafting on the American River made me want to come back, perhaps with more of my family members sharing the fun. I emerged as a likely candidate for further trips on far flung rivers in California and elsewhere.

Rafting California’s America River: If You Go

OARS, a leading rafting company on the American River, is at www.oars.com.

Hotshot Imaging, supplier of rafting photos, is at www.hotshotimaging.com.

Eden Vale Inn, an upscale and romantic B&B, is at www.edenvaleinn.com.

Sierra Nevada House, the roadhouse with a bar, dining, and some basic rooms, is at www.sierranevadahouse.com.

The government entity managing regional tourism is the El Dorado County Visitors Authority at www.visit-eldorado.com.

The American River Conservancy, guiding land acquisition and conservation, is at www.arconservancy.org.



  1. Do not forget the Effie Yeaw Nature Center, to find out the important natural history along this river.


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