Boating the Forks of the American River

1998

This guide is presented to help boaters plan trips on the three Forks of the American River. Conditions described here have been updated for the 1998 season but are subject to change. Boaters should check field conditions and verify current regulations.


LOCATION

The Forks of the American River described here are selected reaches of the North, Middle and South Forks in Placer and El Dorado Counties in California. Nearby communities include Auburn, Colfax, Foresthill, Greenwood, Coloma, and Placerville.


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  • Safety
  • Regulations
  • Outfitters
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    River boating information for:

  • North Fork American River
  • Middle Fork American River
  • South Fork American River

    SAFETY

    The safety precautions which apply to white water boating on other rivers also apply to the Forks of the American. Wear life jackets, donžt boat while intoxicated, and scout potential problem areas. Further, treat the rivers with the respect due their powerful natural forces. Such common sense will avoid most problems.

    Geology on the South Fork: Gunsight Rock


    Pay particular attention to flow volumes. Flows either too high or too low can cause problems for the boater. For example, high flows may carry boats into trees which trap and hold them underwater. Low water may be rocky and cause excessive delays. The best flows are somewhere in between, and are subjectively determined according to the type of craft and the skills and preferences of the boater. The flow volumes suggested here have been run by experienced boaters who consider them good, yet the flows listed are not intended to suggest objective limits to safe boating. Further, flows can change quickly, especially on the Middle and South Forks where releases from dams change throughout the day for hydropower generation.

    Streamflows are measured and recorded by various agencies, including California Department of Water Resources, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Placer County Water Agency, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The KFLOW streamflow information recording at (916)368-8682 reports releases from Oxbow and Chili Bar Dams, and inflows to Clementine and Folsom Lakes. Some current flow data and historical flow data are also available on the World Wide Web.

    Several boating-related accidents on the Forks of the American have resulted in injuries and deaths, though fewer than on on the lower American River below Nimbus Dam. On the North Fork, two guides have died in Staircase Rapid when they fell out and were recycled in a large hole. In 1992, a man drowned while swimming below Chamberlainžs Falls after his foot was trapped in rocks. At Murdereržs Bar on the Middle Fork, an intoxicated passenger in a commercial raft drowned in 1988 when he fell out after guides warned him not to go on this rapid, and his heirs lost their subsequent lawsuit against the rafting company. The South Fork has had about 10 deaths among boaters, but most were the results of freak accidents. One rock that caused foot entrapments in Meatgrinder Rapid has since been removed by dynamite. Non-boating deaths in the area have occurred due to drowning, car accidents, murder and a mountain lion attack. Portrayals of boating dangers in the media and by public agencies are not always accurate. Curiously, official-looking warning signs are posted only in the least hazardous reaches.


    REGULATIONS

    The North and Middle Forks lie largely within the Auburn State Recreation Area, administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation under agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Giant Gap reach of the North Fork is largely administered by Tahoe National Forest as a Wild and Scenic River. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management administers some lands on each fork. Some lands are private.

    The confusing policies of government agencies which administer lands on the Forks of the American need some clarification. Basically, the rivers are public highways and the right to boat is well-established. The state holds an easement for navigation and åincidence to navigationž in trust for the public in the river bed up to the mean high water mark. These public trust lands are under the jurisdiction of the State Lands Commission. Private landowners seem generally to understand navigation rights after years of boating; only government agencies seem inclined to diminish such rights nowadays.

    Other laws are problematic. Various regulations require noncommercial permit tags on the South Fork, require boater registration on the upper North Fork, and limit parking on the Middle Fork. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) policy is to not encourage recreation in Auburn State Recreation Area (ASRA), which means they actually discourage it in their hopes to build a large dam. Most of the signs say „no this, no thatū rather than providing positive interpretation of the resources and opportunities available. The California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) has special orders by the area superintendent which apply to ASRA, but these are not available on display in the field and attempts to get copies failed. With such legal obscurity, rangers interpret the rules in various ways at the risk of being unfair. El Dorado County once attempted to close the South Fork to all boating, but has since been forced to accommodate a large amount of recreation there, despite continued objections from landowners. The closures contribute to congestion elsewhere, and the permit and registration systems have little more than nuisance value. Nevertheless, these laws should be respected.

    In comparison, an unofficial warning sign on the lower North Fork does not reflect laws, but is still the unwritten policy of some agencies. The sign on the Highway 49 bridge which says, „NO RAFTS PAST THIS POINT NO ACCESS DOWNSTREAM FROM BRIDGEū, is no law, just an ill-conceived warning about lack of motor vehicle access open in the 10.5 mile reach to Rattlesnake Bar. According to the Placer County Sheriff office, the sign was placed so they would not have to rescue anyone - even though the reach is one of the easiest and not the least accessible in the canyons. Boaters can feel comfortable in taking this warning with a grain of salt, but it casts doubt on how carefully policies are formulated among the various agencies responsible for the rivers. Actual laws, meanwhile, such as the prohibitions for nude sunbathing in the reach below Highway 49, are ignored. It remains for the individual boater, under such circumstances, to exercise good judgment. It is particularly good judgment to distinguish among real and mythical government policies, and among useful and useless safety concerns. Then, one can boat in a safe and responsible way. Specialized regulations are discussed in the descriptions for each reach.


    OUTFITTERS

    A few commercial outfitters offer rafting trips on the North and Middle Forks, and more than 50 offer trips on the South Fork. Services vary widely, but most include at least guides, equipment, meals, and shuttle. Some offer camping facilities and round-trip transportation to urban areas. Prices range from about $60 to $120 per person daily, and $200 to $250 for two-day weekend packages. These commercial trips are great outdoor social experiences. Equipment rentals and white water training are also available locally. The various private businesses offer much information and many services not available from government agencies.

    Following is a description of selected reaches for each fork.

    NORTH FORK AMERICAN RIVER

    Smallmouth bass in the clear, warm North Fork

    The North Fork includes about five miles of Class IV plus nine miles of Class II boating above Lake Clementine. Lake Clementine has five miles of flat water, though the shallow upper end has some current. The reach below Clementine Dam to the confluence with the Middle Fork above Highway 49 has two miles of Class II, but access is difficult near the dam. This reach is seen from the high Foresthill Road bridge. Downstream from the confluence, the North Fork has only a few easy Class II rapids and the 1/2-mile tunnel in the five miles down to the high water mark of Folsom Lake. However, Folsom Lake is seldom full, and most of the remaining five miles to the Rattlesnake Bar boat ramp still have river and current.

    For the reach from Iowa Hill Road to Yankee Jim Road, optimum flow is about 1,000 to 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), usually from April to June. The easier reaches downstream allow boating over a wider range of flows. Below the confluence, most of the summer flow actually comes from the Middle Fork. No major dams regulate flow in the North Fork drainage. Clementine is a debris control dam which stays full and spills only over its top. This keeps the river downstream warm in summer until the Middle Fork adds its chilly water at the confluence. Then the mix varies in temperature according to the fluctuating flow volumes in the Middle Fork. In some years, the flow is sufficient for boating in the upper North Fork through mid-July. In other years, the steeper reaches of the North Fork become too low and rocky for comfortable rafting by June. Still, kayaks and canoes may extend the boating season further into summer.

    View Boating Map of North Fork American River above Clementine Dam

    Giant Gap
    14 Miles, Class V

    Above Iowa Hill Road (Mosquito Bar) is the Giant Gap reach of 14 miles. The access is difficult on foot down a 1.5-mile trail. The boating is Class V in a remote but beautiful canyon. Large rafts should try it only when the flow is about 800 to 1,000 cfs, and kayaks from 500 to 1,000 cfs, because such steep, narrow canyons have a smaller window of suitability for boating. Then allow at least 10 hours for the run to have time for scouting and resting. The quick succession of small falls and boulder chutes allow occasional respites for relaxation in long pools. Then, look back upstream after the drops to see the walls of white water you have run. This canyon was once considered unrunnable, but now fits the skills and equipment of many boaters. Yet it is not the place for beginners to go to start learning about white water boating. Canyon walls are quite steep and densely vegetated, and emergency egress would be quite difficult.

    Iowa Hill Road to Yankee Jim Road
    5 Miles, Class IV

    The five miles of the North Fork from Iowa Hill Road to Yankee Jim Road offer Class IV pool-and-drop boating at its finest. Named rapids include Chamberlainžs Falls, Bogus Thunder, Zig-Zag, and Staircase. Commercial use is limited to a low level by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and private use is moderate. Kayaks and canoes fit easily through the narrow slots in the rocks at 500 cfs. Large rafts require more like 1,000 to float above such slots, and will find flows up to 2,500 cfs manageable but exciting. At 2,500 cfs, the 18-mile trip from Iowa Hill Road all the way to Clementine Dam can be made in four hours without scouting, including five miles of rowing or paddling on Lake Clementine. This allows access on paved roads at both ends of the shuttle, an important factor when dirt roads are unmaintained or closed after storms.

    At about 50 to 300 cfs, this reach makes a surprisingly good swim - without boats. The best flows typically occur in early July, but could occur anytime from June through August. The bedrock yields passages for you and the clear, warm water to flow downstream. In a rapid, your body squirts from one pool to another, even underneath the surface white water. In a pool, you can see all of the fish at once (if you have a diving mask on) while you drift with the current. Once you get the hang of this, few spots will make you want to get out and scout. The five miles to Yankee Jim take about 1-1/2 hours in this fashion. Few rivers offer such a suitable channel for swimming with the current, and it really has to be experienced to be believed. This is the best way to see the canyon for those who are more comfortable swimming than boating.

    Yankee Jim Road to Lake Clementine
    9 miles, Class II

    Below Yankee Jim Road, the river has a few Class II rapids and a moderate gradient. The run to Upper Clementine is about nine miles of secluded canyon, with wide gravel bars and steep wooded slopes above the river. On windy afternoons, rafts must work to get downstream on some of the long pools. The trip will typically involve crystal-clear water, cool and high in spring but low and warm in early summer. The take-out could be at either Ponderosa Road, Upper Lake Clementine, or even Clementine Dam. From September into May, the upper lake road is closed. Yankee Jim and Ponderosa Roads reach the North Fork from either Foresthill Road or from near Interstate 80, but either side can close in storms. A shorter run is possible from Ponderosa Way to Lake Clementine through one of the least-visited and prettiest canyons around. It is not run by commercial outfitters, who take out at Ponderosa Way. At Ponderosa, the carry from the river to the road is considerably easier than at Yankee Jimžs, and the road to Upper Clementine is not always open in the boating season. But the main reason for commercial take-outs at Ponderosa is that this reach downstream does not offer the thrilling white water that many commercial rafters seek, and outfitters did not seek its use under provisions of their permits from CDPR.

    Clementine Dam to the Confluence
    2 Miles, Class II

    For boaters with ambition, the two miles of the North Fork below Clementine Dam can be rewarding. The river is nice, but the put-in is so difficult that this reach is rarely run. Boats must be carried or rolled down a very steep hill to the water below the dam. The spray from the spilling dam has the advantage of being cool on a hot day, and often a rainbow will be seen. The few small rapids are Class II at most. The high Foresthill Road bridge spans this reach midway. Aside from the steep access, the shuttle is easy on paved roads. There is also a good trail on a former road on the south side of the river from near the dam to the Old Auburn-Foresthill Road bridge over the North Fork.

    Confluence to Folsom Lake
    5 to 10 Miles, Class II

    Where the Middle Fork enters the North Fork, several trails reach from Old Auburn-Foresthill Road down to the river. Perhaps the easiest trail is at the curved bridge over the North Fork on the upstream side, which brings you underneath the bridge. Once in the water, the boat goes past the confluence and under the Highway 49 bridge. There, a sign in fading red letters reads, „ NO RAFTS PAST THIS POINT NO ACCESS DOWNSTREAM FROM BRIDGEū. However, there is no such law, and the access at Rattlesnake Bar on Folsom Lake serves well. It is also possible to carry lightweight craft out of the canyon on old roads and trails at several points. In any case, the sign seems to allow kayaks, canoes, catarafts, and sailboards. There is a rule in the White water Management Plan for commercial outfitters to take out above the Highway 49 bridge, just as they must take out at Ponderosa Way further up on the North Fork - not because it is difficult or dangerous downstream, but because they were not interested in running such easy water. According to CDPR, the land at the Auburn Dam site has been closed by order the the Superintendent of their American River District at the request of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. However, public rights on navigable rivers include scouting and other 'incidence to navigation' in the river bed.

    The river remains an easy Class II down to Folsom Lake. The flow in summer is mostly cold water from the Middle Fork, which comes up to about 1,000 cfs in the evening. Thus, the reach is suitable for moonlight runs in warm weather.

    The tunnel at the Auburn Dam site is 1/2 mile long and takes about 17 minutes to pass through. Above about 2,000 cfs, scout the exit carefully to ensure there is enough room for a boat to exit the tunnel. Above about 2,500 cfs, the exit may be under water or provide insufficient room. At least, check for the light at the end of the tunnel each time before you enter. The tunnel is about 22 feet wide, but it slopes downriver and ceiling clearance diminishes with increased flow volumes. Once inside, the tunnel is noisy with the rushing water at first. Soon the water calms down about being in a tunnel, and the boat glides through in near-darkness. Bring a spotlight, if you wish. Watch for bass cruising in the sunlight at the exit.

    For up to about five miles of flat water on Folsom Lake, boats must be paddled, rowed, or hitched to a passing boat. The lake is short and easy to cover when the water level is low, except in the afternoon when the wind blows hard upstream. The take-out at Rattlesnake Bar boat ramp has ample parking, but the gate is closed at 8:00 p.m. For a moonlight run, park outside the gate and get the boat later, or plan to camp overnight near the boat.

    The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Placer County Water Agency are studying the options of closing the tunnel and installing a permanent water pumping station in the vicinity of the former dam site. In its scoping stage, the plan assumes the the tunnel to be a hazard and lists that assumption as a major reason to divert the river into its original channel. However, this would simply be closer to the intake for the other water conveyance tunnels. If completed, the project would pump up to about 200 cfs out of the North Fork for use in local water districts. The diversion from the tunnel into the old river bed would also close the only access across the canyons between Highway 49 and Folsom Dam on the Auburn-Cool Trail.

    MIDDLE FORK AMERICAN RIVER

    View Boating Map of Middle Fork American River and vicinity

    Oxbow Bend to Greenwood Bridge
    14 Miles, Class IV plus one Class V and one portage

    The runnable Middle Fork starts at Oxbow Dam outlet, a side channel at the edge of the gravel bar below the dam. The water comes clear and cold out of the gate, starting about 11:00 a.m. on summer weekends. After a couple of hours, the flow drops off, so only a limited window is available to launch in summer. Peak flows vary, but usually range around 1,000 cfs, and tributaries add flow downstream. At night in summer, the release is very low, and some fish are stranded in shallow pockets. In spring, launches can spread out over the day because flows are consistenly high. Boaters should allow enough time to get to the takeout before dark, considering portages and other stops. Some camping is allowed on the river.

    This is the reach with Tunnel Chute, a sharp drop in a narrow chute blasted in the bedrock by miners. After the drop, the river goes through a tunnel for about 75 yards, then into a big pool. Beginners will want to portage the Class V chute on the left bank, being extra careful on the slippery rocks.

    Overall, this trip covers one of the most scenic river canyons in the Sierras. Deer and bear are sometimes seen along the river. The rapids provide plenty of adrenaline. It is moderately popular for commercial trips all season, but never reallly crowded.

    Pool at Oxbow bend below Tunnel Chute

    Other Class IV rapids on the Middle Fork include Cartwheel, Upper Ruck-a-Chucky, and Parallel Parking. Ruck-a-Chucky itself is a huge drop with massive boulders and hardly any place to put a boat in a clear run. However, some guides line their boats through in a series of steps. The California Conservation Corps built a fine portage trail around it to the right. The most common take-out is a Greenwood Bridge site, where a bridge washed out after the Hell Hole dam break in 1965. Ruck-a-Chucky campground and some picnic tables are near the takeout on the end of Driveržs Flat Road. Facilities in the area are sparse - pit toilets and no running water - though it is a State Park campground. Driveržs Flat Road requires good clearance on the underside of a vehicle. On the opposite side of the river are the end of Sliger Mine Road, best left to four-wheel-drive vehicles, and primitive Cherokee Bar campground.

    Greenwood Bridge to Mammoth Bar
    7 Miles, Class II

    Below Driveržs Flat Road, the river is Class II for about seven miles, and still quite scenic. The convenient stairway and ramp just below the old bridge site provides access. No other structures or recreation facilities will be found along the river in this reach, except the Western States Trail which parallels and crosses the river. The remnants hydraulic mining are still seen, though several landslides caused by the water backup behind the failed coffer dam in 1986 are more recent and more obvious.

    Easy cruising above Mammoth Bar


    Again, the flow fluctuates from releases at Oxbow Dam, so that the peak flow begins about 5:00 p.m. in late summer. Upstream winds in the afternoon can make boating at low flows more strenuous on this low-gradient reach. Rafts will probably prefer about 1,500 to 2,000 cfs, though the peak is often only about 1,000 cfs in late summer. Canoes will glide through the long pools at lower flows. There are no big surprises here, except that the rangers close the gate at Mammoth Bar far too early for boaters to make that take-out with the peak flow in late summer. Beginners should not continue past Mammoth Bar through Murdereržs Bar rapids, but they can carry boats around it on the strenuous portage over huge rocks.

    Fishing is often good in this reach for rainbow and brown trout. The trout hang close to the bottom in deep runs during the summer.

    Mammoth Bar to the Confluence
    2 Miles, Class II

    This reach can be run in an hour, or added to the reach above from Greenwood Bridge site or added to the run to Folsom Lake. At two miles long, it is one of the shorter runs in the Auburn State Recreation Area.

    The boulders in the channel at Murdereržs Bar, just below Mammoth Bar, offer a thrilling challenge to even experienced boaters. Scout from high on the rocks on the left bank, and it should make your heart pound just to look at it. (This is a satisfactory definition of Class V.) While Ruck-a-Chucky is unrunnable, Murdereržs Bar can be run cleanly, but only advanced, creative moves will serve here. The long narrow entry chute piles water into a large boulder, whereupon some current splits right into a blind rock trap and most of the current splits left against the undercut wall. As if to add challenge, the boulder is slightly left of center in the chute, yet your boat must get to the left of it. Try turning the bow left just as it approaches the rock. After this, a series of small drops must be negotiated with little time to recover between them. The rapid is named for an incident in which Indians were blamed for killing miners at the site in the 1800žs.

    Murderer's Bar Rapid will make your heart pound

    Below these rapids, there are a few small Class IIžs and long smooth runs. The biggest rapid remaining is just above the confluence with the North Fork, visible from Highway 49 south of the bridge. Peak flows from releases at Oxbow Dam may not reach the confluence until after dark in late summer. The confluence becomes somewhat congested because it is the only place on the North and Middle Forks visible from a highway, and because so much else has been restricted or closed in this area.

    SOUTH FORK AMERICAN RIVER

    The South Fork is a staple for commercial and private boaters alike. Rapids are fun Class IIžs and IIIžs, but not treacherous. About 100,000 persons boat the river each year, according to El Dorado County, which tries to manage use. More than 50 outfitters ply their services on the river, and many are based here for wide-ranging operations. The 20 miles from Chile Bar to Folsom Lake may be the most popular white water in the West.

    Yet one can find solitude in mornings and evenings (when the flow is up) and in the off-season. Bald eagles soar overhead in the mild midwinter. Flowers decorate the green hills in early spring. Some leaves turn color in autumn.

    The vast number of boats in summer is also spectacular, and boating becomes more of a social experience. Basic etiquette requires waiting turns to go through rapids; asking permission to pass other boats; and giving space between boats in the rapids. Water fights are common, but should be kept friendly. Keep voices low in the åQuiet Zonež near houses in the middle portion. The river has shown that it can accommodate a large number of people without damage to the environment nor serious conflicts among users. For those who do not wish to have such a social experience, go in winter or explore the North and Middle Forks in Auburn State Recreation Area.

    Unlike the North and Middle Forks, the South Fork has mostly private property along its banks. Only a few scattered parcels of BLM land provide free access. The James Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma charges $3.00 per vehicle or boat to stop, but has picnic tables and flush restrooms. At any private campground, prepare to spend over $30 for a campsite for two. Alternatively, Rattlesnake Bar Campground on Folsom Lake usually has peaceful sites on a ridge above the lake. It is a reasonable distance via Pilot Hill north of Coloma, and about $16 per site plus $6 per extra car.

    The flow release from Chili Bar Dam is fairly predictable at mid-day, providing optimum flows in the 1,200 to 2,000 cfs range all summer in most years. Spring flows commonly rise into the 4,000 to 6,000 cfs range. On Memorial Day weekend in 1983, the flow was about 8,000 cfs and about one-third of the boats in Meatgrinder Rapid flipped. Boaters should stay out of the holes at very high water, or risk being flipped and thrashed. The long swims after flips at high water are quite cold and memorable.

    View the Boating Map of the South Fork American River

    Chili Bar to Lotus
    9 Miles, Class III

    For the upper reach, put in at Chili Bar resort for a fee of $2.00 per person and $3.00 per vehicle. It is only about nine miles to Hennesy Park in Lotus. The rapids start soon with Meatgrinder, a long Class III+ rapid. Then come Class II-III Racehorse Bend, Rock Garden, African Queen, Triple Threat, and finally, Troublemaker. Troublemaker is an S-shaped turn at moderate flows, but was rearranged during the floods of 1996-97. The obstacle of Gunsight Rock rests on the left bank rather than in the channel with space for a boat on its left. It still poses a potential for trapping and wrapping a raft. At over 4,000 cfs, the rapid washes straight through more cleanly, but is still best run on the left. Crowds gather on summer weekends to watch boats go through, and photographers take photos of each boat for later sale.

    Unwrapping Gunsight Rock in Troublemaker


    The next five miles through Coloma and Lotus are fairly easy going and populated with houses and camps. The whole 20 miles can be run in about six hours of float time at 2,000 cfs or in about three hours at 5,000 cfs.

    This upper reach is often run on the second day of a two-day trip for commercial boaters, since the lower reach provides more practice before the first rapids are encountered.

    Lotus to Folsom Lake
    11 Miles, Class III

    The South Fork below Lotus is a great boating run. Most commercial raft trips start near the middle, at El Dorado Countyžs Hennesy Park in Lotus or at private campgrounds. From there, the first several miles are relatively easy, and paddlers can practice their teamwork. Then the canyon narrows into åThe Gorgež, and Class III+ rapids come in succession: Fowleržs Rock, Satanžs Cesspool, Bouncing Rock, and Hospital Bar. With the correct line of approach, most of these require little maneuvering in the white water. In the lower reach, Fowleržs Rock may be the most tricky, with its wrap rocks and ledges. After Fowleržs Rock, Haystack Canyon offers big standing waves. Photographers often set up at Satanžs and Hospital Bar. Bouncing Rock may toss passengers, and Hospital Bar will shake up those who run into the hole on the right side.

    If Folsom Lake is full, two miles of flat water require pushing against the wind (or getting a boat tow) to the take-out at Salmon Falls Road bridge. But if Folsom is low enough, the current runs all the way to the bridge and saves some paddling.


    ADDRESSES AND PHONE NUMBERS

    1. California Department of Parks and Recreation
    American River District
    7806 Folsom-Auburn Road
    Folsom, CA 95630
    (916)988-0205

    2. Auburn State Recreation Area
    California Department of Parks and Recreation
    Box 3266
    Auburn, CA 95604
    (916)885-4527
    Office located on Highway 49 south of Auburn.... Click for ASRA Visitor Map
    or Aerial Photo of western ASRA



    See also:

    The Tunnel and River Restoration

    NEW!
    Top Ten Trails of Auburn State Recreation Area

    Back to Auburn-Cool Trail page


    And who was the Best Rafter ever?