A RAFT heads into Meat Grinder Rapids on the upper stretch of the South Fork of the American River below Chili Bar. Democrat photo by Pat Dollins


South Fork rafting a fun hot weather cooler

By From page A1 | June 28, 2013

Whitewater rafting is one of the best scary/fun adventures you can experience. El Dorado County is one of the best places to  hear the roar of rapids up ahead, feel the pounding of your heart as the raft carries you ever closer and the adrenaline rush as you paddle through the rapids, bouncing on the waves, while water cascades around you. The thrill of accomplishment as you shoot safely through the rapids and come out into a stretch of fast-moving water is amazing and it all happens right here, in our own backyard.

In El Dorado County, over 30 outfitters offer guided trips down the South, Middle and North Forks of the American River. They can take individuals, small groups, big groups and organizations for the ride of their lives and each outfitter offers something a little different from the others.

The South Fork is the most popular river for commercial rafting. With more than 50 Class II, III and IV rapids over 21 miles, there is something for everyone from  beginners to  intermediate and experienced rafters. Situated in rolling foothills, the South Fork is part of  Coloma’s Gold Rush history, a great place to visit before or after the rafting the river.

“It’s a pretty darn perfect river for people from 7-75,” said Nate Rangel, owner of Adventure Connections.”It’s also got easy access and sits in the middle of one of the largest mass migrations in mankind’s history.”

The South Fork is separated into two different rafting trips: the 10-mile Upper, which begins at Chili Bar in Placerville and ends in Coloma and the Lower, which begins in Coloma and ends at Salmon Falls.

“The big difference between the two sections is that the top seven miles of the Upper is intense and then is quiets down,” said Rangel, “and the Lower is slower and quieter at first and then becomes intense the bottom seven miles.”

River rapids are classified in six levels: Class I and II  are small rough areas with small drops and require little maneuvering; Class III rapids are whitewater with medium waves and drops of 3-5 feet; Class IV is whitewater with large waves, long rapids with rocks and requires sharp maneuvering; Class V is whitewater with large waves, continuous rapids, large rocks, drops and hazards. It requires expert maneuvering. Class VI is considered  unnavigable.

Rafting trips begin with a safety talk on land — what to do if you fall out of the raft, how to get back in, how to swim and keep afloat, how to signal that you’re fine and how to let someone know you need help. Everyone dons a life jacket — no one goes into the river without one.

People don’t actually sit in the raft; they sit on the sides of  raft with feet inside and help paddle, maneuvering into and out of rapids at the direction of their guide who sits at the back of the raft, paddling as rudder. This is an interactive adventure  and you’re going to get wet — and have fun.

The lower section of the South Fork, with its long, quiet start gives neophyte rafters the opportunity to familiarize themselves with executing rafting commands before launching into Class III rapids like Haystacks and Satan’s Cesspool.

The upper section of the South Fork starts right off with Meatgrinder, a Class III rapid and continues along to Racehorse Bend, also Class III. There are some quiet stretches, but Troublemaker waits towards the end.

The Middle Fork of the American River is known for Class III and IV rapids, a more technically challenging river with waterfalls. It snakes through foothills and steeply forested canyons. The 18-mile trip goes through Tunnel Chute, a 90-foot-long tunnel blasted out of the hills by miners in the 1800s.

The North Fork is the most challenging of the three forks, a wild river with no dams upstream to control the flow. Highly technical and filled with Class IV and V rapids, the 9.5-mile run has a shorter rafting season, March to mid-June, and is best for experts.

Rafting outfitters have been on the American River since the 1970s. In 1978, El Dorado County thought about outlawing floating down the river, but boaters and enthusiasts won out. Commercial rafting is regulated, with only permitted outfitters allowed to raft the river. Of the original 74 permits, about 30 remain, due to consolidation of companies.

“There are multiple reservoirs that SMUD manages and we have a 50-year license with them, so we have great water six days a week all summer long, even in the driest of years,” said Rangel. “We’re really lucky in that respect.”

Rafting outfitters supply trained rafting guides, rafts, paddles, life jackets, helmet, paddles and shuttle service. They offer 1/2 day trips, day-long trips and two-to-three-day trips. Most trips supply lunch and cold beverages. They can accommodate just about everyone, including people who are unable to paddle. All you need to bring is swimsuit, sunscreen, sunglasses, old tennis shoes, a hat and a water-proof camera to record the amazing scenery and the looks on the faces of your fellow passengers as you come to a rapid.

“Rivers are magical,” said Rangle. “There’s a quality to whitewater rafting and being on a river that changes people’s lives.”

A hot summer day, refreshingly cold water, beautiful scenery with wildlife, heart-pounding rapids and calm pools —whitewater rafting is all that and it’s right in our own back yard.

To find out about whitewater rafting and special river events in El Dorado County, check the Website at

Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.


Wendy Schultz

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