Cart items: 0  Total: $0.00
California; South Fork American River

South Fork American River

Chili Bar and Gorge Runs The South Fork American, California's most popular whitewater river, provides 100,000 people a year with a thrilling ride through the heart of Gold Rush Country. Below the Chili Bar put-in the South Fork drops quickly through a remote, steep-walled canyon cut into metamorphic volcanic rock. Five miles farther, where the canyon opens up into the gentle Coloma Valley, Troublemaker Rapid provides the climax of the Chili Bar stretch. Civilization is close at hand for the next four easy miles between Coloma and Lotus. Then the river heads into back country again, winding through foothills and finally plunging into the exhilarating, nearly continuous rapids of the South Fork Gorge before stilling in Folsom Reservoir.

Dam-controlled flows often make the South Fork runnable year round. On summer weekends the river is very crowded. But weekday boaters enjoy the scenery and the bouncy but forgiving rapids in relative solitude. The Chili Bar and Gorge runs are considerably more difficult at flows over 3,000 cfs, but they are tough enough even at low and moderate levels to get the inexperienced into trouble. Beginners and novices should stick to the Class II stretch from Coloma to Lotus, or the Class I - II run on the Lower American below Folsom Reservoir.

The South Fork runs are on a small remnant of river bounded by Chili Bar Dam upstream and Folsom Reservoir downstream. Even so, additional dams have been proposed, including one at the site of Troublemaker Rapid. After negotiations involving river runners, landowners, and El Dorado County, in 1982 the California Legislature passed a bill to delay new dam proposals for at least ten years if a series of dam and diversion projects were approved for the upper South Fork above Kyburz. As of 1992 none of these projects had been built, and it was uncertain whether dam proposals on the South Fork would be renewed. The river is also threatened by an El Dorado County proposal to divert 20,000 acre-feet from the upper South Fork. Such a diversion would severely restrict instream flows and hamper boating. (For updated information contact Friends of the River; see appendix for address.)

Another problem is the extensive private property along much of the river below Chili Bar -- an important factor in El Dorado County's abortive attempt to prohibit whitewater sport on the South Fork in the early eighties. After the courts ruled that the public had the right to run the river, El Dorado County took over the task of regulating boating. The county now patrols the river, requires private river runners to register at put-ins, and asks all boaters to observe a "quiet zone" between miles 4.4 and 11.5. Use fees from commercial rafting outfitters provide the county with a tidy sum.

With so much private land, the South Fork faces a grave threat from the tremendous growth of greater Sacramento. New houses are appearing in previously undeveloped sections of the canyon. Leading the effort to protect the river from uncontrolled growth is the American River Land Trust, which has purchased sensitive parcels in the South Fork Gorge and is working to buy more riverside land in the Chili Bar stretch. The Trust's office and Nature Center in Coloma is well worth a visit (see Side Excursions).

Upstream Runs The South Fork offers some boating -- primarily for experts only -- above Chili Bar Reservoir. U.S. Highway 50 follows much of the upper river, offering easy access but detracting from the solitude. The most common run on the upper river is 7 miles of Class IV - V water from Kyburz to Riverton. Just above Riverton the South Fork cuts a steep chute through sharp rocks where a landslide bocked the highway and temporarily plugged the river in 1983. The run can be extended another 3.5 miles by continuing past Riverton to the Peavine Ridge Road bridge. Below Peavine the South Fork roars down an extremely steep Class VI gorge that drops more than 200 ft./mi. in places. This stretch is known as the Golden Gate Run because boating it is nearly as suicidal as jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. (For more information on the upper river, refer to the guide books by Cassady and Calhoun or Holbek and Stanley listed earlier.)

Difficulty: III.
Gradient: 23 ft./mi.
Length: 20 miles. Shorter runs possible.
Put-in: Chili Bar (930').
Take-out: Salmon Falls Bridge (460').>
Drainage Area and Average Annual Discharge: 673 sq. mi. and 1,172,000 af near Lotus (mile 9).
Peak Recorded Flow: 64,500 cfs (Nov. 21, 1950).
Season: All year. Flows controlled by several upstream reservoirs.
Recommended Levels: 1,000 - 5,000 cfs.
Flow Information: DWR tape, (916) 653-9647. Release from Chili Bar Dam. Hydrograph below does not take daily fluctuations into account. Actual daytime flows -- especially in summer -- are usually higher than the graph indicates.
Permits: May be required in the future. Currently, private boats must display use tags (available at major access points).

Managing Agency: (1) El Dorado County Dept. of Parks & Recreation, 360 Fair Lane, Placerville CA 95667; (916) 621-5353. (2) BLM, 63 Natoma St., Folsom, CA 95630; (916) 985-4474.
Commercial Raft Trips: Yes, many outfitters. For a list contact El Dorado County Parks.
Land Ownership: Mostly private; some BLM.
Scenery: Very good. Lightly forested foothill canyon.
Wilderness: No.
Solitude: Good above Coloma and below Lotus, except summer weekends when river traffic is very heavy.
Water: Releases from bottoms of upstream reservoirs keep river cold all summer. Undrinkable.
Camping: Several private campgrounds with river access: Chili Bar (put-in), Camp Coloma (mile 5), Coloma Resort (mile 5.5), Point Pleasant (mile 6), and Camp Lotus (mile 9); reserve sites in advance. BLM lands in the lower half of the run are open for camping; small fee (contact the BLM).
Side Excursions: Sutter Gold Discovery site and the American River Land Trust and Nature Center, both in Coloma.

Guides and References:

  • South Fork of the American River: Information Guide to Whitewater Boating (El Dorado County). Map-pamphlet available at launch sites or county offices.
  • Riverguide Bandana to the South Fork American (Rivers & Mountains). Cloth map.
  • Wright, Geology and Rapids, South Fork American River. Mile guide and geology notes.
  • David Bolling essay in Rennicke, River Days.


  • USGS 7.5': Garden Valley, Coloma, Pilot Hill.
  • AAA: Lake Tahoe.
  • South Fork American River (Cassady & Calhoun). Map-guide; water-resistant paper.
  • Auto Shuttle: 25 miles (1 hour plus) one way.

    Logistics: The Chili Bar put-in is on California 193 below the birdge over South Fork. Please see Western Whitewater, page 355, for details.

    Excerpted from Western Whitewater from the Rockies to the Pacific
    Copyright 1994 Jim Cassady, Bill Cross, and Fryar Calhoun. Reproduced in cooperation with Fryar Calhoun.


    Site Map