South Fork of the American River offers world class rafting a short drive from Tahoe (video)
July 4, 2017
Standing on one of Lake Tahoe's crowded beaches on a warm July afternoon, it can be challenging to envision the multiple feet of snow that sat there only a few months ago. The start of 2017 brought one of the biggest snowpacks on record to the Tahoe Basin.
And in addition to filling the lake to within an inch of its legal limit, the abundance of snow is fueling rivers and streams throughout the Sierra Nevada, including the American River.
Located just an hour from Tahoe's South Shore, the South Fork of the American combined with the Middle and North forks offer world class whitewater and make for what rafting outfitters and tourism officials proudly claim is one of the most rafted waterways west of the Rockies.
"What I think is such a unique aspect of [the South Fork of the American River] and makes it such a jewel is it has something for everyone," said Scott Armstrong, owner of All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting California. "It has access for everyone. It has a type of trip that everyone can enjoy and it gives a good balance of fun, but also in a controlled manner that people can feel comfortable with. And because of that it's one of the most popular rivers in the western United States and definitely the most popular river in California."
Armstrong, whose family has been guiding trips on the South Fork of the American River for more than 40 years, has witnessed the evolution of recreation and rafting on El Dorado County's West Slope over the decades.
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Part of that evolution involved an agreement with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to time releases from the reservoirs above the South and Middle forks in a way that provides maximum benefit: power for the utility district's customers and water for the more than two dozen outfitters operating on the forks of the American River.
Unlike other popular rivers in the Golden State, rafting trips continued on the American — which is fed by snowpack in the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests — through the height of California's most recent drought, a devastating period of dryness that Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared over earlier this year.
Even on the continuously-operating American, the bounty from the snow gods is something special.
"This is the year to do this," said Mike Juarez, owner of Action Whitewater Adventures.
"The river is just amazing right now. Everybody gets off the river and they have huge smiles on their faces — just the look of satisfaction. We're so, so fortunate to have such a good snow year and water year."
Riding through Trouble Maker and Meatgrinder
On a hot Saturday morning in mid-June a crowd of more than 60 people is milling about a parking lot at the Action Whitewater Adventures camp on the South Fork of the American River.
Along with the eager faces are cars, many with California license plates and others with plates from far away, including one from Florida. Some of the people state they came up from the Bay Area. One couple says they trekked north all the way from LA.
All of them are here to raft the South Fork, which on this particular day is flowing more than four times the normal summer flow rate of 1,700 cubic feet per second.
The scene is typical for a summer day.
"There's people that know about that river and know nothing else … about El Dorado County," said Jody Franklin, executive director of tourism for the county. "So they come from Los Angeles a lot of times … or the Bay Area, they'll go to the American River … that's just one small part … but it's the one thing that we have. It's dam controlled. It's great for families, so it's definitely that first visit … it drives that first visit … and it distinguishes us, too."
Back at the Action Whitewater camp, the crowd starts breaking into smaller groups, each of which boards a bus and starts the short ride to the launch point. Instructions are given, life jackets are tightened, helmets are fastened and the rafts are plopped in the water.
They will soon join many other rafts operated by a number of outfitters, forming an armada of boats tearing through rapids with appropriate names such as Trouble Maker and Meatgrinder. On one raft, a woman from LA comes close to going overboard but is pulled back in. The near fall does not diminish the smile on her face and she joins the others on the boat in raising their paddles toward the sky after successfully navigating a stretch of class 3 rapids.
In a broader view, the variation among the different forks — the North Fork offers challenging class 4 and 5 while the Middle and South forks offer class 3 rapids that can border on class 4 depending on flow — provide the something-for-everyone aspect.
Specific to the South Fork, the more than 20 rapids in a span of about 21 miles offer their own variation that outfitters say can satisfy both weekend thrill seekers and families looking for a fun adventure.
"We have 21 miles of probably the best commercial rafting in the world. … It's in between intermediate enough to where if you're a beginner it's going to be fun and it's not going to scare the pants off you and if you're a thrill-seeking guy looking for some action this river provides it all."
The cost for a trip on the American varies depending on outfitter and the length of the journey. If the exuberance emanating from the people on the river that June day is any indication, it's money well spent.
"All the guides are coming off the river super happy. The customers are like just in disbelief of how awesome the experiences are. It's just really awesome," said Juarez.