The American Rivers


South Fork of the American River

The South Fork of the American River begins  in the Sierra Nevada Mountains,  about  5 miles east of the Sierra at Tahoe Resort. The winter snow melts and begins to travel westward. Through lush pines, striking granite landscapes and quaint communities, the South Fork of the American River journeys toward the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The South Fork is joined by many creeks along the way and in total captures the water from about  840 square miles. 

The South Fork of the American River  journeys around 90 miles before it becomes part of the American River. Three major and other smaller man made reservoirs contain the natural flow of the  South Fork of the American River. The major dams are Slab Creek Reservoir built in 1967, Chili Bar Reservoir built in 1964 and Folsom Lake Reservoir built in 1955. Folsom Lake Reservoir is technically built on the American River but consequently floods the confluence of the North and South Forks of the American and when the lake is at capacity it backs quite far up the lower portions of both the North and South Forks of the American River. The American River then continues down to meet the Sacramento River which pours out to meet with the San Joaquin River in the Bay.

Native American History on the American Rivers 

Before the arrival of Europeans, the area around the American Rivers was populated by  Maidu-Nisenan people who called the American River No'to-mom. The Maidu-Nisenan originally lived in a large territory that extended from the Sacramento River  as far south as the Delta and as far north as the Yuba River, and as far east into the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe. They prospered greatly from the bountiful environment. Of particular importance to the Maidu-Nisenan diet and creation story is the staple crop, ooti (acorn). The Maidu-Nisenan also fished, hunted and gathered many other seeds and roots for sustenance.   

The first recorded history of white interaction with the Maidu-Nisenan is that of the missionary Gabriel Moraga from the San Jose Mission who dove into the territory and mostly explored up the Sacramento River which the Maidu-Nisenan called Big North Water River. The Maidu-Nisenan were suspicious of the missionaries and down right mad when the missionary soldiers refused to acknowledge the territorial rights of the people, especially as the soldiers headed to the Buttes which was their holy place. This hostility resulted in some skirmishes but eventually the missionaries returned to San Jose and the Maidu-Nisenan only heard stories of the whites for the next 20 years until Jedediah Smith arrived in 1828. 5 years after Jedediah Smith left, malaria wiped out about 40,000 native peoples from the valley. It was from this decimated position the Maidu-Nisenan people met John Sutter. John Sutter  used the existing tensions between different Native American peoples to exert control and influence in the region and hired Native Americans for laborers. Sutter built up his empire in this fashion until 1848 when James Marshall discovered gold in the Maidu-Nisenan village of Coloma, where he was building a mill for Sutter. 

After news of the gold got out, 'the world rushed in' and by 1849 California was swarming. The South Fork of the American River was packed full of miners, blasting, digging and panning. It was not long until conflicts between the miners and native peoples spun out of control. The miners were bent on destroying the native population and with that zeal plus small pox, tuberculosis and cholera the Maidu-Nisenan population declined from 8,000 - 10, 000 people to about 1,100 by 1910.

All of this history is evident on the American Rivers today. It is easy on the South Fork of the American River to find a place where the Maidu-Nisenan sat to grind their acorns and there is something to sitting there and looking at the river from that perspective. Drill holes in rocks and diversion channels from mining can also be seen mostly on the Middle and South Forks of the American River. Every day on the river turns up some new piece of history. Abandoned mining equipment from the mining days can be found lying right where they left it, rusting away. 

(Resources used for this article: "River of Sorrows" By Richard Burrill and "A River Divided" By Jill (Redcorn) Kearney and Guy Nixon (Redcorn))


South Fork of the American River

The section of river that is commercially rafted on the South Fork of the American is a 21 mile stretch beginning just below the Chili Bar Dam and ending in the upper reaches of Folsom Lake Reservoir. Above Chili Bar Dam there are raftable sections but these are not run commercially. The Class 5 Slab Creek Run has recently been opened up for commercial permitting but it is unlikely that this will be carried out on a regular basis. Above the Slab Creek run there are many other runs, like Kyburz, a class 4 run that is also not run commercially. 

One of the reasons the South Fork of the American is run so extensively is because of its playful nature. Its rapids are unique in that there are some really big features to run but at normal flows it is not particularly dangerous. 

Chili Bar Rapids

Mile By Mile:

This list is not exhaustive but rather gives a general idea about where the main rapids are on the river. 

0 Put-In: Chili Bar River Access.
0.6 Meatgrinder Class III  and Second Helpings Class II
1.3 Racehorse Bend Class II
1.5 Maya Class II
2.0 African Queen Rapid. Class II.
3.1 Triple Threat Rapids (First Threat, Second Threat, Third Threat Class II)
4.4 Indian Creek enters on river left. Beginning of Quiet zone.
5.2 Troublemaker Rapid. Class III
5.6 Coloma Bridge. built in 1917. 
5.7 Sutter's's Mill site. 
6.0 Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
7.1 Old Scary Class II.
7.4 Highway 49 Bridge River Access.
8.0 Henningsen-Lotus County Park River Access

9.0 Camp Lotus River Access and Campground

Gorge Rapids

Mile By Mile:

This list is not exhaustive but rather gives a general idea about where the main rapids are on the river. 

9.0 Camp Lotus River Access and Campground
9.1 Barking Dog Class II.
10.6 Current Divider Class II. 
11.2 Highway Rapid Class II. 
11.5 Greenwood Creek on river right. End of the Quiet Zone. 
12.0 Cable Crossing Class II. 
12.2 BLM public land on river right
15.8 Fowler's Rock Beginning of the Gorge. Class III
16.2 Upper Haystack Canyon Class II
16.9 Satan's Cesspool Class III
17.0 Deadman's Drop or Son of Satan's Class II
17.6 Lower Haystack Canyon Class II
17.7 BLM land to mile 18.1
18.1 Weber Creek enters on river left
18.2 Bouncing Rock Class III
18.6 Hospital Bar Class III
18.7 Recovery Room Class II
19.4 Surprise Rapid. Class III
20.5 Salmon Falls Bridge take-out on the right bank upstream of the bridge.