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Our Trip on the South Fork American River

South Fork American River
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Stretch: Chili Bar to Folsom Reservoir

Difficulty: Class III+ with one IV-

Distance: 20.5 miles, 1 or 2 days

Flows: 800 - 1800 cfs, measured as release from Chili Bar dam (CBR)

Gradient: 23 fpm average (upper 31 fpm, lower 21 fpm) pool and drop

Put-in: Chili Bar resort near highway 193 bridge, 930'

Take-out: Folsom Reservoir near Salmon Falls bridge, 440'

Shuttle: 25 miles (1 hour) one-way

Season: year round from dam release, might be too high in spring

This is California's standard intermediate run that many boaters run repeatedly and never outgrow. Annoying user fees can deplete beer money fast. Crowds are a huge problem on weekends during the summer. The whitewater is mostly class II+ with ten class IIIs, two class III+ rapids, and one class IV- that repeat customers never scout. Most commercial outfitters run the lower half on Saturday, and the more difficult upper half on Sunday. They always seem to launch just as you're coming thru.

On the other hand, there are lots of fun but not life-threatening rapids on this river, which can be run almost any day of the year (you'll need a drysuit in winter). In late September or early October, the poison oak leaves turn red and provide nice autumn color.

Although the length of 20.5 miles sounds long, it can be boated easily in one day, except when days are short in the middle of winter. By getting an early start from Chili Bar, you can snag a good parking spot, get a jump on rafters running the upper half, lag behind rafters running the lower half, eat a quick lunch, and hopefully reach take-out before sunset.

Here is our ride down the South Fork ...

To reach put-in, continue uphill 5-6 miles on Salmon Falls Rd, to the hamlet of Pilot Hill, turning right on the Salmon Falls Cutoff. Then turn right on highway 49, proceed 5-6 miles thru the town of Coloma, and continue uphill again towards Placerville. At a Mexican restaurant, turn sharp left at the junction of Highway 193, and descend steeply (in low gear) to the river. Cross the bridge and turn left into the Chili Bar Resort, which charges fees for both parking and put-in. Early morning parking is possible on a wide gravel bar.

Mile 0
Put in near or under the Chili Bar bridge, preferably before 9:00. Chili Bar Hole provides good surfing at levels around 2000 cfs, but is rocky at lower flows. Downstream are several easy rapids, two involving large rocks. A trail follows an old mining road on the right bank.

Mile .6
Quarter Mile, AKA Meatgrinder (class III+). A small diversion canal removes water on the left, and a large rock is visible there, just left of center. This is a long rapid (over 1/4 mile, that can cause a bruising or swim if you capsize near the top. At low flows, the lead-in rapid can be run either left or far right. Either way, you need to maneuver back to the center, entering the main rapid about 10 meters from the large rock, slanting left-to-right thru a slot between submerged rocks. This is an easy move, but failing to make it can have severe consequences, because the biggest waves and holes are still ahead. After this, keep your bow into the waves as the current funnels you towards Rhino rock on the right. After Rhino rock, wave size decreases, and you can eddy out on the left, or finish the rapid along the right. Good playspots exist near center.

Mile 1.3
Sluice Box, AKA Racehorse Bend (class III-). The river curves left among boulders, then runs into an uptilted slate cliff on the right, with sharp submerged rocks along the cliff. The safest exit is towards center. Big eddy below on the left.

Mile 1.5
Maya, AKA Traffic Light (class II+). Choose either a small hole on the right, or a ledge drop on the left. Big but easily avoidable holes at higher water (class III above 3500 cfs). Maya is a popular kayak surfing spot, often with long lines.

Mile 1.7
Rock Garden (class II). A maze of small boulders that can help you improve boat control. At lowest flows (under 900 cfs) it is best run on the far left, but most of the time you can go anywhere.

Mile 2.4
African Queen (class II+). Several willow-covered islands create a multiplicity of routes. The most common is right almost all the way, cutting left to avoid a shallow-trap at the end of that channel. This route passes some nice surfing waves near the second island. The most fun route is left over a one-foot falls (not for rafts under 1700 cfs), then center thru a very narrow slot between islands. The far left channel is boring.

Mile 2.9
First Threat (class III). The river enters a boulder garden, then turns right into a deep hole along a rock outcropping on the left. The hole makes good advanced surfing, and is flippiest on the left, but can be mostly avoided by skirting right. Popular with hardshell kayakers and bodyboarders, surfing contests are often held here.

Mile 3.2
Second Threat (class II+). Almost immediately, the river drops again thru a slot along a rock outcropping on the right. Good swimmer's rapid with a large eddy below, making it easy to reach the rock outcropping for repeated swims.

Mile 3.3
Third Threat (class II-III depending). Make of this one what you will. The center is easy and unobstructed, but there are large holes on the far left halfway down, and on the far right near the bottom. Running both holes is an advanced maneuver.

Mile 3.7
The Narrows (class II+). The river slaloms right to left, and enters a channel on the far left with many barely-submerged rocks. Rafts often get stuck here. Kayak routes exist to the right.

Mile 4.0
Minigorge (class II+). The river enters a miniature gorge in bedrock, with pleasant waves and rapids. Major squirreliness towards the end.

Mile 4.3
Swimmer's Rapid (class II). A boulder bar rapid with big waves, this is a good place to practice throwbag techniques from the right bank. The Coloma quiet zone begins just below (no yelling, no water fights).

Mile 5.0
Campground and cabins on left bank, good for 2-day trips in winter.

Mile 5.1
S-Turn, AKA Troublemaker (class IV-), scout left. The river enters a boulder garden, followed by a falls, with an S channel on the far left. The rapid's name describes your route well. At lower flows, the true path is narrow indeed. If you shade right, a large diagonal wave tends to flip kayaks. If you go far left, you end up in an eddy that is hard to exit. Precise placement into the gut of the hole surfs you next to a big rock on the left below, then thru a steep channel along Gunsight rock, where rafts often end up wrapped. Advanced boaters might want to eddy left, then ferry across the hole, exiting to the right of Gunsight rock. In any case, the swim isn't too bad, but keep your feet up.

Mile 5.6
Private campground on right, then a steel bridge. River access should be legal, but is prohibited and enforced by the County. Put in at this campground for the longest possible class II run.

Mile 5.8
Coloma Lake, a long stretch with slow-moving current. Take-out is prohibited; put-in access for non-commercial groups only, when doing the Coloma to Lotus run (class II).

Mile 7.2
Old Scary (class II-). This was formerly a class III rapid on the right shortly above the Highway 49 bridge, until high water detoured the river leftward during the winter of 1982.

Mile 7.4
Concrete bridge for Highway 49. River access should be legal, but at times has been prohibited and enforced by the County.

Mile 8.0
Henningsen-Lotus Park. This is the best stopping and starting point for breaking up this run into two sections. Daily parking fees and overnight parking not allowed.

Mile 8.5
Lotus Ledge. At low flows this makes a good surfing hole on the left, or can be avoided to the right.

Mile 9.0
Camp Lotus, the nicest camping area in this vicinity. Usually full on summer weekends, so make reservations well in advance. Grass and tall sycamores make this a pleasant put-in spot.

Mile 9.1
Barking Dogs Honking Geese (class II+) Named after Camp Lotus neighbors. The river curves right and funnels into a nice hole, then turns left and proceeds past a huge rock-hole on the right.

Mile 10.6
Current Divider (class II+). A rock island divides the flow. The most fun route is to the right of the island, then left below. Believe it or not, commercial rafts often get wrapped here.

Mile 11.1
Highway Rapid (class II+). A long rock garden, very bony at low flows (under 1100 cfs). The best route is just to the left of a low brushy island, then slaloming around rocks until the slanting left-to-right exit.

Mile 11.4
Swimmer's Rapid (class II). Decaying estate on the left, willow bar on the right. Greenwood Creek enters on the right below, marking the end of the quiet zone. This would make an excellent take-out for the Coloma to Lotus run.

Mile 11.6
Turtle Lake, a long stretch with slow-moving current, mercifully ended by...

Mile 11.9
Cable Car Rapid (class II) and other unnamed class II rapids. This is perhaps the best "wilderness'' camping spot on this river, with sandy beaches, oak trees, and few mosquitos. Class II and II+ rapids continue without too much flatwater. Many rock formations in this area contain Indian grinding holes.

Mile 15.8
Fowler's Rock (class III). Entrance to the Gorge, occurs after the third sighting of the Lollipop tree on top of a distant hill. Good time to put on your paddling jacket! The river bends left around a gravel bar, then flows along a cliff on the left. Rafts are often accidentally parked on a submerged boulder along a house-sized rock on the right, but they can be avoided with a quick left slalom. Go right of Fowler's Rock, the tall cabin-sized boulder ahead, then pick a good slot (near center) in the diagonal boulder fence below.

Mile 15.1
Upper Haystack Canyon (class II+). Big standing waves in a narrow section of gorge. Not particularly difficult.

Mile 16.7
Lost Hat (class III-). After a flat spot with cows and cowpies on both banks, the river drops steeply into some big standing waves. This rapid continues unabated into the one below. If you plan to sneak Starr's Cesspool, stay right; otherwise work left.

Mile 16.9
Starr's Cesspool (class III+), formerly Satan's Cesspool. Photographers are usually stationed at several spots nearby. An underwater rock cluster causes a hole and a large curling wave at low or moderate flows. The safest way to kayak this rapid is to eddy out left just above the main drop, then choose the proper exit ramp near the left bank. If you swim, get back in the boat fast, or swim into the lefthand eddy below, to avoid getting bruised in Son of Cesspool just ahead. A narrow rocky slot is available to the right of the central island, and could be the best choice for beginners, since the eddy above the curling wave is too small to catch easily.

Mile 16.95
Son of Cesspool, AKA Dead Man's Drop (class III). The best route, whether boating or swimming, is just to the right of a submerged rock in the center, but without smashing into the righthand wall. If you're swimming and can't make the lefthand eddy with your boat in tow, let go of your boat, because the swim to the left of the submerged rock will probably kick your butt good. Hopefully some strangers or your boating companions will retrieve your boat.

Mile 17.4
Scissors (class III). After a short calm stretch, the river charges over some diagonal bedrock ledges, along the left wall, then around a cabin-sized rock on the right. To avoid swimming, always stay perpendicular to the diagonal drops.

Mile 17.6
Lower Haystack Canyon (class II+). Big standing waves in a narrow section of gorge. A bit more difficult than the upper one.

Mile 18.2
Bouncing Rock (class III). Most of the current smashes into a rock on the right, then pours into a large flippy hole. Because the swim below is shallow and rocky, consider sneaking this rapid by ferrying left continuously from the outset (class II+).

Mile 18.4
Pre-Op (class III-). Big standing waves with rocks and holes along the banks.

Mile 18.6
Hospital Bar (class III). After a small boulder garden, most of the current drops right over a boulder bar into a fast channel along the right bank. A diagonal hole at the bottom is best run on the left, but you can ham it up for photographers by running further right, where a flip is possible. Named for a hospital tent set up during the gold rush.

Mile 18.8
Recovery Room (class III-). When the reservoir is down, the hole at the bottom is a miniature version of Hospital Bar. But when the reservoir is full, it is class II at most.

Mile 19.3
Surprise (class II-III depending). At the top of a wide gravel bar, the river bends left into a fast chute. Late in the summer, boaters get surprised as this rapid uncovers. You can sneak it on the right, or run over the big center rock into a hole, if you're brave.

Mile 19.5
Diagonal (class II+ or underwater). A diagonal rock fence from left to lower right provides several route choices.

Mile 20.5
Take out just before or shortly after Salmon Falls bridge, depending on where you parked. Port-a-potties available in both places.

To reach take-out, go east on highway 50 and turn north on El Dorado Hills Blvd, just after cresting the first hill. After 4-5 miles, cross Green Valley Rd, and go straight onto Salmon Falls Rd, which winds 5-6 miles downhill along Folsom Reservoir to Salmon Falls Bridge. There are several fee parking lots, one on the left before the bridge.


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