What’s close to the Bay Area, full of history, and ripe for adventure?

No, this isn’t a trick question一it’s the American River!

Only a short drive away from San Francisco, Reno, or Sacramento, the American River is a hidden gem of Northern California. Located in the center of Gold Country, The American River has an exceptional range of activities, splendid views, and accommodating places to stay. The North Fork of the American River is celebrated for its thrilling whitewater rapids. The Middle Fork is known for its exquisite hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails. The often forgotten South Fork has ample swimming and tubing spots, camping sites, and magnificent hikes.

Rafting on the American River

Courtesy of Visit California

The American River’s scenery and activity selection are comparable to other neighboring California state parks, but it is far less populated, making it a wonderful getaway. Read on to discover all the amazing attributes of the North, Middle, and South Forks of the American River.

The American River At-A- Glance 

The American River is a 30-mile long river that runs from the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the Sacramento River. Its three tributaries, the North, Middle, and South Forks of the river, are known for outdoor recreation, particularly during the summer months.

The American River was a major site in the California Gold Rush. In 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, fueling the large-scale settlement of California. Today, the American River has achieved the designation “Recreational River” under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, giving it state and federal protection for its wildlife, culture, and historical sites.

North Fork

North Fork is perhaps the most “wild” section of the American River. The headwaters flowing into the North Fork come from high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains around Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl resorts. With 4,000-foot rock formations, deep canyons, waterfalls, and gushing rapids, the North Fork is ripe for adventure.

A Closer Look 

The North Fork of the American River is most known for its expert-level whitewater rapids, the most difficult in all three forks. Runs start at Iowa Hill Bridge and run for 9.5 miles towards the Ponderosa bridge. Outside of its surging rapids, the North Fork has breathtaking hiking trails, streams rife with fish, and cool, relaxing swimming holes.

Courtesy of American Whitewater Expeditions

What To Do 

North Fork has things to do for thrillseekers and people looking for a peaceful escape from city life. Each of the hidden gems below is unique to North Fork and showcases the area’s natural beauty. 

  • Whitewater rafting – The North Fork has unparalleled class IV and V whitewater rafting, with water running up to 3,000 cfs. April through June are the most exciting months to visit. As the winter snow melts, it creates rushing rapids and gives life to the ecology in the area. As you raft, you’ll be surrounded by incredible vegetation and wildflowers. 
  • Hiking – Two gorgeous hiking trails lead directly to the North Fork—Canyon Creek Trail and Pickering Bar Trail. Both have relatively high elevation gain (2700 feet), which make for stunning views of the river and neighboring hills. Hiking is best in the fall or spring for the turning leaves and lush wildflowers, respectively. These trails are full of wildlife, so keep an eye out for birds of prey, deer, and butterflies. Park hours are 7 am to sunset.
  • Fishing – North Fork delights experienced and first-time fishers alike. The North Fork of the American River is designated as a Wild Trout Water by the California Fish and Game Commission and is a federally listed Wild and Scenic River. North Fork is known for its deep pools, sheer cliffs, and wooded shore, making it the ideal habitat for rainbow and brown trout.

Where to Stay 

Most folks who come to North Fork are looking to spend a majority of their time outdoors. As such, camping in California State Parks is extremely popular. Here are a few sites you might consider: 

  • Mineral Bar or Ruck-a-Chucky Camping – The Auburn State Recreation Area has several campsites, most notably, Mineral Bar and Ruck-a-Chucky. Mineral Bar is located on the east side of the North Fork and has 16 designated campsites. These sites have tables, firepits, and dry toilets, but no drinking water. Mineral Bar has a 14-day camping limit and costs $28 per night, year-round. Ruck-a-Chucky has fewer sites (5) near Placer County. Each site has toilets and trash cans and lets guests bring pets. Ruck-a-Chucky sites also cost $28 per night. Review this map for further detail on both locations.
  • Boat-in camping at Lake Clementine – Lake Clementine is a debris dam that was established after the North Fork Dam was completed in 1939. The lake is situated near Auburn-Foresthill road and has 15 slots for boat-in camping. Each of these sites has picnic tables, fire rings, and chemical toilets. Families will love water skiing, swimming, and fishing on the lake. Camping costs just $38 per night. Scout out your site using this map and reserve it here.

horseback riding

Middle Fork

Middle Fork has some of the richest histories along the American River. Miners headed straight for Middle Fork to pan for gold一something locals still do, albeit recreationally, to this day. To make it easier to access gold, the explorers blasted a tunnel through the mountain and diverted the river to find one of the biggest gold discoveries in North America. Because of its storied past, Middle Fork has over 1,500 Gold Rush and Native American relics to explore.

A Closer Look 

While the Middle Fork was once inhabited by over 10,000 miners, it is now home to many treasures besides gold. Like the North Fork, Middle Fork also has whitewater rapids, but they are less challenging and better suited to intermediate rafters. Middle Fork’s topology is especially well-suited to hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. The Middle Fork hosts the world-famous Tevis Cup equestrian trail ride and the Western States 100-Mile Trail Run. Each race begins at the Squaw Valley Resort and winds through remote wilderness trails to Auburn.

What To Do 

The Middle Fork has over 100 miles of trails lined with awe-inspiring Douglas Fir, Black Oak, and Sugar Pine trees. Some visitors are lucky enough to see bobcats, deer, black bears, or bald eagles. There are several ways to explore the Middle Fork wilderness, up close and personal:

  • Horseback riding – Advanced horseback riders flock to the Middle Fork each year to participate in The Tevis Cup, a 100-mile endurance ride. Even if you’re not an equestrian, you can still try your hand at horseback riding throughout the Middle Fork Trail system. Cool Trail, Auburn Lake Trail, Cronan Ranch State Park, and Middle Fork American River Quarry Trail are all horseback riding-friendly. The Georgetown Divide Equestrian Trails Foundation and The American Endurance Ride Conference are fantastic resources for those looking to get started.
  • Gold Panning – Channel your inner miner with some gold panning! You can pan anywhere in the Middle Fork, except for the Knickerbocker area near Cool. That said, panners can only sift through gravel, not materials from river banks. If you want to dredge, you must secure a permit from the California Department of Fish and Game. Auburn’s Pioneer Mining Supplies is a first-class source for recreational pans, sieves, and more.

Courtesy of Randy Pench for the Sacramento Bee

  • Running and Hiking – Settlers crossed the Sierras and entered the Middle Fork using the Western States Trail. Today, this trail is nationally known for its 100-mile running endurance competition. But day-to-day, runners and hikers can leisurely traverse the trail that guided miners from Nevada to California.

Where to Stay 

  • Rocklin Park Hotel and Spa – This luxury stay offers spacious rooms, high-speed internet, a private outdoor pool, a fitness facility, and a private guest lounge. Rates start at around $90 per night.
  • American River Outpost – This campground includes beach access, bathrooms with hot showers and flush toilets, games, and free WiFi within the vicinity of multiple trails and local restaurants. American River Outpost offers tent rentals starting at $30 and sleep kits for $25 per person. Their pre-set platform tents fit two people and cost $99 per night.
  • Camping in Tahoe National Forest – The Park has 76 campsites with a range of facilities, including fireplaces, garbage containers, cooking stoves, and tables. Camping is limited to 14 days each season, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Pets are allowed but must be on a 6-inch leash. You can reserve family and group campgrounds by calling 877-444-6777 reserving online at www.recreation.gov.  

South Fork

The South Fork is the most accessible and family-friendly of the three forks, with 20 miles of boatable whitewater between Chili Bar Dam and Folsom Lake. The South Fork also played a significant historical role as part of James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. 

A Closer Look 

The South Fork riverbank teems with California poppies, oak woodlands, and wildlife. While rafting or tubing, people often see river otters, golden eagles, beavers, and plenty of fish. Apart from fauna and animals, the South Fork has historical sites related to the Nisenan Native American People and the Gold Rush settlers.

What To Do 

  • Rafting – The South Fork is the safest area for whitewater rafting on the American River. The South Fork has a plethora of professional rafters ready to guide beginner and intermediate rafters through Class II and III rapids. Adventures can span from a few hours to a few days, depending on group size, interest, and stamina. American Whitewater Expeditions and American River Recreation both offer excellent rafting excursions with gear rental and professional river guides. Book your rafting trip by calling 530-622-6700 or book online at either website. 

    Courtesy of Visit California

    Swimming and Tubing – If you need a soothing activity, consider tubing from the American River Resort to James Marshall Park or Henningsen Lotus Park. This 1 to 2.5-mile stretch allows you to glide among oaks, pines, and boulders at a leisurely pace. On the way, you’ll pass a shallow swimming hole for children.

  • Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park – The first gold in California was unearthed in the South Fork of the American River in 1848. That breakthrough spurred one of the largest migrations in human history. The Marshall Gold Discovery State Park commemorates the California Gold Rush of 1849, with a replica of the original sawmill and 20 other historic buildings. Take a Gold Discovery Tour to hear about the life of James Marshall, the Coloma alley, and other events pre- and post-gold discovery. Tours cost $3 per adult and $2 per child.

Where to Stay 

From camping to glamping to a proper inn, you can choose from a variety of lodging options in South Fork: 

  • American River Resort – The resort boasts a variety of options, including sites, tent camping, glamping, and deluxe cabins. Rafting, hiking, tubing, fishing, and picnic tables are on campus or just a walk or short bus route away. The Resort is great for families, couples, and big groups, and can even accommodate weddings. Tent sites start at $20 per night, RV sites start at $50 per night, and cabins start at $179 per night.
  • Coloma Resort – Coloma Resort also offers cabins and RV campsites. Many of the cabins have riverfront views and the Resort provides electric hookups for off-river sites. The Resort has a farm-to-fork cafe, swimming pool, and tubing rentals. Camping sites start at $48 on weekdays and the smallest cabins start at $95 per night.
  • Eden Vale Inn – This luxury retreat comes with a built-in spa studio, complimentary breakfast made from local produce, and has in-room fireplaces to help you wind down. You’ll also have your privacy with private decks and patios and deep soaking tubs. Rates start around $300 per night.

Visit the American River Resort 

Nestled on 30 wooded acres, the American River Resort is the perfect stay for anyone who wants to experience the best of what South Fork has to offer. No matter whether you want to camp or glamp, tube or raft, hike or mountain bike, American River Resort has a spot for you. The fishing pond, play areas, in-ground swimming pool, fire pits, and free hot showers distinguish American River Resorts from any other lodging in the area. And if you want to throw a killer family reunion, work retreat, or wedding, American River Resorts can serve as a unique, sensational venue. What are you waiting for? Book your stay at The American River Resort today.