Planning a recreational adventure this summer? Look no further than The South Fork of the American River.
A tributary of the American River, the South Fork boasts some of the finest white water rapids in the Western United States and is enjoyed by rafters and kayakers alike. The rush of the river is exciting, but the scenery is perhaps even more beautiful. Groves of oak trees line the river, giving way to incredible hiking trails in the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests and a lush natural habitat filled with wildlife. While the South Fork is most well-known for its rafting, there are plenty of other hidden gems in the area, including camping spots, historical sites, and more.
No matter what activities strike your fancy, South Fork is the perfect place to get reacquainted with nature. Below are just a few of the best things to do in South Fork.
South Fork Rafting
Let’s start with what South Fork is famous for一its rapids. The Class II, III, and IV South Fork rapids extend for 21 miles, catering to people with a range of rafting experience.
- Coloma to Lotus – This section offers long stretches of calm pools and a gentle current with an occasional faster moving rapid. This stretch is perfect for beginners.
- Racehorse Bend to Maya – Intermediate rafters might try the upper section of Chili Bar, which is known for its jaw-dropping setting, Gold Rush history, and a more thrilling set of rapids. Trips to Middle Fork typically last a day, so many rafting packages include lunch in this excursion.
- Troublemaker – If you’re a skilled rafter, this Class IV rapid might be for you. Considered the most challenging rapid on the South Fork, advanced rafters relish in Troublemaker’s difficult diagonal wave and significant drop near Gunsight Rock. If you are entering South Fork closer to the lower Gorge area, there are several difficult Class III rapids worth tackling as well, such as Satan’s Cesspool and Hospital Bar.
Several companies provide professionally-guided white water rafting trips and necessary equipment. American Whitewater Expeditions and American River Recreation are two of the most notable whitewater outfitters, and offer quarter-day to three-day trips. A few other recreation companies to try include EarthTrek Expeditions, American River Raft Rentals, OARS American River Rafting, and Beyond Limits Adventures. WET River Trips.
South Fork American River Trails
There’s no better way to experience South Fork’s unparalleled beauty than on a hike. Much of the land around the river was donated to the Bureau of Land Management in an effort to protect wildlife while still encouraging recreational activity. South Fork is home to several types of terrain, with large land formations, vistas, and trees. Hiking trails around South Fork are excellent for any level of hiker, and some allow mountain biking and horseback riding, too.
- South Fork American River Trail – There are several access points for the South Fork American River trail: Greenwood Creek River, Magnolia Ranch Trailhead, Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park, and Salmon Falls. The entire trail spans 11 miles and the hills make it ideal for intermediate and advanced hikers. Along the way, hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians can enjoy stunning views of the river and surrounding forest. Spring and Fall are optimal for this hike because of reduced sun exposure, lower temperatures, and gorgeous turning leaves or blooming flowers. Mountain biking and horseback riding are permitted on this trail.
- Quarry Trail – Not far from South Fork is the Quarry Trail. Its 5.6-mile trail follows the Middle Fork of the American River at a very low-level grade, making it appropriate for beginner and intermediate hikers. Besides magnificent views of the river, the signature aspect of the Quarry Trail is its rich history. On your hike, you’ll find an old amphitheater, a cave that was once part of paleontological excavations, and a railway used to transport limestone out of the quarry. Parking at the trailhead is just $10, and the trail is dog, kid, and horse-friendly.
Monroe Ridge Trail and Monument Trail – For a short, family-friendly trail, consider Monroe Ridge and Monument Trail. This 3-mile hike winds through the hills above Coloma and is home to wildflowers in the spring and summer. There are two trailheads to choose from: one near Marshall Statue and the other on the north end of the park (parking is $8). This trail also has historical significance, containing James Marshall’s cabin, a church, and a cemetery. Monroe Ridge and Monument trails don’t allow mountain biking or horseback riding.
Cronan Ranch Trail System – Multiple trails along the 12-mile Cronan Ranch system are well-suited for biking, fishing, bird watching, horseback riding, and hiking. Most of these trails are clearly marked and well-manicured, making them very popular among families and couples. The Cronan Ranch Trailhead doesn’t have parking fees and the park is open daily from sunrise to sunset year-round.
South Fork American River Camping
Camping is often overlooked but is the greatest way to feel completely relaxed and disconnected from city life. Most public campgrounds owned by the Bureau of Land Management are for day-use only. Luckily, there are several pristine private campgrounds in the South Fork vicinity to choose from.
Surrounded by the rushing river and towering trees, the 40-acre American River Resort has appealing campgrounds for over 100 guests. You can rent a site and pitch your own tent or rent out a riverfront cabin tent complete with cots and chairs. American River Resort has multiple sites for rent alongside the infamous Troublemaker rapid. But if you’re looking for land-based views and activities, the Resort has several mountain view campsites and is located a short walk away from Marshall Gold Discovery State Park trailheads. On weekdays, tent sites cost $20 – 79, and on weekends sites range from $25 – 99 per night depending on location.
A private campsite, Camp Lotus has 30 campsites and 10 RV sites for rent. The campsites have parking spots, irrigation, fire rings, and picnic tables. The Camp Lotus Store sells firewood and allows campers to rent briquette barbecues. The grounds themselves are shaded by large trees and have many beaches and coves for kids and adults to explore. The campsite also has showering and bathroom facilities with hot water. Rates start at $15 per person per night (3 person minimum).
With a full mile of river-front campsites, Coloma Resort is a popular campsite in South Fork. Each site has its own campfire ring, water and electric hookup, and picnic table. Coloma restricts its campsites to 6 people and 1 car. If you don’t want a river-front location or have small children, Coloma has several off-river locations for rent with their own sewer hookups. Dump stations are available for all Coloma campsites. Weekday rates start at $48 and weekend rates start at $58.
There’s no shortage of unique places to stay in South Fork. Whether you’re looking for a hotel, cabin, or traditional bed and breakfast, South Fork has an option to fit your needs.
American River Resort – If you don’t want to camp, but still want to feel connected to nature, the cabins at American River Resort are an excellent choice. With riverfront views, comfortable beds, bathrooms, and a full kitchenette, you’ll feel right at home. Cabins are great for families, the largest cabin can fit up to five people. Cabins start at $179. Rates vary based on date and view.
Bella Vista Bed & Breakfast – This B&B has panoramic views of the Coloma Valley and 5 acres of gorgeous gardens, waterfalls, and streams. Locally sourced breakfast is served daily and guests can book relaxing massages. Nightly rates range from $299 – $339.
Historic Cary House Hotel – Cary House is a one-of-a-kind boutique hotel near South Fork. With antiques from the 1850s and proximity to nearby galleries, breweries, and coffee shops, The Cary House is a historic, calm getaway. Rates start around $150 per night.
The American River played a significant role during the California Gold Rush. Consequently, the South Fork region is rich in historical sites that visitors of any age will appreciate.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Park – In 1848, James Marshall found gold in the Sutter’s Mill stream bed. This discovery incited the California Gold Rush, one of the biggest human migrations. Once all the gold was withdrawn, the area was shut down and commemorated as The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Besides investigating the 150-year old gold mine buildings outdoors, you can head indoors to see the Park’s museum with interactive exhibits. To learn more, consider taking a guided tour. Tours are available twice a day, and cost $3 per adult / $2 per child.
Sutter Mill Cemetery – Technically, the Sutter Mill Cemetery is located within the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, but it’s still a historic site you don’t want to miss. The Cemetery—otherwise known as the Coloma Protestant, the Pioneer Cemetery, or the Vineyard House Cemetery—is home to over 600 burials dating back to 1849. Many of the headstones show where the person migrated from, making the journeys people made to California quite real. The Sutter Mill Cemetery is located on Cold Springs Road and Highway 153. It’s open from 8am to sunset year-round and costs just $5 to park.
Olde Coloma Theatre – If you’re seeking some “melodrama in the heart of gold country” be sure to check out the Olde Coloma Theatre. Originally constructed in 1939, the Theatre was a piece in the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. Post-Exposition, the Theatre was disassembled and became part of the barracks for the California Division of Forestry Rangers. When the building was set to be destroyed, Coloma Theatre founder, June Scott, fought to reclaim it. The Theatre was then erected in 1972, and the Coloma Crescent Players have been performing in the Theatre ever since. On Friday and Saturday, Theatre shows start at 8:00pm and cost $15 for general admission.
Book your South Fork Adventure
Ready to plan your escape to South Fork? American River Resort is at the epicenter of adventure, with rafting, biking, hiking, wine tasting, and historical sites all nearby. Rent a camping or glamping spot as a couple or celebrate a special occasion with a large group of friends in one of American River Resort’s log cabins. Learn more about all that American River Resort has to offer and book a trip or make a reservation today!