Whitewater rafting is a great family activity. Over the years, the Cole family has done rafting trips in California, North Carolina and even Italy. Our favorite trip was probably the one we did whitewater rafting on the American River in California’s Gold Country. This post is a guide to our trip whitewater rafting on the American River.
The first thing to note about this (mostly) summer time adventure is you will not be alone. The American River is only about an hour from Sacramento and less than 2 hours from the Bay Area. There are a lot of groups that go down this river and it can look like a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. Assuming that does not bother you, the crowds are really not too big a deal. If you want a more secluded trip you may want to try mid-week early or late in the season (April/May. September/October).
There are quite a few outfitters to pick from and we ended up choosing American Whitewater Expeditions located in the American River Resort. Our reason for picking this company was they got solid reviews and they also allow rafters to camp on their site for free. The full resort has cabins and RV hookups but we were just able to pitch a tent right by where trip departed. If you don’t have a tent you can rent a 4-person tent at no extra cost.
There are quite a few trips to pick from, but for young children they recommended the 15-mile South Fork Lower Gorge Trip. The minimum age is 6 and this features class 2 and 3 rapids. We took advantage of their midweek family special which gets an adult ticket at $125 and for each adult a child age 6-16 can go for $62.50.
There are many other options, including a two-day trip and some more significant rapids. For the more intense Middle Fork trips, the prices are higher and the minimum age is 12. The North Fork has a minimum age of 14 and includes class 5 rapids. For younger children I would not suggest a trip much longer than the one we took.
Our 15-mile trip left at 10 AM and was 6 hours down the river, including a stop for lunch. The tour starts with a short pre-briefing and making sure everyone is properly equipped. You will get wet so waterproof gear is a must. Everyone gets a lifejacket, helmet and paddle and from there it is a short walk to the river.
Each raft fits up to 6 people plus the guide. Our guide was a young girl from New Zealand and our family of four was paired with a father and daughter. The first part of the trip is fairly mellow and there are plenty of opportunities for kids (and adults) to jump in the water and swim along with the raft. At about noon you pull over on the side of the river for a lunch spread of sandwiches. After lunch there are rocks for the kids to jump off.
The major whitewater occurs after lunch where you go through a bunch of rapids with names like Fowlers Rock, Triple Threat, Satan’s Cesspool, Hospital Bar. At the end you are dumped into a lake, the rafts are loaded onto a bus and you ride 20 minutes back to the campgrounds. This leaves plenty of time for more swimming in the river or at the resort swimming pool.
At the end of the trip you have the opportunity to view photos from the professional photographer. If you want you can purchase these photos for about $100. Our photos came out pretty awesome so we paid for them. The photographers follow along the boats and took a lot of action shots.
It should be mentioned that the location of American River Resort is right in the heart of California Gold Country. It is within walking distance of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park and the town of Coloma. This is where the gold rush started in 1849 and is a major attraction in its own right. A new replica of Sutter’s Mill, where the actual gold was discovered in 1848, was completed in 2015.
Overall the South Fork trip is a great introduction to whitewater rafting for families. The length was just right for us, any longer and the kids might have started complaining. As the children become teenagers we will start to explore more intense rapids. However, we will say the top Class 3 rapids were pretty darn strong. At one intense point a girl from our raft fell out. Luckily she was fine and there were plenty of people to help her.