A Boating Trail Guide to the NORTH and MIDDLE
FORKS of the AMERICAN RIVER with Safety Hints and Map
Iowa Hill Bridge to Lake Clementine
Oxbow Put-in to Mammoth Bar
THE AMERICAN RIVER!
Scenic beauty with hidden dangers.
The North and Middle Forks of the American River provide boaters with a
quality wilderness experience to remember. Yet swift currents and unseen
dangers can provide boaters with unwanted emergencies. The North and Middle
Forks are not for beginners, and quite often, experienced paddlers have
trouble on them. Respect the river and come well prepared when you visit.
This brochure will provide you with some helpful safety information.
The 9.5 mile river run from the Iowa Hill Bridge to Ponderosa Bridge provides
several Class IV-V rapids, most noteably: Chamberlin Falls, Staircase Rapids,
and Bogus Thunder. Trips down this river are typically made in one day.
Boating the North Fork of the river requires a sound background in technical
whitewater skills. Channel characteristics change drastically depending
on the flow levels. The most desirable flow range is between 1,500 - 3,000
cfs. Higher flows reduce preparatory time between numerous rapids, while
low flows present dangerous hazards, sieves of boulders, and strainers
that have proven fatal.
Camping on the North Fork is restricted to specific areas. Obtain a
Special River Camping Permit (see "Camping" section of this brochure).
The Chamberlin Falls Gorge, beginning just one fourth of a mile below
the Iowa Hill Bridge, holds within its walls breathtaking scenery and several
exciting rapids. The Chamberlin Falls Rapid is an 8 to 10 foot sheer vertical
drop into a deep pool of violently churning water. At flows below 1500
cfs the rapid runs between large mid-channel boulders which can "wrap"
or flip an unfortunate boat. At higher flows, the violent eddy at the base
of the falls can trap a boat. There is a pool above the falls that can
be used to scout this dangerous rapid. If you are unsure of your ability,
do not attempt to run this one.
||Chamberlin Falls Rapid
Bogus Thunder and Staircase Rapid are two additional Class
IV rapids that demand great respect. Deceptively "easy" in appearance,
both have claimed lives in recent years. These ledge-type drops have trapped
numerous rafts and kayaks, and are particularly hazardous at flows below
1,000 cfs. There are several other Class III-IV rapids between Iowa Hill
Bridge and Shirttail Canyon, each with its own set of surprises for even
the skilled boater. When in doubt, take-out and portage. It takes time
but it may save your life.
||"Staircase Rapid" at low flow There boulders have claimed the lives
of experienced rafters at flows below 1,000 cfs.
The "Chute" Running this thrilling rapid can sometimes result in injury.
Do not attempt it if you are uncertain
The "Tunnel" The tunnel was blasted by miners in the early 1900's.
Ruck-A-Chucky Rapid." A mandatory portage trail skirts this unrunnable
One, two, or three day trips are possible on this challenging scenic
river. The 15 mile run from Oxbow put-in to Greenwood take-out features
several Class IV and V rapids, as well as numerous Class II and III rapids.
Most notable are the Tunnel Chute, Kanaka Gulch, and Ruck-A-Chucky. If
you are uncertain about your ability to navigate any rapid, PORTAGE! Even
expert boaters can become easily injured in swift waters. Allow a minimum
of one full day(10-12 hours) for this run. If you choose to continue downstream
from Ruck-A-Chucky/Greenwood be sure to take-out at Mammoth Bar, above
the unrunnable Murderer's Bar Rapid. The sharp-walled, turbulent setting
of Murderer's Gorge has claimed the lives of even experienced boaters.
Camping on the Middle Fork is available at many
locations. Obtain a Special River Camping Permit and make certain that
you are on public property. While there are no developed campsites, the
canyon offers many scenic sandbars, some with shade trees, to spend a night.
Favorite locations are at Ford's Bar and Cherokee Bar, but, more secluded,
less-frequented sites are between Cache Bar and Ford's Bar.
The Tunnel Chute, is a steep, sharp-sided channel that was blasted by
miners in the last century. As you approach the bedrock drop before the
Tunnel Chute, be aware of other boats in the eddy above the chute; they
may be moving into the main channel to set up for the run. While many commercial
companies will run this hazardous rapid, it is not recommended. Numerous
injuries, ranging from twisted ankles to broken bones and head injuries,
occur every season. Portaging the chute on the left is easy, and in flows
below 2,000 cfs, it is not difficult to return your boat to the water above
the tunnel. Climbing atop the tunnel is dangerous, as there are few or
no handholds and many places to fall from. Exercise extreme care in negotiating
The Ruck-A-Chucky Rapid is an unrunnable sieve of boulders with several
dangerously steep drops in gradient. This rapid should not be run under
any circumstances. A wide, new portage trail safely skirts this segment
of the river. Access it from river right above the falls and put-in again
about 1/4 mile below.
Several Class III+ rapids follow the unrunnable Ruck-A-Chucky
Rapid. Each of these has its own "personality," which changes under different
flow conditions. Take your time scouting ahead and navigating safely. About
one mile downstream from this rapid is Ruck-A-Chucky take-out at Greenwood
Bridge ruins. A new trail constructed by the California Conservation Corps
makes this a safe and easy task.
All commercially operated trips must receive a commercial boating permit
from the California Department of Parks and Recreation. contact the American
River District Rafting Office located on Highway 49, one mile south of
Auburn at (916) 885-5648 for details.
Public roads that provide access to key river locations are clearly outlined
in this guide. Emergency egress is also shown in three locations on the
Middle Fork, although some of these roadways are gated or are passable
only in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Except in an emergency, it is recommended
that vehicular traffic be restricted to public roads for safety reasons.
If you, or someone in your group, is injured it is best to hail a passing
boat and send for assistance down river, rather than attempt to hike out
of the canyon. Much of the Middle Fork is a wilderness, and it is often
a several-mile uphill climb to a major roadway.
There are many hiking trails in both the North and Middle Fork canyons,
with the Western States Trail following much of the Middle Fork corridor.
Some areas are steep, so stay on established trails for your own safety.
Respect posted private lands by not trespassing. For maps showing trails
within the Auburn State Recreation Area (SRA) contact the Ranger Station
at (9 1 6) 885-4527.
A Special River Camping Permit must be obtained through the Auburn State
Recreation Area (located on HWY 49, one mile south of Auburn) for
most areas on the North Fork and some areas on the Middle Fork. Private
lands do occupy a minor portion of the river corridor, so it is best to
check in advance on your planned camping location.
On-river camping fees are $2.00/person/night. Vehicles parked overnight
in designated campgrounds will be charged $3.00/night. Additional fees
for road use through the U.S.F.S. may be necessary at some locations. Contact
the Auburn SRA for details at (916) 885-4527.
It is best to check with the California Department of Forestry (916) 823-4904
on current fire danger levels before leaving for your trip. During times
of extreme fire hazard, fires are not permitted. If conditions do permit
a campfire, you must comply with the following requirements:
Maximum size of campfire is 3 feet in diameter.
Establish fires in clear areas only (no flammable materials within 1 0
Campfires must be within 15 feet of the river.
Have a shovel available at all times, and a container of water to extinguish
Do not locate fire below overhanging branches that are closer than 15 feet.
All fires must be completely extinguished with water before leaving.
Never leave fires unattended. Fire can be Dangerous! Please be careful
at all times.
There are few places in the Sierras where it is safe to drink untreated
water. There are numerous waterborne parasites in the river than can destroy
your vacation if you don't destroy them first It is best to bring your
own drinking water with you. If you must drink from the river, use recommended
treatment for purification (i.e., boiling, and chemical treatment).
Garbage that is left behind by humans is quickly and easily found by animals.
Please carry out any trash to help preserve the wilderness environment
for visitors. Waste water must also be disposed of in a safe manner: deposit
waste water in a location that is well away from the river.
Much of the land along the river corridor is privately owned. Boaters who
venture beyond the area immediately adjacent to the shoreline may be in
violation of state and county trespass laws. Do not enter private lands
without express permission of the land owner.
The California Department of Parks and Recreation, under contract with
the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is the primary managing agency for the
North and Middle forks of the American River. The U.S. Forest Service offices
in Foresthill (Tahoe National Forest) and Georgetown (El Dorado National
Forest) manage much of the land above the Ruck-A-Chucky area.
Be familiar with the size and limitations of your craft. Choose a raft
or kayak that is appropriate for navigating a Class IV-V river. Innertubes,
inexpensive, single-chambered inflatables, and less rigid construction
kayaks are not recommended. The following are some essential items to bring:
These are only some of the items you should bring. A complete list should
be based on the length and duration of the trip you plan. Try to foresee
any difficulties and plan accordingly. It is best to be prepared.
1 helmet per person
boat repair kit
1 lifejacket/personal flotation device (PFD) per person (should be worn
at all times when on the water)
extra oars, paddles, PFD'S, helmets
appropriate river rescue equipment (throw bag, bow line, rescue lines,
first aid kit
drinking water, snacks in a dry bag
tennis shoes, dry clothing in sealed bag
wetsuits (in cold weather)
Always leave information with someone in advance regarding your travel
plans (entry and exit locations, time schedule for your trip, number in
your party, etc.). If you become lost or injured, you can be more easily
If your boat capsizes, stay on the upstream side. preferably at the
end of the craft. This allows better visibility. More importantly, it prevents
the possibility of being pinned against obstacles.
If rescue is not imminent and water is intolerably cold or perilous
rapids are near, swim with the river current to the nearest landing.
If you find yourself in the water alone, float downstream feet first.
This will enable you to fend off from rocks and other obstacles.
When in the water never attempt to stand up in fast-moving water. Your
foot Could become entrapped on the bottom between obstructions, and the
force of the moving water could pull your body under.
In case of Emergency, call
9 -1 -I.
ALCOHOL AND BOATING
Boating and alcohol can be a deadly mix. Physical and mental confusion
can begin almost immediately after even moderate drinking. Boating skills
decline as alcohol begins to reduce depth perception, peripheral, color
and night vision, balance and coordination, reaction time, comprehension,
and concentration. After only a few drinks, boaters begin to lose the ability
to judge their degree of impairment and become overconfident, taking more
risks. The effects of alcohol result in the inability to react safely to
a dangerous boating situation.
COLD WATER DANGERS
Cold drains your strength, and robs you of the ability to make sound decisions
on matters affecting your survival. Cold water immersion, because of the
initial shock and the rapid heat loss which follows, is especially dangerous.
Dress appropriately for bad weather or sudden immersion in the water. When
the water temperature is less than 50 degrees F, a wetsuit or drysuit is
essential for protection if you swim. Next best is wool or pile clothing
under a waterproof shell. In this case, you should also carry waterproof
matches and a change of clothing in a waterproof bag. If, after prolonged
exposure, a person experiences uncontrollable shaking, loss of coordination,
or difficulty speaking, he or she is hypothermic and needs your assistance.
Water flows can change quickly. Current velocities, size and difficulty
of rapids can quickly change. What may be a safe trip at one level, may
become an extremely hazardous voyage at a different level. Check the flows
before you embark on your trip downstream. The flow phone number is (916)
When planning a boating trip, you should obtain river flow information
and determine how the flow will affect the difficulty of the run. It is
imperative to take an honest account of your boating skills and avoid runs
that are too difficult. Whitewater accidents often occur because boaters
attempt rivers beyond their level of skill. Included in this brochure is
the American Whitewater Affiliation rating system for classifying the difficulty
of river runs. This system classifies rivers from Class I to Class VI,
with Class VI being the most difficult run.
For a safe and enjoyable time, learn to call flow information before
you embark on your trip.
Whitewater Class System
The following classification is based on a guide for rivers established
by the American Whitewater Affiliation. The river should be considered
one class more difficult than normal if the water temperature is below
50 degrees Fahrenheit, or the trip is in a wilderness.
CLASS I Easy
Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious
and are missed easily with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight;
self-rescue is easy.
CLASS II Novice
Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels, which are evident without
scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized
waves are missed easily by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured
and group assistance, while helpful. is seldom needed.
CLASS III Intermediate
Rapids with moderate, irregular waves, which maybe difficult to avoid and
which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good
boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required. Large
waves or "strainers" such as fallen trees, bridge pilings and undercut
rocks, may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful
currents can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. Scouting is
advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare;
self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid
a long swim.
CLASS IV Advanced
Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling
in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature
large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast
maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate
maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require "must" moves above
dangerous hazards. Scouting is necessary the first time down. Risk of injury
to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue
difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires
practiced skills. A strong Eskimo roll is highly recommended.
CLASS V Expert
Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids, which expose a paddler
to above-average danger. Drops may contain large unavoidable waves and
holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids
may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of
fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach.
At the high end of the rating scale. several of these factors may be combined.
Scouting is mandatory but often difficult Swims are dangerous, and rescue
is difficult even for experts. A very reliable Eskimo roll, proper equipment,
extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential for survival.
CLASS VI Extreme
These runs often exemplify extremes of difficulty. unpredictability and
danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible.
For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal
inspection and taking of all precautions. This class does not represent
drops thought to be unrunnable, but may include rapids that are only occasionally
FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
Auburn State Recreation Area
California Department of Parks and Recreation
P.O. Box 3266, Auburn, CA 95604
U.S. Forest Service
Tahoe National Forest
22830 Foresthill Road
Foresthill, CA 95631
U.S. Forest Service
El Dorado National forest
7600 Wentworth Springs Road
Georgetown, CA 95634
California Division of Boating and Waterways
One Capitol Mall, Suite 410
Sacramento, CA 95814
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, CALL
Photos courtesy of Sierra Shutterbug and Rapid Shooters
This Boating Trail Guide and others are available in a printed pocket
size version from California Boating and Waterways.