California Whitewater Guide School

Location California Adventure Level Challenging Minimum age 18 River Rating Class III-IV From $1899
Book Now Call toll-free 1 (800) 346-6277

Train to be a professional raft guide or elevate your whitewater paddling skills as you learn the essentials of whitewater rafting on California’s American River with one of the most respected river outfitters in the world.

On this 9-day whitewater guide school program with OARS, you’ll learn and practice essential rafting skills on several scenic sections of the American River. The course starts with swiftwater rescue training from the professionals at Sierra Rescue. Then, our experienced instructors—all with whitewater rescue training and extensive guiding experience—take over to teach you the ropes for the rest of the week. 

This intensive raft guide training program is designed to teach participants how to proficiently guide a paddle raft in Class III whitewater. You’ll also leave the program with a “Rescue 3” River Rescue Certification. No prior outdoor or whitewater rafting experience is required.

California Guide School is ideal for:

  • Anyone interested in working as a professional whitewater rafting guide
  • Individuals interested in guiding a paddle raft on their own private river trips
  • Anyone who appreciates experiential learning or an active vacation experience and is interested in whitewater and river safety

Why sign up for California Whitewater Guide School with OARS?

  • OARS has been a leader in the whitewater industry since 1969
  • We use top-notch, well-maintained equipment and set the gold standard in safety
  • We keep our courses small (1 guide for every 4 participants) to provide plenty of personal attention to participants
  • Our experienced, well-rounded guide instructors are personable, approachable and the best in the business
  • We are committed to treading lightly on the environment
  • Outside magazine, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Good Morning America, Condé Nast Traveler, and Men’s Journal have all recognized OARS as offering some of the “Best Trips” on the planet

Start Your Career as a Professional River Guide
California Whitewater Rafting Guide School is a critical first step to river guiding and may provide an opportunity for you to get your foot in the door with a well-established organization like OARS. In fact, if you do well in our course, we just might consider asking you to stay on as an OARS guide. (We do give preferential consideration to our guide school graduates.) To be considered, please read the information we provide for aspiring guides and complete an online application before you attend Guide School.

Trip Highlights
  • Essential whitewater raft guide training in Class III whitewater
  • Learn to guide a paddle raft on the American River
  • Train in Swiftwater Rescue Techniques 
  • Elevate your prospects for getting work as a professional raft guide
  • Walk away with other new skills like boat-rigging, knot-tying, camp skills & equipment care

What to Expect

Itinerary & Map

Itinerary at a Glance

We pride ourselves in running a relaxed and flexible schedule. Every California Whitewater Guide School is different depending upon the group, other trips on the water, camp locations, and sometimes the weather. The following is a sample of what your trip might be like:

The Day Before Guide School Begins

The evening before Guide School kicks off, we’ll meet at the OARS American River Outpost for introductions and an overview of the week ahead. Your guide school instructors will greet you and direct you toward the meeting location. If you arrive early, check in with the camp store and they will point you in the right direction. We will go through your personal gear and make sure you are prepared for the week ahead, along with issuing your river equipment (PFD, helmet, and wetsuit). Your instructors will give a tour of the campsite, kitchen, and facilities for your convenience during the week.

Course Content

You’ll leave OARS California Whitewater Guide School with a better understanding of the following: 

  • Basic hydrology and reading water
  • Maneuvering rafts as a paddle guide
  • Various whitewater paddling techniques
  • Knot tying
  • Raft rigging
  • River signals
  • How to communicate with a crew
  • The basic logistics of a rafting trip
  • Camp – setting up, food preparation, minimum impact strategies
  • Basic river rescue
  • Equipment care and maintenance
  • Emergency river procedures

Days 1–2

Each morning will start at the OARS American River Outpost with a hearty breakfast and a morning briefing. Days one and two are designed to build your confidence and introduce you to the foundational safety skills needed to work and/or play in a river environment. We work with instructors from Sierra Rescue for a full, 2-day River Rescue Certification Course (RRC). Plan for two days of challenging, hands-on, full immersion, skill-based training that we will use as a foundation for the rest of the guide school. This will include being fully immersed in the water, learning knots, shallow water crossings, swimming techniques, incident scenarios, scouting rapids, and much more. Each evening, you will come back to camp for dinner in our camp kitchen and prepare for the next day.

Day 3

On day three, your OARS instructors take over instruction and build on the foundation from the past two days of swiftwater training. Your instructors will pull back the curtain and walk you through everything that goes into a commercial rafting trip on the American River. We will cover necessary equipment, safety, best practices, and trip rigging. Your OARS instructor will give you a full river safety talk—pay attention as you might be asked to try your hand at delivering this same speech. We will then head to Chili Bar put-in on the South Fork of the American River where we will set up our riverside lunch before heading out on our first down-river run. Here, your instructors will demonstrate how to effectively guide a raft through the Class III rapids, after which you will work on the fundamental guide strokes and basics of maneuvering the raft.

Each participant will rotate on the kitchen crew for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to learn meal preparation, cleanup, and cooking in a camp setting. We will discuss the day’s lessons, the “knot of the day,” and debrief from the day.

Day 4

Morning is spent on dry-land instruction and reviewing the equipment to make sure it’s river-ready. Once the boats are rigged, we set off downstream, and utilize the knowledge gained during the first three days of guide school. Participants take turns as paddlers and paddle captains while navigating the South Fork’s Class II-III whitewater. We gain experience in understanding the hydraulics of the river, along with crew management, and flip drills. Come lunchtime, we will stop to set up a riverside lunch where you will learn to cut, slice, and present a fabulous lunch to the group. After lunch, we will raft the “Gorge” and your instructors will take over and demonstrate how to navigate this section. Again, pay attention as you will be guiding these rapids in the very near future. We will then shuttle back to the OARS American River Outpost to wrap up the day and cook dinner.

Days 5-8

We continue our on-river instruction while gaining skills such as river navigation, maintaining ferry angles, eddying out, and communicating by using crew commands. Expect to spend the entire day on the river each day, returning at night to our riverside classroom. Depending on water flows and group skills, we might journey to the Middle Fork or North Fork of the American for one day. We continue to hone techniques learned throughout the week.

Day 9

On the final day of our trip, we will take one last run down the Chili Bar section of the South Fork where you will navigate the harder Class III rapids with a new sense of confidence. We will return to the OARS American River Outpost to begin wrapping up the course, starting with lunch in camp, while you pack up your campsite. The OARS instructors will sit down and give a thorough evaluation of your week with OARS and the next steps for pursuing private or professional guiding opportunities, depending on your personal desires.

Meeting Time & Place


7330 River Park Drive, Lotus, CA 95651 
Adjacent to where Hwy 49 crosses the river, behind Hotshot Imaging and the River Park shopping center. View our American River Outpost driving directions

GPS Coordinates: 38.806327, -120.903538

Meeting time

5 PM, the evening before guide school begins


Approximately 4 PM on the last day

Trip Map

Dates & Prices

20% discount off regular price for active military personnel, emergency first responders, and students with a valid university ID!

Tuition assistance may be available for qualified applicants; please visit our Guide School FAQs or call 800-346-6277 for more information.

2024 DeparturesPrice
April 29$1,899
June 3$1,899



Additional Costs

• $80 per person federal, state and local access fees
• Sleep Kit $40 | Tent included

Ways to Save

To book with one of our special offers, call 1-800-346-6277 or contact us today.

The Need-to-Know Info

Trip Details

Included in Your Trip Cost

  • Skilled, personable, and professional guide instructors
  • ‘Rescue 3’ River Rescue Certification
  • 10 nights camping at the OARS American River Outpost
  • Meals from lunch on day one through lunch on day nine
  • OARS California Guide School Book
  • Personal equipment including a tent, splash jacket, and wetsuit 
  • High-quality inflatable rafts and related river equipment, including a paddle, helmet, and personal flotation device
  • All transfers between the OARS American River Outpost and the various rivers we will float

Not Included in Your Trip Cost

  • Transportation to and from the OARS American River Outpost
  • River access fees
  • Pre- and post-course accommodations and meals
  • Sleeping bag and a deluxe 3-inch thick air-filled sleeping pad (sleep kits may be rented from OARS)
  • Insurance of any kind, including a travel protection plan
  • Items of a personal nature, including wetsuit booties
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Dry Suit (can be rented from local outfitter or online)
  • Gratuities for your OARS Instructors

The number and variety of boats on an OARS trip will vary based on water levels, the number of participants, and other factors we take into account when planning your adventure. Please be aware that in doing so we will ask you to share boat time with your fellow travelers, but trust us to provide you with the best possible mix for you and others on your trip. 

Learn more about the OARS Fleet and the boats that may be a part of your experience: Paddle raft

OARS American River Outpost

Guide school participants camp at OARS American River Outpost. Located on twelve gorgeous acres, stretching over a third of a mile on the riverfront, the OARS campground offers modern shower and bathroom facilities, a small store, beach and river access, camp games, and free WiFi. All within a few minutes walk of Sierra Rizing Bakery & Coffee House and a handful of other local restaurants. 


During guide school, cook teams of students with instructors will take turns preparing and serving meals for all participants at our open-air kitchen facility at the Outpost. 

The meals we serve are hearty and delicious, consisting of fresh ingredients and a variety of foods. A typical morning might start with French toast, bacon, fruit, orange juice, and coffee or tea. Lunch could include a delicious spread of cold cuts and cheeses with several types of bread or pitas stuffed with veggies and hummus. There are always cookies and a cooling drink to top it off. Dinner might be steaks, salmon, chicken enchiladas, or a delicious pasta dish. Dinner generally includes a salad; desserts are frequent. Hors d’oeuvres are also included as part of the menu. 

More info about Meals & Dietary Restrictions can be found on our Trip Resources page.

Average Air & Water Temperatures

Air (Day) °FAir (Night) °FWater °F


The water on the South Fork and Middle Fork of the American Rivers is released from hydroelectric facilities located upstream. Such water releases are not subject to the control of El Dorado County or commercial rafting companies. It is important for our guests to understand, the water flow on these rivers is directly related to the demand for hydropower. The guides are “tuned in” to the water release schedule and will adjust the logistics of each trip to maximize the whitewater excitement. During early-season trips, flows on all stretches of the American can be elevated due to snowmelt runoff.

Before booking your trip with OARS, there are a few important considerations we’d like you to know about.

  • Physical Requirements: Your outdoor adventure will be an active participatory trip. Please inform us of any physical limitations you may have as soon as possible. If you exceed 260 pounds, please give us a call. Make sure you are exercising frequently in the months leading up to your trip and can meet our Essential Eligibility Criteria.

  • Whitewater Orientation: To increase your safety, we expect everyone to watch our Whitewater Orientation video before joining us.
  • Trip Forms: Each participant will need to complete the required trip forms within two weeks of making a booking. If you are reserving within 30 days of departure, your forms must be completed immediately to ensure we can properly plan for your trip.

Reservations and Payments

A $400/person deposit is required at the time of booking with final payment due 60 days before departure. Accounts on which final payment has not been received 50 days before the departure date will be canceled.

Payments can be made by check, money order, eCheck, wire transfer, Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover. Prices are in US Dollars, and all payments must be made in US Dollars. Payment of the deposit establishes your acceptance of our complete Terms and Conditions. Individual departures and trip capacity are strictly limited by the managing agency. Your payment is fully refundable for 7 days, less a 3% processing fee, after making a reservation when you reserve a trip 7 days or more prior to the final payment due date.

Cancellations and Refunds

Canceling your trip after your deposit is processed will incur cancellation fees because OARS has absorbed costs on your behalf and will turn others away who would like to book the spaces we’re holding for you. If you must cancel your reservation after the rescission period described above, your cancellation fee will be determined according to the schedule below.

We regret that we cannot make exceptions to the cancellation policy for any reason, including foul weather, poor air quality, wildfire activity, acts of terrorism, civil unrest, or personal emergencies. For these reasons, we strongly urge you to consider purchasing a travel protection plan.

Date of CancellationCancellation Fee
180 or more days before your trip$50/person
179 – 90 days before your trip$100/person
89 – 60 days before your trip$200/person. The remainder of your payment can be transferred to another trip within the same year (or to a credit account for the following year). No refund.
59 days or less before your tripFull fare

Canceled Trips

OARS reserves the right to cancel any trip due to insufficient registration or other factors that make the trip impractical to operate. In such instances, we will inform you at least 45 days prior to departure. Do not make non-refundable travel arrangements until you have verified with OARS that your trip is confirmed. 

If a trip must be canceled or postponed due to force majeure (factors outside the control of OARS), OARS will provide full credit for payments made toward future travel, or a refund less the initial deposit amount and any non-refundable payments made on your behalf to 3rd-party suppliers. OARS will make good faith efforts to recover deposits made on your behalf to 3rd-party suppliers; however, we cannot guarantee recovery of any or all of the advance payments made. OARS is not responsible for expenses incurred by participants in preparation for a canceled trip.


If you need to move your reservation to a different trip during the same season, or to a credit account for the following year, there is a $25/person fee up until 90 days before departure for a one-time transfer of your payment. Transfer requests made 89 days or less before departure will be treated like a cancellation according to the schedule above.

O.A.R.S. West, Inc. is a permitted outfitter of El Dorado County & the California Department of Parks and Recreation Gold Fields District.

Ancestral Lands Acknowledgement

We respect and recognize that many of the river canyons on state and federal lands where we operate are the ancestral homes of indigenous communities. Where we operate on the South Fork of the American River between Chili Bar and Salmon Falls Bridge, we acknowledge the territories of the Nisenan.

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