The 10 Best Rapids on the American River

The American River boasts some of California’s best whitewater rafting. Dozens of rapids dot the South, Middle and North Forks—some steep and technical, others splashy and fun. So which rapids are among the best of the best on the American River? It’s not just the biggest whitewater that will get your adrenaline going. Below, several OARS guides share their favorites and what makes them so memorable.

South Fork American River – Chili Bar

Trouble Maker Rapid - South Fork American River Rafting Trip, Chili Bar
1) Troublemaker | Class III+

The crux of the Chili Bar ½-day South Fork American River rafting trip, Troublemaker is exactly that: a troublemaker. The rapid zig zags from boater’s left to right. The main drop is split in two by the infamous Gunsight Rock. On a busy day, rafts bounce off either side of Gunsight and occasionally just go directly over the top. Make your best whitewater face, there’s often a crowd and photographers gathered around this drop.

What the guides say: “It’s one of those rapids that’s always challenging. For me, I always have to focus. Guides get complacent on it and that’s when things get weird. It’s the spiciest rapid on that stretch of river. I love the satisfaction when you make that turn, get into the right position and you just know it’s going to be perfect.” ~Jose Langarica

Triple Threat Rapid: South Fork American River Rafting Trip, Chili Bar Run

2) Triple Threat | Class III

A three-part rapid with nice big holes on the first and third sections, Triple Threat can be daunting. If you flip on the first hit, you might be in the water until after the third. When done right, guests get a solid splash on all three drops.

What the guides say: “They are fun and splashy hits that everyone can enjoy, and paddlers will get soaked from charging through the waves. It’s perfect on a hot day.” ~Russell Haussermann

South Fork American River – The Gorge

Satan's Cesspool Rapid: South Fork American River Rafting Trip, The Gorge Run
3) Satan’s Cesspool | Class III+

The largest rapid of The Gorge full-day South Fork American River rafting trip, Satan’s Cesspool is best known for its final big drop and standing wave. Rafters definitely get wet on this one and professional photographers capture the action.

What the guides say: “It’s a super fun rapid. There are two big hits in Satan’s. I try to downplay the first drop a little, so everyone gets stoked for the big hole that’s just around the corner. We throw a few big paddle strokes into the hole, then I call a ‘Lean In’. Don’t forget to smile for the photographer!” ~Gordon Verdugo

4) Bouncing Rock | Class II+

Not the most difficult in terms of whitewater ratings, but Bouncing Rock is a technical rapid that most rafters find exciting. The trick is to get as close to the rock on river right as possible (rafts sometimes bounce off this boulder and use the current to sling into the big hole towards the bottom).

What the guides say: “I tell [guests] if you start feeling uncomfortably close to the rock, like we are about to hit it, then that means I’m on the right line and we will get the biggest hit from the hole. The people in the front get a huge splash, and it’s fun to watch the other boats drop into the rapid once we have run it.” ~Natalie Peet

Hospital Bar: South Fork American River Rafting, The Gorge Run

5) Hospital Bar | Class III

Named for the medical tent that was set up in the area during the Gold Rush, Hospital Bar is a short rapid that’s punctuated with one big whitewater wave. During higher water, it’s the last large rapid before takeout. In lower years, the river offers a few more splashes like Surprise Rapid, before guests load onto the busses.

What the guides say: “The approach is very unsuspecting and you don’t notice how big of a wave it really is until you’re right on top of it. Also, coaching your paddlers beforehand on the exit is essential to stay out of the Catcher’s Mitt.” ~Bill Burkdoll

Middle Fork of the American River

Best Rapids on the American River: Tunnel Chute
6) Tunnel Chute | Class IV

The highlight of many Middle Fork American River rafting trips, Tunnel Chute is an intimidating, but seriously fun rapid. In the 1860s miners used black powder to blast a steep new channel for the river, which empties into a pool that flows through a man-made tunnel. Before entering the chute, rafters have to negotiate Last Chance Rapid, where a flip could mean swimming down the 30-foot drop. Expect to huddle inside the raft with paddles up and hang on tight.

What the guides say: “It challenges me every time I run it. The sense of accomplishment I get from successfully navigating it is an indescribable feeling. My clients getting to share that with me is truly amazing.” ~Gordon Verdugo

Best Rapids on the American River: Kanaka Falls

7) Kanaka Falls | Class IV

A narrow rocky entrance leads rafts to a series of refrigerator-sized drops that can flip a boat at almost any angle. The rapid’s well-deserved nickname is Cartwheel. If you make it through the cascade, there’s still a rocky wall on the right and some shallow spots on the left that can snag river runners.

What the guides say: “I swim it once a year probably. When you do it well though it feels so clean. It’s ironic because I love it, but I hate it. It’s really steep and the top section is pretty technical.” ~Christina Winters

Chunder Rapid
8) Chunder | Class IV

Most guests look forward to big drops, and Chunder Rapid is exactly that. The main part of the rapid is a 6-foot cascade into a thick whitewater wave. The eddy directly after the rapid allows boats in front to get a nice vantage. It’s not a good place to go swimming, though. Just downstream, passengers have to offload for the trip around the impassable 30-foot Ruck-a-Chucky Falls.

What the guides say: It’s a pretty significant drop. It’s probably the biggest single hit guests will do all day. I try to prep guests for the 6-foot drop. It’s definitely a get-down and hang-on situation. ~Gordon Verdugo

North Fork of the American River

Staircase Rapid: North Fork of the American River
9) Staircase | Class IV

The North Fork’s most well-known rapid, the Staircase is a series of deep drops that funnel between narrow serpentine walls. The clear turquoise water of the free-flowing North Fork offers some chilly splashes and a fun challenge for the guides through this section.

What the guides say: “This rapid always puts your skills to the test. There are turns, hydraulics and potential high-sides. It’s slow and technical through the entrance and down the middle. The bottom has big stompy hits. It’s like a big and splashy airplane turn if everything goes as planned.” ~Felipe Cervilla

10) Slaughter Sluice | Class III-IV

About a half-mile into a North Fork American River rafting trip, rafters run headlong into a tricky boulder field with enough decline to launch the boats into a speedy descent. This opening rapid is considered a beacon for how the rest of the trip will go.

What the guides say: “It’s the rapid that makes me the most uneasy. It’s the very first rapid that you hit when you’re entering into the Chamberlain section. It’s kind of the beginning of chaos. It’s where all the action starts to happen. It kind of dictates how the rest of my trip is going to go based on how good my line is through Slaughter Sluice. There are continuous rapids after that.” ~Dana Dickinson

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