Three girls go whitewater rafting…
Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? Well, there were certainly some moments where we probably looked like a joke to the cars driving by us on the highway as we carried inner tubes and 40s of PBR wearing nothing other than bikinis for a mile. Wasn’t exactly what we pictured in our heads when we thought of a weekend getaway to go whitewater rafting down the Class IV rapids of the American River. I mean seriously…what could go wrong? Well, minus the one-mile bikini trek down the highway, lack of preparation, illegal floating down the river, and packing all the wrong things, the trip was a great success!
From Los Angeles, a six-hour drive north to the American River might seem a little excessive for a one-night getaway but here’s how two of my girlfriends and I managed to pack an adventure filled weekend at the American River.
5:00 am, Saturday
The alarm goes off and it’s time to hit the road. We already packed up the car the night before so all we needed to do was make some coffee and we were on our way. From Los Angeles, the I-5 takes you all the way up to Sacramento where you will eventually take the 50-E. If you’ve ever driven along the I-5 freeway, you know that at some point you hit cow country, as in roll up the windows and hold your breath. It’s also at about this time that you will really wake up.
Time for a bathroom break and driving shift change. We grabbed some more coffee at Starbucks but here is also a great restaurant where you can get a sit-down breakfast at The Ranch Kitchen at Harris Ranch. If you decide to stop, I recommend making it quick so that you can get back on the road and reach the river by noon.
By now, you’ve reached El Dorado County and are getting close to reaching the South Fork of the American River. There are countless whitewater tour operators but I went with Adventure Connection whose campgrounds are in the oh-so happening city of Coloma – population 600. If you drove straight through skipping breakfast and want to grab lunch, I’d suggest grabbing sandwiches from River Shack Deli & Pub.
We booked our whitewater rafting tour with Adventure Connection where they offer free camping with the tour. Check-in isn’t until about 3pm but that’s ok. In the meantime, you can spend your afternoon either hiking or floating down the river in inner tubes. I went with the latter because it was triple digital temperature and cooling off in the water sounded way better.
I’d suggest buying inner tubes at a Walmart or Target beforehand because they are extremely overpriced in Coloma – which is where we bought them. Be sure to get ones with netting and handles as you will be going down some rapids and hitting rocks. We later found out that Adventure Connection would have just let us use some of their inner tubes so I’d suggest checking with your tour operator and see if they are as nice as our was. We ended up going down the river twice!
Adventure Connection offers a BBQ at their campgrounds for a little extra on top of the tour price. They also will set up your entire campsite with a giant master tent and sleeping bags for an extra fee as well. I’d highly recommend doing this. Saves you so much time and you don’t have to pack all the equipment in your car – especially if you don’t even own camping equipment like me!
The BBQ is fun and you get to meet fellow campers, rafters and your guides. That night we hung around the campground drinking wine (don’t forget to bring some booze) and playing drinking games.
7:00 am, Sunday
Early morning wake up again! You will depart Adventure Connection’s campgrounds by 7am. It is about a 30-minute drive to the meeting place in Auburn where all the tour companies rendezvous. It is then another 30 minutes or so to the put in point at Oxbow Reservoir. During the drive, you will be given all the instructions you need on how to paddle, what to do if you fall in and other safety protocols. I had zero whitewater rafting experience and I felt perfectly prepared – as did my friends.
It’s about this time that you will be entering the river. Brace yourself, because within the first mile and a half of the trip you will hit one of the biggest rapids of the day, the infamous Tunnel Chute. You will then spend the next few hours tackling Class III and IV rapids.
Around noon, you will stop for a great picnic lunch arranged by your tour operator. After an hour or so, it is time to hit the rapids again. The next big rapid is called Chunder and it is a straight drop off a waterfall. What doesn’t look like a very large waterfall will definitely give you that chunder feeling in your stomach, hence the name of the rapid.
At some point, you will then need to get out of the raft as one of the rapids is a Class VI 3-foot waterfall called Ruck-A-Chucky Falls, a rapid that used to be un-runnable until high water rearranged big boulders in winter of 1992. Before the rapid became less hazardous, several kayakers had tried to run it; all died or became partially paralyzed. Safe to say I had no problem getting out of the raft and walking around the rapid.
It is an adventure filled day and you finish a 3pm where you exit the river at Greenwood Bridge. It is then an hour drive home bringing you back to the campground around 4pm. After packing up our car, we were on the road by 4:30pm. After a quick pitstop at In N Out in Sant Nella Village, we made it home just after 11pm.
This trip to the American River made me somewhat addicted to whitewater rafting and I can’t wait to return next season when I will attempt a more advanced section of the river – the North Fork.
The American River Quick Facts
When to Go: May – September
Tour Operator: Adventure Connection
Distance from Los Angeles: approx. 430 miles (6 1/2 hours)
Nearest Major City: Sacramento