Whitewater Rafting Down the American River with Kids

In the rapids of the American River

“That was fun!” yelled my two girls after our raft got completely washed over, “When’s the next rapid?” You’d think elementary school girls would prefer a playground playdate over paddling down a cold river and yet. When I asked my girls what they’d rather do this weekend, they did’t hesitate. “Whitewater rafting!” Think about it: getting tossed around and totally splashed, drying up in the warm sun, floating down a river gorge framed by tall pines and oaks, swimming down a rapid and passing the Lollipop Tree? Dang, I’ll take that over the Grizzly River Run at Disney’s California Adventure any day. This weekend our runaway river adventure only lasted a half day but I’m now dying to go on a multi-day excursion where “going with the flow” finds its true meaning  – just you, a paddle, whitewater and the smooth passage of the raft above rocky river beds.

On Sunday, we went down 13 miles of the Lower Gorge of the South Fork of the American River with Raft California. After a night at Cameron Park’s Quality Inn & Suites, we took off in the morning and 25 minutes later pulled over in the private parking lot of Raft America. Passing us on the road, truckloads of big inflated rafts had me worried – when had the river become a highway?

Last year on our trip with Whitewater Tours in mid-September, our raft had been the only floating vessel down the river. Somehow I got the impression that it was always so but this early June trip on a sunny warm day proved me wrong, a fact confirmed by our guide. “The American River is the most popular commercial whitewater river in the west.” Thinking about it, it makes sense. Just three hours from the Bay Area and an hour from Sacramento, the river flow is controlled by a dam upriver that keeps it fairly steady for recreation purposes. If you want to hang out, the Gold Rush town of Coloma is right there to visit and the river is a popular gold panning spot.

So there we were, pulling off in the parking lot. Both my girls wore long sleeves UV-protection swim shirts and shorts and the sunscreen stick was that day’s best friend. After an intro on whitewater safety, how you should not self-inflict a paddle injury or how you can swim away from an overturned raft (we saw one on Sunday), we all grabbed safety jackets, helmets and paddle. Following the advice that nothing valuable should go on the rafts, most people had nothing but their clothes on – or rather, their swim shorts on. I packed a sunscreen stick, swimming goggles, a water bottle and my new waterproof camera in a small dry bag – and off we went!

From Beaver Point, our raft floated down to the camp on tranquil waters as Eric our guide explained the drill to us. Left forward means left paddlers work their biceps. Backpaddle means just that. Three forward means three broad strokes forward. Relax – well, enjoy the view. I was excited about the swimming part and asked when we could go in. Some of the guys in the rafts in front of us were goofing about and when they went overboard, I decided it was high time to follow their example. Sweet was the water! A rapid was approaching so I got back on board and an hour into our lazy floating, we pulled by a pebbly riverbank for lunch.

Lunch? Yes, lunch. The deal includes a lunch – now you understand why people raft so light. Hamburgers, chips, cookies, watermelon, grapes – we sat with full plates under a parachute canopy and once our hunger satisfied, the girls went looking for gold in the river. Fools gold, quartz and iron pyrite were plentiful but of gold nuggets we saw none. “Tis alright, the girls just wanted to have a sense of adventure. That they did on the second part of the day when we really got to paddle down class II and III+ rapids.

The real fun began when we took a rapid backwards and Eric asked us to paddle forward real hard. Why forward and not backward to continue floating down? By paddling forward we reached a whitewater ledge that stabilized our raft in a “surfing” position – we were  neither floating up nor down, just staying stable! When we realized that we all laughed hard and enjoyed the moment. A minute or so later, the river took the better of our raft and down we went. That, dear readers, was exhilarating. We passed Barking Dog rapid named – wouldn’t you know it – for a dog who always barked at that spot.

“We are getting to swimmer’s rapid” announced Eric, “Want to go in?” I had a double take. Did I just hear “swimmer” and “rapid” in the same sentence? Exactly. This rapid is perfect for raft passengers who want to jump in and experience the rapid like a cold wave train. “Hold your breath when you surface!” announced Eric as I jumped and the rapids drew dangerously near. I understood why as I swallowed a big mouthful of American River, than a second one in the rapid. It’s just like choppy water in the bay minus the salt! I loved it and so did James, the other guy who had jumped with me from our boat. My girls quickly told me to get close and extended their little arms to lift me up – a task rapidly completed by the grown-ups on our raft.

From there we passed Frankenstein Rock – a rock that looks like the craggy head of the undead monster, Gorilla Rock – a rock that looks a big godzilla head above the water, and Alligator Rock. “Are you ready for Lollipop tree?” asked Eric. In any other setting I’d have said the guy was a loony but as we looked up we all got it. There really is a Lollipop Tree, this is Dr. Seuss country. That Lollipop Tree stands alone at the highest point of a perfect hill and you really can’t miss it – it pops!

The sweetness of the tree was cut short by Eric’s short and stern commands “Kids reposition close to me. Adults, paddle hard into the rapid. Stay inside the boat. If you fall, we’ll get you back inside.” All right, warm and fuzzy all over. Fowler’s Rock Rapid came as quickly as it went but what a steep drop into that narrow passage! The raft in front of us flipped over and all the guys “swam” – that means they got ejected. I thought I saw a stretcher in the trees and Eric explained “It’s for emergencies.” So that was really a stretcher, and that was really a rapid. Hello, reality check.

“The biggest one’s coming!” announced Eric. My girls shrieked with pleasure. In fact they shrieked the entire trip, first to express how mildly scared they were, then to express how fun it was. The idea that a bigger rapid was on our way clearly had them giddy with anticipation. In my head I hoped they wouldn’t be so giddy as to fly overboard with excitement. “Hold on to your T-grips!” yelled Eric, and down we went into Satan’s Cesspool, a class III+ rapid that got our hearts pounding and our arms paddling in a rocking chair motion. We made it! One little girl wasn’t so happy, cold, wet and eager to get it over with. My girls were elated and exclaimed “that was fun!” thus confirming what I had suspected all along – for them this was a lifesize roller coaster. Nothing less.

After the Bouncing Rock Rapid, we dropped down a pretty big rapid called Hospital Bar (we all thought, for good reason) and floated down the low-key Recovery Room rapid to an almost-standstill. It seemed like the river had stopped carrying us. In fact the water level was getting deeper and the river wasn’t creating rapids on rocks right below the surface. We were approaching Folsom Lake. To your paddles!

That was the end of our trip. The kids quickly dried up and by the time we boarded the return bus, they were almost dry. I think I’ll invest in adult-size swim shirts for me, it’ll come in handy next time. my tee-shirt was cold!! But boy was it cool. The whole thing. We now have a new summer project – whitewater rafting in France.

Practical Details

  • Website: www.raftcalifornia.com
  • Cost: $149 per person including lunch. Watch for specials! We got a Groupon deal at $79 per person.
  • When: April through October
  • Where: Coloma, CA
  • Minimum age: 7. FYI, my 6-year old going on 7 fared just fine.
  • Kid gear: kid life jackets and small helmets provided. Paddles are one size fits all.
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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.


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