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Lively days on the American.

Rafting, hiking, exploring, even ballooning

ON THE MORNING of January 24, 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall, who was overseeing the construction of a sawmill on the South Fork of the American River, strolled to the millrace to survey the flow of water. "My eye was caught by something shining," he would later recall. "It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold."

It was. And with that glimpse of something shining, modern California was born.

Today, the American River continues to make hearts thump, not only with hopes of discovering gold (for miners still work its shallows) but with other possibilities: river rafting, hiking, fishing, exploring. Each of its three major forks possesses its own distinctive character. And all are under pressure--the South from suburban development, the Middle and North from the proposed Auburn Dam.

June is a fine time to explore the upper reaches of this river in the sierra Nevada foothills. Rafting is at its peak, waterfalls are still falling, and the weather is not too hot for good hiking.


On a summer's afternoon, the South Fork at Coloma is a "Wayne's World" of a river--loud and happy, as befits the most heavily rafted water in the West. Some 30 commercial outfitters run day trips down the 9 miles of class 2 and 3 rapids from Chili Bar to Lotus or the 11-mile run from Lotus to Salmon Falls. Because so much of the South Fork flows through private land, these raft trips are the only way you can really see much of the river.

Unless, that is, you take to the air, by joining one of Alan Ehrgott's hot-air balloon expeditions down the South Fork's canyon. Ehrgott also operates Coloma Country Inn Bed and Breakfast, one of the better places to stay in the vicinity, and offers a "bed-and-balloon" package.

While ballooning, Ehrgott saw increasingly large portions of the South Fork's canyon being graded for development. He and other residents formed the American River Land Trust to preserve sensitive land; the group's most recent acquisition is 1 1/2 miles of river frontage below Chili Bar Reservoir. The trust also helps operate the American River Nature Center, located in the same building as the trust's office, at the south end of Coloma. It has natural history exhibits and a good schedule of guided hikes and other programs.

Rafters and balloonists can explore Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park while in Coloma. Start at the visitor center (open 10 to 5 daily), where exhibits tell the story of the cry of gold heard round the world. You can go on to explore Coloma's charming line of 19th-century buildings, and a replica of the sawmill that started it all.


Unlike the South Fork, the Middle Fork runs through public land--Auburn State Recreation Area--that is accessible to hikers. In fact, the hiking opportunities along the Middle Fork are some of the best in the Sierra foothills. The one drawback is that trails tend not to be well signed. The best trail map is published by the American River Coalition; it's available for $5.50 from its office (see address at bottom page 20).

One choice jaunt goes for 5 miles into American Canyon. From Auburn, take State Highway 49 east 6 miles to Cool; turn east on State 193, go 5 miles, and turn north on Sweetwater Trail (across the highway from Pilgrim Trail). Drive north about 1/4 mile; the trailhead is on the east side of the road. From here, descend along the trail (stay right at the first fork, left at the second) to pass waterfalls and canyon views and join Western States Trail, which runs along the south bank of the Middle Fork; return the way you came.

Commercial rafting companies generally run 18 miles from below Oxbow Powerhouse to Drivers Flat Road--a series of mostly class 3 and 4 rapids. Some take this stretch of river as a long one-day trip; some break it up into a two-day run.


Awarded federal Wild and Scenic status in 1979, the North Fork is indeed the wildest and most remote of the American's three forks. It's possible to feel utterly lost and a little apprehensive on a back road like Yankee Jims as you wind down into the shady canyon, past miners' pickups and corrugated shacks with big "Keep Out" signs. Then you round a bend, see a waterfall cascading among Sierra dogwood, and you are won over.

To explore the river canyon by car, drive northeast from Auburn on Foresthill Road, which affords good down-canyon views along the 18 miles to Foresthill. In 6 miles, you'll see the turnoff to Lake Clementine, popular among water-skiers. Colfax-Iowa Hill Road, which runs east from I-80 at Colfax, is another good route; in about 3 miles, you'll reach a bridge over the river and pretty riverside Mineral Bar camp-ground.

Rafting the North is turbulent--class 4--and the season is brief, lasting only into early June. Most outfitters put in at the Colfax-Iowa Hill Bridge, and take out 9 miles southwest, at Ponderosa Way.


A chief topic of discussion on the river is the proposed Auburn Dam. A large multi-purpose (hydroelectric, water storage, and flood contol) dam had been debated in the 1970s. After construction began, it was shelved as being too costly and potentially vulnerable to earthquakes.

But 1986 flooding in the Sacramento area revived talk of the need for a flood-control dam at Auburn. Last year, the California Reclamation Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a 425-foot-high dam to be built on the old dam site.

The dam would store water only during floods. But environmentalists maintain that even periodic inundations would destroy invaluable riparian habitat. And they worry that the flood-control dam would inevitably lead to the construction of a larger multipurpose dam still desired by many people in El Dorado and Placer counties.

"The American River canyons are valuable because they're close to a major metropolitan area--Sacramento--yet so rustic and wild and remote," says Charles Casey, who heads the American River Coalition, a group organized to fight the dam. "Just 20 minutes off Interstate 80, you have areas as wild as you'd find in Colorado or Montana."

Sacramento-area congressmen Vic Fazio and Robert Matsui have introduced a bill to fund construction of the dam. Hearings are expected this fall.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:American River, California
Author:Fish, Peter
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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