5 Reasons to Raft the Middle Fork of the American River Right Now

When it comes to the best one-day whitewater rafting trip in California, the Middle Fork American River stands above the rest. This declaration comes from whitewater pioneer, OARS, which has led rafting trips in California, and all over the Western U.S., since 1969. 

Easily accessible from the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Lake Tahoe, this 16-mile, Class II-IV whitewater adventure not only boasts one of the most unique and thrilling rapids in the world, but a Middle Fork American River rafting trip also offers the kind of remote wilderness experience that’s hard to come by on many other popular rafting day trips in West, according to OARS.

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If it’s not at the top of your adventure short list yet, here are a few more reasons an American River rafting trip on the Middle Fork is like no other:

1) You’ll never forget Tunnel Chute

In 1869, miners blasted a tunnel through the side of a cliff along the Middle Fork of the American River to divert water in search of gold. What was left behind, a man-made whitewater feature appropriately named Tunnel Chute, is now one of the most unique and exciting rapids anywhere. Just minutes into the trip, this spicy Class IV rapid drops you six feet through a churning 80-foot chute before whisking you through a massive 90-foot tunnel. You’ll never forget it because it’s that epic, but there’s also usually a photographer set up to capture the chaos that inevitably unfolds here.

Photo: Hotshot Imaging

2) Even in dry years, it flows

It’s easy to think that whitewater rafting in California is simply not an option during “critically dry” years like 2021, but that’s not the case on dam-controlled rivers like the Middle Fork of the American River. Thanks to upstream recreational water releases, paddlers can raft the Middle Fork American four days per week Memorial Day through Labor Day Weekends, Friday through Sunday, and Wednesdays. After Labor Day Weekend, late summer trips are typically available on Saturdays through September/October. 

3) It’s a hassle-free adventure 

Packing up gear, long drives, and days of planning can put any good adventure on the backburner. With the American River’s proximity to San Francisco, Sacramento, and Lake Tahoe, a 1-day Middle Fork American River rafting trip is an easy getaway option that is big on adventure. To make the trip planning even more low-stress, look for an outfitter that offers guests hassle-free accommodations. OARS, for example, provides rafting guests one night of free camping at the American River Outpost, its campground in Lotus, CA. This conveniently-located site features bathroom facilities, a riverside beach, Wifi, easy access to restaurants, and more. You can even rent all of the camping gear you need, or upgrade to a platform tent, so you can just show up ready to camp. 

Photo: James Kaiser

4) A true wilderness experience  

Some of the most popular 1-day rafting trips in the West offer plenty of fun and excitement, but lack scenic splendor. That’s not the case on the Middle Fork of the American, which runs through the heart of Auburn State Recreation Area in the Sierra Foothills and offers a remote and wild river experience. When you’re not being whisked through raucous rapids like Texas Chainsaw Mama, Final Exam, and Kanaka Falls, calmer moments give you the chance to disappear within the canyon’s steep, 2,000-foot walls, and meander down the beautiful boulder-strewn river. Depending on the length of your trip (some companies offer a 2-day Middle Fork option with more time built in for exploring when water flows permit), several hikes nestled within the canyon provide the chance to discover a hidden waterfall, splash in a side creek, or get a glimpse of the canyon’s rich Gold Rush history.

5) A worthy finale

As the river mellows out for a few miles, you might start to wonder if the whitewater excitement is over. Fortunately, Middle Fork American River rafting trips start, and end, with a bang. Hang on for a stretch of non-stop whitewater action at the end, including Chunder, an intense Class IV drop, plus roaring, 30-foot Ruck-A-Chucky Falls. Don’t worry, you won’t be launching down any waterfalls on this trip since this Class V+ rapid is a mandatory portage for commercial trips. Still, it’s pretty exciting to watch your guides maneuver this massive obstacle, before you meet up downstream for the final charge through several other memorable rapids like Final Exam and Pop Quiz which will most certainly “test” your paddling chops. 

Photo: James Kaiser