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Recreational Guide: the American River
American River Geography
The American River is located in the Northern California. The River runs from the Sierra Nevada mountain range through the state capitol Sacramento, flowing into the Sacramento river and eventually into the San Francisco Bay.
The American River is divided into the North, Middle, and South Forks. The great canyon of the North Fork of the American River, is more than 2,000 feet deep in some spots, and for miles of its length over 3,000 feet deep. At Royal Gorge the canyon is over 4,000 feet deep, and has resisted roads and development down through the 20th century and now into the 21st century. It is one of the great refugia for wildlife left in the Northern Sierra, and is renowned for its wildness and beautiful scenery. It is this canyon and no other which, historically, was known as The American River Canyon.
The North fork of the America River flows under the Foresthill Bridge just prior to the confluence with the Middle Fork about 3 miles (5 km) from Auburn, California.
From there, the combined American River meanders down past the proposed site of the Auburn Dam, and onward to Folsom Lake. These rivers are popular for their verdant canyons, fishing and white water rafting. Below Folsom Lake, the American River passes through an urbanized area but is buffered by a riparian park, the American River Parkway, that runs 23 miles (37 km) from Folsom Lake to the river's confluence with the Sacramento River. The American River Parkway incorporates the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail, a meandering, uninterrupted 32-mile cycle path which hugs the river bank from Old Sacramento to Folsom Lake.
The Coloma-Lotus Valley is the major destination of the South Fork, shaped by the river today as in 1848. Three riverfront parks provide opportunities for family picnics and wading, and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park brings California's history to life. This stretch of the South Fork, the most popular whitewater in California, provides many great opportunities for river recreation. The 20-mile run from Chili Bar to Salmon Falls, features over 20 named rapids and countless waves in between. Most paddlers run the American River with a commercial rafting company. Outfitters provide the equipment, experienced guides, plus life jackets and other gear, so that you can enjoy the outdoor adventure without the hassle or expense of investing in your own equipment.
American River History
“Rio de los Americanos”, or American River, was named the 'Wild River' by trapper-explored Jedediah Smith, when he and his companions were encamped on its South Fork in 1827. Later, the fort of Johann Augustus Sutter arose near the confluence of the American with the Sacramento River. Sutter was a Swiss man who came to California in 1839, and received a land grant from the Mexican government of the province. Nobody is really sure as to why the America River was called “Rio des los Americanos”, but it may be due to this fact.
Sutter's fort became the terminus of the Donner Trail, which crossed the Sierra at Donner Pass and flirted in and around the basin of the North Fork American as it worked its way downcountry to Emigrant Gap, whence the trail descended to Bear Valley, and then climbed to the ridge dividing the Bear River from Steephollow, following this for miles. The trail continued southwest, paralleling the Bear until it finally crossed again, on the margins of the Great Central Valley at Johnson's Ranch. From there it broke more southerly to the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers at Sutter's Fort.
The South Fork of the American River changed world history in 1848 when California's first gold was discovered in its stream bed at Sutter's Mill. This discovery triggered the California Gold Rush of 1849, sometimes referred to as the largest human migration for a single purpose since the Crusades. Thousands of people migrated from everywhere with high hopes to find gold in the American River. Unfortunately, once the easily found gold was removed, the miners made a mess of things with their hydraulic pumps, causing folks downstream to complain. Eventually, the mining operations were shut down, and today you can still find huge trenches created by the miners 150 years ago.
The American River and its tributaries (like most of California's rivers) are extensively dammed and diverted for hydroelectricity production. Since the California Gold Rush was centered along the American river, it was one of the earlier California rivers to be populated and used for milling. By the end of the nineteenth century some of these former mill sites were converted to some of the earliest hydroelectric plants, with Folsom State Prison using the river to generate electricity in 1893. The Natoma Company completed its Folsom Powerhouse and began delivering power 22 miles (35 km) away to the city of Sacramento by 1895. Today, the five power plants on the Middle Fork are owned by the Placer County Water Agency (PCWA) and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) owns eight plants on the South Fork. The SMUD plants are run on a peaking basis, although reservoir flood control capacity and minimum flow requirements impose some constraints on their operation. The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) owns the Chili Bar power plant on the South Fork downstream from SMUD's plants. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) has two hydroelectric plants downstream at Folsom Dam and Nimbus Dam. The Bureau of Reclamation operates Nimbus as a base load plant and Folsom as an intermediate plant.
American River Rafting and Recreation
Because of the high adventure level and fast flow of the American River, white water rafting and kayaking has become one of the more popular recreational activities on the river. Most people choose to go with commercial river guides who know how to navigate the rivers and provide the most enjoyable experience. Whitewater rafting trips down the American River are typically separated into the different sections of the river. Single day or multi-day trips are available from most outfitters.
The banks of the American River also are home to multiple parks, camping and tourists spots. Coloma is a popular destination on the river. Many parks and picnic areas surround the popular town where you can tour Sutter’s Mill and original sites of historical significance.
About the Author
Ryan Hutchings is the Executive Director for Rafting America, the top white water rafting organization in the world. He works closely with rafting outfitters and various outdoor companies specializing in marketing strategy.
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