The South Fork of the American River is perhaps the most commercially rafted river in the West, and it is also kayaked frequently. Multiple Class II and Class III whitewater makes this river perfect for beginning and intermediate rafters and kayakers alike. The last 5 miles of the South Fork are known as the Gorge. The two sections before the Gorge are referred to as Chili Bar and C-G.
The Gorge has a bit of everything to offer in the many Class II and Class III rapids. Simply the names of many rapids create apprehension for first-time visitors to the river. Satan's Cesspool is an amalgamation of curling waves, a drop, and holes that leave few good lines for kayakers. Needless to say it lives up to its name. Hospital Bar starts off with an easily navigable rock garden but then quickly makes your heart skip a beat as you fall into a large drop and collide directly into a colossal wave and hole, often tearing you upside down before spitting you out a couple seconds later. Lost Hat feels like a blind roller coaster when riding over the series of large standing waves. The first few are large enough that they obscure the rest of the rapid, and after cresting one wave kayakers are plunged into the next and greeted by a powerful blow of water to the face (and chest). Surprise is also aptly named as kayakers follow a beautiful smooth shoot into a wave that drops straight into an unforeseeable hole.
The flow in the lower section of the South Fork American River is controlled by the Chili Bar Reservoir dam and thus is highly reliable on flow times and days. During spring and early summer appropriate flows are often found every day, though some spring days can bring dangerously high levels (At high flows some rapids become Class IV). Late summer and fall flows for kayaking and rafting are usually only available on the weekend. From the release point at Chili Bar it takes several hours for the water to reach the Greenwood put-in. Account for the appropriate time where water will fall after release has stopped to prevent running at very low flows.
Greenwood Creek River Access is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is free to park for the day. Make sure to grab a free river permit here and attach it to your boat. For the take-out, park near the Salmon Falls Bridge. A $10 daily fee is required for parking at the official Skunk Hollow take-out. Many visitors park for free on the opposite side of bridge and either take out on the left after the bridge or bring their car back across after pulling all boats out. Allow 15 to 20 minutes to run shuttle each way.
Entrance into the Gorge is marked by the third sighting of the Lollypop Tree, a standalone tree shaped like a lollypop atop a hill overlooking the gorge. An easier landmark for the entrance into the Gorge is the restroom and picnic area at mile 3.8 miles from Greenwood on river left. From these restrooms the first Class III rapid, Fowler's Rock, is half a mile.
Greenwood Creek River Access (mile 0)
Fowler's Rock (III, mile 4.3)
Above this rapid the river is wide and slow as it leads into a slight left bend. A large rock known as House Rock sits on the right bank. A large submerged rock sits in the middle of the river to the left of House Rock and creates a dangerous and massive hole just below. The safest line is to paddle into the chute on the right just left of House Rock. Immediately after House Rock is another large rock dubbed Fowler's Rock in the left center of the channel. Stay right of Fowler's Rock and then remain near center for the remainder of the rapid.
Lost Hat (Class III-, mile 5.2)
The calm waters of a narrow gorge lead into large waves in the center of the river. Mid-rapid the river begins to curve left leading into Satan's Cesspool.
Satan's Cesspool (Class III+, mile 5.4)
The largest rapid in this section, this begins immediately after Lost Hat with a sharp bend right. An eddy can be caught at low and moderate flows on river left just above the drop. From here kayakers can choose an appropriate route. Underwater rocks typically create a hole in the center and a curling wave near the left rock wall. A calm section exists just below allowing ample time for a roll. Swimmers can attempt to catch the eddy river left in order to escape swimming down Son of Satan's immediately below. A sneak route exists at flows above 1,500 cfs to the far right, but it must be chosen early on while in Lost Hat.
Son of Satan's (Class III, mile 5.45)
Following immediately after the pool below Satan's Cesspool, the best line is typically to remain center right in the channel but far enough away from the rock wall on river right. Leads into a short flowing gorge opening into a large pool with banks river left for any swimmers.
Bouncing Rock (Class III, mile 6.7)
The majority of the current follows the right bank during this left bend in the river. Water cascades over a large rock river right, and creates a flippy hole just below. Rocky rapids remain below this hole so swimming can get rough. A safer line involves ferrying left through the bend and passing by Bouncing Rock and the hole it creates.
Hospital Bar (Class III, mile 7.1)
The last large rapid on the South Fork begins with a boulder garden leading into a left bend. Most of the flow hugs the right bank and drops over a rock bar leading into a giant diagonal wave. A safe line exists left of this drop and wave, but a line on the right promises a good thrill and perhaps a flip. This rapid is named for the hospital tent set up nearby during the gold rush days.
Recovery Room (Class III-, mile 7.3)
Soon after Hospital Bar is this smaller Class III rapid. At high lake levels this rapid is small (Class II or less) and leads into the flat water of Folsom Lake. At lower lake levels a large hole at the bottom resembles that of Hospital Bar.
Salmon Falls Bridge/ Skunk Hollow Takeout (mile 9.0)