The South Fork of the American River is perhaps the most commercially rafted river in the West, and it is also kayaked frequently. Many Class II and Class III rapids make this river perfect for beginning and intermediate rafters and kayakers alike. The first 6 miles of the South Fork below Chili Bar Reservoir are known as the Chili Bar run. The two sections below Chili Bar are referred to as C to G and The Gorge.
Chili Bar Run along the South Fork of the American River has several large rapids and waves providing a ton of fun. The run begins almost immediately with Meatgrinder, a long boulder garden requiring plenty of technical paddling that can grind you and your boat should you swim. Troublemaker is the final rapid of this run, and it finishes the trip off with a bang. It is perhaps the largest rapid on the South Fork below Chili Bar Reservoir, and it can be especially tricky and exciting for kayakers. Between Meatgrinder and Troublemaker are a few big drops and great surfing waves such as African Queen and Triple Threat.
A brief list of some of the notable rapids on this run follows, but please consult a river map for specific locations and information.
- Meatgrinder (Class III+, mile 0.6): A quarter mile boulder garden filled with holes with the very large Rhino Rock at the bottom.
- Racehorse Bend (Class II+, mile 1.3): Begins with a boulder garden. Mid-rapid the river bends sharp left with current pushing hard against the right bank.
- Maya (Class II-III, mile 1.5): During high flows (3,500+ cfs) huge dangerous holes exist in the channel.
- Triple Threat (Class III, mile 3.1): A series of three large drops in close succession. The first has a kayak play hole. The second can be swum. The third has a shallow rock bar on the right.
- Tooth Rock (Class III, mile 5.0): Current moves around an island and a sharp wrap rock sits in the right.
- Troublemaker (Class III+, mile 5.2): Large S-turn beginning with a drop into a powerful lateral wave with an immediate right turn following. River begins to move left and leads into a series of big waves and turmoil. Scout river left at the campground.
The flow in this 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. There is no wait for water levels to rise, making timing easy to plan.
The typical put-in for Chili Bar is at the privately managed Chili Bar put-in. Here fees are $3 per vehicle plus an additional $3 for each person. There are three possible take-out locations in Coloma. The first and easiest is at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, which lies adjacent to the river at mile 6. There is a typical $10 State Park fee here and a short walk to the parking area. The second location to take out is the Coloma Road Bridge at mile 7.5. Parking along the road here is free, but there is a moderate portage to the parking area. The last take-out location is Lotus Camp at mile 8. This private camp has its own fee for parking.