Possibly the Best River Adventure in Northern California

Here’s where to find a two-day rafting trip in spitting distance of SF

The American River is one of the country's best spots for rafting.
The American River is one of the country's best spots for rafting.

Stipulated: the perfect travel time for a three-day weekend getaway is four hours. More, and you waste your vacation. Less, and you’re still near home. Hence our series, The 4-Hour Rule, dedicated to revealing the best destinations that are far away, yet still close to home.

There are a million and one ways to get on the water in Northern California. The best, though, might come on the American River — the state’s best spot for rafting, swimming, floating and family-oriented fun.

Today, we share all the intel you need to do it up right.

(Eden Vale Inn)

On the river, obviously. OARS offers free camping to guests setting off on the river early the next morning (and the night following the trip). If you want to head out a couple days early to soak in the best of the area (this is recommended) and want a hotel room/high-end bedding, the best bet is the Eden Vale Inn, in nearby Placerville.


We’re headed for whitewater in the foothills of the Sierras. OARS offers a 21-mile, two-day trip down the Class III rapids of the river’s South Fork, through challenges with exceptionally kid-enticing names like Triple Threat, Troublemaker and Meatgrinder (as long as they’re eight or older). This is a fun, low-key, communal experience, with a day on the river followed by a cookout, volleyball and splashing around. If you’re looking for a more personalized experience, OARS is just one of the local outfitters ready to draw up a private expedition. (If they don’t offer what you’re looking for, try River Runners or All-Outdoors.)

(California Department of Parks and Recreation)

Beyond rafting, the other big draw here is Gold Rush history. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is right nearby, and it is a veritable paradise for history/luxury goods-minded kids, who can pan for gold, take a lesson in blacksmithing, and be sworn in as a junior ranger.

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