Whitewater Rafting on the American River with O.A.R.S.

After an epic two week family vacation in Alaska with kids last year, our family caught the adventure travel bug. A multi-day whitewater rafting trip with kids has been on my bucket list for some time though I couldn’t figure out how to do this without mentioning the dreaded “c” word in our family — camping. Thoughts of sore backs and no indoor plumbing have previously squashed plans.

The solution? A two-day whitewater rafting trip with O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists) on the South Fork of the American River staying in platform tents. It’s comfort camping — not quite glamping, but not full-on camping either. Meals and logistics are organized by O.A.R.S. and the bathrooms are clean and comfortable.

OARS Rafting Satan's Cesspool Rapids
A wet introduction to Class lll rapids

Two-Day South Fork of the American River Whitewater Rafting Review

The trip begins near Coloma, CA, less than an hour east of Sacramento. The location, in California Gold Country, is full of history and kid-friendly adventure and pairs well with a San Francisco or Yosemite family vacation.

Two-Day Itinerary

O.A.R.S. combines over four decades of rafting experience with qualified guides to create a river trip that works for all levels. The two day trip is a combination of O.A.R.S. full day South Fork plus a half-day on the Chile Bar section of the river. The trip covers 22 miles over two days with 20 named rapids, expect kids to ask the guide every name of every rapid.

The morning of the first day eases beginners and kids into feeling comfortable on the water with opportunities to jump off the raft, swim and play a few water games. After a beachside deli-style lunch, the real action begins. Thrilling Class lll and lll+ whitewater rapids with names like Satan’s Cesspool and Hospital Bar bring water crashing over the raft and screams of excitement from kids and adults.

Oars Rafting Hospital Bar Rapids
Holding on tight during Hospital Bar

By the morning of Day 2, any nerves have vanished and confident little faces are ready for whatever the day has to offer. A series of fast-moving rapids aptly named Meat Grinder and technical maneuvers erase thoughts that we’ll be doing the “same thing as yesterday.” The trip ends after lunch and with nutella-streaked faces my kids were already asking when we’re going again.

Guides Who Know Kids

With one cautious child (11) and one fearless child (8), we saw emotions range from pure excitement to fright on the first day. We also saw fear grow into confidence as a reassuring and knowledgeable guide lead us down the river.

There were four adults and two kids in the raft, our guide Jim provided direction to all of us but he was especially patient with the kids. He named every rapid, made up names for the ones that were unnamed and realized that the kids’ delayed paddling after lunch called for a new approach – a ride in the front through the Class lll rapids. Paddles were stowed, the kids moved to the front, held on to the safety ropes and met the rapids head on. A smart and simple adjustment that didn’t affect the rest of us but made the trip for the kids.

O.A.R.S. also feels like one of the more calmer companies on the river. We saw plenty of rafters doing crazy stunts and games and while we had fun, safety was always a priority and I never worried that my kids were in danger – even when it looked like we were headed for the rocks.

OARS Rafting Troublemaker1
It looks like Troublemaker will get the best of us…

A quick turn and the raft skirts the rocks and slams through the rapids.

OARS Rafting Troublemaker Rapids2
Still not sure if we’re home free yet

We emerge in disbelief that we’re all still in the raft and ready for the next rapid.

OARS Rafting Troublemaker Rapids3
Ready for the next rapid

 Camping at O.A.R.S. River Adventure Campground

When you book a full day trip with O.A.R.S. you receive a free night of camping at their private campground along the banks of the American River. Our trip was as much about rafting as it was testing the camping waters for a longer rafting trip.

We opted for upgraded platform tents which sleep two on twin platform beds. If you’re not a camper, this is an easy option. And if you want to sleep in a tent but not haul all the supplies, you can rent on-site.

OARS Campground Tent
Platform tents make everyone feel like they are camping

The campground is also where two-day trip participants eat a home-cooked bbq dinner and breakfast the next morning. Volleyball, a giant chess set, a pool table and board games entertain during off-river hours. There’s no need for video games and cell phone reception is spotty so it’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone to unplug.

What Not to Expect

Solitude. The South Fork is a very popular summer rafting trip especially for families. You won’t be alone of the river but for my kids this added a level of comfort as they saw other kids their age braving the rapids.

If You Go

> Guaranteed dam-released water on the American River ensures rafting opportunities from April – September. Locations and age levels vary according to water levels.

> Age Requirements: 7; older with higher water levels

> Cost: Two-day trip from $239 per person

If you’re ready for a longer rafting trip, O.A.R.S. offers a variety of multi-day family-friendly rafting options. The Rogue River and Green River through Gates of Lodore trips are highly recommend.

Editor’s Note:  Kristi received a media package to review the rafting trip. As always, her opinions are her own. All rafting photos courtesy of Hot Shots Imaging.

Relevant Links:

5 Questions to Ask When Selecting an Outfitter for a Family Whitewater Rafting Trip

Why a All-Family Whitewater Rafting Trip is a Bucket List Must

Discovering California Gold Country with Kids

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