Rafting on the American river can be a year round experience. With hydro-dam controlled releases that are guaranteed for year round recreation, you will find rafters and especially kayakers on the river in the dead of winter every weekend. This winter (2015), the South Fork of the American river only releases raftable and kayakable flows on Saturday until April 1, then we get Saturday, Sunday, and Monday flows. After Memorial Day, we will get flows every day except Tuesday and Wednesday, that is unless we get lots more snow and rain. If this was an above average snow year, we would be getting flows everyday all spring long.
On the Middle Fork of the American river, the hydro-dam operators are not releasing raftable flows right now (again, 2015) until Memorial Day weekend, due to saving the water for summer hydro-electric needs. After Memorial Day weekend, we are projected to get 7 day a week releases for whitewater rafting and kayaking with normal summertime flows (which means it will be awesome, even in a drought year).
Springtime is also the only time that the North Fork of the American, the class IV+ cousin to the South Fork, is available. It does not have any hydro-dams on it and runs just on the snowmelt. This year (2015) we definitely need a lot more snow to be able to raft this awesome river this spring. But we are still remaining positive that the snow will come.
After saying all of the above, I will answer the actual question: when is the best time to raft the American River? Let’s talk in a normal snow and rain year, where there is quite a bit of snow in the mountains for spring runoff. The spring time usually has more water in the rivers due to the snow melting and the hydro-dam operators cannot contain it all. Higher water for rafting the South Fork, for example means faster white water and bigger rapids, good for those seeking a wilder class 3+ ride than the normal class 3 summertime flows, but this can also mean that kids younger than 12 cannot raft, due to these higher flows. With the higher flows comes colder water, so we provide wet suits and rafting wind breakers for our guest’s safety and comfort. Springtime rafting also means less people on the river (a plus sometimes), and wild flowers in the canyons making a very unique experience.
Sometimes, if the runoff is quite a bit, we have to wait to raft the Middle Fork of the American. When the water gets high on the Middle Fork, a few of the rapids (Tunnel Chute and the class 6 portage at Ruck-a-Chucky Falls) get dangerous and most American river rafting companies wait until the snowmelt has eased a bit. Summertime is the primetime to raft the Middle Fork, all the way through September.
Most rafters like a sunny warm weather day, warmer river water (even though it never gets warm, but does get semi-comfortable), and the summertime vacation schedule for coming up and rafting the American River. The time period from Memorial Day to Labor Day are the busiest for most river rafting companies on the American River. However, rafting trips are offered all the way into October, as long as the weather holds. Fall trips on the American River can also be a very different trip than the summer. The crowds have gone and you can almost have the river to yourself!
A quick summary: Springtime rafting brings higher water levels giving rafters more whitewater and bigger rapids, sometimes a class 4+ North Fork season, colder water (wet suits provide a good buffer), less people rafting the river, wild flowers in the canyons, and weather that is usually nice but can also turn cool and rain. Rafting in the rain is a very neat experience as long as you are wearing the proper river gear.
Rafting in the summer is by far the most popular time of year for American River rafting. The weather is usually hot, the water in the river has settled down from the springtime and there is plenty of it due to the hydro-electric guaranteed releases for recreation, families with younger kids can raft, school’s out and its vacation time, and most likely your favorite river rafting guide is back on the river from college, teaching, or other real life job!
Anytime is a great time to be on the river – come up and get yours!
I hope that this helps, as always if you have questions about this information, or have other questions about river trips, please feel free to E-Mail me, I am always here to help no matter what or where your river adventure is taking you.
Hope to see you on the river this year,
Flash (over 30 years of river rafting experience around the world and back)