American River

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For other uses, see American River (disambiguation).
American River
American River CA.jpg
The American River near Fair Oaks
Country United States
State California
Region Sacramento Valley
Part of Sacramento River watershed
 - left South Fork American River
 - right North Fork American River
City Sacramento
Primary source North Fork American River
 - location Mountain Meadow Lake, Placer County
 - elevation 7,923 ft (2,415 m) [1]
 - coordinates 39°13′04″N 120°16′28″W / 39.21778°N 120.27444°W / 39.21778; -120.27444 [2]
Secondary source South Fork American River
 - location Nebelhorn, El Dorado County
 - elevation 7,401 ft (2,256 m) [3]
 - coordinates 38°48′38″N 120°01′52″W / 38.81056°N 120.03111°W / 38.81056; -120.03111 [4]
Source confluence Folsom Lake
 - location Near Folsom
 - elevation 253 ft (77 m)
 - coordinates 38°29′28″N 121°09′24″W / 38.49111°N 121.15667°W / 38.49111; -121.15667 [5]
Mouth Sacramento River
 - location Sacramento
 - elevation 23 ft (7 m) [5]
 - coordinates 38°35′51″N 121°30′29″W / 38.59750°N 121.50806°W / 38.59750; -121.50806Coordinates: 38°35′51″N 121°30′29″W / 38.59750°N 121.50806°W / 38.59750; -121.50806 [5]
Length 119 mi (192 km), Northeast-southwest Main stem 31 miles (50 km); North Fork 88 miles (142 km)[6]
Basin 2,150 sq mi (5,568 km2) [7]
Discharge for Fair Oaks
 - average 3,685 cu ft/s (104 m3/s) [8]
 - max 314,000 cu ft/s (8,891 m3/s) [8]
 - min 215 cu ft/s (6 m3/s) [8]
Map of the American River watershed. It includes the North, Middle, and South forks of the river as well as Rubicon River, a tributary of the Middle Fork.
View of the American River from below the Guy West Bridge on the Sacramento State campus

The American River (Río de los Americanos during the Mexican-ruled period before 1846) is a 119 mile long California river which runs from the Sierra Nevada mountain range to its confluence with the Sacramento River in the San Joaquin Valley. It eventually empties into the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco, California. The American River flows entirely within California. The American River is part of a unique, California Mediterranean ecosystem that holds an immense amount of fish and wildlife. The American River has high water quality and is the main source of drinking water for Sacramento.[9] The river is fed by the melting snowpack of the Sierra Nevada and its many headwaters and tributaries. There are three main sections of the river; the North, Middle, and South Fork.


The Maidu peoples inhabited the American River in Sacramento for thousands of years before foreigners settled the region. They utilized the vast amount of resources of the American River for shelter, clothes, baskets, and other goods before European traders and Spanish colonization happened.[10] Mexico later gained their independence from Spain and took control of California, until the Mexico Cession of 1848 where California ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.[10]

The California Gold Rush started in 1848 when James Marshall, an employee of John Sutter, found gold on the American River. The South Fork of the American River, in particular, continued to be one of the top destinations for early miners looking for gold. However, shortly after the success of small prospectors, large companies came to use hydraulic mining to access larger returns of gold for profit. Unfortunately, this large and extensive mining practice washed away entire mountainsides and heavily polluted all the waterways, including the American River.[11]

The lower American River has been one of seven California rivers to achieve the designation "Recreational River" under both the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1972) and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1980). This status provides state and national recognition to protect the river's outstanding scenic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, and recreational values.[12]


The American River is divided into the North, Middle, and South forks, which are located in El Dorado County, Placer County, and Sacramento County. The river's three forks originate in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests.[13]

The American River's section of the Sierra Crest extends ~50 mi (80 km) between the north triple watershed point (South Yuba, North Fork American, and Truckee rivers) at Mount Lincoln (39°17′16″N 120°19′41″W / 39.28778°N 120.32806°W / 39.28778; -120.32806) to the Winnemucca Lake triple point (Sacramento, San Joaquin, and central Lahontan hydrologic subregions).

American River view from the campus of California State University, Sacramento

From the confluence at Auburn, the combined North and Middle Forks river flows at an elevation of 600 feet (180 m) in a forested canyon 800 feet (240 m) deep and is called the North Fork. It meanders through additional canyons past the site of the abandoned Auburn Dam to where it meets the South Fork at Folsom Lake. All three forks are known for their verdant canyons, forested ridges, massive rock formations, trails, backcountry winter adventuring among snowy peaks, fishing and white water rafting. There are various fish species that live within the American River such as Chinook Salmon and Steelhead Trout.[14]

Below Folsom Lake, the river passes through an urbanized area but is buffered by a riparian park, the American River Parkway. Containing fishing and family-oriented rafting, and paved bicycling and multi-use trails, it runs 30.6 miles (49.2 km)[6] from Folsom Lake to the river's confluence with the Sacramento River. The American River Parkway incorporates Historic Leidesdorff Ranch, a 35,000-acre (140 km2) cattle and wheat agribusiness owned by the "African Founding Father of California." Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail, a meandering, uninterrupted 32-mile (51 km) cycle path, hugs the river bank from Old Sacramento to Folsom Lake. The trail was named for Smith and his men, who camped and trapped along its banks in 1828.[15]


North Fork[edit]

The North Fork is the longest tributary of the American River, at 88 miles (142 km).[6] It begins at an elevation of about 7,900 feet (2,400 m) near Lake Tahoe in Placer County at Mountain Meadow Lake, just northeast of Granite Chief and immediately due west of Squaw Valley Ski Resort. It flows westward through remote wilderness areas.

The North Fork and its tributaries provides one of the most biologically diverse habitats in North America.[citation needed] The North Fork features scenic multi-use trails along forested ridgetops and riparian corridors. It flows freely as a designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers System river until a debris dam, the North Fork Dam, is reached. This dam creates Lake Clementine just north of the Foresthill Bridge and upstream of the confluence with the Middle Fork American River at Auburn. Both the North Fork and Middle Fork feature archaeological and historic sites of ancient American Indian culture and 1850s Gold Rush habitation.

Middle Fork[edit]

The Middle Fork is 62-mile-long (100 km).[6] It originates a mere 1.7-mile (2.7 km) from the source of the North Fork on the south face of Granite Chief, between the summit and Emigrant Pass. It is characterized by somewhat broader steep canyons interspersed with reservoirs, natural waterfalls, and quiet riparian areas. The Middle Fork is used extensively for both motorized and non-motorized recreation, including fishing, white water adventuring, bicycling (mountain and road), horseback riding, trail running and hiking. It contains areas used for hydroelectric generation, mining, and agricultural timber cultivation and harvesting.

View of the America River from the William B. Pond Recreation Area
View of the America River from the William B. Pond Recreation Area

The Middle Fork features part of the Auburn State Recreation Area. The Western States Trail hosts multiple annual endurance events, including the Tevis Cup equestrian trail ride, and the world-famous Western States 100- Mile Trail Run, both beginning at Squaw Valley and leading to Auburn via remote wilderness trails.

South Fork[edit]

The South Fork is 87-mile-long (140 km).[6] It originates at Echo Summit near Echo Lake south of Lake Tahoe in El Dorado County, just south of where U.S. Route 50 makes a sharp curve northward to descend into Tahoe Valley. The South Fork has multi-use recreational areas, including the Rubicon Trail for motorized adventuring and whitewater rafting venues. The South Fork also features the historic town of Coloma, where the California Gold Rush began in 1848. Trout fishing and recreational gold panning are popular activities on the South Fork.

The Silver Fork American River is a 20-mile-long (32 km)[6] tributary of the South Fork American River, that has its origin at Silver Fork Lake [16]

Flora and fauna[edit]

The climate of the California American River is Mediterranean. The rainy season is during winter it has very dry summers. The region is prone to seasonal drought conditions. Sacramento County in particular, which is where the entirety of the American River resides, is known for its cool winters, and hot summers, with low average precipitation. Much of the Central Valley was historically wetlands, which made the ground very fertile and attractive for agriculture, which is now what the Central Valley is known for. The American flows through this region, providing Sacramento County with its main source of drinking water, and houses a multitude of plants and wildlife. There is an abundance of flora and fauna found at the American River that creates an immensely bio diverse ecosystem.

Native plants along the American River Parkway are adapted to a Mediterranean climate, are drought tolerant, and help support a balanced, healthy ecosystem. Non-native, and sometimes invasive, species have been introduced to the American River ecosystem. These exotic species have no natural predators and combat with native species for sun, space, and nutrients, causing substantial problems for the native plant life and the entire bionetwork. The American River Parkway Foundation, in collaboration with Sacramento County Parks, manages the invasive plants on the American River.



  • Deer
  • Coyotes
  • Raccoons
  • Owls
  • Hawks
  • Eagles
  • Squirrels
  • Beavers
  • Rabbits
  • River otters
  • Over 100 bird species[18]


Invasive Plants on the American River[19]
Native Plants[20]

River modifications[edit]

North Fork of American River

Historically, the American River, like many other rivers in California, were modified by the dams of beavers, until European trappers removed many of the beavers from their native habitat for their fur. During the California Gold Rush, which started in 1849, miners dredged the riverbed, and sent large amounts of sediment and mercury into the once wild flowing rivers. Now, dams, diversions, and pumps heavily modify the flow of the American River.The American River has been extensively dammed and diverted for hydroelectricity production. Since the California Gold Rush was centered in an area that included the American River basin, it was one of the earlier California rivers to be populated, beginning at Leidesdorff Ranch, owned by William Leidesdorff. Water was used to drive grist mills.

Fourteen environmental watershed groups are shown to be active in the Upper American River Watershed by the Adopt A Watershed Program of the U.S. EPA.[21] The Upper American River Foundation is a prominent one.[22][23]

Dams on the American River[edit]

Folsom Dam was built in 1955 as a part of the Central Valley Project by the Army Corps of Engineers, and is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. The concrete structure runs 9 miles wide and creates Folsom lake, which features 10,000 miles of surface acres of water. The dam is a multipurpose facility that acts as a reservoir for agricultural, domestic and industrial use, as well as hydropower generation, recreation, and fish and wildlife habitat.[24] Nimbus Dam is seven miles down stream from Folsom Dam to help regulate the amounts of releases from Folsom Dam.[25]

Power on the American River[edit]

The Natoma Company completed its Folsom Powerhouse by 1895 and began delivering power 22 miles (35 km) away to the city of Sacramento to power a streetcar system.

Currently, five power plants on the Middle Fork are owned by the Placer County Water Agency, eight plants are owned by Sacramento Municipal Utility District ("SMUD"). The El Dorado Irrigation District owns the Akin Powerhouse, and PG&E owns the Chili Bar Powerhouse. The Rock Creek Powerhouse is owned by a small private company. The 8 SMUD plants are run on a peaking basis, although recreational boating and environmental flow requirements constrain their operation slightly. None of these upstream plants are constrained by flood control requirements of the upstream tributaries, the needs of water supply and flood control largely govern their operation.

Conservation and restoration projects[edit]

The American River Conservancy[edit]

The American River Conservancy works to conserve the wildlife and their aquatic and terrestrial habitats and resources around the American River and Consumnes watersheds. They have successfully protected almost 25,000 acres since their inception in 1989. The land they protect helps the American River water quality by conserving and resorting wet meadows, wetlands, and riparian areas. They conserve the diversity of habitats and biodiversity by supporting protected native or endemic species that are listed as endangered or threatened. The American River Conservancy protects the American River watershed to preserve the cultural and historic values of the river systems and the landscapes surround them. They are also invested in keeping the American River for recreational activities as well as its remarkable natural scenic views.[26]

The American River Parkway[edit]

The American River Parkway is a 23-mile stretch along the American River and includes about 5,000 acres of embankment between the Nimbus Fish Hatchery and where the American River and the Sacramento River converge. The Sacramento City Regional Parks owns most of the land that is operated by the American River Parkway. This area serves the citizens of Sacramento and visitors from away with access to the river and parks, picnic areas, biking and jogging paths, trails for hiking, and habitat for fish and wildlife.[27]

The American River Salmonid Spawning and Rearing Habitat Restoration Project[edit]

Chinook Salmon are a threatened anadromous fish species that have historically used the American River as a location for an important part of their life cycle while in freshwater. The American River, however, has lost some of its natural flow and riverbed because of water projects and diversions. The American River Salmonid Spawning and Rearing Habitat Restoration project, which started in 2008, entails the placement of gravel to provide adequate habitat conducive to the salmonid’s needs for spawning and rearing to reach a maturity level fit for the ocean. From 2008 to 2012, the placement totaled 85,880 tons of gravel. The gravel will increase the number of fish redds, spawning nests, along the American River, which will decrease egg retention, and increase birth and survivorship rate. The project also included the introduction of small islands, loose woody debris, and larger boulders to advance the rearing habitat for the anadromous fish and increase biodiversity of the American River.[28][29][30]


The American River is utilized for a variety of recreational uses. Locals and travelers alike use the river’s scenic landscape for bird watching, hiking, biking, fishing, river rafting, kayaking, and more. Although the American River allows small motor boats for part of the year, it remains free from speed boats or boats that use fuel, which makes it a clean, biodiverse river that people can safely swim in and do other recreational activities in.

The American River is specifically known for its whitewater rafting. The South Fork has Class III rapids, the Middle Fork has Class IV rapids, and the North Fork has Class IV spring run-off rapids.[31] All three rivers also feature Class II sections. The areas with rapids still feature beautiful scenic views and wildlife, which is what makes it the most popular whitewater rafting location in California [31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Mountain Meadow Lake". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 1981-01-19. Retrieved 2010-09-26. 
  2. ^ "North Fork American River". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 1981-01-19. Retrieved 2010-09-26. 
  3. ^ "Nebelhorn". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 1981-01-19. Retrieved 2010-09-26. 
  4. ^ "South Fork American River". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 1981-01-19. Retrieved 2010-09-26. 
  5. ^ a b c "American River". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 1981-01-19. Retrieved 2010-09-26. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed March 10, 2011
  7. ^ "Boundary Descriptions and Names of Regions, Subregions, Accounting Units and Cataloging Units". U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  8. ^ a b c "USGS Gage #11446500 on the American River at Fair Oaks, CA (2009)" (PDF). National Water Information System. United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2010-09-26. 
  9. ^ "Water Quality". City of Sacramento. 
  10. ^ a b Maidu Culture  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ "American River History". South Fork American River. 
  12. ^ "A Boasting Trail Guide to the American River Parkway". California Division of Boating and Waterways. California Division of Boating and Waterways. Retrieved May 13, 2016.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  13. ^ "The American River: California's Favorite Whitewater River". Archived from the original on 12 July 2010. Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  14. ^ Ducey, Ronald (1986–87). "Nimbus Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery" (PDF). Annual Report: Nimbus Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery. Department of Fish and Game. Retrieved March 1, 2016. 
  15. ^ Chittenden, Hiram M. (1901). American Fur Trade of the West. A History of the Pioneer Trading Posts and Early Fur Companies of the Missouri Valley and the Rocky Mountains and of the Overland Commerce with Santa Fe. New York: Francis P. Harper. p. 286. 
  16. ^ Confluence of Silver Fork American River & South Fork American River, located at 38°46′03″N 120°18′57″W / 38.767636°N 120.315828°W / 38.767636; -120.315828
  17. ^ (PDF)  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  18. ^ Per the Annual ARNHA Wildlife Count
  19. ^ "American River Parkway Foundation (ARPF): environmental protection, native habitat preservation, Sacramento, CA (916) 486-2773". American River Parkway Foundation. Retrieved 2016-04-26. 
  20. ^ "American River Parkway Foundation (ARPF): environmental protection, native habitat preservation, Sacramento, CA (916) 486-2773". American River Parkway Foundation. Retrieved 2016-04-26. 
  21. ^ US EPA Adopt A Watershed Program: Upper American River Watershed
  22. ^ Upper American River Foundation website
  23. ^ Facebook: Upper American River Foundation
  24. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^ American River Conservancy  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  27. ^ American River Parkway Foundation  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  28. ^ (PDF)  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  29. ^ (PDF)  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  30. ^ (PDF) ( ( Check |url= value (help).  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  31. ^ a b "Whitewater Rafting - The American River". Retrieved 2016-05-15. 

External links[edit]