A full guide to floating the American River, including everything you should know, what to expect, and how to have the best day out on the water.
There are a lot of great places to go tubing (aka lazy floating) in California, but one of the most popular spots is on the American River
With a starting point that’s just outside of Sacramento, it’s one of the most convenient places to float near a major city.
It’s no surprise then that it’s such a popular place to find Sacramentans, tourists, and Bay Area residents floating on hot days in the summer.
My East Bay friend group usually does a summer float on the American River each year and this year was my first time experiencing it with them.
Quite a few of our friends have moved up to the Sacramento area in the past couple of years so it has become a good excuse to get everyone together again.
And since I’m not always the best with water-based activities, it was also nice to go with a large group who was already very familiar with the route.
After experiencing the river myself and enjoying it with a bunch of people who have been doing it for years, I took away a lot of information on how best to lazy float the American River.
This post gives you the full rundown of what to expect and how to make the most of your day on the American River.
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Overview: Lazy Tubing Down the American River
What to Expect & the Route
Our group met at Sacramento Bar Park, across from Sunrise Boulevard Recreation Area, to slather on the sunscreen, catch up, use the bathroom, and blow up our inner tubes with an electric pump.
While we were getting ready, we had two people head over to William B. Pond Park (where we’d be ending the float). They dropped off one car and came back in another.
That one car would take all of the drivers back to Sacramento Bar Park at the end of the float, so the drivers could come back to pick up everyone else in their respective cars at William B. Pond Park.
Once we had everyone together at Sacramento Bar Park again, we opened some Trullys and set off on the river.
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On the River
In general, you can expect a leisurely float down the American River without too many rapids or fast-moving water.
Compared to other places I’ve done river floats, this section that you float on the American River isn’t usually very fast-moving.
Of course, that’s also dependent on water levels but, in general, from talking to people who have done the float every year, it’s usually a pretty slow-moving river.
There are two class I or class II rapids (depending on water levels) in the first half of the float.
The first one was a piece of cake but the second one was slightly scarier with a decent drop over a group of rocks.
Our group had a handful of floats that popped on both rapids, especially on the second one, which is why it’s always good to have an extra float or two or to bring a heavier duty inner tube.
Besides the two rapids, we’d sometimes come across small bumpy rapids where the water sped up and it got more shallow.
Someone in the group would yell “butts up!” and we passed over these spots within a few seconds.
There were a couple of sections where we got off the main current of the river and found ourselves going around in circles in the same spot.
This was probably due to us being such a large group (we had around a dozen or so inner tubes connected to one another).
It made me realize that having a paddle or two might be nice for future floats.
We mostly just got stuck after the second rapid when we were pushed to the far side of the river, but a paddle would also be nice to push off of rocks or avoid tree branches.
After the second rapid, it was a smooth ride the rest of the way.
We passed by some beaches and popular swimming spots. The river was crowded with a lot of floats but it never felt too packed and we only bumped into other floats a couple of times.
Along the way, there were also plenty of groups with water guns and water cannons to spray us with cold water, both from the beaches and from the water.
We passed by Mud Island, a fork in the river (you can take either path since both end in the same place), and eventually got out at William B. Pond Park right before we went under the bridge.
The full float took us around four hours to complete. I’ve heard it’s usually closer to three hours, but the river was a bit lower during our trip.
Even though it was in the high 90s F, it never felt too hot during the float since we were soaking in water in our tubes the whole day.
Honestly, by the time we got out at the bridge, it felt like I had just left a spa day, I was that relaxed after the float.
Section of the River: Lower American River
Where to Start: Sacramento Bar Park or Sunrise Boulevard river access point, just below Sunrise Boulevard Bridge. There are various parks along the route that you can start from but this is the most popular starting point and where we started our trip from.
Where to End: River Bend Park (aka Goethe Park) or William B. Pond Park, which is easy to spot since it’s underneath a bike path bridge that goes over the water (just get out before the bridge). If you rented tubes instead of bringing your own, you’ll probably be picked up from River Bend Park or Ancil Hoffman Park. You can expect the rental place to give you exact instructions though.
Note: If you’re looking for a slightly longer float, another popular route is starting at Hazel Avenue and ending at Gristmill Recreation Area. This adds another few miles to your trip.
Cost: $5 for parking
Miles: 6 miles
Duration: 3-4 hours (depending on water levels)
Rapids: San Juan Rapids and Arden Bar Rapids. These are class I & II rapids (depending on water levels).
American River Floating Map
Best Time to do an American River Float
The best time to go floating on the American River is in the summer when the weather is hot and water levels are at their best for lazy tubing.
Basically anytime between Memorial Day Weekend and Labor Day Weekend is a good bet.
We went tubing at the end of June but July and August are also popular times to float down the American River.
Just note that alcohol is prohibited on the river and the shoreline during Memorial Day Weekend, 4th of July, and Labor Day Weekend.
Renting vs Bringing Your Own Tube
For tubing down the American River, you can either BYOT (bring your own tube) or book a raft rental from one of the local river rafting companies.
Two of the most popular rental spots for this section of the American River are River Rat Rentals and American River Raft Rentals
There are a few pros and cons to both options.
Renting a Raft
Renting a raft can be nice for a lot of reasons.
You don’t have to worry about purchasing an expensive inner tube that you might only use once.
You can also pay a small fee to use their shuttle system ($8-$10) so you don’t have to worry about parking at both the start and end and you have access to free parking.
They also give you life jackets and paddles, which can be nice for people who aren’t strong swimmers or if you simply want more control over the direction you float.
You can also book rafts for up to 4-12 people, which can be a fun and cheaper way to float down the river as a group as opposed to all having your own inner tubes. You also don’t have to blow up the rafts yourself.
There are some downsides to renting though. The raft rentals are a bit overkill for this section of the river since they only rent you heavy-duty whitewater rafting-esque rafts.
This also means that you don’t get to soak in the water as you float like you would a traditional inner tube since the rafts are above the water.
Depending on the weather when you go, it can get hot fast if you’re not actually in the water for most of the float.
Raft rentals range from $65-$195 depending on the capacity of the raft you rent.
BYOT (Bring Your Own Tube)
This is the option we did and it was nice to have a little more freedom for the location we wanted to start and end at and what time we wanted to start our float.
Our group mostly bought inner tubes from Amazon for the trip.
Suneel and I got the Double River Run inner tube which was pretty affordable for the two of us and it included a cooler.
Since our group’s tubes weren’t as durable as the raft rentals, we had a few that popped when going over the rapids.
Luckily, we had plenty of extra space in some of our larger tubes so no one was left without a tube to hang out in.
However, durability is still something to keep in mind if you want to bring your own tube.
It was also ideal to soak in the water throughout the trip since we were all in our individual inner tubes with our butts in the water.
This wasn’t so great when we were going over shallow parts of the river, but as long as we put our butts up we were fine.
And finally, it just has a different feel to have your own space but to still all be connected in a big circle while floating down the river.
So, I’d say it really depends on what type of experience you’re looking for when it comes to rentals vs BYOT, but either option works well for a float down the American River.
What to Pack for a Float Down the American River
- Inner tube (if you’re not renting one)
- Hand or electric pump
- Rope and carabiners (to connect to each other)
- Bathing suit
- Plenty of Water
- Sun hat
- SPF Lip balm
- Inflatable cooler
- Sarong/lightweight towel
- Waterproof bluetooth speaker
- Water guns/water cannons
- Dry bag
- Water shoes
- Waterproof case for your phone
- Alcohol (just no glass)
- Optional: Paddle
- Optional: Extra inner tubes in case yours pops
- Optional: Life jacket
Tips for American River Tubing
- Check water levels ahead of time – It’s important to check water levels ahead of time to make sure the river isn’t too low or high when you float. This usually isn’t an issue in the summer, but it’s good to make sure water levels are 5,000 cfs or below if you want a leisurely float. And unless you want your float to take over 5 hours, I’d recommend going on a day when water levels are at least 1,800 cfs if not higher. The river was around 2,000 cfs the day we went and it took us 4 hours to do the full float, which was about an hour slower than usual. You can check current water levels for the Lower American River here.
- Plan where to park your cars – Unless you’re renting rafts and paying for a shuttle service, you should plan to have at least one car at the starting point and one car at the ending point of your route to make transportation a breeze.
- Don’t leave valuables in your car – There are known to be car break-ins sometimes at the parking areas along the river. Don’t leave valuables in your car or a bunch of stuff that someone might be tempted to go through. It’s also a good idea to leave any priceless valuables at home. We had two wedding rings that fell off in the river just in our group. It’s best not to take that chance and just leave those super valuable items at home.
- Make sure you have a sturdy enough tube for the small rapids – As I mentioned above, we had a few popped inner tubes on our trip. Make sure you bring a sturdy inner tube and maybe plan to disconnect before going over rapids if you’re connected to a large group. It’s also good to make sure your group has a couple of extra inner tubes or larger ones that can hold more people in case there are some pops on your trip.
- Go with a big group – Although I’m sure this trip would’ve been fun with a smaller group too, there’s nothing like enjoying a summer river float with a large group. It depends on what experience you’re after, but I enjoyed the fun party atmosphere of a large group while floating down the river. Even better if you bring water cannons so you can have a water fight with other groups.
- Don’t get too intoxicated – Speaking of party atmospheres, it’s fun to drink on the river but it’s still a good idea to not go too overboard. Water activities and drinking don’t always mix well and you’ll want to have your wits about you in case you flip or get separated from the group.
- Bring a dry bag that can hold everything you need – Everything gets wet when you’re on the river all day so it’s important to have a large enough dry bag to fit what you want to keep dry. Items like your car keys, wallet, phone, any snacks, and a sarong or lightweight towel, should all go in your dry bag. It’s not a bad idea to have a waterproof case for your phone as well since you’ll probably take it out periodically during the trip.
- Slather on the sunscreen and bring plenty of water – This goes without saying but Sacramento gets HOT. It was in the high 90s F when we did our trip. I put on a ton of sunscreen before hitting the water and reapplied throughout the float. I also covered up with a sarong halfway through because my skin gets sunburned even with sunscreen on sometimes. In terms of water, Suneel and I brought a half gallon of water each to stay hydrated in between a beer or two.
Where to Go White Water Rafting on the American River
If you’re looking for something more adventurous than lazy tubing, the American River is also one of the best places in California to go whitewater rafting.
There are three forks of the American River that are popular for whitewater rafting – the North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork.
You can expect Class III rapids for the South Fork, Class III-IV rapids for the Middle Fork, and Class IV-V for the North Fork of the American River.
The main American River rafting companies in the area to go with for a whitewater rafting trip are OARS, American Whitewater Expeditions, and Raft Wet.
Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state.
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