The American River is born along the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Fed by melting snow, rivulets of water trickle from the crevices of giant granite boulders, and begin their journey westward toward the distant sea. Joining, they grow stronger–become stream–become creek–flowing westward through arroyos shaded by manzanita and sugar pine.
By the time they reach the foothills of the Sierra, the three main tributaries have formed one exuberant artery that carries the lifeblood of water to the Sacramento Valley below.
The North Fork is the river’s wildest child–a whitewater torrent that is seldom still, and those who test its treacherous currents do so at their peril.
The Middle Fork rushes through rocky canyons and slides around glacier-gouged boulders, a powerful flood of liquid crystal bent on getting home.
The South Fork is the most sanguine of the three, a welcoming stream that meanders through low hills and past meadows filled with wild oats and golden poppies.
The three branches—North, Middle and South—come together east of the Capitol city before making confluence with the Sacramento River.
It was on the South Fork of the American River near Coloma, California, that James Marshall found several flakes of gold scattered in the gravel near a sawmill owned by John Sutter. It was January 1848, and Sutter’s mill became the axis of the biggest gold rush in U.S. history. Between 1848 and 1855, more than 300,000 people came to California to seek their fortunes.