The 120-mile-long American River courses from the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to its confluence with the Sacramento River just west of Rancho Cordova. Nearly 6 miles of this scenic river flow along the northern edge of Rancho Cordova, providing a wealth of recreational opportunities from rafting and fishing to biking and running along the waterway.
Here are the best ways to get on the water and enjoy the beauty of the American River during a trip to Rancho Cordova.
American River Fishing
The American River holds acclaim as one of California’s premier fisheries. Opportunities for year-round fly fishing on the Lower American River abound—migrating steelhead, American shad, striped bass, and Chinook salmon all come through at different times of the year. Spawning salmon and steelhead arrive on the upper portion of the river near the Nimbus Dam at Lake Natoma and draw in fishing fanatics every autumn.
Meanwhile, the river section downstream of Watt Avenue is a hotspot for big stripers that can weigh up to 20 pounds. Public access in many spots along the river’s south shore offer parking lots and boat ramps. Be sure to check the California Department of Fish & Wildlife for local fishing regulations and permits before heading out.
Swimming in the American River
During northern California’s warmer months—which are plentiful—going for a swim on the American River becomes a favorite pastime in Rancho Cordova. Head to either the upper or lower portion of Sunrise Recreation Area for excellent beaches, picnic facilities, and nature walks. Visitors can reach the park by bike on the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail, while several paid parking lots in both the upper and lower areas also provide access for swimming.
In addition to great amenities like a dog park, sports fields, picnic areas, and playgrounds, the Hagan Community Park provides another convenient place to swim in the American River. Pebbled shorelines with small stretches of sand are great for taking a dip and enjoying the sun at Hagan.
Self-Guided Float Trips
Getting on the water with a leisurely float trip is hands-down one of the best ways to experience the Lower American River in Rancho Cordova. Start at the popular boat launch at Lower Sunrise Recreation Area and drift on Class I and II ripples through the scenic American River Parkway to River Bend Park (about two hours total). Bring your own rafts and paddles or rent everything you need from Rancho Cordova’s American River Raft Rentals, which provides rafts and gear at their riverside park near the put-in. American River Raft Rentals offers rafts for four to 12 people and shuttle bus services to get you back to your car at the end of your float trip. They take reservations, which are highly recommended on weekends and holidays.
The American River Parkway Foundation, Visit Rancho Cordova, and Sacramento County have joined together for a new project to preserve and promote this same 6.2-mile stretch of river by designating it as the American River Water Trail. The project would earn the Lower Sacramento River recreational stretch recognition through the National Water Trails System. This scenic section of the river is lined by forests and offers an excellent chance to see wildlife, including mule deer, coyotes, river otters, and great blue heron.
Kayaking the American River
The Class I and II ripples on the Lower American River provide an ideal waterway for beginning river kayakers. Flowing right alongside Rancho Cordova, this stretch offers convenient put-in and take-out access for short jaunts down the river and plenty of calm-water sections to help new paddlers get comfortable on the river. American River Raft Rentals offers single- and double-person kayaks plus paddles and life vests if you don’t have your own.
The American River boasts a wealth of whitewater rafting opportunities. The uber-classic Middle Fork of the American rafting run starts about 50 miles northeast of Rancho Cordova near the town of Foresthill. This beautiful 16-mile stretch through the lush river canyon features Class III to IV+ rapids—including the infamous Tunnel Chute rapid coursing through a 90-foot rock tunnel – along with abundant wildlife and bird-spotting opportunities, vibrant gold rush history, and peaceful camping spots on the riverbanks.
Several rafting companies offer guided one-day and multi-day trips down the Middle Fork in spring and summer. Meanwhile, experienced river runners with their own rafts or whitewater kayaks can take private trips down this dam-controlled stretch as well (permits are required for overnight camping).
American River Running and Biking Trails
Greenspaces all along the American River corridor through Rancho Cordova create an ideal setting for walking, biking, and running by the water. The American River Parkway’s Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail runs 32 miles along the river from Folsom, through Rancho Cordova, and into Old Town Sacramento. This paved, multi-use trail includes gravel shoulders for those who prefer not to run or bike on the pavement.
Cyclists and runners can also check out the Two Rivers Trail, which follows along the south shore of the Lower American River. Starting just west of Rancho Cordova and reaching to the confluence with the Sacramento River, this pathway for running, walking, and biking is mostly paved with a few gravel stretches that the city plans to have paved in 2019. It’s also a great spot for birders, as you’re likely to see a wide variety of species from the trail.
After a day on the water, you’ll find plenty of other things to do in Rancho Cordova, with lots of lodging options, a thriving dining scene, and breweries and wineries where you can recount your adventures. See for yourself why the American River has become such a popular destination for a weekend getaway.
Written by Jenna Herzog for Matcha in partnership with Rancho Cordova and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Edited by Visit Rancho Cordova staff. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.