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From rafting the American River to boating on Folsom Lake to kayaking the crystal-blue waters of Lake Tahoe, Placer County hosts an extraordinary abundance of water adventures. The variety of water activities one can find in this beautiful slice of California has become one of my favorite parts of calling this place home come springtime. Here is one local’s overview of the best rivers and lakes throughout the county, with my recommendations for the best experiences to have at each.
Situated along the Bear River a few miles north of the Placer County hamlet of Colfax, Rollins Lake offers a quiet spot for getting on the water. Fewer crowds than Lake Tahoe and a long season thanks to its low elevation make Rollins Lake ideal for a no-fuss weekend of boating, fishing, swimming, paddling, and camping. With four campgrounds along the lake’s 26-mile shore and a convenient boat rental offering pontoons, speedboats, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), Rollins Lake is an easy place for families to show up and worry about nothing else but having fun on the water.
Folsom Lake State Recreation Area boasts just about everything I’m looking for in a fun summer outing, both on and off the water—swimming, boating, fishing, camping, hiking, and biking are all here. Fishers can cast a line for trout, catfish, perch, and bass. Boat ramps around the lake and the full-amenity marina at Brown’s Ravine make it easy to launch and dock your boat—or simply rent a ready-to-use pontoon from Granite Bay Rentals. For an overnight stay, take advantage of the chance to experience one of my absolute favorite ways to camp: aboard the boat at one of Folsom Lake’s designated overnight mooring areas (registration required).
It’s impossible to talk about getting on the water in Placer County without mentioning the sparkling blue gem that is Lake Tahoe. Relaxing on the beach with picturesque views of snow-capped mountains in all directions, boating or paddling on the crystal-clear water, and braving a chilly swim define the Lake Tahoe experience. Some of my favorite North Lake Tahoe beaches in Placer County include Kings Beach State Recreation Area, Carnelian Bay Beach, and Commons Beach in Tahoe City. My top recommended experiences: take a stand-up paddleboard lesson with the friendly pros at Waterman’s Landing in Carnelian Bay, valet your boat and grab a sunset dinner at Gar Woods Grill & Pier, and wrap up the day on the water by catching one of the free summer concerts at Commons Beach every Sunday.
This Auburn State Recreation Area stretches from Auburn to Colfax for 20 miles, encompassing Lake Clementine and some of the most scenic portions of the North and Middle Forks of the American River. Locals and visitors alike flock to the numerous swimming holes in seasonal calm-water sections of the river. For the full gold country experience, try your luck panning for gold in the Middle or North Fork. Meanwhile, calm Lake Clementine features a swimming beach, boat ramp, boat-in campsites, and a marina. For off the water activities, I’m a huge fan of the plentiful hiking trails through the hills—California golden poppies included.
Flowing through a truly stunning forested canyon, the Middle Fork of the American River is best known for one thing: whitewater rafting. Commercially guided trips available through several outfitters to take rafters down this glorious stretch of river. The rapids on this river are mostly intermediate, making it a favorite run for experienced private rafters and whitewater kayakers along with guided trips. In my book, the Middle Fork offers one of the best rafting trips in the West for its near-perfect balance of excitement, accessibility, and natural beauty.
The North Fork of the American River, officially recognized as a national Wild & Scenic River, echoes the natural beauty of the Middle Fork but in the form of a wilder cousin. Coursing its full 38 miles without a single dam, the North Fork boasts rowdy class IV and V rapids for experienced whitewater rafters and kayakers on private or commercial trips. Fortunately, this wilderness canyon isn’t only for adrenaline-pumping adventure, as the scenic North Fork Campground in Tahoe National Forest near Emigrant Gap offers fishing and a great swimming hole.
Coursing 121 miles from Pyramid Lake in Nevada to its outlet at Lake Tahoe near Tahoe City, the Truckee River hosts a wealth of water activities. The Truckee River holds the acclaim as a world-class fly fishing destination, with wild populations of brown and rainbow trout along with smaller numbers of cutthroat and whitefish. The section of the river in Placer County—flowing south of I-80 and along CA-89 to Lake Tahoe—is a classic spot for a leisurely raft or float trip on the waterway’s gentle ripples. Several outfitters, like Truckee River Rafting Co., rent tubes and rafts for self-guided jaunts down the river. My friends and I like to make a full day out of it by stopping at riverside restaurants along the way.
Jenna Herzog is a freelance travel and outdoors writer who first moved to Placer County in 2015. Since then she’s fallen in love with the region’s climbing, hiking, rafting, and biking, as well as the unexpected gems of the local culture and foodie scene.
Written by Jenna Herzog for Matcha in partnership with Visit Placer County.
Featured image provided by Photo: Erik Bergen, Placer County