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The American River is divided into the North, Middle, and South forks that comprise of recreational havens for well over one million visitors per year in Placer County, El Dorado, and Sacramento counties in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range of Northern California.
The North Fork begins at an elevation of 8000 feet (2400 m) near Lake Tahoe in Placer County at the snowcapped crest of the Sierras. The North Fork originates at or near 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. The North Fork features scenic multi-use trails along forested ridgetops and riparian corridors. It flows freely as a federally eligible Wild & Scenic River until a small debris dam, Clementine, immediately north of the Foresthill Bridge and prior to the confluence with the Middle Fork at Auburn, California. Both the North Fork and Middle Fork feature archaeological and historic sites of ancient American Indian culture and 1850s Gold Rush habitation.
While the Middle Fork originates near the source of the North Fork but on the south face of Granite Chief, between the summit and Emigrant Pass, it is characterized by somewhat broader steep canyons interspersed with manmade 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. The Middle Fork features the Western States Trail, which hosts multiple annual endurance events, including the prestigious 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. From the confluence at Auburn, the combined North and Middle Forks river flows at an elevation of 600 feet (200 m) in a forested canyon 800 feet (240 m) deep and is called the North Fork. It meanders through additional wilderness recreational canyons past the site of the abandoned Auburn Dam, and back into wilderness, onward to where it meets the South Fork at Folsom Lake.
The South Fork originates at Echo Summit near Echo Lake south of Lake Tahoe in El Dorado County, just south of where Highway 50 makes a sharp curve northward to descend into Tahoe Valley. The South Fork also has multi-use recreational areas, including the Rubicon Trail for motorized adventuring and whitewater rafting venues. The South Fork also features Coloma, the site where gold was discovered in California in 1848. Recreational gold panning is a popular family activity. 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.
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 23 miles (37 km) from Folsom Lake to the river's confluence with the Sacramento River.