Every spring in the Sierra Nevadas, snow begins its age-old search for sea level, raising the water levels of such California classics as the American, Tuolumne and Kern. Often helped by rains, it also raises the levels of these rivers’ headwaters and tributaries, many of which are attracting experienced boaters looking for the path less traveled.
Although the water level is lower on these creeks (anywhere from 150 to 500 cfs), the stakes are usually higher. Their gradient often exceeds 200 feet per mile, and ratings range from Class IV-V+, many with mandatory portages to boot. For the properly prepared, however, this high-gradient, low-volume creekin’ has added a wealth of new waterways to a state already saturated with paddling options.
Following is a sampler of a few creeks that have emerged as California classics in their own right. All of these runs, and many more, are documented in Lars Holbek and Chuck Stanley’s third edition guidebook, The Best Whitewater in California ($19.95, plus $2 shipping, Watershed Books, Box 63, Coloma, CA 95613; (530) 621-3154), which gives detailed information on everything from run length and portages to mile-by-mile gradient. Be forewarned, however, that they are for extremely experienced paddlers only; take their ratings and descriptions as a guide only and be ready for anything.
1. Brush Creek (Class IV, Avg. Gradient: 362 fpm)
A tributary of the Upper Kern, Brush Creek’s tall falls and lengthy slides will fulfill any creeker’s fantasies. Look forward to a two-hour ride down ramps, waterfalls and slots. Many clean vertical waterfalls and shallow slides pour out of a mini-gorge that can be seen from the access road on the way to the put-in. Two notable drops are so narrow that paddles must be lined up with the boat or they will either knock your teeth out or be left behind. Sound like a whitewater playground? It is. And it’s not just for the elite.
“As a forgiving Class IV, Brush Creek is a perfect introduction to steep creekin’,” explains Tom Moore, co-owner of Sierra South, a full service paddle shop in nearby Kernville. “Brush can be run during spring runoff and wet winter storms, but be cautious with water levels as the difficulty rating increases to Class V at flows over 200 cfs.”
To get to Brush Creek, follow Hwy 190 out of Kernville towards the Upper Kern. Just before the put-in of the Kern’s Limestone Run is the Sherman Pass road; drive up it a couple miles to the Brush Creek heli-pad, a large pullout on the right side of the road. Just beyond this heli-pad is a dirt road where you can drive down to the river. A word of warning: the put-in requires boating through a trashy tunnel of brush to reach the goods. To avoid the worst of the brush that is this creek’s namesake, most boaters park at the heli-pad and hike down a 400-yard trail to the sweet spot in the canyon. Take out at Hwy 190 or zip out into the mainstream of the Kern and finish with the last half of the Limestone run.
2. Dry Meadow Creek (Class V+, Avg. Gradient: 400 fpm)
Possibly one of the most memorable creeks so far discovered in California, Dry Meadow is stitched with a series of waterfalls plunging into perfectly polished potholes drilled into the granite over the course of time. Down in the crease of this drainage, paddlers drip from the rim of each pothole into the next. If there’s heaven on earth, or tea cups in America, this is it.
As sweet as it sounds, running Dry Meadow Creek is an epic adventure that involves a myriad of skills that far surpass the requirements of most creek runs. Nestled in the crotch of a smooth, water-sculpted canyon, portaging on this creek is both amazingly arduous and mandatory. Be as skilled at smearing up a slippery friction climb with your kayak in one hand as you are at running 20-foot waterfalls, because that is precisely what you’ll find down there in that dreamy canyon.
Moore warns, “The drops are easy to scout from the top of the gorge, but once you’re in there, you’re committed. You need to remember where the moves are because the drops are blind at river level. Definitely go with someone who’s familiar with the run.”
The grand finale of Dry Meadow Creek involves a mandatory portage around a potentially fatal falls before merging with the last mile of the famous Forks of the Kern run. Once on the Forks of the Kern, be ready for a contrasting wake-up call with respectable water flows lapping at your sprayskirt and the adrenaline-pumping Carson Falls lurking right around the corner from the confluence.
To get to the put-in from Kernville, take Hwy 190 upstream, across the Johnsondale bridge to Lloyd Meadow Road. About five miles along this road is the headwaters of the Dry Meadow Creek drainage. Put in at the road and bash your way through a few miles of Class V bushes to reach the most divine notch the Sierra’s have to offer. Because permits are required to run the Forks of the Kern, boaters coming out of Dry Meadow Creek are responsible for obtaining the proper permit from the U.S. Forest Service in Kernville. Take out at the Johnsondale Bridge. Since the run involves such an effort, Moore advises on planning a full day out on the creek, just in case things don’t go as planned.
3. Sespe Creek (Class V, Avg. Gradient: 78 fpm)
Drive an hour-and-a-half north from L.A. and contrast the clamor of the city with the remoteness of Sespe Creek. A 35-mile run, the Sespe winds through the scenic and secluded Sespe Wilderness Area and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, home to 17 endangered condors.
The relatively benign average gradient of the Sespe needs some explanation before luring paddlers into thinking the run is flat and, therefore, less demanding. From the put-in at Lion Campground off Hwy 33 near the town of Ojai, day one of the Sespe slips along a mellow course through many Class II-III rapids, intermingled with an occasional IV, before turning south at Alder Creek where the action begins. From this point, most likely into day two, the river plunges down the canyon to the take out, with the steepest mile (191 fpm) occurring near the end of the run. In between Alder Creek and the take out at the Hwy 126 bridge lies a multitude of Class IV-V rapids too numerous to count.
Also too numerous to count are the portages on this trip. One portage in particular, about half-way between Alder Creek and the take out, has a reputation of lasting hours and requiring ropes (although some have managed to cut this down to a 30-minute ordeal). As a warning to this portage-fest, massive purple boulders lay jumbled at river level just below Tar Creek, one of the many places along the Sespe that has natural petroleum oozing out of the ground. Undercut boulders, wicked sieves and logs constitute the other 10 to 15 portages on this run. Since house-sized boulders obscure the view when eddy scouting, Southern California boater Preston Holmes advises, “Approach [the Sespe] as if it were a first descent.”
But don’t let the walking outweigh the advantages. The Sespe is truly a one-of-a-kind experience; the allure of condors, seeping springs of natural tar, and the Sespe’s winding course through enormous purple boulders create a surrealistic scene hard to duplicate. It’s hard to imagine that a three-day wilderness trip through one of the most inaccessible areas of the state lies so near L.A.
4. South Fork of the Merced (Class V, Avg. Gradient: 110 fpm)
Known for its long, silvery slides, the South Fork of the Merced dives 2,500 feet over 24 isolated miles. Due to its remoteness and length, between the pine thickets of Yosemite National Park and the old oaks of the Sierra foothills, the South Merced is a commitment not easily broken. Expect an enticing wilderness endeavor laced with excellent whitewater and unspoiled scenery. Although the South Merced has been paddled in one long, tiring day, it is usually tackled as a self-supported overnight.
In contrast to other California creeks, the South Merced has a larger river channel that allows boaters to paddle on juicier flows. Darrin O’Connor, a guide on the Tuolumne River and Class V kayaker, explains, “I’ve run it as low as 400 cfs and at that flow some of the runnable drops became portages. The whole run has been linked, with no portages, at optimum flows, which would be somewhere between 700 and 900 cfs.”
From the tiny town of Wawona, under the shade of Yosemite’s giant trees, leave behind the clamor of Hwy 41 and enter into a private world of Class V boating. When the river bends to the west, be ready to encounter an invigorating gorge that keeps you and the water moving in a downward spiral. Besides some sheer vertical drops and the typical Class V turbulence, there are three noteworthy slides on this run; the largest has been dubbed “Super Slide” for its resemblance to an amusement park ride.
After spending all of your concentration and adrenaline on the first 15 miles, look forward to a relatively relaxing float on the remaining seven miles of Class III-IV whitewater. If trouble spoils your day in the canyon, look for a hiking trail that runs high above river-right for an escape route, otherwise take out at the confluence of the South Fork and the Main Fork of the Merced on Rte 140. You can even look forward to the shuttle; the drive winds through a portion of Yosemite Valley and under the looming heights of the Park’s rocky precipices.
5. Silver Fork of the South Fork of the American
A side creek flowing into the upper reaches of the South Fork of the American, the busy Silver Fork charges through an unspoiled gap filled with huge Incense Cedars and Jeffery Pines. At river level, where bedrock is exposed, the canyon gets steep and forms several mini-gorges that make the boating lively and portaging rigorous. Choose a swathe of water in this canyon to find a run that suits your tastes.
6. Upper Run (Class V, Avg. Gradient: 191 fpm)
If the Upper is on your agenda, expect a fun, bouncy ride through technical rapids and over drops and slides. Many paddlers devise their own runs on the Upper by hiking down to various sections of the creek and taking out at the bridge upstream from the Forest Service campground. To link the run, put in at the uppermost bridge and paddle down to the Forest Service amphitheater. Even though this run is only a few miles long, be prepared for a long day on the river with lots of rapids and scouting. Look for flows in the 150-500 cfs range.
7. Lower Run (Class V+, Avg. Gradient: 236 fpm)
Scamper your way through a survey of creek features: slides, waterfalls and boulder choked cascades. With gradient that compares to that of a ski hill, the attitude of the Lower is more feisty and less forgiving than the Upper. Phil Boyer, a kayak videographer and local boater from South Lake Tahoe, estimates that optimum flows for the Lower are in the 400-500 cfs range. “Any more water than that and the creek gets a little pushy,” he says. “It can also be run at low flows, around 150 cfs, just expect more portages. It’s bony but definitely still worth doing.”
After the put-in at the campground just downstream of the Forest Service amphitheater, the canyon splits away from the road and marches into a wilderness canyon; don’t expect an easy bail out when you get to the second mile of the run, where the gradient dives away at 400 feet per mile. Take out three miles downstream from the put-in, just past the Silver Fork Cafe on the South Fork of the American.
Though a quality section of water, both runs on the Silver Fork are dangerous. The Upper run contains a few hideous rock sieves that require portaging. The first is visible from the bridge at the put-in and the second occurs about three-quarters of the way down. Take a long, hard look at all the drops at low water so you can see where the deadly potholes, sieves and strainers are.
The Lower has the usual Class V+ problems. Look for at least two portages on this run. The first lies at the entrance of a gorge about a third of a mile into the run and the second is right in the core of the run. Take each drop one by one with caution or walk the whole intimidating deal, high on the right bank. The last big drop in this cluster has been run, but is notorious for breaking boats and ankles.
To get to the Silver Fork from the town of Kyburz on Hwy 50, follow the paved Silver Fork road about three miles to a Forest Service parking lot, just past a campground. From here, commit yourself to the solitude and turmoil of the Lower Run or continue upstream to the Upper Silver Fork. Check with Kayak Tahoe in nearby South Lake Tahoe for the latest local reports.
8. Pauley Creek (Class IV+, Avg. Gradient: 146 fpm)
Put the glare of the Sierra’s gray granite in your rearview mirror and travel north to Downieville. Snuggled along the banks of the North Fork of the Yuba, Downieville is truly a boater’s dream town with quality whitewater in all directions. Gurgling out of the back 40 and right through the center of town is the Downie River, the mainspring of two creeks big on gradient.
Pauley Creek, the more popular of the two, leads you on a three-hour tour through a shady, moss-coated canyon. Pauley has carved a route so deep that, when boating through it, you feel like you’ve been swallowed up by the earth, squeezed down the esophagus, digested and finally passed through to the exit. While in the bowels of this run, boof your way over a few drops in the eight- to 10-foot range and one squeaky clean 17-footer that flops into a dark, calm pool. At high water, this waterfall turns into a monstrous ledge hole, with a decent portage on the left–Gold Country creekin’ at its finest!
At the only intersection in Downieville, take Main Street along the banks of the Downie River. Cross the bridge and leave the take out vehicle at the Pauley Falls public parking area next to the public utility building. Continue up the road to a trailhead called Second Divide. Hike up the trail until you find a suitable spot for thrashing down to the water. Boating from the Second Divide to Pauley Falls should take three to four hours, including scouting, in flows around the 200-400 cfs range. It’s possible to tack on extra length to this creek by using the Third Divide trail, further up the road.
9. Lavezzola Creek (Class IV+, Avg. Gradient: 121 fpm)
As Pauley Creek’s next-door neighbor, Lavezzola sports the same features in scenery, yet differs in its whitewater character. In contrast to Pauley’s more straightforward personality, Lavezzola wears a more technical face with boulders in the channel and decisions to make. This doesn’t mean the creek isn’t steep; it just requires more maneuvering. The most interesting section comes just before the confluence with the Downie River about three-quarters of the way into the run. Here, the creek confines and leads to an eight-foot-high crack-in-the-rock drop just wide enough to fit most kayaks at low water. Other hazards include partially submerged bridge debris in the middle, a log-clustered landslide at the end, and interesting characters living off the land anywhere in between.
From Downieville, follow directions to Pauley Falls. Continue up Main Street, past the Second Divide at Pauley Creek. Not far beyond the put-in for Pauley, the road drops into the next canyon and crosses Lavezzola Creek. Put in at the bridge or about a mile further up at the Third Divide trailhead. Taking on this extra mile or so adds some classic creekin’ to this run with a series of bedrock ledges and interesting boulder hopping. Use the same take out at Pauley Falls, near the outskirts of town. A tranquil community, where the elevation exceeds the population, Downieville is still in the throws of gold discovery. There is not much of a local boating population and those coming into town drinking micro brews, looking for lattes and wearing polypro stick out like cowboys in a discotheque. Also, because the river still bears gold, the locals are especially protective of their private land and access points; please respect their rights.
10. Slate Creek (Class V+, Avg. Gradient: 215 fpm)
Just north of Shasta Lake and squeezed between the cleavage of Mt. Shasta and the Trinity Alps, Slate Creek drives its way through a volcanic landscape, a scene much different than the runs in the Sierras. Dark and lush, like the creeks near Downieville, Slate takes you on an action-packed ride through nearly every type of creekin’ characteristic: steep boulder gardens, bedrock boofs and vertical falls–roughly in that order. The first mile-and-a-half bubbles through many steep, technical, boulder-choked rapids, followed by a mile of Class IV-V bedrock drops which lead to the crux: a Class V+ rapid that can be portaged on the left bank. Shortly after the Class V+ comes another highlight of the trip: 17-foot Black Jack Falls. Unlike Pauley Creek’s straightforward 17-footer, Black Jack has a tricky entry and a Class III-IV run-out.
While Slate Creek may sound like utopia to creekers, it is not flawless. The drainage doesn’t service snow melt terrain and the window for favorable flows is unpredictable and flashy; most of the time it’s too low and a lot of the time it’s too high. Michael Kirwin, owner of Osprey Outdoors Kayak School in Mt. Shasta, warns, “If the ground is saturated and it’s still raining, stay out of there–it’s a very serious creek…always moving and there’s always rapids. Too much water would make this creek very dangerous.” Kirwin estimates that optimum flow falls between the 200-400 cfs range and advises to scout any blind drops or corners because simple Class III can quickly usher you into Class V. Also, because the area is heavily forested, new log jams can develop at any time.
To reach the put-in, travel on Interstate 5, just north of Shasta Lake, and take the La Moine exit and drive up Slate Creek Rd. about four miles. Put in at the first bridge that crosses Slate Creek. The only legal take out is reached by merging with the Sacramento and taking out a few hundred yards downstream from the confluence. Any other take-out requires trespassing through private property. This also holds true for the entire run; once on the creek, stay there and mind your own business. Because of the random flows, Slate Creek is not a trip that can be planned for. Instead of making it a destination, make it an added bonus to the must-do runs in the area: The Upper Sacramento’s Box Canyon, Burnt Ranch Gorge on the Trinity, the Salmon, and many more. Be sure to stop in at North Country Canoe and Kayak in Redding for some local input on what’s flowing.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.