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Three Forks of Liquid Gold for Whitewater Prospectors

By Geoff Jennings

Photo courtesy of Beyond Limits Adventures, Inc./www.rivertrips.com

As a refugee of Texas and Southern California, the amount, variety and quality of whitewater rivers in Northern California continues to boggle my mind. Take a map and draw a three-hour driving circle around my Sacramento home and within that circle lies some of the world’s best and most abundant whitewater. Among this abundance, there are many gems, such as the canyons of the Yuba River.

Located just northeast of Sacramento and only a few hours from the Bay Area, the three veins of the Yuba – the north, south and middle forks – tumble down like whitewater gold through a large swatch of the Sierra’s west slope, from Interstate 80 north to Downieville and Highway 49/Yuba Pass, before meeting up and spilling into the Feather River.

Despite their proximity and relatively easy access, the forks of the Yuba get little publicity outside the dedicated paddling community. This is primarily because they drain the milder elevations of the north-central Sierra near Yuba and Donner passes, which makes for a shorter spring/early summer runoff window. And also because most sections of the Yuba cater to advanced paddlers, with the majority of its runs rated class IV or V.

But if you’re not an ace in the hole, or elsewhere in a kayak for that matter, don’t let that stop you from enjoying the Yuba’s Gold Country riches. There are a few stretches suitable for less experienced paddlers, or you can go with a commercial rafting outfitter on the rollicking North Fork – an excellent step up for those looking for an alternative to the popular South Fork American.

In addition to the whitewater action, Yuba River country is home to world-renowned mountain biking, as well as swimming holes and other outdoor diversions, as well as the tranquilo atmosphere of great towns like Nevada City and Downieville that mix an earthy, organic vibe with Western pioneer spirit. Stay a few days and soak it up between runs.

South Fork Yuba

The south fork of the Yuba starts near Donner Summit and closely parallels I-80 for the first few miles. The “Summit Run” doesn’t get paddled as much as the stuff downstream. But it is a raucous granite slide-and-drop filled class IV+ to V+ run, depending on portages. It closely follows the highway, so it’s not remote, but it’s still a scenic high-elevation run with some fun and challenging rapids. Recommended for experienced kayakers only, this is an early-season run controlled by snowmelt.

Downstream, the South Fork is commonly broken into four sections. Below a dam, these sections have unpredictable flows, with the best odds being during the spring runoff. Unfortunately, due to the lack of predictable flows, no commercial outfitters raft this section.

Washington to Edwards is a 14-mile class IV run with one portage. This run doesn’t get paddled a lot, but more boaters should put it on their to-do list. If it weren’t for the unpredictable flows coming out of Spaulding Reservoir, this might be one of the most popular runs in California. It offers quality rapids similar to the Tuolumne and is very scenic. From the put-in at the quaint old mining town of Washighton, six miles off Highway 20, the first 10 miles are pretty straightforward class III-IV. When you reach a rocky gorge, watch for the portage around a rocky 12-foot falls. The rapid below the drop is tough and should be portaged by all but the strongest paddlers. More entertaining rapids follow before you take out at Edwards Crossing.

Edwards to Purdens is a popular early-season run for local kayakers. The first time I did it, we were slipping on ice at the put-in. Not a good day for a swim, but I flipped in the first rapid, lost my paddle, and swam. Lucky for me, it got much better after that! This run is only 4 miles, making it perfect for short winter days, or running laps. It packs a lot of high quality rapids into its short length, with challenging rapids and some sticky holes at higher flows. It is similar in difficulty to the Chamberlain Falls section of the North Fork American. A few of the rapids have consequences,so paddlers should be comfortable on class IV whitewater. It’s gorgeous down there, so take your time and look around. There is a trail alongside the entire section, making it popular with hikers and nudists. Don’t be surprised if you drop into an eddy and see some bum!

Purdens to 49 starts where the last run leaves off. It’s difficult, with some solid class V rapids, but lacks the quality fun of the 49 to Bridgeport section downstream. It’s not nearly as popular and for a visiting paddler I’d probably recommend hitting the other sections first. That said, if you have paddled the rest and are looking for a challenge, it is worth consideration.

49 to Bridgeport is, in this writer’s opinion, the absolute gem of all the sections of the Yuba, and one of the best runs anywhere in California. But with a significant amount of difficult class V paddling, it’s certainly not for everyone. Choked with Sierra granite, the scenery is gorgeous. For the first mile or so, the paddling is fairly easy. Then the river steepens to gradients of 120 feet per mile. Sticky holes, tough moves and dramatic waterfalls combine in rapid sequence to make for a stout overall run. The first time I paddled it I was lucky to follow some solid locals who knew the run like a frequently traveled backroad. It was a fast moving day, and the rapids blurred together in a frenzy of tough moves, hair-raising horizon lines, and barely-made-it-upright escapes. Exciting, scary and fun all rolled into one. Although only 13 miles, expect a full day if you don’t have a guide, as many of the rapids are difficult to boat scout and will require you to pick your line from shore. It’s a must-do for strong paddlers in my book, and that of others apparently. On a nice spring day with good flows you can expect to see some of Nor Cal’s top boaters and visiting hot-shots at the put-in.

Middle Fork Yuba

The Middle Fork Yuba is very rarely run, but has two sections worth noting. Unfortunately, the middle fork is choked with dams, and diversions dewater most of the river to un-boatable levels much of the year. Many years, even during spring runoff, there is little water available. A shame, as these runs would both be valued additions to Nor Cal boaters with reliable or predictable water.

That said, catch them when you can, and your vigilance may be rewarded. The first run, Plumbago Crossing to Our House Dam, I’ve not paddled, but Bill Tuthill, on his excellent website California Creeks (www.cacreeks.com), says that except for a tough portage he would consider this an absolute classic, with an abundance of excellent Class IV. Given Bill’s resume of rivers run, I’ve added this run to my “hit list” for this spring’s runoff.

The section from Our House Dam to Highway 49 runs even less often, with an additional 600 cfs diverted from the flow. But in a big water year, you might be able to catch this run when the dam is spilling. Although an interesting run, it wouldn’t be high on my list, and is mostly something I’d recommend to locals looking for something different.

North Fork Yuba

With runs starting near Sierra City and passing through Downieville, the North Fork Yuba begins to take on much more of a Northern California feel. While the South and Middle forks feature a climate and scenery much like the American, Stanislaus and Tuolumne river drainages, the North Fork looks more like the far north runs in California, with abundant greenery, cold water, and dense vegetation.

Speaking from personal experience, you don’t want to swim on the North Fork. The bushwhacking here is tough, with poison oak, spiny blackberry vines and other prickly snags ensuring a slow and painful walk. Stay in the boat if at all possible.

Downieville is a scenic little town with a decent pizza place, River View Pizza, and a good breakfast spot for pre-run nourishment, C&J’s Downieville Diner. If camping, bring all your food, as the grocery store in town is spendy. Downieville is also a famous hotbed for mountain biking, so bring your bike to balance your wet/dry adventures.

The North Fork is the only stem of the Yuba that gets rafted commercially. There are three permitted outfitters offering 1-4 day trips on over 35 miles of class III to class V water: Beyond Limits Adventures (rivertrip.com, 800-234-RAFT), Tributary Whitewater Tours (whitewatertours.com, 800-672-3846) and Whitewater Voyages (whitewatervoyages.com, 800-400-7238).

Sierra City is the run upstream of Downieville. I’ve only done this run once, at almost double the recommended level, and I mostly remember a white-knuckle terror fest. At that flow there were few eddies to catch and the rapids were huge. Even at the normal levels of 1200 cfs and below, all accounts call this a solid class IV-V. It’s pretty continuous. Shortly before town, the flow will nearly double with the addition of the Downie River, which is itself a product of two classic creek runs, Lavezolla and Pauley creeks.

From Downieville to the Highway 49 bridge is a 13-mile stretch of water, mostly paralleled by the highway. Depending on where you put in, and what you choose to paddle versus portage, this section can be class III-Class V.

If you put in below the bridge in town, you’ll be running the Rossasco Ravine section, with brilliant Class IV rapids, and the best scenery on the North Fork. Most people will do at least one portage in here, though everything can be run.

However, putting in at Goodyears Bar is the most popular choice, and leaves nine miles of whitewater. This is the section run by commercial outfitters. Portage three times, and the run is a fun class III. Two rapids clock in at a solid class IV, and the remaining rapid, the aptly named Maytag, is a solid V. I paddled this rapid once in my playboat and it’s probably the longest I’ve ever travelled downstream completely submerged. A big green tongue leads into a huge hole. I thought I could skirt around the hole, but got pushed straight into it. Instead of getting stuck, I was pushed deep, and didn’t surface until much further downstream. Not really recommended! I’ve run it again in my creek boat with less drama, but shoulder my playboat here ever since.

The Yuba River drainages are gorgeous and offer fun, challenging whitewater that make for a great destination and an awesome resource for California paddlers. Each section has its own charms and challenges. But if you’re interested in experiencing the Yuba, don’t delay. By summer, the liquid gold in its canyons will be running thin and you’ll have to wait until next year to experience its whitewater riches.