This is a major river in the Sierra Nevada landscape, as well as in the Gold Rush history of California. Many mining camps, railways, old abandon mines, dirt roads, hiking trails, mountain biking routes, waterfalls and even ancient artifacts can be found on the back roads. The native tribes once heavily populated these river canyons since the location is ideal, half way between the big mountains and the sunny warm valley.
North fork of American River drains most of the Donner Pass region, all along Interstate 80. Indian Creek is a feeder stream coming from Sugar Pine Reservoir. No large reservoirs exist along this American North Fork, although there is a wide section of the river, above Auburn, called the North Fork Lake.
Middle fork of American River comes down from the Granite Cheif Wilderness, next to Lake Tahoe; Foresthill (3225′ elev) is a small mountain community w/ a ranger station; French Meadows Reservoir is way back in there, toward the highest peaks @ 9000′ elevation.
South fork of American River parallels the State Highway 50, which connects Placerville to Lake Tahoe via the Kyburz Pass. Union Valley Reservoir and Ice House Reservoir make up this part of the drainage for abundant snow melt.
The north and middle flows of this river join in Auburn, near the freway @ I-80. The south fork joins the rest downhill in the Central Valley, at Folsom Lake, NW of Sacramento, CA
Auburn Lodging near the American River with numerous unique overnight options closeby. Colfax, the rail-town up the interstate, also has small motels and inns, most are freeway close. Foresthill is a residential area near the Middle Fork of the American River. Placerville, on the South Fork has more hotel choices.
A nice surprise for visitors to Mount Whitney region when they happen upon the Alabama Hills. The cool boulder field lies at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range – next to the town of Lone Pine, on the way up to Whitney Portal.
The infamous area features a drive named “Movie Road” – with historical spots for filming old westerns & cowboy movies. Plenty of television commercials & videos have been filmed here as well. Relatively close to Los Angeles and SoCal.
high desert: elevation 5354′
From the Mojave desert, take Hwy.395 North to the small town of Lone Pine . At the only traffic light in town; turn left up Mt Whitney Portal Road; continue up to boulders. MOVIE ROAD, right turn to start exploring. Mant graded dirt roads and areas to park vehicles.
One of the largest rivers on the Central Coast of California, close to 100 miles long. You can find this river name spelled with “I” as well as “Y” on various maps featuring Santa Barbara. The smaller river “Inez” begins w/ the upper reservoirs, deep in Los Padres National Forest. After leaving Lake Cachuma heading westward, the name turns into the bigger “Santa Ynez” river. Agricultural farmlands, wineries, horse pastures, all the way to Lompoc.
Everyone knows this area as Lake Cachuma, in the mountains
behind Santa Barbara. This fire-prone mountain range parallels the palm tree lined coastal villages, along the scenic coastline of California. North of Ventura, Ojai and Los Angeles.
Indian Creek and Mono Creek drain the Dick Smith Wilderness Area, from the east, in Los Padres National Forest. Jameson Lake (2224′ elev) is a small reservoir where this river starts to come together. Downstream Agua Caliente Hot Springs flows, west to join Gibraltar Reservoir (1399′ elev). Then another 10 miles or so to meet w/ larger Lake Cachuma. The large river continues thru Santa Ynez Valley, on to Lompoc and empties into the sea around Vandenburg.
Ocean Beach sits in pristine isolation steps from engaging and beautiful shoreline, where the Santa Ynez River meets the sea. Bird-watchers and nature photographers love this spot. Beach access is closed to the public annually, from March – September due to bird (snowy plover) nesting season. Fishing is not allowed. Also known as “Surf Beach” and a well known coast for shark attacks.
Hiking is a popular recreation around this whole wine country region; Campgrounds are generally open all year long. Summers can be hot, winters are usually wet. Wildflowers bloom March-May.
Santa Ynez Recreation Area
Campgrounds near this River
Camps in this list are managed by Santa Barbara County, USFS and privately owned campgrounds
Gibraltar & Agua Caliente (access road #5N15 closed due to landslide; hike-in access only)
Dry SoCal terrain means that this river may be ‘seasonal’ – down to a trickle in drought years, or free flowing and wide during a good winter. Spring and winter storms can bring dangerous conditions and high water flowing over the paved roadways is possible. Authorities may close roads at any time depending on rainfall and river height. Check the weather forecast and know what to expect, cuz it’s a dead end canyon way back in here.
PARADISE ROAD: The is a main access road to numerous campgrounds, w/ hiking, biking and horseback trailheads and OHV routes all accessible. The canyon wide river bed is strewn will bowling ball sized boulders and wading pools may be found.
Off Roading OHV Trailhead
Buckhorn OHV, near Upper Oso
Indian Creek Camuesa OHV, near Mono Campground
Divided Peak OHV, on Camino Cielo East
Davy Brown OHV, Figueroa Mountain
CAMINO CIELO A popular paved, ridge route drive of Santa Barbara (coastline views) with junction at Highway 154.
Camino Cielo East (Rd#51N12), goes southeast to great viewpoints over the epic coast. Channel Islands usually seen on the ocean horizon. Road become dirt & sudden switchback into mountains is quite steep. SUV or high clearance vehicle may be needed; and possible 4×4 in wet weather.
[CLOSED DUE TO LANDSLIDE 2019] The dead-end route leads down to the Gibraltar Dam (#5N15), several camp sites and a remote hot springs (which may or may not be operational)
Camino Cielo West, turns northwest off the highway. Nice viewpoints over Lake Cachuma. Boulders and coves, a party spot for locals kids. Paved road quickly become dirt turns into steep mountains w/ off roading opportunities. OHV trails not well marked w/ signs, so drive slow until you know the terrain. 4×4 may be needed. Mountain bikers and hikers also use this route, so pass with caution.
Los Padres Forest Headquarters Goleta CA
Edison Lake, Florence Lake, Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake Kaiser Wilderness, Sierra National Forest
The San Joaquin watershed begins way up in the High Sierra, Ansel Adams Wilderness to be exact. Eastern Sierra ranges, up behind Mammoth Mountain peaks called The Minarets, the snow drains westward. Far from the San Joaquin Valley, way above Fresno, CA
Sierra Forest Road #80 is Kaiser Pass Rd. Starting next to China Peak Ski Resort (formerly Sierra Summit) Take the right turn, near Huntington Lake. Kaiser Pass Road is a paved back country road climbing steeply up into the high country.
Sierra National Forest Headquarters
1600 Tollhouse Road
Clovis, CA 93611
WINTER ACCESS: Kaiser Pass is one of the few areas to enjoy snowmobiling trails and hot spring soaking. The distance to the springs is about 25 miles, one way and requires either cross country skis, snow shoes or snow mobile to reach.
SNO MO RENTALS: Snow depth is usually best after the first of the year and last through April. The round trip hot springs (self-guided) excursion can be done w/ a half day rental, but only if you follow some guidelines: Reserve machine @ Rancheria Enterprises, way ahead of time; Pack a lunch and snacks. Arrive early, gear up, get instructions and have a topo map; Be on the trail and traveling, not stopping on side routes, or play in the meadow or sightsee.
Narrow route continues on passing the meadow and goes for many miles. Trail traverses some steep terrain, with curves and cliffs, especially coming down hill to the river & green metal bridge. Parking spot is before bridge on left side. Hike a short distance, across marshy hillside to reach the 2 primitive hot tubs.
Due east of Bakersfield, CA the Kern Canyon’s massive rock opens to the west with big water. CA 178 Narrow 2-lane highway, lined by tall rock walls, cliffs, curves, few pull-outs and less guardrails. Geologically, the drive is impressive entering the canyon.
A large sign with death toll looms at the entrance, warning you to stay out and stay alive.
The Kern River is a southern flow, draining much of the southern mountains in the Sierra Nevada, including much Mount Whitney snow melt. Lake Isabella redirects the river westward to the Central Valley, so farmers can grow orchards of fruit. Citrus blossom fragrance fills the air on warm evenings, so be prepared to roll down the windows as you exit suburbia.
Kern County: Southern Sierra Nevada mountains river canyon, this prized recreation destination is the main attraction for the entire county. Lake levels at Isabella are often low, so know before you go w/ the Dam Task Force web page link and info.
The few oak & pines trees around this river may be the only shade you will find in the summer on the southern end, and this place can get triple digit hot in summer months (so be forewarned). A refreshing dip in the cool Kern River is what you really seek, but this is a real river, a fast river, a dangerous white water river – so take extreme precautions around this river w/ life jackets. Hundreds have died already, as the sign tells us so. Rafters consider whitewater rating a Class V, for most of the lower Kern section.
Upper Kern: Main fork of the Kern River is situated along the Rincon Fault line, which become the granite gorge of Kern River Canyon further north; the initial snowmelt and headwaters are located deep in backcountry of the Golden Trout Wilderness. All draining the backside of Mount Whitney and the Great Western Divide.
This larger, main river fork parallels the Sierra Hwy north of Kernville, CA with many miles of epic scenery. Plenty of camping for all types, fishing, tubing, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking and backpackers trailheads.
South fork of the Kern River begins up in the Golden Trout Wilderness. Tulare County. Eastern Sierra @ Olancha Peak. Monache Meadows, Inyo National Forest. The river traverses southward over the Kern plateau, Kennedy Meadows, Dome Land Wilderness. Chimney Peak Wilderness, Long Valley Campground. At Pilot Knob (6200′ elev) the South Kern turns west to join Lake Isabella.
Lower Kern: West of Lake Isabella, the river continues tumbling down the rocky, oak hills below the Greenhorn Mountains and eventually ends up at Lake Ming, or downtown Bako.
Little Kern River: a smaller, western fork coming down from Quinn Peak (10,168′ elev) on the Great Western Divide in the Golden Trout Wilderness. It joins at the Forks of the Kern near Jerky Meadow.
The whole Kern Canyon region is part of Sequoia National Forest and always under a wildfire threat in the latter part of the year. Kern River is very popular with city dwellers seeking big Sierra water that is close to SoCal.
Wildflowers are incredible in Kern County overall, and the Kern Canyon is no exception. Lower Kern blooms earlier than Upper Kern. Old Kern Canyon Road is a scenic drive that parallels the highway where you can find flora blooming March – May. Above Kernville the wildflower showing may be short, but sweet. Large river Lupine can be found at almost every campground, while Golden Poppies and Owls Clover line meadows near the main highway.
A variety of terrain in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains will have you puzzled where to start. From cedar forests to Sequoia groves, mountain peaks to fishing creeks, granite domes to granite gorges, wildflowers to waterfalls, hot springs to hot summers, Kern County has it.
Winter backpacking is quite popular here, as snow levels do not drop as drastically as in other mountain locations. Elevations from 1000′ – 4000′ are often ideal for winter hiking trips. Summer is usually best in the higher elevations, above 5000′
Wilderness permits are required for backcountry overnight stays.
Free camping, boondocking and primitive camping options are found near small streams and along the backroads of the neighboring Sequoia National Forest areas. Most secluded camps can be found 25+ miles north of Kernville, well away from the Kern River on the feeder creeks that flow into the big river. Dirt road driving may be required to find the most secluded camp spot. See more on Sequoia dispersed camping on back roads.
Campfire Permits are required for back roads primitive camping in this tinder-box region. More often than not, fire restrictions prohibit campfires during dry conditions. Hot summers, even lasting well into autumn. Obtain a free fire permit online or from the local rangers and be sure to find out if any restrictions are currently in place. USFS Ranger stations are located in downtown Kernville and at Lake Isabella.
Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains
Tahoe National Forest
North Gold Country @ Historic Highway 49
Historic ‘gold rush’ mining camps and towns line this popular recreation river in the Northern Sierra. Numerous State Parks, museums, and campgrounds can be found along this route, in which Tahoe National Forest land encompasses the whole region.
North fork of the Yuba River lines Historic Highway 49, on the way to Downieville and Sierra City, CA. Plenty of camping in these parts. Lakes Basin Recreation Area is located up behind the impressive granite spires called Sierra Buttes and this area is the headwaters for this portion of the river.
Middle fork of the Yuba River cuts through the residential mountain community on Moonshine Road, and ends up in Bullards Bar; The rest of the middle fork flows through remote forest lands and is only crossed by one dirt road #191 in Tahoe NF.
South fork of the Yuba River flows southwest from North Bloomfield @ Malakoff Diggins down to Bridgeport – where the longest covered bridge is located. Numerous old, one-lane bridges cross this southern fork of the river.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a campground way back here, the CHEAPEST CAMP around; Look for signs, along the dusty North Bloomfield Rd (graded dirt road) about a mile UP hill from rickety Edwards Crossing (pictured below).
South Yuba State Park, located along the Golden Chain Hwy 49, is a short drive up Hwy 4 from Nevada City and a very popular spot for sightseeing, day hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and riverside picnics. The parking lot at the large curved bridge fills up fast, daily. Pedestrians and hikers are always seen here, so slow down driving along this portion of the highway.
The big river forks all join west of Grass Valley, heading down the mountains, paralleling Hwy 20 to Marysville, CA
The historic river town of Sierra City is defined by the North Yuba River that cuts through the granite, forested canyon. Granite towers above and snow is around more than half the year.
The river is free-running up here; Sierra City is only about 10 miles below the headwaters of the Yuba, at Lakes Basin Gold Lake California. In spring, runoff is pure Class 5 whitewater. Wild Plum Campground is walking distance to town.
Free primitive camping on dirt roads, can be found way up near the Bassetts intersection. Opposite from Gold Lake Hwy – turn RIGHT (south) on to logging roads: Forest Rd #54 (long ridge route, all dirt) and club into the forest. Drive a several miles up to any large dirt pulls out. Passenger car accessible road; No low riders. Carry a good forest map. Many primitive camp spots have wide openings with views of the Sierra Buttes and crystal clear night skies. Wind can get bad on this mountain ridge, so pick your camp spot with that in mind.
Epic view camp – or expensive river camp? (you choose). Campfire permit are required for camping outside of developed campgrounds. Bring your own water and shovel!
North of the Giant Sequoia, above the Western Divide Highway (CA 190) sits a little known Sequoia Park called Mountain Home. This lush forested area separates the Sequoia National Park (to the north) from the Giant Sequoia National Monument (to the south).
Mountain Home is just up the mountain from the river town of Springville, CA
Western Sierra Nevada
In part of the vast Sequoia National Forest, lies a hidden gem of State Forest land worth visiting. Waterfalls, the Tule River, fishing ponds, campgrounds and easy access to Golden Trout Wilderness trails.
The official name of this forest: Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest is quite a mouth full, so most just call it “Mountain Home”. In short MHDSF is managed by Cal-Fire and the California State Park system.
the Largest old growth Sequoias in the state!
Numerous awesome Campgrounds can be found near the Sequoia groves, the Tule River, hiking trailheads, fishing, waterfalls. Balch Park is the County Park, listed below.
Balch Park Sequoia
located within the Mountain Home State Forest is a popular destination for the locals and families. Balch Park Campground is paved and RV accessible. 71 campsites, on first come basis.
Meadows, mountain peaks, streams, waterfalls, huge granite rocks & cliffs are all over. Plus some secluded groves of Giant Sequoia trees. Mosquitos can be annoying in these parts, so bring the chemical warfare and the screen room tent.
Roads Open: May – October
Forest mountain roads close annually, due to winter snow
Area activities include:
Backpacking Back Road Exploration Campground Camping Fishing Hiking Horseback Riding Meadows Mountain Biking Picnic Sequoia Groves Swimming Holes Tule River (North Fork) Golden Trout Wilderness
USDA Forest Service Map is highly advised for this area. There are many dirt roads & numerous trails. Minimal cell phone signal inside these dense forests and large granite river canyons. GPS even has trouble getting connected, due to the immense canopy of trees.
In the backcountry, tent camping is allowed any place on soil 100 feet from trail or water. No camping on meadows. Ground fires are very allowed with fire permit. Use existing camp site when available. Check with the correct ranger district for all back country camping rules. Wilderness permits are needed for backpackers and horse packers staying overnight in the wilderness area.
Local Ranger Stations:
Sequoia USFS Headquarters
Tule River Ranger District
Mountain Home Backroads
Dirt back roads are so narrow they cannot accommodate the large motorhome or RV traveler. Trucks pulling horse trailers are common, with very few options for a pull-out to pass.
This forested area is filled with old logging roads that lead to lush Sequoia groves & meadows. The whole network of forest roads back here either – loop back to each other, or deal end, often at a trailhead parking area. No roads connect through to any other portion of the Sierra range. Golden Trout Wilderness is a road-less area of the Southern Sierra Nevada.
Signs Not Reflective
The old skool, painted, wooden road signs do not READ well at night, so avoid arriving in the dark.
When it’s dark outside, it is best to STOP: Shut off the vehicle, get out and take a stretch break, find the north star; Get your bearing straight, look at the real map with a flashlight – before driving miles to an unknown destination, just to turn around.
Be very aware of the Forest Service signage, use your trip meter for clocking mileage. Have a good map on hand. See MAP ABOVE. It is very easy to get lost in this forest and you may end up driving for hours, maybe in circles. I swear this intersection looks familiar.
Mountain Home Campgrounds
Balch and Frazier are the two larger, developed campgrounds; all others are smaller camps w/ primitive facilities.
NOTE: all the Campgrounds in this forest now charge an overnight fee for camping. (Decades ago they were free, but not anymore.)
Frasier Mill Campground is spelled w/ a Z (like Frazier)on many printed maps and inside some camping books, but the proper spelling (on a sign at the campground) is actually Frasier w/ an S. This camp is located at the site of an old lumber mill.
Decent signage leads to smaller, secluded campgrounds and hiking trail heads. Dirt road driving will be required. See BACKROADS (above heading) for tips on back road driving and night time arrivals.
Plenty of trails for horses back in these parts, most of them lead to Golden Trout Wilderness. Watch out for oncoming vehicles with horse trailers!
No primitive camping outside of developed campgrounds. Due to fire dangers around these majestic Sequoia trees. You must camp within the designated campground, or HOOF IT into the the wilderness for backpacking.
Mountain Home Hiking
Numerous trails around each campground area will lead to the waters edge @ Tule River; into the Golden Trout Wilderness (for longer day hikes), along creeks w/ wildflowers, near lush meadows or through Giant Sequoia Groves.
People visit higher elevation towns & parks just to hang out in the snow. Ski resorts are plentiful, but not every snowy town has a ski lift. They may just have a great sledding hill. Elevations range from 4000′-9000′ above sea level.
Most California snow locations have a wide variety of outdoor recreation, lodging, restaurants, shops. Cute cabins to rent for that upcoming weekend get-away. Or that week-long fishing trip. But with millions people in the state you better make overnight reservations in advance.
When does winter actually ‘set in’ for California?
eastern sierra:OCT- APR western sierra: NOV- APR high sierra:OCT- MAY northern coast:OCT- MAY northeast:OCT- APR
While Southern California doesn’t receive nearly the amount of snow that the rest of the state gets, it does on occasion get some winter storm precipitation. Perhaps just a winter dusting, or maybe a few inches, but sledding families usually enjoy it. For real snow skiing opportunities, head to the Sierras!
The remote town of North Bloomfield is part of Malakoff Diggins State Park, an old mining operation inside of a dense forest. Located in Northern Gold Country, North of Nevada City, CA – the Yuba River region attracts tourists and locals alike. Far enough off the beaten path, that many do not make the extra trek, more than a dozen miles off NB Highway 49. Save it for next time and decades will pass.
Autumn colors can start as early as September and last through October. Maple trees line the small Main Street, turning orange, then a brilliant red during fall.
Antique buildings w/ furnishings. A graveyard, schoolhouse, viewpoints w/ benches. Impressive trees and old shacks. Hiking trails throughout the park.
State Park w/ ranger lead tours, daily. Cabins, saloons, museums, a picnic park, a few private homes, and a campground, (reservations recommended).
This region was a hydraulic mining camp from 1852 to 1884, until it was shut down by environmental laws… the first environmental law in California. The rocky debris and silt washing down river was so excessive, that orchards and towns down stream were being buried and many ruined.
A few full time residents still live in this tiny mountain community called North Bloomfield; please respect their privacy as their homes are located right on Main Street
North Bloomfield Road (the long way) leaves Nevada City, paved and it winds through a neighborhood, then crosses the river at Edwards Crossing, hairy one lane bridge built before 1900. Road becomes dirt and steep, dusty in certain sections. Camper vans okay, but no camper trailer or RVs!
1 mile uphill, a BLM Campground for South Yuba River is a cheap, small campground w/ vault toilets. Left loop is ideal, but no campsites are located “on the river”. Near the river, but still a really steep hike.
The long dirt road of North Bloom Field continues northbound, past the campground up into the pine forest. Out to the meadows that used to be Lake City, then onward, veering right to the State Park boundary.
Tyler Foote Road (the paved way), also known as Tyler-Foote Crossing Road and Tyler-Foote Xing Rd. Leaving Nevada City on Highway 49, northbound many miles. Road is paved the whole way and required for those driving RVs or motorhomes.