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
This is a rapid moving river, with serious force. Not to be taken lightly. Wear life vest and stay alive; Don’t swim in dangerous conditions and spare your life!
Go whitewater river rafting with experienced leaders, who offer professional guide rafting tours. Always wear a life vest in the water. Toying around with an inflatable cheap raft on a big river, can leads to all kinds of trouble.
James W. Marshall discovered gold in January of 1848 on the South Fork of the American River
Numerous feeder creeks and rivers drain into American River:
Silver Creek (flows to south fork)
Silver Fork of the American River (flows to north fork)
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. See more on Historic Gold Country
The Kaweah River is fed from snow melt in the southern Sequoia National Park & Golden Trout Wilderness . Since this location is the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains, where drought is more apparent, expect this river to be smaller than most of the other Sierra rivers.
Above the town of Three Rivers, the mighty Mineral King Road peels off Highway 190 and winds its way up 25 miles – deep into the southern section of Sequoia National Park. This is a dead end canyon and it is so gorgeous – you’ll want to spend the whole weekend. The road is long, narrow, curvy and takes hours to drive one way. The route closes for winter snow and stays gated for more than half the year.
Don’t plan on doing Mineral King (as a day trip) in addition to the main attractions of Sequoia groves in Sequoia National Park, unless of course, you have a whole week to burn. Mineral King is a remote, high elevation valley that is a favorite hikers paradise, with backpackers trailheads leading into Golden Trout Wilderness. Climb to upper altitude alpine lakes for a day of fishing. Play at the creek at the campground and listen to nightly ranger talks during the summer. Bears and marmots are very active in this area.
Sierra Nevada / Central California
Seeking solitude while camping is difficult near the National Park. Dispersed camping is allowed on a few dirt back roads, but you will need a decent National Forest map to find these routes.
The least busy, smallest campground around these parts is the South Fork Campground which does not accommodate motorhomes. Access is by a secluded South Fork Road, a dead end, rural residential, paved road – on the edge of town (Three Rivers, CA) With only 10 camp sites it is nmuch quieter than any other option. Perfect campground for tent campers, day hikers or backpackers.
Dry Creek Rd #J21 and North Fork Road (dirt roads, on the north side of the lake) are excellent routes for secluded picnics and wildflower meadows. Possibly gated part of the year, these roads connect to the seldom-seen, west side of the Sequoia National Park and some secluded Sequoia groves.
We are taking 20+ mies of dirt road driving, to reach any decent back road destination, so choose this path only if you have a.) a printed hard-copy topo map, b.) a worthy, high clearance vehicle and c.) a full free day to kill just driving slow (25 mph) and exploring.
The pleasure of visiting McCloud – hiking, biking and camping – is best done in the summer or early autumn. This region receives large amounts of snow, so visiting in winter often means a snow-mobile.
The McCloud River starts on the east side of the National Forest and flows west through these campgrounds listed below, then south to Lake McCloud. The river continues on past the lake and crosses the Pacific Crest Trail, then it descends another 25 miles southbound to the bigger Lake Shasta.
3 developed campgrounds near waterfalls, along Highway 89
Fowlers Campground NFS @ lower falls
Cattle Campground NFS @ swimming hole
Algoma Campground NFS (the free camp)
Fowler Campground is the largest of these campgrounds, with bathrooms and fees. Only 6 miles (biking distance) to the small town of McCloud, CA
#40N44 UPPER FALLS RD – a paved road (which parallels the highway) connects all 3 tiers of water falls, the parking lots, trail systems, and two campgrounds – Fowler and Cattle.
Cattle Campground is a spread out, flat, forest loop, walking distance to the river and numerous swimming holes. Located close to the highway @ Tate Creek Road.
Water from this river originates on Lone Pine Ridge, near Dead Horse Summit (4505′) along Hwy 89. PCT Bartle Gap trailhead.
Feeder streams to this river include: Angel Creek from the south; from mighty Mount Shasta on the north side, Ash Creek joins McCloud River near the Cattle Campground. Mud Creek merges into McCloud River, from the north, running down the east side of town. Lake McCloud is fed by the river and Squaw Valley Creek, coming in from the north. PCT Cabin Creek trailhead.
McCloud Creek starts east of McCloud, CA and becomes a raging, wide river within a few 20 miles.
The smallest of these camps is Algoma Campground – located on a paved road, near a one lane bridge at McCloud Creek, the headwaters to the McCloud River. Algoma is the only free campground on this river, and due to that fact, it fills up quick w/ first come campers.
The paved access road is not well signed from the highway, so it helps to get a decent back roads map of the region and plan to arrive during daylight.
GRIZZLY PEAK RD. or aka Grizzly Peak Lookout Road is
Forest Road #39N06 and it turns to dirt and continues past the campground, deeper into the forest and eventually ends up climbing to an elevation of over 6000′ and then down the mountain to Big Bend @ Pit River.
Small aspen grove has autumn colors during October. A signed river trail leads many miles (down river) to seclusion.
self sufficient campers
Minimal facilities at this campground, so bring your shovel, bucket, water filter, plus any additional gear you may need. Town of McCloud is closest place (19 miles) for ice, groceries and gasoline.
Rural, small mountain towns, close to Yosemite National Park.
Everyone wants to live in Yosemite! It’s like a magical wonderland of nature. Maybe the happiest place in California. Once you’ve experienced the incredibly beautiful valley and the granite views of the National Park, your thoughts may go directly to ‘when can I visit again’ or perhaps- ‘is it possible to live near Yosemite?’
YES indeed, people do live near Yosemite. Western foothills are under 5000′ elevation, so super deep snow is generally not a problem. Unless, of course, we break the record on rainy season (again). In 2016-2017, the Sierra Nevada mountains saw the most snow & rain ever recorded. Just so you know.
Often called gateway towns, these towns are the closest to the NPS boundary. There is a whole lotta forest between these towns and the famous Yosemite Valley.
Many more foothills towns (rural residential) are located to the west of Highway 49 – wineries, ranches and oak canyons, most w/ recreational Reservoirs. But we’re here on Total Escape to list the small towns that are closest (in proximity) to Yosemite NP.
Living in or near the mountains is a dream for many people in California. Why wait until retirement? Grow food gardens, get some chickens and hike everyday.
land is always cheaper outside the city limits
home prices are more reasonable in rural areas
more room to breathe (one acre to 40)
property with well for water
Relocating to a new area like this, often means changing your lifestyle. Less television, more stargazing. No gym membership, more biking and hiking. Less dining out, more cooking at home. Less socializing, more yard work & home improvements. Grocery stores farther away, so limit shopping trips to once per month. And the biggest benefit to living rural – grow your own vegetable garden.
PRO: close to nature, fesh air,wildlife, wildflowers, rivers, creeks, water, lakes, forests, fruit trees, small farms, free firewood, horses, livestock
CON: severe wildfire season, triple digit summer heat, lost tourists, landslides, brush clearance, real manual labor, minimal internet
Central Sierra Nevada Mountains
Sonora Pass CA 108 / Ebbetts Pass CA 4
Stanislaus National Forest
The Sierra Nevada mountain route that usually closes first and opens last, due to snow and rock slides . Sonora Pass snow is epic, but often unaccessible most of the year. Snow melt can be slow and this route may not open by until mid-summer. (Quite typical on this highway). Check Cal Trans Hwy Reports. Summer and early Autumn is the time to visit this region, so plan accordingly.
This Big Sierra River is so far reaching that it covers areas from two different Wilderness Areas and two Sierra highway systems: Sonora Pass 108 & Ebbetts Pass Hwy 4.
The North Fork of Stanislaus River starts up at Highland Creek (below Highland Lakes) and parallels the Ebbetts Pass pavement westward down the mountain. Numerous lakes and parks along this steep northern fork, all lined with impressive granite rock. Spicer Reservoir, Elephant Rock, Summit Lake, Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Stanislaus National Forest.
Middle Fork of Stanislaus River, overview
Clark Fork flowing from the Dardanelles in Carson Peak Wilderness, become the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. Numerous Campgrounds, RV camps, horse camps along Clark Fork Road. California Highway 108 may still have a real old fashioned pay phone at this intersection. Go look.
Kennedy Creek comes in from the south side of the highway and creates Kennedy Meadows, a horse packing ranch; Not to be confused with the Kern Kennedy Meadows, way down south.
Eagle Creek and Kennedy, plus the Clark Fork are the main headwaters to Stanislaus River making up the Middle fork of this river. Traveling southwest thru the forest, with numerous Reservoirs and plenty of campgrounds.
Middle Fork comes together near the Fence Creek Campground @ Hwy 108. Flowing downhill to join Donnell Lake, then 10 miles of ‘really rugged wild river’ down to Beardsley Lake, then to Sand Bar Flat Campground further below, and on towards the county line @ Calaveras.
South Fork Stanislaus, the shortest of the forks, flows down from Pinecrest Lake, Dodge Ridge Ski Resort and the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Then hits Lyons Reservoir (4228′ elev) near the community of Long Barn, CA Italian Bar brings it right down to Historical Gold Camp, Columbia.
Eventually the massive Stanislaus River ends up in the San Joaquin (Central) Valley, like most of the Western Sierra rivers do, growing the food crops for all. California is a huge agriculture state.
Backpacking Big Wilderness
With Wilderness making up the majority of the landscape around these river canyons , there is ample opportunity for day hiking, creek fishing and backpacking adventures. May as well plan for a full week off of work, if you wanna explore in some depth. Many trailheads have small parking lots located on dirt roads, which are usually passenger car accessible.
PCT = The Pacific Crest hiking trail cuts right across the tallest Sierra Nevada mountain pass – Sonora Pass 108 @ 9625′ elev.
Black Bears are common in this region and several areas have bear boxes for proper food storage. If not available, you’ll need a bear canister or learn to properly hang your food in a tree.
Winter closures due to deep snow is common more than half the year up here. Check Cal Trans for highway conditions and w/ local rangers to find out what back roads are open, and which ones are too muddy. 4WD may be needed to reach certain destinations, if snow & mud are still present. Winter SNOW CAN LAST UP HERE: on the peaks all summer long; And snow can start falling as early as October, so know the forecast before you set out on a major backcountry trip.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the backcountry. Stop by a ranger station to get the latest details before your big trek into the woods. USFS web sites are not always so up-to-date. A phone call or personal visit may be needed to get accurate info.
The Wilderness boundaries on each side of the pavement (CA 108) along with giant granite walls, steep cliffs, boulders, wild raging rivers and dense forests make dirt road accessibility somewhat limited along the Sonora Pass Highway. Ebbetts (CA 4) has more dirt road accessibility, especially beyond Beardsley Lake.
County Line Road #6N06 will take you past a developed NFS Camp called Fence Creek Campground. The dirt road climbs into the forest meadows, with 2 trailheads to be found within a few miles. Horse Corral at Wheats Meadow. Numerous primitive campsites for backpackers, car campers, horse campers. Lush meadows, hidden forests, boulder outcroppings, dead end roads.
Back behind Pinecrest Lake & Dodge Ridge Ski are several dirt road loops w/ primitive camping at Bell Meadow Crabtree
Campfire permits are Required for camping outside of developed NFS campgrounds. Obtain a free campfire permit before you build a fire. Have a bucket and shovel at camp, always; attend the fire at all times.
Levitt Lake @ 9556′ elev, on the eastern slope of Sonora Pass has rocky road to wonderful scenery. Mid summer snow melt, so bring the good jacket – even in summer. High elevation camping, hiking, kayaking; rock scrambling at tree line. This alpine lake best reached with high clearance vehicle.
Union, Utica, and Spicer Reservoirs have a few dirt roads to explore off Spicer Rd #7N01, with abundant trails for hiking and mountain biking. Tons of firewood, free for the cutting. Bring your saw!
Kayaking and canoeing are popular at both Union and Utica. Dirt road access. No motors on lake. FREE LAKE CAMP: Shoreline camping is possible, but summer crowds – can get downright insane. Nothing like a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. Big families camping out all week long w/ all their toys, tents, multiple vehicles. Try to visit in the off-season for the best experience at these 2 lovely lakes. Spicer has developed campgrounds w/ fees, but has real boat ramps and can also accommodate RV campers.
OHV Trails Stanislaus
4×4 camps and dirt bike trails can be found at Niagra Creek, on the south side of Highway 108, before Clarks Fork.
Union Reservoir has a popular 4WD trail that connects up to Lake Alpine @ Ebbetts Pass.
BACK ROADS TIP
Regular dirt roads can become “4WD needed” with any decent amount of snow or heavy rains, especially on the steeper sections. Remember: No guard rails on the dirt roads. If you plan to camp ‘way back in there, in the boonies’ – make sure you know the weather forecast and have a vehicle that can get out; no matter how sloppy the road gets. Thunderstorms are possible. Snow is 75% of the year.