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
Kings River California Sierra Nevada Kings Canyon National Park
Kings River is the longest river in the Sierra Nevada mountains, spanning a 70+ miles of terrain from edge of the Eastern Sierra to the western Sierra foothill reservoirs, and down to the agricultural San Joaquin Valley @ Fresno, CA
Classification/Mileage: Wild — 65.5 miles
Recreational — 15.5 miles
Total — 81.0 miles
The 272-mile long Kings River drops sharply in elevation from its headwaters high in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range on its way to the Central Valley, flowing just south-east of Fresno. The dramatic descent generates electric power for dams and the river also helps irrigate cropland and provides fresh water to Central Valley communities.
Sierra Nevada / Central California
Kings is the mighty river of the whole Sierra Nevada mountain range. Deep granite gorge, wild and dangerous, longest running river with abundant waterfalls, tributaries and runs along side a giant cavern too. The giant, rocky canyon for this big river is so impressive, that the created a National Park around it. Hence the name, Kings Canyon!
The snowmelt starts way up in the high elevation backcountry near the tiny alpine lakes at Kearsarge Pass and the tallest peaks of Mount Whitney. The Kings River passes thru Kings Canyon National Park and spills out into the large Pine Flat Reservoir, on the westen edge of the wilderness. The river continues down to the great California Central Valley to sloughs & irrigation canals for the big agriculture crops, which feed the world.
Middle Fork begins at the alpine levels near
Helen Lake the Pacific Crest Trail
Meadows near Dusy Basin Trail junction
Ranger Station (backcountry)
Blue Canyon (4600′ elev)
Gorge of Despiar
>> JCT w/ South Fork <<<<
Highway 180 has a paved viewpoint overlook for this impressive, deep granite gorge with rivers intersecting. At this confluence of the Middle & South fork, we pick up with notable spots heading west.
Garlic Meadow Creek
Kings River NRT
Fox Canyon 1500′ elev
Mill Flat Creek
Trimmer Springs Road
Mill Flat Campground
If there is one way to get the Total Escape crew outta California, it will be with the enticing red rock landscapes of Utah. The amazing spanse of colorful desert is enough to inspire any nature lover down to their soul.
Moab, Utah was a sleepy little, rural town until about the 1980’s when the Jeeps took over. Numerous, annual off road events, plus the rise of mountain biking, new hotel development in town, and sheer “word of mouth” made Moab what it is today – a bustling, busy, tourist village with restaurants, brewery, and lodging.
Off Road Mecca of Moab UT
terrain: high desert canyons and mountain peaks
elevation: 4000′ population: 5,253
terrain: High elevation red rock desert paradise. A deep river valley surrounded by snow capped peaks & red rock grandure.
South Eastern Utah
south of Interstate 70 on Hwy. 191
description: This locale has boomed in the last few decades with a determined focus on outdoor activities. The town is a recreation mecca set in the vast beautiful desert of southwestern Utah.
Amazingly scenic spot set in red rock landscapes along rivers – with abundant outdoor recreation around every corner. Snow capped mountains are a scenic backdrop for more than half the year.
Tourism & outdoor recreation is very popular in this region, as well as retirees, relaxing and really nice rigs. But the Mormons & ranchers are still out there, so pay attention to private property signs.
There is plenty land for solitude, just make sure to keep the peace. Don’t be honking at any cattle in the roadway. Stressed out city folks will soon be put in their place out in these parts. It is best to plan a full week vacation to thoroughly enjoy this awesome red rock location.
Try this adventure: Drive from Saint George to Moab — on almost all dirt roads! No traffic lights for 5 full days. Weaving in & out of all the National Park & National Forest lands is an experience of a lifetime. Plenty of great dispersed camping – everywhere.
CAL SALMON – a 19.6-mile long tributary to the Klamath River, located in western Siskiyou County, CA
One of the most remote & biologically intact watersheds left inside California. The headwaters of the Salmon River flow from the Trinity Alps, Marble Mountains, and the Russian Wilderness Areas. 850,000 acres of Wilderness surrounding the Salmon River watershed.
There’s another Salmon River in Idaho, but this page deals with the Northern California river, dubbed “Cal Salmon” with emerald green waters and lush fern-filled canyons w/ a granite inner gorge.
You gotta know how to read a map if you wanna find this hidden gem. Highly sought after destination for river fishing, whitewater rafting and river kayaking. Rapids! With a short rafting season (March-June)
This is a place for those who love seclusion. It’s kinda far for most people to drive here. The NorCal river region is a prime secret spot for true nature lovers: campers, hikers, fishermen, river rafters, kayakers, mountain bikers, backpackers, birdwatchers and horse enthusiasts. Summer is the busiest time and of course, the best weather. The remainder of the year, you’ll basically have the place all to yourself. Winters can be wet and sloppy, so don’t get stuck in the mud. Cell phone reception is minimal in these densely forested backwoods.
Rafting, river beaches, kayak spots. Campground camping, RV camping, tent camping, primitive and wilderness too.
A significant part of the Klamath River’s watershed is in the Karuk Tribe’s Ancestral Territory. Karuk Indians have carefully managed their lands through an integrated continuum with the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem functions for thousands of years. Salmon, or “Ama” in the Karuk language, was a major source of food and spiritual renewal.
The spectacular Klamath River is both the second largest and second longest river in California, making its way through over 250 miles both the Cascade and Coast Mountain Ranges. It’s one of the most important rivers in the U.S. for fish migration.
NorCal river renowned for fishing = salmon and steelhead
The river is easily accessible off of Highway 96 w/ boat ramps, trailhead parking and campgrounds located nearby.
Klamath River flows down into California from Klamath Falls, Oregon. Many feeder streams and rivers join the big river – Shasta River, Scott River, Salmon River, and it takes a sharp turn north again where the Trinity River joins it from the south. Copco and Iron Gate Dam located at the Oregon border, plus Upper Klamath Lake, north of the state line, are the significant dams along this river.
This area is the last hold-out for tribal members of
Dispersed camping outside of developed campgrounds. Fire permits are required during fire restrictions. Call for more info Orleans Ranger District at 530-627-3291
Aikens Creek West Campground, Road #10N75
No fee. Open all year. No reservations. No services. Trailer spaces available. Maximum trailer length 35′
Ten Bear Trailhead
No fee. Dispersed camping area w/ several corrals, water for animals, and 2 campsites; pefect hunter’s camp. At the hiking trailhead for Ten Bear trail, in the Marble Mountains Wilderness.
Ti-bar, North of Orleans, CA No fee. Heavy use. Ti-bar River Access offers a paved road to excellent dispersed camping with picnic tables, camp fire rings, a vault toilet and information kiosk. Gravel, steep boat ramp; 4WD may be needed to launch boats.
Smith River Recreation Area
Doe Flat Trailhead, Road #16N02
Trail Parking @ elevation: 4500′
3 campsites and a vault toilet
Dry Lake, County Road 405.
No fee. Open all year. Tent camping, Vault toilet. Good fishing.
Stanshaw Equestrian Camp & Trailhead
Dispersed camping; No fee. Excellent base camp for equestrian recreationists heading out on the Stanshaw Trail in the Marble Mountains Wilderness Area. One restroom, 5 large campsites with picnic tables, fire rings; corrals with running water for animals.
Ten Bear Trailhead
No fee. Dispersed camping area w/ several corrals, water for animals, and 2 campsites; pefect hunter’s camp. At the hiking trailhead for Ten Bear trail, in the Marble Mountains Wilderness.
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 Lake 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 from the far heights of Donner Pass and I-80; near Lake Spaulding. Passing Washington Ridge; northeast of Nevada City; and North Bloomfield @ Malakoff Diggins continuing down to Bridgeport @ South YUBA – where the longest wooden, covered bridge is located. Numerous old, one-lane bridges cross this southern fork of the river, and the region can take years to explore. Lots of residential and private properties.
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!
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.
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.