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
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.
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 West Sierra 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. Meadows, trailheads, picnic areas, parking.
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.
Bikes are limited to existing paved and dirt roads; NO SINGLE TRACK trails for mountain bikers – due to the fragile, shallow roots of Sequoia groves, and the direct access to Wilderness. NO bikes in the Golden Trout Wild!
Calaveras is a small but popular Sequoia Park in the Gold Rush foothill country of the western Sierra Nevada Mountains. Large Sequoia redwood trees, Visitors Center, nature trails, 2 large campgrounds, Stanislaus River access, hiking trailheads and picnic spots. Summer and weekends are usually busy. Plan your visit on weekdays or off-season for less crowds.
Park is open during the winter, but expect rain or snow. Sledding is allowed in the State Park during decent snowfall. Snow chains or 4WD may be needed to reach this location during winter months.
walk-in camp sites for tents only:
North Grove Environmental
Oak Hollow Environmental North
Oak Hollow Environmental South
NFS Camp Sites Nearby
Beaver Creek Campground is located on Beaver Creek, on a dirt back road, way back in there. Past the big river. Just beyond the South Grove trailhead. USDA web site states that this camp is currently closed due to tree hazards. Google Maps has it listed, but the gov web site does not. Call local rangers to find out!
Sourgrass Recreation Area is just north of the State Park. Forest Road #52 will lead to numerous river destinations, camp sites, fishing spots and swimming holes.
Wakalu Hep Yo Campground: Primitive camp; 49 camp sites w/ fee. Pack it in, Pack it out. No garbage services. No reservations. First-come, first-serve. aka Wild River Campground
Big Meadow Campground is a large NFS camp, located right on Highway 4, about 20 miles from Arnold, CA; Large forested camp w/ shade, hiking and fishing closely; North fork of Stanislaus River; Autumn colors in the aspen grove; 68 camp sites, some of which can accommodate RVs. Max length = 27′
Primitive Camp Sites
No primitive camping inside this state park; Campfires are only permitted inside the 2 developed campgrounds.
WALK-IN environmental campsites are available at both of the State Park campgrounds – North Grove & Oak Hollow.
For car camping and free of charge camping spots, you’ll need to exit the park and start your searching on the back roads, in the neighboring Stanislaus National Forest. First, get a good topo map and try to pick several spots worth exploring. Obtain a campfire permit from the USFS ranger station (Arnold, CA)
Driving dirt roads and looking for a primitive camp site should be accomplished during daylight hours. Arriving at night could pose serious problems, like getting lost, encountering wildlife, settling on a poor place to camp or worst, sleep in your car. Always plan for plenty of time and daylight to find a good (free) camp.
Across the Highway (SR 4) from Calaveras State Park a long dirt road ridge line will lead to Railroad Flat – Forest Service Rd#5N23, Summit Level Road
Just north of Calaveras State Park is a paved road worth checking out – Board Crossing Road #52 becomes Forest Service Rd #5N02
State Park has nature trail around Sequoia grove & guided tours in summer. Day hiking trails throughout the park and fishing trails along the river.
Edison Lake, Florence Lake, Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake Kaiser Wilderness, Sierra National Forest
2021 – MUCH OF THIS RIVER may be INACCESSIBLE, due to the Creek Fire 2020
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.
Southern Sierra Nevada Foothills
Great Western Divide
2021 – MUCH OF THIS RIVER may be INACCESSIBLE, due to the Castle Fire 2020
One of the smallest rivers in the Sierra Nevada, the Tule River has three forks and is located within Tulare County. Tule drains the Golden Trout Wilderness on the Great Western Divide, part of the Sierra Nevada range. California Highway 190 connects the upper elevations of the Giant Sequoia to the farm town of Porterville. Tule River parallels this main Sierra highway as it flows west into the Central Valley.
Inside Mountain Home State Forest – Hidden Falls & Moses Gulch Campgrounds, both have small waterfalls & swimming holes. Dirt roads access these back woods camp spots, but they are both popular among the locals in summer months. Off season is best for minimal crowds. Mosquitoes can be fierce; bring the repellent or a screen room.
Clear, cold, snowmelt water, flowing west – out of the Golden Trout Wilderness. Deep within the Western Sierra Nevada, lined with granite cliffs and neighboring the oldest Sequoia groves, the north fork of the Tule River descends down the forested canyons to meet the oak-land foothills at Springville, CA.
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
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!
Northern California’s impressive Feather River Watershed is massive and drains the lower half of snowy Mount Lassen @ 10,457′ elevation. The Plumas National Forest and Lassen Forest region is where the Sierra Nevada granite meets the volcanic rock of the Cascade mountain range.
In most recent times, 2017 was the wettest year on record for California. The Feather River Watershed recorded more water than any other year, based on 112 years of hydrology records.
West Branch (Paradise, CA) North Feather (Hwy 70 Beldon) Middle Feather (Berry Creek, CA) South Feather (LaPorte, CA)
Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains meet the Cascade Range @ Lassen
The North Feather runs along Highway 70 in the Feather River Canyon with railways, tunnels and trestles traversing the giant gorge. This granite lined canyon is known as the “stairway to power” – water flows stepping down the mountain from numerous reservoirs. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) operate a series of 9 power plants all interconnected – producing electric power (and in rare occasions, wildfires)
The East Branch of the North Feather River comes out of the American Valley near Quincy, CA
The West Branch of the North Feather River flows south down from “the ridge” – a forested, volcanic ridge line descending from Mount Lassen. West branch flows directly into Lake Oroville at Lime Saddle (Marina). This residential area is currently off limits to tourists, as it recovers from the most destructive and deadly wildfire in California history. The 2018 #CampFire destroyed most of the town and forests of Paradise, Lake Concow, and Yankee Hill. The incident made national news in November, as the worst wildfire season dragged well into autumn.
The South Fork of the Feather River and its reservoirs, are managed by the South Feather Power Project, consisting of 5 lakes, 4 power plants, and 3 diversion dams. The closest paved road to this region would be La Porte Road, off of Highway 70 between Gridley & Marysville, CA
The Middle Feather, or Middle Fork of the Feather, is a beautiful wild and scenic river for 78 miles, with granite walls, domes and few trails or roads. Only 2 campgrounds – Milsap Bar and Little North Fork, are well worth the journey.
EAST PLUMAS CO. Above the lumber & rail town of Quincy, Lake Davis and Frenchman Reservoir are both managed by the Department of Water Resources (DWR). Excellent mountain biking, stargazing and camping at both locations. NFS Campgrounds w/ fee.
North Sierra Waters:
via OROVILLE Reservoir Lake Oroville
All this water listed above is the massive Feather River Watershed. Like a thousand fine hairs that make up a bird feather, there are over 4,500 miles of mountain streams and rivers feeding the bigger Reservoir system below. Dam run by DWR (Department of Water and Power) at the State Recreation Area known as Lake Oroville SRA
Feather River has always been prone to flooding and wild river swings. All that Mount Lassen snowmelt needs to be managed in harmony with one another, so destructive floods do not ruin the agriculture and cities of the valley. Lake Oroville is the place; they try to control these river flows that are headed down to the Sacramento Valley. Oroville Dam was built in 1967. In 2017, a record rainfall winter in California, the Oroville dam showed major signs of stress with massive amounts of incoming water. Several recently published books tell the story in greater detail.
Below Lake Oroville, 2 giant warming ponds Thermalito Forebay & Thermalito Afterbay – built to control irrigation water and also heat the cold river water for the fish downstream
CA SR 162 – West Highway 162: the farming and residential areas of Thermalito & Biggs are held together by rock levees, all running right next to Highway 99. Diversion drainage leads out of Lake Orovillle above to the large inland bays – with river parks and salmon fish hatchery in historic, downtown Oroville. Wildlife viewing , kayaking, boating, fishing. Minimal camping at this area. Big rigs may be seen parked along this stretch of highway, due to its proximity to Hwy 99
Grand-eous ideas, from white men who conquered this land. The scouts on horseback mapped the canyons w/ primitive tools; the with dynamite and danger, they built a railroad through in 1850.
Hydro-electric power systems on the Feather, were constructed between 1908-1961. Native lands and tribal communities have been treated as sacrifice zones for national priorities of irrigation, flood control, and hydroelectric development.
Recent upgrades to Oroville Dam have been completed, although a lot of work still goes on around the Feather region due to wildfire debris, tree trimming, fire clearance, upgrades to power lines, and structural improvements.
Hiking trails, dirt roads and highways may be re-routed, inaccessible or closed due to construction, landslides, rock slides or utility work. Call local rangers for up to date info.